Life Directions Peers Inspiring Peers
The forget-me-not flower is a visual symbol of Life Directions,” Rev. John says. “As legend has it, during the creation, as God finished naming each plant and animal and was preparing to rest, then he heard a small voice: ‘What about me?’ God bent down and lifted the little seedling. ‘I just have a little blue and yellow left, so you will have to be tiny. But I shall never forget you, and forget-me-not will be your name.’ The logo and symbols all point to LIFE, as we see it.
“At Pentecost, the whole world was one parish, made up of four demographics: those who go to the Eucharist, those who left the Eucharist, those who worship elsewhere, and those who go nowhere. The parish is different from the Church. It’s a territory, not a building. It does not cease to exist when the church building closes. People of good will are part of each demographic.”
Q Please give a brief history of Life Directions and its work. How did it get started?
In 1973, Detroit had the third-highest homicide rate in the United States, according to published reports. The Redemptorist Provincial sent me to work on the streets and network with people who wanted to get to the root cause of the violence and commit to find a cure. I met Fr. Alex Steinmiller, a Passionist, who ran the only retreat house in the city for youth. Our conversation marked the beginning of focus: LIFE—the living vision of Life Directions—Peers Inspiring Peers through Forgiving—a reflection of our desire for young people to see life instead of death. We partnered with Mr. and Mrs. Alexander MacDonald, who had six children under the age of eleven. Then we met Sr. Rosalie Esquerra, a bilingual Adrian Dominican sister who was working in Western International High School in Detroit. All of us cofounded Life Directions.
Q What is your mission?
Our mission is guided by our vision: Peers Inspiring Peers through Forgiving. The resurrected life of Christ breathes forgiving life into the world. The energy for forgiving flows from the power to love the unlovable, even persons bent on our destruction. Jesus killed no one on the way to the cross. When he rose from the dead, he forgave. Our focus is to discover young adults who are rooted in values and faith to help motivate and mentor their peers who lack the roots that make life grow. We network with movements like Marriage Encounter and Focolore to find adults who encourage and lead the way to discern how to apply our programs to heal hurt, replace violence with peace-building, and encourage people to find and live their own Life Direction.
Q How has your ministry touched the lives of the participants and staff?
Our ministry has been effective among three groups of people that are independent from and interdependent of one another. First, in public schools, we’ve discovered 40,000 achieving young people who have motivated 80,000 of their peers to take responsibility for their lives. Of the participants, 78 percent completed high school; 82 percent improved math scores, and 66 percent improved reading scores. Through all of our activities and community-service projects, we’ve experienced no acts of violence. “Peace-building”—gardens of forgiveness—have become a gentle and humble way of encouraging people to face and deal with obesity and diabetes. Among our more well-known stars: Kevin Garnett, a professional basketball player, and Hansen Clarke, a former U.S. congressman. But our legacy of hope is embodied in the families—professional and trade workers—as well as the ordinary people who have found and enjoy their own life directions.
Second, in Catholic parishes and other faith-based communities, we have developed ways of evangelizing that begin with meeting the unmet hungers of the poor and continue into the spiritual awakening of young adults by offering them a role in a mission to renew the face of the earth. Some have grown into ministers, priests and sisters, and adult role models for teens. All of this has been accomplished through volunteers.
The third group we have an impact on are those who desire to understand the word of God as a GPS (God’s Providential Signs) and formulate a plan to engage their own way of evangelizing. We train people to: recognize the ideal situation but to internalize the “law of gradualness”; meet people where they are and gently expand their vision to see a truth that is loving and life-giving; gain skills to lead retreats and workshops and make foundational decisions to respond to the Call of God; to be aware that “success” includes a “succession” plan so the frontiers remain alive and vibrant.
Q What is the reach of your efforts?
Our work spans Detroit, Chicago, San Antonio, New Orleans, and Tucson. We have worked in fifty-eight public high schools and thirty middle schools. We have given more than 250 young adult retreats, more than 200 parish missions, plus a number of workshops. Additionally, we’ve written the Youth Implementation of the Hispanic Pastoral Plan (1989) and the African American Pastoral Plan (1991). We have trained more than thirty intergenerational young-adult ministry teams.
Q What are some of the biggest challenges you face?
The biggest challenge we face is sustainable funding. Our work costs $50 a month per person. The result of our work is prevention. We foresee overcoming this challenge by emulating the Twelve Apostles by finding the Barnabases of the world. The second challenge is to bring about a paradigm shift among all confirmed in the Catholic Church. Currently, the lived reality is that people believe they are free to choose Christ. However, Jesus made it clear to his apostles the night before he freely submitted to his Father’s will in death that this is not the case. “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16). This incorrect idea that we are free to choose or not choose to follow Christ causes anorexia to a person’s ability to develop a mature spirituality. The freedom to respond, with Mary as our role model, is the cure.
Q How can individuals help support Life Directions?
There are three key ways:
• We accept donations for our not-for-profit work online or by mail.
• You can also assist our mission through the purchase of our book, Life Directions: Raising Hope, Building Peace.
• Invite us to share in depth what we mean by the “miseducation” of those being confirmed. We will identify “spiritual anorexia,” explain the cause and the effect as it relates to all vocations, and the perpetuation of the climate of violence. We will share the educational process centered on discernment—a journey to joy that no one can take away. Finally, we’ll offer intergenerational training and development of New Evangelization Mission Teams to serve the parish. To learn more, visit lifedirections.org.