Maria-Pia Negro Chin

Last year, I saw nearly 500 young people gather on a Saturday morning, carrying signs about the mercy of God. They were getting ready for their annual procession around New York. But in this procession, prayer was intertwined with joyous dancing and upbeat singing about how God’s love and mercy are for all.

They were part of the Movimiento de Jornadas de Vida Cristiana, which translates into the Journeys of Christian Life Movement, a bilingual Catholic movement of Latino youth and young adults from parishes in Queens and Brooklyn, as well as Manhattan. Mile after mile, I was in awe by their joy-filled (and contagious) witness of the faith.

I remained curious about the source of their hope, faith and unity and recently talked to some of the young leaders, as the movement is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

What I learned is that this movement provides men and women with a community to deepen and mature their relationship with God. The seed is planted in a four-day retreat, which was inspired by the Cursillo de Cristiandad, an apostolic movement with origins in Spain. This retreat gives young people the chance to encounter Christ’s love, to be able to pinpoint a moment in their lives where they felt truly loved by God.

The peer-led meetings, guest speakers, service opportunities and retreats that follow the Jornada retreat give teenagers opportunities to grow in faith and use their gifts to help others to encounter God, said Eliza Bermejo, 21, who joined the movement when she was 15 and is now a member of the leadership team.

“Our mission is (to be) youths evangelizing youths,” she said.

“Here are people that are one of their own, the same struggles, the same temptations, the same difficulties of being a youth in our society, speaking about their love for Jesus,” said Father James Kuroly, the spiritual director of the Jornada movement. “It’s inspiring.”

After the retreat, youths are called to cultivate their seeds of faith, so they can share it with those they meet. Over the course of 50 years, around 15,000 people have taken a Jornada retreat.

For many, the Jornada retreat marked the moment when they consciously opened their hearts to being loved by God. And they try to continue living what they learned at the retreat to maintain that bridge that connects them with God.

Melanie Feliciano, 25, the movement’s president, said that Jornada helps young people realize that what they do matters and that “by being Christ-like, they can make a difference in the world.”

Feliciano, who discovered the movement over 10 years ago, added that the youth have a sense of responsibility to help their peers to discover and follow God’s calling. The unity among Jornadistas (those who have attended the retreat) leads them to encourage one another to be a beacon of God’s hope in the world.

The connection to a community of peers that have their best interest at heart gives the youth a sense of belonging and worth, especially amid challenges like bullying, self-esteem issues or misunderstandings at home or school, Bermejo added.

“The greatest need that everyone has is to feel welcomed and to feel loved,” Father Kuroly said. “(Youth) live in a world that is critical, that may push them aside. We have to be countercultural and be different by being compassionate, merciful and loving to all.”

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Maria-Pia Negro Chin is bilingual associate editor at Maryknoll Magazine.