By Becky Sindelar
December 5, 2016 — Jesuit Father Tri Dinh and Jen Coito want to reinvent what Catholics think of when they hear “young adult ministry.” Their vision goes beyond a small group of 20-somethings getting together every month — for them, it’s about changing lives and communities.
Coito and Fr. Dinh co-founded Christus Ministries in Culver City, California, three years ago with the goal of giving young adults a home in Catholic parishes. And they’re redefining what young adult ministry means.
“Some people think of it as a singles club for Christians,” says Coito. “But we actually joke that more relationships end after our retreats than begin!” That’s because people learn about love, relationships and God and open their eyes to unhealthy patterns in their lives, according to Coito.
The co-founders first met while Coito was a student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where Fr. Dinh was working with Christian Life Communities (CLC), a group of lay Christians who have adopted an Ignatian model of spiritual life. CLC members are encouraged to have a simple, Gospel-based lifestyle, to serve the poor and to integrate contemplation and action. Later the two worked together supporting CLC for the California Province Jesuits.
“The more we were working with young adults in CLC, the more we were so convinced we could be doing more — and we were called to do more — to connect young adults to parishes,” says Coito. “Retreats and small groups are great, but for us the frontier we were called to was helping parishes that desired to be more young adult friendly.”
Fr. Dinh’s work with young adults goes back 30 years, and his vocation to the Jesuits began when he attended his first silent retreat after his freshman year in college. “That’s when Jesus became a friend.” He continued attending Ignatian retreats for the next four years and then joined the Society in 1989.
“I’m drawn to Ignatian spirituality because of the importance of spiritual freedom and the ability and willingness to respond to however God calls. This is a lot of what’s behind Christus Ministries and its conception.”
Around 2002, while Fr. Dinh was still at Loyola Marymount, he began to notice a trend: a lot of LMU alums and former Jesuit Volunteers shared with him that they found it difficult to connect with parishes. “Seeing that the least consistently engaged sector in the Catholic Church are people in their 20s and 30s, I saw a huge need.”
As a response to these disconnected young adults, Christus Ministries emerged in 2013. It began as a pilot program under the California Province Jesuits, and last month, it became an independent, non-profit ministry.
“Young adults are spiritually homeless in the Catholic Church,” says Fr. Dinh. “At the heart of it, Christus Ministries is about creating a sense of community in our parishes so that people, particularly in their 20s and 30s, can discover their calling in life.”
Changing Perceptions: Not Just for Singles
Coito says that of those involved in youth ministry as teens, less than one-third stay involved as young adults, whether it’s because of doctrinal or lifestyle reasons. Christus aims to change that by shifting the concept from young adult groups to young adult ministry. That means programs are geared toward people in their 20s, 30s and even 40s for single, married and divorced, for those with kids and without, for straight and gay people.
“A home for everyone in the church,” is how the team describes Christus. “You can offer all different programs that speak to the state of life that they’re at, but that all address the common themes of young adulthood,” says Coito.
“It’s more about, here’s where you are in this state in life, as you’re setting up a lifestyle, as you’re establishing a home, whatever that looks like,” says Coito. “There are common questions that all of us have at that stage, whatever life we’re called to.”
Coito understands this well; she’s known as the “Den Mother” of Christus, as she’s currently the only staffer with young children, who often attend Christus events and serve as unofficial mascots for the program.
Engaging Young Adults over a Cup of Joe with Jesus
Christus tailors its programs to young adults’ varying lifestyles. For instance, “A Moment to Pause” is a half day prayer break for those who might be more likely to fit a shorter retreat into their schedule. Another program, “Java, Jazz, and Jesus,” has a coffeehouse atmosphere and a speaker on a topic, such as “God I know you have plans for me…”
The most consistent entry points to faith for young adults are retreats and service trips/justice immersions, says Fr. Dinh. Christus hosts these experiences, and after people go, “we invite them to do more in the parish and build up the young adult presence there.”
Inside a parish, Christus advises and consults with parish leadership on how to build an integrated young adult ministry, which includes helping to form both older adults and younger adults in the parish with the skillset to engage the young adult population; prayer programs for adults and young adults in the parish; and various programming such as the Java evenings and various workshops.
Fr. Dinh stresses that many of these programs are not just for young adults, “because if it’s just for young adults only, it can’t be a bridge.”
In the past three years, Christus has worked with around 15 parishes. Because they seek to find the best solution for each parish, it’s not a cookie-cutter model, so they plan to build slowly to maintain quality. “We’re really trying to listen to how we can best help parishes find their own solutions,” says Coito. “We tell them ‘Here are some key ingredients, key tools, but you are the ones who can best serve your community.’” Christus also offers leadership formation to the parishes, so that priests, deacons and parish life directors can all walk with young adults.
She also stresses that it doesn’t have to be at the parish level. For instance, Jesuits working at a high school can be attentive not just to the students but to the young adults serving in their schools. Coito says it’s a matter of asking “how can I be more present to those on the fringes of the church?”
Fr. Dinh and Coito also plan to make the knowledge and best practices they’ve gained available online so that anyone wanting to accompany young adults in their parish has resources. Coito hopes in this way Christus can support more people than it would ever be able to physically. “The more people who we help who are transformed, the more they can go out and be agents of transformation in their own community.”
And Christus has seen transformations in its three short years. Fr. Dinh says that currently three of the 11 novices in the California and Oregon Provinces have come through a Christus program. They’ve also had women participants respond to the call of religious life and have seen young couples find greater appreciation in married life.
Jesuits, including Ike Udoh (far right) and Juan Pablo Marrufo del Toro (second from left), have worked with Christus Ministries during their formation. Here they connect with past Caritas retreatants at a Fireside Chat event.
“Our formation focuses on building community that helps people discover and live out their calling,” says Fr. Dinh.
Both Coito and Fr. Dinh are inspired by their work. Coito says her favorite part is seeing lives changed. “We have the privilege to witness people’s deep reconciliation of past wounds and to also see people who have just been maintaining a relationship with God or the church and then all of a sudden really thriving.”
“We are called to be a life-giving, joyful missionary church,” says Fr. Dinh. “When I begin to see pockets of churches with spiritually engaged young adults, it never ceases to bring tears of joy to my eyes. That gets me up in the morning every day.”
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.