Tuesday, May 16, 2017 - Updated: 3:19 AM
Standing before a group of adults in a church hall, 14-year-old Kayvon thought for a moment about the question: How is your relationship with Jesus?
“Better than before,” he said with a grin.
Kayvon and his cousin, Cynsair, gave witness recently at a fundraising dinner for Dirty Vagabond Ministries, which serves at-risk teens from Pittsburgh neighborhoods that include Garfield, East Liberty, Homewood and the Hill District. Soon the ministry will expand to Sharpsburg.
Sacrificial gifts from Our Campaign for The Church Alive! helped to provide a start-up grant for the outreach program.
The ministry embraces Pope Francis’ preference for “a church that is dirty because it’s been on the streets.” Missionaries like Christopher Kerfoot are considered to be “vagabonds” who work with kids who are poor and in need of the love of Jesus.
“Almost all of them have experienced some form of abandonment,” Kerfoot said. “Only one teenager out of about 30 in our group has his father and mother at home. There is a lot of fighting going on in their neighborhoods and in some of their houses. It’s caused them to be very aggressive.”
But now, nearly two years into his ministry at St. Maria Goretti Parish, walking the streets, handing out free hot dogs, playing pickup basketball games and tutoring in schools, Kerfoot is beginning to see the first fruits. There is a new Bible study at the Underground youth center, a Guys’ Group that includes faith sharing, and soon a Girls’ Group.
Teens also are going to church regularly for the first time in their lives.
“Our parishioners are recognizing and welcoming them,” said Father Regis Farmer, pastor of St. Maria Goretti. “The kids have a spiritual curiosity. They are attentive in Mass and ask questions. There is a sense of wonderment, and it’s causing us to step back and think about our faith.”
Kerfoot works with two groups of volunteers — a core team of young adults and college students who connect with kids in the community, lead retreats and help with outreach nights at the Underground. A committee assists with event planning, fundraising and prayers.
“At first we were busy breaking up skirmishes and maintaining order,” core team member Joe Wingenfeld recalled. “Now we’re building relationships, respect and trust. Bit by bit, the kids are listening more when Christopher gives a talk about Jesus.”
Nick Wytiaz, a member of the parish for about three years, works with the committee behind the scenes. Recently, while serving as a lector at Mass, he saw new faces in the front pew.
“I’m trying to say the readings with this smile on my face,” he said. “I can see the desire of these kids to learn more. I know we’re going in the right direction.”
As summer approaches, the missionaries will be back in city playgrounds, shooting hoops, grilling hot dogs and getting to know more young people.
“Building relationships and trust takes time,” Kerfoot said. “We’re also looking to bring new kids into the group to share the Gospel message with as many as possible.”
To get involved or learn more about Dirty Vagabonds Ministries, e-mail Christopher@dirtyvagabond.com, or visit dirtyvagabond.com. To read about the impact of Our Campaign for The Church Alive!, visit ChurchAlivePgh.org.