ROCHESTER — For Matt Dinan, a parishioner of St. Stephen Church in Geneva, the cultural-exchange dinners that have become a part of the annual diocesan youth convention offer teenagers a jumping-off point to learn more about the parishes they visit.
“They can better get in touch with the Rochester community,” said Dinan, 19, a freshman at the University of Rochester who accompanied the Roman Catholic Community of Geneva’s youth group to Holy Redeemer/St. Francis Xavier Church. “It gives people a view into something they probably haven’t experienced in our parish.”
The Geneva group was one of 50 youth groups from throughout the 12-county Diocese of Rochester to partake in a Nov. 18 cultural-exchange dinner at one of five urban parishes: Holy Redeemer/St. Francis Xavier, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, St. Bridge, Holy Family and St. Mary. Each church hosted about 100 teenagers plus their chaperones, said Lynette DeJesus, coordinator of the diocese’s Urban Youth Ministry.
“They’re always described as one of the best experiences of the weekend,” she said.
The gatherings, which DeJesus said are now in their fifth year, are designed to offer the youth-group members a friendly atmosphere to get to know each other better as well as to learn about other cultures and develop a deeper respect for the ethnic populations that largely comprise the urban parishes. In addition, the visiting groups also collect donations for the city parishes. This year, the groups collected enough winter wear — including hats, mittens and scarves — to fill three boxes for each parish.
The food served during the dinners had to represent the culture of a particular parish, explained Elizabeth Mu√±oz, a youth minister for Mt. Carmel, which served rice and beans to denote its many Hispanic parishioners. Members of the choir also played guitars and sang traditional Spanish songs.
“The kids enjoy it and go back and say ‘I ate this’ or ‘I ate that. What did you eat?'” Mu√±oz said. “They look forward to these.”
The meal was a completely new experience for Casey Miller, 14, a member of the youth group at St. Patrick Parish in Victor.
“It’s really cool meeting new people that you wouldn’t usually get the opportunity to meet,” she said.
Juana Santos, 17, a member of the Mt. Carmel youth group, said the dinners shows teenagers how their differences are really contributions they can literally bring to the table.
“We can be ourselves and represent our church,” she said. “Us being goofy as we are, we make everyone feel at home.”
As a diocesan youth-ministry director in Iowa, Bob Perron, the convention’s keynote speaker, knows firsthand that the dinners are the kinds of social events that provide the best times to build relationships with teenagers. The delicious food at Mt. Carmel, he added, was a bonus.
“Young people need to see differences in cultures,” he said. “It helps them see that we’re a pretty big church.”
Alex Meyer, 16, enjoyed the educational information Holy Redeemer’s faith-formation director Martha Montes offered during her presentation on Hispanic Christmas traditions. He was impressed how Hispanic culture evolved from indigenous roots that blended with European influences.
“It’s still cool … they still manage to carry out the traditions their ancestors started and be far from their own homelands,” said Alex, a member of St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Mendon.