Over 700 young adults from around the Midwest gathered at the Cousins Center Saturday, Nov. 8, to seek community and an encounter with Christ at the Encounter Steubenville Young Adult Conference.
The event was the first of its kind in Milwaukee and only the second in the country.
Franciscan University of Steubenville recently began seeking partners to bring its model for youth conferences to young adult groups around the United States. Dominick Albano and Talia Westerby, executive director and assistant executive director, respectively, of Arise Milwaukee, were among the first to respond.
Arise Milwaukee, a ministry in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, facilitates parish missions as opportunities for participants to encounter Christ through eucharistic adoration, the sacrament of reconciliation, and praise and worship music.
Though Arise parish missions are for all ages, the leadership of Arise and many participants in its events are young adults seeking opportunities for community and growth in faith. A young adult conference was a natural next step as the ministry sought to grow in its mission and impact, according to organizers.
After some initial research, Arise brought the conference planning team from Franciscan University to Milwaukee to meet Bishop Donald J. Hying and Fr. Luke Strand, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The partnership was launched.
Asked why the event was important, Albano responded, “It changes the world. You have people here who are already on their faith journey, who have encountered God before, that are going to be drawn deeper and have a greater sense of mission and a greater sense of how to live out that mission and find community.”
The event also had to the potential to reach others.
“You have other people here who don’t know God at all and will be brought into relationship with him for the first time,” he said. “We’re lucky as a church in ministry if we can change one heart. On a day like this, you can change hundreds.”
The conference was sold out, with a waiting list. Albano attributed that partially to the well-respected Franciscan University name and the visibility of the work Arise has done in Milwaukee. Mostly, however, he pointed to God’s action in individual lives, calling people into deeper relationship with him.
“Everyone’s here because God wanted them to be here and called them to be here,” he said.
Albano noted that the conference’s tagline, “What does your heart want?” speaks specifically to the challenges with which young adults grapple in their daily lives.
“Young adults are thirsting for the authentic,” said Albano. “I think this question embodies what this conference seeks to fulfill: the heart’s desire for an authentic encounter with the personal love of Jesus Christ. There are so many easier answers to that question. They’re false answers and they’re lies, but it takes that commitment and it takes making a choice.”
The 12-hour event included talks, workshops, small group discussion, Mass, reconciliation, and eucharistic adoration. Speakers included Ennie Hickman and Paul George of Adore Ministries, Fr. John Burns, Pete Burds, director of evangelization for Arise Milwaukee, and Sarah Swafford, founder of Emotional Virtue Ministries.
Worship was led by Paul Vogrinc, a Chicago-area musician whose style has been described as “British-pop meets the Vatican.”
During their lunch break, participants bubbled with enthusiasm about the day’s experiences.
“For me, it will be a rejuvenation, and a reminder that there are other people that are going through the same things as you, but are also striving for the virtues, to live in faith completely,” said Kristen Cupp, a college student from Appleton in the Green Bay Diocese.
“My biggest take away so far is just to encounter Christ in every moment, and just to realize that your happiness comes from a person, the person of Jesus Christ and not any thing, not any relationship or job or hobby, but your true joy comes from Christ,” said Ryan Ziolkowski, a sales rep from Waukesha.
Other participants took to Twitter, using the hashtag “EncounterMKE.”
“I had an amazing time with my brothers and sisters at the #EncounterMKE conference. I feel #refreshed and #challenged. I needed it,” read a tweet from David Price.
“#EncounterMKE roadtrip was such a huge blessing. Inspired to see 700 young adults still on fire for their faith after surviving high school and college,” read another from Katherine Edwards.
Arise is planning to make the young adult conference an annual event, and has reserved Nov. 14 as the date in 2015.
Albano and Westerby believe the Encounter conference will be transformative, and the energy and missionary enthusiasm generated through the event can bring new life to individual parishes and communities.
“This feels like the culmination of so many good things that have been happening in Milwaukee,” Westerby said. “The way these people are going to feel at the end of the day when they go home to their parishes – their hearts are changed.”
“On a day like this, you can hopefully engage them in mission, and say, ‘You don’t go to your parish because it has stuff to give you. You go to a parish to be a member of a community that you give to,” said Albano. “That would be a personal prayer of mine, that people would say, ‘Wait a minute, my faith is not about me being fed, it’s not about me being entertained; my faith, my involvement with the church is my mission, it’s what I’m called to.’”