By Terry Cregar
CLEMSON — Three months ago, Irene Paz was walking across the stage at Georgetown University, bachelor’s degree in hand. Now the 20-year-old has been called to help youth not much younger than she is grow in their service to God and community.
Paz (pronounced “Page”) is the new youth minister at St. Andrew, St. Paul and St. Francis parishes in Oconee and Pickens counties. The three parishes are under the direction of the Paulist Fathers who have a campus ministry at Clemson University.
“I’m impressed by the Paulists. I like their mindset, their philosophy, especially coming from the Jesuit perspective at Georgetown. The Paulists are close to that, in a way,” she said.
Born and raised in Virginia, Paz said she felt she had been led toward youth ministry following graduation. She also thought that the Clemson area fit with where she wanted to be geographically and with the kind of work she wanted to be doing.
“I like this region. I have friends and family in and around South Carolina.”
Paz, whose parents are from Poland, said she hopes that as a youth minister she will help bring middle and high school students closer to Christ and to grow in their own spiritual life.
“To accomplish that, I want to help build relationships with the teens and their families, meeting kids where they are and just being there for them,” she said. “I want to empower them to take ownership of their faith and to grow in that.”
Paz said it’s important for teens to have a safe place in youth groups and in the church where they can build on that relationship with God.
“It’s so important for teens to have that kind of support, that kind of environment where it’s okay for them to be counter-cultural,” she said.
She was impressed by the parents and youth she met on initial visits to the three parishes last spring.
“I was attracted to the potential for so much growth with the good core group of kids here,” she said. “I was impressed with the welcoming nature of the whole community here.”
The Paulists started the search for a full-time youth minister two years ago, forming a committee of parents and students from the three parishes that form the community.
“We weren’t in a hurry to hire somebody just to have somebody here,” said Bob Toggweiler, parent and committee member. “Our focus was to find someone who could communicate well with middle- and high school-aged students.”
Toggweiler said the committee was impressed with Paz from the beginning.
“She comes from a family very steeped in the Catholic tradition, and yet she has a fresh outlook on things,” Toggweiler said.
He said her traits of warmth and likeability, combined with the fact that Paz isn’t much older than many of the teens she’ll be working with, are very important tools.
Paz isn’t wasting any time in getting to know the community. She stepped mid-stream into the youth group’s weekly summer program, including helping out at a teen-build Habitat for Humanity project in Clemson and helping lead a weekend-long ecumenical outing with teens from Protestant churches in the area.
“I hope that as the youth ministry grows in this parish, that the kids will feel secure in their faith so that they can join with other Christians in joint worship of the same God,” she said.
Paz plans to meet regularly with youth ministers from other churches to share ideas.