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Providing education in faith key in church’s efforts to save local youths

      The two boys run back to their seats with freshly sharpened colored pencils. The young boy wearing glasses holds the dark red pencil on guard from the other in blue who is wielding a fine-pointed gray pencil. The two pause, then, red upon gray, the boys engage as though their pencils are light-sabers and swords and they’ve just returned from the classroom’s electronic pencil sharpener.
    The teacher yells from across the room, “Boys, we do not do that here! Would you please cut that out? Acknowledging the teacher’s demand for only a second, the two give it their all before she walks over to them. Muttering their final fighting words, they comply and get back to their assignment—the drawing and coloring of their favorite Station of the Cross. 
      The boys are enrolled in the religious education program of Our Lady of Charity Parish in Cicero. They are just two in a class of 15 for the joint English-speaking first- and second-grade class.  Our Lady of Charity partners with Saint Francis of Rome for their religious education program. The program serves an overwhelming majority of Latino students from the predominantly Latino village of  Cicero. Classes for the religious education program meet every Saturday from 9 to 11a.m., covering grades Kindergarten to eighth and the parish’s work, according to many here, seeking to make a difference in a community where gangs, crime and violence have an established foothold.
      Recently, the first and second grade class was learning about Lent, observed by Catholics as a time of preparation and reflection of the 40 days Jesus Christ spent fasting in the wilderness. It’s a time for the penance of sinners and a period of mourning the death of the Christian faith’s central figure, Jesus Christise, “alleluia” is not to be spoken until the celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
           Gracie Navejar is coordinator of the religious education program at Our Lady of Charity. She also has been teaching as a catechist for more than 10 years at various parishes in the Chicago land area.
           “I think even the kids that are involved in a gang have their faith inside their roots,” Navejar said. “Even in this time I see kids come to church during lent. I see them with their tattoos that say Jesus or have Our Lady of Guadalupe. I see a lot of kids coming to church because down deep they do have their roots in their faith but it’s society that they are governed.”
            A mother of three girls and one son, Navejar said she made sure that she was actively involved in their lives.
“I’ve sacrificed my time for my kids, but for me it’s an investment of their future.”
        Over the course of her work with children, Navejar says she has sat down with them one-on-one and is convinced that the parish’s efforts are having an impact. .
“It’s like they use Jesus when you are in pain and you reach out for the medicine cabinet and the first thing you reach out for is an aspirin,” she said. “They reach out for Jesus automatically.”
       Furthering the classroom discussion on each Stations of the Cross—a tradition that depicts the final hours of Jesus—the teacher explained what each station means to Jesus and everyday life. The teacher asked her students if there was ever a time in their lives when they wanted to give up. The children, some gazing off to the side or scribbling into their notebooks responded with a faint nod of agreement. The teacher then equated the obstacles of chores and studying with Jesus’ carrying of the cross.
She asked, “What did Jesus do when he fell with the cross for the third time?”
After a brief moment of silence a girl with straight brunette hair and a T-shirt that reads, “I love Justin Bieber,” replied, “He got up?”
    Sandra Luz Dominguez, director of the religious education program, says that an education in faith  “must start when they are very young,” said “They need Jesus to keep them saved. There is only so much we can do as catechists to help shape their behavior, the rest is in faith.”
Dominguez is not fluent in English and deals with mostly Spanish classes and masses at Saint Francis of Rome. She travels from Saint Francis of Rome on the north side of Cicero, across town to Our Lady of Charity on a weekly basis. She is director of both parishes religious education program. 
       “I see children everyday who believe in Christ, said Dominguez. “There isn’t a single one of them who do not want to be saved.”
        Navejar said it will take small steps to really make a difference with the kids in troubled areas but says it’s a matter of dedication. There is a youth group of 17 teens going to Spain this summer on behalf of Our Lady of Charity Parish.  Those teens will be participating in World Youth Day, a Catholic pilgrimage and celebration of our future, according to Navejar who said it is an example of how the church is making a difference one child at a time.
           Back in the classroom one recent day, the teacher is winding down the lesson with a single question, “Who do you want to be when you grow up?”
Eager hands go up almost simultaneously as they anxiously await for the teacher to call on them.
Nathan, a first grader, shouts, “a soldier, I want to be a soldier!”
Other boys in the class throw their hands up.  “Me too,” they shout. One young girl says she would like to be an FBI agent. Another boy says he would like to be the president.
         “Yeah, I want to be Obama,” agreed a smiling girl to his right.
  A young girl named Carla is wearing glasses and has her hair pulled back in one long ponytail. She raises her hand and says she wants to be Jesus.
The teacher thanks Carla as she seems relieved by the appropriate segue to her final point of the day that in keeping with their faith they should all aspire to be like Jesus.
By Cassandra Clegg

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