By Dubravka Kolumbic-Cortese | Correspondent
When Holy Eucharist Parish youth ministry leader Jeff Siedlecki reached out to parishes in Houston that were devastated by Hurricane Harvey, he was expecting to connect with a parish needing fundraiser monies to rebuild its church. So he was surprised by the response he received from St. Philip the Apostle Church in Huffman, Texas.
“They said, ‘We don’t want your money,’” Siedlecki recalled, explaining that instead of funds for the entire parish, youth minister Becky Pursell asked Siedlecki to help out 10 of her youth group members whose families were displaced because of the hurricane.
Siedlecki and the Tabernacle parish’s H.E.R.O. (Holy Eucharist Reaching Out) youth ministry sprang into action.
The Stand Up for Your Faith 2017 Hurricane Relief fundraiser, held the weekend of Oct. 7-8 at Holy Eucharist Church, included youth ministry members from the parishes of Holy Eucharist; St. Mary of the Lakes, Medford; St. Isaac Jogues and St. Joan of Arc, both Marlton, and St. John Neumann, Mount Laurel, who showed their support for their Texas peers by taking turns holding up a large wooden cross for 24 hours straight.
The event began at 6 p.m. Oct. 7 with a procession of the cross and a blessing by Father Andrew Jamieson, parish pastor, and ended the same way Oct. 8 at the 6 p.m. Mass.
Sixty teens took turns three at a time holding the cross through one-hour shifts. Before each shift change, the teens gathered in prayer, and each received a marker “tattoo” of a cross, identifying how many shifts each had taken. The participants also autographed a life preserver that will be sent to Houston with a check for the monies raised. In addition to the fundraising the teens did prior to the event – tied to the amount of time they would be holding up the cross – donations were solicited after each of the parish’s weekend Masses.
Parishioner Steve Raffo, of the Knights of Columbus Council 8733, hewed the 12-foot, 180-pound cross from an oak tree taken from his Tabernacle property. A small plaque on the cross marked its dedication by the Knights.
Raffo said the best way to show support for the youth was through action.
“We need to show that kids matter and what they believe in matters and the work they do matters,” Raffo said.
The weekend was filled with activities to keep the teens engaged when not holding up the massive cross. Besides the opportunity to catch up on homework and studying, there was a barbecue, outdoor movies, sports, games and midnight Adoration and Reconciliation under the stars. Franco’s Restaurant in Marlton and King of Pizza Cherry Hill donated meals.
Lack of sleep and a rainy second day did not dampen the teens’ enthusiasm or spirit.
“It’s been beautiful, it’s been fun, it’s been wet, it’s been cold,” Siedlecki said. “But they persevered.”
Despite a downpour in the early morning hours of Oct. 8, Siedlecki said the teens’ response was, “It’s about hurricane relief. They suffered, we can suffer a bit.”
H.E.R.O. member Jessica Waters, 16, took four turns holding up the cross.
“We have so much here to be grateful for,” she said. “Anything that we can do to help is great.”
Although she admitted she did get tired, the support of her fellow teens kept her going. “It strengthens my character,” she said of the event, “and how I feel about myself.”
Fellow H.E.R.O. member Alivia Siedlecki, 17, reflected on how difficult it was for Jesus when he carried his own cross.
“It’s really a good spiritual reflection,” she said of the event, “because just bearing that weight makes you think about things. I think our message has gotten to a lot of people.”
Amanda McNally, 15, of St. Mary of the Lakes, who has friends in Holy Eucharist Parish, said she jumped at the chance to participate in the fundraiser. “It was a really cool idea to raise funds for the kids in Texas.”
Parishioners Tim and Nancy Gimbel were happy to donate to the students’ cause. The Gimbels have friends in the Houston area whose home was narrowly spared by the floodwaters. They also felt it was important to support the H.E.R.O. ministry.
“It’s amazing that they are doing it for 24 hours,” Nancy Gimbel said, “and it’s great they are doing it with other parishes.”
Fellow parishioners Lenny and Maureen Victor said it was necessary to keep the younger parishioners engaged in the Church and wanted to show their support for the efforts of the H.E.R.O. members.
“It’s a commitment,” Lenny Victor said, “all these kids doing this.”
“It’s very impressive,” Maureen Victor added.
Father Jamieson, in his homily, called the teens remarkable. “They are living as apostles of Christ.”