WHITE OAK—Meredith Clemmens’ Road to Emmaus led her back to an all-too-familiar place.
Ten years ago, Clemmens was one of several hundred students at the Diocese of Charleston’s Junior High Rally listening to guest speakers share their faith and offer encouragement and inspiration to the young audience.
On Nov. 4, she was on the other side of the stage as a guest speaker at the 20th annual junior high rally at White Oak Conference Center.
“I remember being here (10 years ago) and looking at the women onstage and thinking, ‘They’re so cool; they’re so holy; they really have their lives together,’” Clemmens recalled. “And now I walk outside and I hear a bunch of girls going, ‘That’s her! That’s her!’ about me. It’s cool how it’s flipped around like that.”
Around 500 students in grades 6 through 8 representing more than 30 parishes attended the all-day event featuring Christian music by Justin Dery’s band, guest speakers, breakout sessions, and elaborate skits and activities put on by the Diocesan Youth Evangelization Team, or E-Team.
Speaking at the girls’ breakout session, Clemmens, who currently works in the information technology industry in Washington, D.C., shared experiences from her days attending rallies as a middle school student in Aiken and her time as a member of the E-Team during high school. From there, she continued to serve youth ministry while enrolled at Clemson University, where she graduated in May 2016. She also spent time as an au pair in Italy and an exchange student in Argentina.
“(Meredith) was so excited to be back,” said Brennan Schmidt, an E-Team member and one of the emcees for the event. “She said it felt like she never left.”
The timing of Clemmens’ return for this year’s rally could not have been more fitting. The theme for the 2017 event was “The Road to Emmaus,” and how Jesus accompanies us on our personal journey, as He did with the two disciples on their walk from Jerusalem in the final chapter of Luke’s Gospel.
“As I read (Lk 24), I’m thinking, ‘Why would God do that? Why would he let (the disciples) be confused all the time? I don’t understand,” Clemmens said. “And then I came to realize, if I really understood everything, I would have no need for Him. I would have no reason to seek Him. I wouldn’t need to continue journeying along my way with all of those roadblocks and all of those other things life throws at us if we all just understood everything immediately.”
Clemmens’ journey began with a phone call from Deacon Jerry White, director of the diocesan office of Youth and Young Adults Ministry. He recalled contacting Clemmens and asking her to speak at the high school rally in the spring, but she declined, saying she didn’t feel like it was the right time for her to come back and talk.
“This year, I asked our young people who they’d want to hear from as far as a young lady and several of them asked for Clemmens because she had touched their lives in a special way,” Deacon White said. “I reached out to her and she said she’d pray about it.”
Through prayer, and after reading Thomas Merton’s book “The Seven Storey Mountain”, Clemmens felt she was ready for her walk with Jesus.
“(Merton) basically says you don’t have to choose just one thing,” Clemmens said. “The Lord has given us a lot of different gifts and he doesn’t want us to lose them. I knew that speaking and sharing was a gift that the Lord gave me and if I didn’t start to use it, I would probably would never get back into the habit of doing that.
“So I told Jerry, ‘If you ever need me or know of anyone who might need me, here I am. Feel free to call me.’ And he did.”
Doug Tooke, owner of Monarch Catholic Ministries in Helena, Mont., and a frequent speaker at youth events, was this year’s keynoter. He also led the boys’ breakout session, addressing the group with a gripping narrative about sacrifice.
“Sacrifice doesn’t mean to hurt yourself. It means to make sacred,” Tooke said. “And your God made sacred the cross for you.”
“Learn to look to your right and to your left and to stand up for something,” he added. “And know that when you do that it is not because of you. It’s because of the one before you who said, ‘I’ll die so you can breathe my name.’”
The event concluded with Mass celebrated by Father Peter Sousa, pastor at Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia.
Story and photo, Miscellany/Chip Lupo: A group of students stand during an activity with Doug Tooke at the boys’ session of the Diocesan Junior High Rally, held Nov. 4 at White Oak Conference Center.