By Roman Flores
EL CENTRO – Amid a sea of high school students, keynote speaker Jose Martinez boldly stated, “You want to know God? Get to know Jesus; He is the way, the truth and the life.”
This moment from Martinez’s keynote speech, along with the premier of “Unbreakable Love,” a song Martinez wrote specifically for the youth, set the tone for the inaugural Imperial Valley “Unbreakable” Youth Conference, held on March 7 at St. Mary’s parish in El Centro.
More than 300 Imperial Valley teens attended the free event. They heard Martinez address the topic of “God’s love and friendship.” They chose among 10 talks relevant to teen-agers, given by Catholic educators and volunteers, and enjoyed sketches and dances put on by local youth groups.
The youth also participated in Adoration with live praise and worship music, Reconciliation and a closing Mass celebrated by Father Lauro Minimo, director of Priestly Vocations for the Diocese of San Diego.
El Centro Catholic’s (ECC) Youth Group developed the event, which grew to invite all teens throughout the Imperial Valley and other cities’ religious education programs, said ECC pastor, Father Mark Edney.
He said organizers hoped that all the youth who attended were “touched by Jesus Christ in their hearts and minds to know his love for them and his unbreakable promises to them.”
“My hope was that they could see that they are children of God, created by God, and they are going to find out who they are – ultimately – in knowing God better and knowing God’s love for them,” he said in an interview.
He said after initial Saturday morning sleepiness wore off, the teens were engaged.
“I think once they got here and saw what had been prepared for them, it really was an eye-opening experience for them,” said Father Mark.
Francisco Cabrera, co-coordinator of the event and Religious Education Director for ECC, said this was important throughout the planning process as “the youth deal with the fact that they don’t feel accepted anywhere.”
The best attended talk was one by Father Edney, and the title of it was “Learning to accept who you are in Jesus Christ,” he said.
“I think the fact that most of the youth gravitated towards that says a lot,” Cabrera said. “It says that they need to feel love, and they need to be not just loved, but loved for who they are.”
Isis Ramirez agreed. The 17-year-old member of the ECC Youth Group participated in choreographed dances during the event.
“Jose’s talk it was very reflectful of my life,” she said. “I have to think about the people I hang out with and see how they are impacting my life. And you know, if I need to change it up I should probably follow his advice and find the right people for me.”
Her fellow ECC Youth Group member, 15-year-old Clarissa Valencia, said she liked the talks she attended, including one on friendship and another on how to get to heaven.
“I remember them saying that you needed to be baptized, you need to receive the Eucharist and follow God and make sure you follow His will. I really liked that talk too.”
The coordinators saw the need for youth events like this conference in the valley.
“In a place where there is very little to do, very little activities out here, the youth conference offers a place for us to say, ‘You matter and this place is for you, and we validate your existence,’” Cabrera said.
Other speakers agreed, stating that these and other forms of outreach need to continue to invite the youth to free events rather than try to force their attendance.
“If we don’t, then they’re going to be formed by the world, so if we care about the youth, we have to provide these opportunities because they can get lost in their own world,” said Father Edward Horning, pastor of the Brawley Catholic community.
“In the old days, we had people pay and register in a lame way and it was really kind of catechetical rather than evangelical, so this conference is different; it’s been evangelical, Biblical, engaging and dynamic,” Father Ed said.
“(The youth) went home happy, excited and anxious for the next youth conference,” said Sister Hellen Muchira, another of the conference organizers, who said planning for next year’s event has already begun.