Fourth annual Hispanic youth conference delivers strong message for Detroit's future church leaders

DETROIT — A TV show can end. Even the best food spoils over time. But God's love is forever.

That was the message shared with with more than 400 Hispanic youths from across the Archdiocese of Detroit on March 2 during the fourth annual Archdiocese of Detroit Hispanic Youth Conference at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. 

Christina Lamas, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry, delivered the keynote address, reaffirming to the young people in attendance what it means to belong to God and urging them to rely on Jesus’ saving power of forgiveness as they navigate through a topsy-turvy world.

Lamas pointed out that young people hear all the time that “God is love” — a statement that can be difficult to take to heart. 

“We are made to love and to be loved,” said Lamas, who asked the attendees to raise their hands for things in the world they love, including food, YouTube, Instagram, sports and Netflix. “With God, there is no limit to His love. With those things I just listed, they have a limit. But God’s love has no limit. And we know God’s love, we can put a name to it, and that name is Jesus.”

Lamas shared her story of growing up in Los Angeles with a large, lower-class family family. Often, her family struggled, fought with each other, and at times, didn’t see Christ’s love in one another.

A young women listens to Christina Lamas' talk during the Hispanic Youth Conference on March 2.

Looking back on those days of loneliness, of not knowing the future, Lamas said she sees now that it was God’s love that carried her through the trials.

“You don’t have to earn God’s love; God loves you the way you are,” Lamas said. “God loves you exactly how you are, regardless of tattoos, piercings or attitudes. When I think of that love, I think of my mom, the moments when she sacrificed, when she accompanied me. She loved me. That is the same love I have for my daughter, when she says, ‘I love you, Mama.’ It melts my heart.”

Today, Lamas helps Catholic youths around the country, especially Hispanic youths, to recognize the important role they play in the future — and present — of the Church in the United States. 

Antonio Guzman, associate coordinator for Hispanic ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit, said the conference was organized entirely by young people and is an opportunity for the next generation of Catholic Hispanic leaders to develop.

“It is amazing to see how Hispanics are growing in the archdiocese, because there is a heavy demand from Hispanic parishes for more lay leaders in the roles of youth coordinator and evangelization,” Guzman said. “The Hispanic population is growing, and we’re seeing how their kids are being handed down the faith of their parents. 

“But we want more,” Guzman continued. “Seeing a conference like this, with more than 400 people, a conference organized by Hispanic youth, it gives me hope for the Church — not only for the Hispanic community, but the entire Church in the archdiocese.”

Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda gives a homily during Mass with nearly 400 Hispanic youths on March 2 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary. 

During her second talk of the day, Lamas told the youths that to understand God’s relationship with His creation, they need to understand sin and the healing power of reconciliation. 

“When we break that relationship with God — when we lie, when we break that promise with Christ — that is sin,” Lamas said. “It is like being in a family, when we have an argument and say something with a raised voice to someone we love. We need to mend that relationship. But in order to do that, we have to be vulnerable. We have to admit when we do wrong, even when someone else did first wrong.”

Lamas acknowledged there is real hurt in the world. Lamas shared that her own daughter doesn't know her father, and that there were times in her own life when relationships were broken through betrayal and mistrust. 

“As Christians, even if our experiences have a lot of pain and frustration, that doesn’t matter, because it’s not the end,” Lamas said. “That is not our final experience. We are given this beautiful gift in reconciliation, and we have to respond to this beautiful gift. Jesus Christ has given you this tremendous gift, inviting us to be healed, to be forgiven. 

“When my daughter went to her first reconciliation, when she told God her sins, she knew she was loved,” Lamas continued. “She said, ‘Thank you God, you have forgiven me,’ and she had the biggest smile on her face. That smile, that love, is what you all can experience when you go to confession.”

Esmeralda Orozco, a parishioner at Holy Redeemer Parish in Detroit and one of the conference’s organizers, said Lamas’ message of God’s unconditional love was well received.

Fr. Jacob VanAssche leads Benediction during the Hispanic Youth Conference at Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

“I hear that in my youth group, that God loves you, but we never really think about what it means,” Orozco said. “God’s love really is everlasting. God’s love is forever, and that is something our generation doesn’t hear enough, because we’re under so much pressure in other areas of life.”

Orozco said the annual conference plays an important role in the formation of Hispanic youth in the area, who don’t often have opportunities to gather as a community.

“This is the fourth conference, and I remember going to the first one, when we had nothing like this,” Orozco said. “We had small little meetings sometimes, where we’d invite youth to the Church, but we didn’t have something like this at the archdiocesan level.

“Events like this help us remember that we are one big Church,” Orozco continued. “As the youth, the Hispanic youth, we have a fear, an embarrassment sometimes, where we’re just scared to stand out. We all come from different parishes, but we’re all Hispanics, and we all come from the same culture. We realize that we’re not alone; we are united in Christ.”

Confessions were available throughout the day, and after the talks, the conference moved from Sacred Heart’s gymnasium to the chapel for Eucharistic adoration and Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda.

“I’ve been praying about you, praying that you have this real experience with God today,” Fr. Patrick Gonyeau, associate pastor of Corpus Christi Parish in Detroit, told attendees before Mass. “I pray that you are able to share that experience in your words and actions to the rest of the world. God wants you to know that you carry power. Today, reflect on your identity as children of God, reflect on the power you have.”

Fr. Gonyeau referenced moments in Scripture when disciples of Christ performed great healings and conversions because of their faith in Christ.

“Put your hand on your heart and claim something right now. Claim that you belong to Jesus,” Fr. Gonyeau continued. “He loves you indefinitely, infinitely; and He knew you from the cross, because God knows everything. Jesus gives us a new life, a new mission, to go out into the world to preach his name. He overcame death, and that is the power he gave us, to fulfill this mission. And if we claim our identity as sons and daughters of Christ, no one can stop us.”