August 7, 2015

Finding God, embracing joy

Youth minister and religion teacher uses his life story to teach young people about faith, friendship

The journey of Mike Waters, left, into the Catholic Church received a substantial boost from William Ritz after an unexpected encounter in an exercise facility. Here, the two friends talk after morning Mass on July 30 inside Holy Family Church in Richmond. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The journey of Mike Waters, left, into the Catholic Church received a substantial boost from William Ritz after an unexpected encounter in an exercise facility. Here, the two friends talk after morning Mass on July 30 inside Holy Family Church in Richmond. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

RICHMOND—Every school year, Mike Waters shares with students two stories that show the tremendous power that one person can have in matters of friendship and faith.

The first story takes the 32-year-old Waters back to his own days in middle school and what may be his worst—and also his best—experience during that time.

“It was a little rocky at home for me then, and it would spill over into school,” recalls Waters, the youth minister for the Richmond Catholic Community and a religion teacher at Seton Catholic School. “One day, a guy was calling me names, and I started to cry, which is the worst thing a boy can do in middle school.

“My friend, Adam Golden, was part of that group of guys—the ‘cool’ group. In the midst of all of them, Adam spoke up and said, ‘I like Michael.’ ”

Waters pauses for a moment as the emotion of that experience returns to him.

“To this day, he’s my best friend.

“I tell the kids how powerful they can be in situations like that—that if they see someone having a bad day to stand up and encourage them. I also tell them that no one is going to think you’re not cool if you’re friends with everyone. And I tell them that’s one of those moments when you know God is with you.”

That mention of God leads to the second inspiring story that Waters shares about the power that one person can have in matters of friendship and faith.

An unexpected discovery

Flash forward to 2006 when Waters was a student at Bethany Theological Seminary at Earlham College in Richmond—a time when he experienced a crisis of faith.

“I had been baptized when I was 18 into a Church of Christ,” he recalls. “My plan was to become a pastor in the Brethren Church. Yet through my studies, I began to learn more about the [Catholic] Church fathers, and that’s when I first began to think about the Catholic Church. I took some time off from Bethany. I wasn’t finding what I wanted.”

Hoping to help Waters, a friend suggested he read The Seven Storey Mountain by Trappist Father Thomas Merton.

“He saw some similarities in my life journey to Merton’s life journey,” Waters says. “After reading the book, that was confirmed big time. What I saw in Merton was someone searching for something. And I saw that Merton had found fulfillment in the sacraments, and experiencing Jesus and God in the sacraments.

“I was in tears of joy and relief. It was one of those moments when God was speaking to me, calling me to what Merton had found. It was ironic for me because I thought the Catholic Church was the last place God was calling me.”

That discovery led Waters to want to learn more about the Catholic Church. It also led him to an unexpected encounter with a stranger in an exercise facility.

Healing a wound in the heart

“I was at the gym at Earlham College, and I saw a friend I had been studying with,” Waters recalls. “I shared what I had experienced and told her I was looking into talking to someone in the Catholic Church to see what I needed to do to be Catholic.

“There was a man on a treadmill next to hers. I saw he was interested in what I was saying. I walked away and went over to do my workout with weights. He came over.”

The stranger was William Ritz, 70 years young at the time. A member of Holy Family Parish in Richmond, Ritz was also the chairperson of the parish’s evangelization committee. Ritz introduced himself to Waters, and offered to help him learn more about the Church and becoming a Catholic.

“A week later, I took him to church and explained everything I could about the Church and the loving people there,” Ritz recalls. “I think the Holy Spirit was talking to both of us.”

Ritz’s introduction still impresses Waters nearly a decade later.

“I share that story a lot of times with kids,” Waters says. “I point out to them how brave Bill was at that moment to share his faith and evangelize. If he hadn’t been brave, I don’t know how the story would have turned out.”

Shortly after they met, Ritz helped Waters join the parish’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. Ritz was also by Water’s side as his confirmation sponsor when his new friend entered the Church at Holy Family Parish during the Easter Vigil of 2007.

“It was like coming home for me,” Waters says. “I had been searching for God since I was in elementary school. I grew up in a home where we didn’t go to church. I didn’t have anyone in my life teaching me about a loving God or how much Jesus loved me. All through my life, I was searching for God wherever I could. There was a wound in my heart where I was trying to find what was missing. That night, I definitely felt that part of my heart was filled.”

Finding God, embracing joy

As he shares this story with students, Waters includes the tough times and even some of the bad choices in his life. He also shares how “everything fell into place” after he found God.

Thanks to another mentor in Waters’ journey to becoming a Catholic—Father Todd Riebe, then the pastor of Holy Family, St. Andrew and St. Mary parishes in Richmond—Waters soon became the fourth-grade catechist for Seton Catholic School.

Later, he earned a master’s degree in religious education and became youth minister for the Richmond Catholic Community. He also now teaches religion to seventh- and eighth-grade students at Seton Catholic. And his role as a teacher led to him becoming a husband and a father. One of his students had a female cousin about Water’s age.

“His mom wanted us to meet,” Waters says with a smile about his wife of three years, Catherine. The smile continues to glow as he looks at their two daughters, 20-month-old Eliana and 4-month-old Mhaira.

“I see God taking some bad things in my life and turning it into a good thing,” he says. “My family is one of those ways God is at work. God says he will make good all things for those who love him.”

Waters constantly strives to share that message with the students he teaches, and the youths he helps guide.

“Mike is an outstanding Christian role model,” says Rick Ruhl, principal of Seton Catholic High School. “He’s very active, very involved and very approachable, especially with junior high-aged kids. That’s such a difficult time where young people are trying to figure out their lives. They pepper Mike with a lot of questions, and he helps them in ways they can understand and hold onto.”

A reminder of God’s love

Waters says, “It’s hard to imagine some of the things these kids have to deal with. One girl has a father on death row. Another one’s mother walked out on her family. And a parent was diagnosed with cancer. Sometimes, they just need someone to pray with them, to let them know they’re going to be OK.”

And sometimes there are moments of joy and celebration.

“One of the very first members of my youth group is getting married, and my daughter is going to be a flower girl. In some cases, we become like family.”

Then there are moments where he has to have as much patience as the abundant hope he always has for them. For one youth struggling with his faith, Waters has invited him out to dinner several times with his family.

“Someone like that, I hope our family is having an impact and helping him in his journey. But sometimes you just have to wait.”

Waters has endured the waiting and searching in his life. Now he continues a legacy that has shaped and touched his life—showing the tremendous power that one person can have in matters of friendship and faith.

“I know what it’s like to not know God. I try to do everything in my power to constantly remind them they can find God in the sacraments.

“I try to constantly remind them how much God loves them.” †

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