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'How much God loves me' - Urban youth mission preaches Christ on the peripheries

“I was never the typical stereotype of missionary with the polo and khakis. I just didn't really vibe with that.”

Participants in a youth event organized by Vagabond Missions. Courtesy photo.

By the time Vinzzel Chism was 16 years old, he had been expelled from two different schools - and then dropped out. He had spent two years on probation. He had anger problems and got into fights, exploding at people when they said things that upset him.

Although the Wichita teen had once been close to his family members, he started pulling away from them, spending most of his time instead with a group of friends whom he now describes as “thugs.”

“I had started hanging out with people who were gang-banging and all of that,” he told The Pillar. “I was going down a bad path.”

But then a friend invited him to The Underground, an inner-city youth center run by the Catholic group Vagabond Missions.

The center was fun. There was pizza. And games.

Vinzzel thought he’d only go once, but after that first time, he kept going, week after week. It was something to do, he remembers.

There were also missionaries at The Underground. Over time, they became his friends. Eventually, they became like family. They taught him about the love of Jesus.

As Vinzzel spent more and more time at The Underground, he began pulling away from his old friends. He says the missionaries and their message changed the way he viewed himself.

That was three years ago. Now, at age 19, Vinzzel attends Mass almost every Sunday. and is seriously considering becoming Catholic.

He’d been expelled twice — but Vinnzel went back to high school. He hopes to go to college for either architecture or robotics.

Vinzzel says if he hadn’t found The Underground, he might be in jail today - or worse.

“I probably wouldn’t even be here,” he told The Pillar.

Vinzzel Chism is one of more than 4,000 teenagers who have encountered Vagabond Missions through its urban youth centers, known to the teens as “The Underground.”

“We are an inner-city Catholic youth mission,” said Andy Lesnefsky, president of Vagabond Missions.

“A simple mission statement would just be to say that we want to share the Gospel with inner-city teenagers by equipping Catholic young adults to serve as missionaries.”

“We really kind of dive deep into neighborhoods that are underserved, both by the world at large, but [also] in a real way by the Church.”

‘A beautiful train wreck’

Vagabond Missions was founded by Andy’s brother, Bob Lesnefsky, in 2006.

After Bob graduated from college, he and his wife Kate took jobs in youth ministry at an urban parish in upstate New York.

While Bob was enthusiastic about young ministry, he found his own suburban background left him unprepared for what he encountered among the teens of the parish.

“There were always fights, and the police would come almost every week,” he said. “We would do events, and there was a knife fight one night, and a lot of drugs, a lot of gang stuff.”

That first year of ministry was a “train wreck, in every sense,” Bob said. His wife was expecting their first child, and she and Bob both felt overwhelmed with the youth ministry they were trying to accomplish.

“It was a mess, and to be honest, I was hating life,” Bob said. “We cried a lot that first year.”

“But something happened in the middle of that year…we fell in love with these kids we were working with, and that changed everything.”

Bob and his wife realized that the kids in their parish were being neglected by the kind of people who usually invest in young people’s lives – by school systems, churches, and other ministry programs.

“They're really hard to reach, and their [lives] are really messy and [can be] violent,” he said. “But we had a dozen kids get baptized at that next Easter vigil. And we just started falling in love with that type of ministry.”

When they left the parish a few years later, Bob and his wife knew they wanted to continue ministering to kids from urban neighborhoods. They began asking prominent youth ministry organizations about their work with city kids. But they found out that most youth ministry programs just weren’t working with kids like that.

There are a lot of youth ministry programs in the Church, but the Lefneskys saw a big gap — and they saw that the kids they loved were falling right through it.

So they decided to do something.

Bob called some of the former teens who had been through his parish ministry program at the urban parish. He asked if any of them wanted to join him in a new project.

Bob told them that he didn’t have all the details figured out, and he didn’t know how they would pay for it. But he knew that God was calling them a new kind of ministry.

A few people he called wanted to help, and just like that, Vagabond Missions was born.

About a decade later, Andy came on board full-time as well, after volunteering and serving on Vagabond's board for years.

‘Frontier evangelization’

Andy and Bob say their Pittsburgh-based organization has a very different approach to youth ministry than what you might see in a suburban American parish.

As a suburban youth minister for 15 years, Andy said he would be handed annually a list of a few hundred kids registered at the local high school. He would call them and their parents and invite them to youth group events. Some would come, and he’d be on his way.

But in a lot of city parishes, he said, there is no list of teenagers to contact.

“It's always starting from scratch,” Andy said.

Vagabond missionaries don’t meet kids with bulletin inserts or booths at the back of Mass. So they try to meet teenagers in other ways.

The goal, Andy said, is for missionaries to find the kids where they hang out.

That means pickup basketball games, grilling on sidewalks, hanging out at bus stops.

“Part of it too, I mean, it's the movement of the Holy Spirit. It's the movement of God kind of making that happen,” Andy said.

“We know it's not our amazing basketball skills. Some of our missionaries are good at it and most are okay. Some are terrible, but they'll show up and play.”

“There’s something to be said just about being consistent and loving. A lot of our teens lack that. Not because their parents don't love them, but there's just so much going on in their lives. Just a consistent adult presence really does break down barriers.”

Vagabond Missions has as its patron St. Isaac Jogues, a French Jesuit priest and martyr who evangelized Native American communities, even while he had no idea how to speak their language.

Vagabond’s missionaries feel sometimes like they’re at that kind of loss, Bob said.

“It was about as frontier evangelization as you can do,” Bob said. “And I feel like in some regards [Vagabond’s mission] is one of the last frontiers in our country, when it comes to evangelization.”

“It's really hard to earn trust and earn the right to be heard with an inner-city kid,” he said. “Sometimes they're not going to give you the time of day or come on the retreat or come to church. It might take them four or five or six years.”

“[There was one kid] who came around when we grilled hot dogs on the sidewalk every Wednesday. But it took him six years before he actually wanted to talk to us about deeper things.”

“There's a good number of teens and adults alike in the inner city who haven’t rejected God, but no one's ever really told them or showed them in a tangible way who Jesus is, who the Catholic Church is,” he continued.

“[And] there's this spark of hope, there's this resiliency, this joy that's maybe even a little more present,” he said. “You know, these are kids who come from very hard, very broken situations, but there's just this longing for love. There's just so much joy in the midst of suffering sometimes. And so I think there's a beauty, too.”

Participants in a youth event organized by Vagabond Missions. Courtesy photo.

‘They showed me true freedom’

Ari Logan was introduced to Vagabond as a high school freshman in Wichita, when a missionary approached her on the street, and invited her to come to a new youth center called The Underground.

Ari says she was struck by the young woman’s joy and excitement, but added that she had her guard up at first. She decided to visit The Underground after some of her friends started hanging out there.

The environment was relaxed, she said – games, pool tables, and pizza.

But when Ari asked the missionaries what they were trying to do, their answer was direct: “We work with inner city kids to break the cycle of hopelessness.”

“And I was like, ‘Oh yes, we need that,’” Ari recalled. “Even for myself, because I go through the same traumas, broken families, those wounds that are just there from a lot of things that happened within growing up in the inner city.”

Ari believes her introduction to Vagabond came at a providential time. She had been diagnosed with lupus in middle school, and was still dealing with the physical and emotional ramifications of the diagnosis.

“I just felt like the Lord was bringing me to something new and a new beginning in life. And just so much positivity and peace that I've been needing since being diagnosed with lupus and just feeling like I'm not worthy of love and all of those things.”

Vagabond was not Ari’s first exposure to religion. Her brother-in-law’s family ran a non-denominational church, which her sister had recruited Ari and her brother into attending.

“We were doing Sunday school, Bible studies, going to church on Sundays, doing prayer group, all of that,” she told The Pillar.

But she struggled a lot with what she saw as hypocrisy and controlling behavior among some of the church leaders.

As she started attending Catholic retreats and events through Vagabond, Ari began to see a change in herself. She was happier, more peaceful, and more respectful. Her mom, who did not regularly attend any religious services, noticed the changes too.

But while her mom was supportive of her, other members of the family told her she was a traitor for attending a Catholic program. She said she felt torn, like she was on a teeter-totter.

At one point, Ari got into an argument with her brother-in-law, who was trying to stop her from spending time with Catholics. He threatened to keep her nieces and nephews from seeing her. He said hurtful things, and she did too.

It was a dark moment for Ari. She wanted to just cut everyone out of her life – the Vagabond missionaries and her family.

“It made me want to give up in life after that,” she said.

Ari remembers sitting with a Vagabond missionary on her porch.

“She came down and she just started reminding me of who I was, and telling me that that [behavior] is not who I am. What I said to them that night was not me. And I think it was just that I was hurt in the moment so I felt like I needed to hurt people.”

“And she just reminded me of my worth, reminded me how much I am loved by them and how much God loves me.”

“I would just always remember that, because that just made me see how much I needed to be around them. And ever since then, I can't get away.”

In 2021, a year after graduating from high school, Arianna Logan entered the Catholic Church. She said she knew she was making the right decision.

“When I went to my old church, I just never knew my worth, and I had a lot of insecurities, and they [Vagabond] just made me see who I really am and who I'm meant to be. They showed me true freedom.”

“And I just want to keep growing in my love for God and striving to keep getting closer with Him, to know His words, to hear Him when He is speaking.”

Arianna said the Vagabond missionaries were always there for her in tough times, reminding her of her worth and offering authentic support without judgment. She said she’s grown spiritually and come to understand her identity as a woman in Christ.

After she became Catholic, Arianna became a Vagabond missionary.

She said she’s grateful to be able to reach out to teens who are in the same situation she was in just a few years ago.

“It’s just a blessing to sit on this side and really give back my life this year and just show teens that they are worthy and loved and enough, and they are needed,” she said.

“To just be that living testimony to them that you are not your parents, you are not who people say you are, you are who you say you are meant to be and who God says you are meant to be. Your family doesn't define you, your situation in life doesn't define you. God created you for a beautiful reason.”

“It’s kind of crazy because I just never seen myself sitting in this position…Now that I'm sitting on this side of the table, I'm like, ‘Okay, dang the Holy Spirit is crazy how He works.’”

The Underground

Vagabond’s programming aims to reach kids who sometimes have almost no religious formation.

Like Vinzell, most teens get to know missionaries at The Underground, a Vagabond youth center.

Teens are usually fire invited for a “Breakout” night, which Andy described as “a lot of food, a lot of games, and then a short Gospel message, a 5-to-10-minute talk.”

“It's very heavily focused on the kerygma, the initial proclamation of the Gospel,” Andy explained.

“We'll do that with different themes or different ways throughout the semester, [but] it's very much focused on that initial proclamation for that night.”

The event is intended to reach kids who would not be interested in attending a church event, Andy explained.

“Usually Breakout is the first touch point for kids to come in,” he said.

Teens often come to Breakout sessions for a while – sometimes for months or even years – before they attend any other Vagabond programming.

But over time, if kids decide they want more involvement, they might start coming to Bible studies, called Worship Nights.

Andy explained that Worship Nights have a religious name, because Vagabond wants kids to know what they're getting into before they walk in the door.

Vagabond also offers one or two retreats a year, and a big summer camp week. Those are the experiences where major transformational moments often happen, Andy said.

There’s also “Jesus Class,” which is Vagabond’s version of RCIA, geared toward helping educate and form the teens in their program.

The idea is to build relationships slowly, to accompany teens as they grow at their own pace.

“We've had over 175 kids come into the Church,” Andy said. “There are points where I think we could have just tried to get more kids into that cycle…But we don't try to push. We want to invite kids when they're ready to make that decision, because it's not just about getting them into the door, it's about them wanting that, choosing that, being ready for that.”

Forming missionaries

Vagabond’s missionary staff come from a variety of different backgrounds. Some have several years of work experience, while others are fresh out of high school or college. Some have been raised in Catholic families, while others are converts or just newly beginning to take their faith as their own.

A handful of former teens who have come through the program are now missionaries themselves.

Shannon Loucks, who works in leadership formation for Vagabond, said there is no single formula for a successful missionary.

“At the heart of it, the core of a missionary is that you need to know and love Jesus, and to desire deeply for other people to also know and love him,” she told The Pillar.

“In addition to that, being an intentional disciple yourself. So journeying and studying, taking time to rest and recuperate, but to be invested in your own personal relationship with God, and knowing who he is and who you are in relationship to that,” she continued.

“For some missionaries that means healing journeys or additional studies - maybe they don't come from a background that's very theologically based, so they need some additional resources, that educational aspect.”

All new missionaries go through an intensive month-long training program, which offers both spiritual formation and practical training on evangelization and meeting youth.

Missionaries get to know one another and spend time in community, praying and reflecting together, as well as to gain a deeper understanding of the mission they will be participating in.

After the initial group training, missionaries have 6-8 weeks to fundraise – most missionaries reach out to a network of friends and family to cover many of their expenses during their time with Vagabond.

Participants in a youth event organized by Vagabond Missions. Courtesy photo.

Afted training, missionaries move to the cities where they have been assigned, for a week of on-site training with their new team.

The onsite training includes more community time for the team that will be serving the site together. It also has a more practical focus – letting the missionaries become acquainted with their neighborhoods, and learn safety skills, CPR, and first aid training.

Most mission sites have four or five missionaries – generally a team leader and a few male and female missionaries.

The missionaries live in community with each other, but men and women live separately. The dynamics vary based on the specific circumstances. Often, men live on one side of a rented duplex and women on the other. In cities with a few  missionary teams, there are several women’s and men’s homes, usually close together. In other cities, there is a one-bedroom house for a single male or female missionary.

Missionaries try to live as close as possible to the neighborhoods they serve. But Shannon said safety is also a consideration.

“While a lot of times, we might work with teens that are living in Section 8 project-type housing situations, we're not always placing our missionaries into those neighborhoods. They can still be nearby…there is a close proximity, which still helps, but we're also still able to be intentional with choosing where they're situated.”

“Sometimes they'll also live with other young people in the community,” Shannon added. “Maybe they'll be in a house with a couple other women or men in the area - maybe they're missionaries with a different organization or just young professionals.”

Safety is a primary concern for Vagabond, especially since missionaries often live in the neighborhoods where they serve, unfamiliar terrain for some.

“We teach our missionaries how to handle themselves in the city, so that…they can be more familiar with some of those warning signs,” Shannon said. “We've had some of our mission locations have to pause group gatherings or things like that, because they've noticed a lot of violence in their neighborhood, and we just don't want to be inviting that into our youth spaces.”

Area directors get familiar with their cities, Shannon added. They get to know local law enforcement, and they know their way around.

“When you're in the heart of the city and familiar with your city, you know the ‘good streets’ from the ‘bad streets,’ or you know the places where it might be a little bit more safe for someone who's technically not from there,” she said.

Vagabond implements safe environment practices adopted by the Church in the wake of the sex abuse scandals. Missionaries are cautioned against spending time with teens late at night without parental awareness and permission, Shannon said. That naturally cuts down on some risky situations.

Missionaries are also taught to pay attention to potentially dangerous situations – both for themselves, and for the teens they spend time with.

“For example, some of our teens this past spring in Pittsburgh have been attending what they call ‘Airbnb parties,’ which are parties at an overnight rental property…There are obviously a lot of issues with that, including violent issues when random people are showing up,” Shannon said.

“And so for our missionaries, they obviously knew, okay, if a teen is asking me to bring them to a location that I've never brought them to before, I'm going to double check that with your parents….If it's at a certain time, you know, like late evening, then no, absolutely not…This is not something I'm going to walk into and participate in, this might be unsafe.”

“And then they even caution our teens away from it, because they're not thinking it through. So just being like, ‘Hey, you know, I'm not going to do it, but this is why I'm not going to do it, to help your safety.’”

Bob added that he was surprised early on by the deep level of respect his missionaries seemed to garner in some communities. He said that was the fruit of solidarity – of consistent presence.

“They advocate for you because you're not just some weird group phoning it in, driving in from out of town. Our missionaries live where they live. Sometimes the missionaries live in the projects, shop at the same places. They only make a little bit of money. There's some shared life experience there that I think also helps with that part of it.”

While missionaries are initially asked to commit to a single year of service, more than 65% of them serve for at least two — and sometimes more. Many missionaries say their own lives are transformed by their work, Shannon said.

“We’ve experienced the life of the early apostles, and just as they were willing to keep going because it was so radically transformative, I think a lot of our missionaries experience that, and then are willing to keep at it, because they're just different. They're different because of it.”

'You listen ...you fast from speaking'

Andy told The Pillar he is cognizant of the fact that the majority of Vagabond’s missionaries are white, while most of the teens it serves are Black or Hispanic.

“We work hard to inculturate the Gospel as a missionary organization,” he said. “We worked with a few of our board members over the past few years, especially Fr. Josh Johnson around issues of race, inculturation and the Gospel.”

Johnson, a priest of Baton Rogue, is the author of “On Earth as it is in Heaven,” a book on race and discipleship, and is both a board member and Vagabond’s national chaplain.

New missionaries read Johnson’s book, and they take part in workshops about learning to listen to the people whom they are hoping to serve.

In fact, learning to listen is key, Johnson said.

Johnson told The Pillar that the organization’s patron, St. Isaac Jogues, and his companions, provide an example for missionaries to follow.

“When they came to America, before they even tried to plant the Gospel, they took time to get to know the culture of the indigenous people. They listened to them and they learned their customs,” he said. “Then they began to share Jesus.”

“This is what Maximilian Kolbe did when he went to Asia. He grew a beard, because in that culture, people who had beards were received as wise leaders. And so that's why he grew a beard. He learned that about the people.”

Vagabond missionaries are encouraged to take the same approach, Johnson said.

“You go out and you first learn about the particular people that you're ministering to. You listen to their stories, and you fast from speaking. And then after you spend a substantial amount of time with them, then you begin to share on a deeper level.”

Today, about 1 in 3 missionaries at Vagabond are Black or Hispanic.

“All our missionaries fundraise their salary, similarly to other missionary organizations, but to my knowledge we are the only Catholic organization that works to eliminate any extra hurdles to Black and Hispanic missionaries by assisting in that fundraising process,” Andy said.

“We typically match $5,000-10,000 of their fundraising with our Sha Smith Fund. This was named after our first Black missionary, who died of cancer a few years ago.”  

A rule of life

Vagabond says it tries to create a rule of life for the missionaries, to foster spiritual growth and development.

Missionaries have regular community prayer time, house dinners, and times for discussion, as well as daily Mass and either a full or half holy hour each day, which sometimes incorporates praise-and-worship or lectio divina.

The missionaries also receive ongoing formation through weekly educational sessions, headed by their team lead or area director.

“These [are] about hour-long sessions each week, where they can dive into a topic and really learn, but also share with each other what's going on in their heart as they're learning,” said Shannon, who is working to create a curriculum for the entire ministry to use.

The formation programs cover prayer and scripture, evangelization, and discernment. Some use a book study or video series, as well as Church documents.

Once a month, each missionary takes a personal retreat day called a “spiritual day.”

In addition to their regular daily Mass and adoration, missionaries use that day for confession and spiritual direction, and to find some way to spend time in God’s presence.  Some people visit a monastery or a new church, or even go on a hike.

Missionary teams also take quarterly a communal “desert day,” which includes a guided retreat.

Participants in a youth event organized by Vagabond Missions. Courtesy photo.

‘You just gotta show up’

Micah Spader, in his fourth year as a Vagabond missionary, said his time with the organization has helped him grow in humility and taught him powerful lessons about relying on God.

“There's no way I could do this mission,” he told The Pillar. “There's no way I could talk to this kid or even pray over this kid and have the right words to say. I can't do any of that.”

“I can't tell you how many times I've been broken and I want to give up and I'm in tears and on my hands and knees. And every time God comes through. And I think that's something where I realize, man, yeah, you can't do this alone.”

Micah was adopted from South Korea into a Catholic family in South Dakota. He grew up in the suburbs of Sioux Falls.

“I didn't have too much experience with the inner city when I was in high school,” he told The Pillar.

But then he moved to California, where he attended San Diego State University for about a year.

“I was a dance major. I was out in California trying to make it big as a dancer, dropped out of school, ended up working and hustling for about a year.”

Micah lived in a small apartment in an urban San Diego neighborhood. For a kid from South Dakota, that took some getting used to.

He would be followed home by homeless people. His next-door neighbors were drug dealers. Several times a week, he would be woken up by the family downstairs fighting so loudly that the police would arrive.

“And then in the middle of the summer, there was a shooting across the street, and there were two helicopters and a couple hundred cops,” he recalled.

“It was just a totally different world that I had never been accustomed to,” he said.

Still, Micah came to feel at home  in his neighborhood. And after falling away from faith and then returning, he wanted to serve God.

But he didn’t initially see himself as a missionary.

“I was really looking for something to do that was radical for God. Something radical for Christ, but I wasn't sure what. I was never the typical stereotype of missionary with the polo and khakis. I just didn't really vibe with that. I think those missionaries are great and needed, but for me, I was like, man, there's got to be something out there that's a little more my style…I'm a breakdancer. I do street dance, I'm into hip hop.”

When a friend encouraged him to attend a SEEK conference, Micah met Bob, who is also known in some Christian circles for his rap persona, Righteous B.

“He's just wearing a basic t-shirt, but he had tattoos all over him,” Micah remembered. “He had a beard, all these things that I was just like, what the heck is this guy doing at a Catholic conference?”

Micah talked to Bob, and was touched by the mission of Vagabond.

“I just felt a tug of my heart, that I was like, man, this is what it means to be radical for God,” he said. “I think I had such a heart for the people who feel hopeless. Because I've definitely felt that.”

Micah signed up to be a missionary and was sent to Greenville, North Carolina. He went through the Vagabond missionary training, but he remembers feeling like he was still ill-equipped for the work he was undertaking.

“I was like, ‘God, I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know how this is going to work,’” he said. “Heck we showed up in Greenville, we knew two kids. I was like, ‘I don't know what's going to happen, God, but all I know is that you need to be here. You've called me and my team here. And I'm going to run with that’.”

A few months later, the Greenville missionary team had 60 kids attending their events.

“It's not like we did anything special. I think doing this type of work with the Lord, especially inner-city ministry, is sometimes you just gotta show up. You may not know what you're doing. You may not be 100% that day. God's not asking for that. He's asking you to show up,” Micah said.

“And I think that’s pretty much what I've learned - whether it's a good day, whether it's a bad day, whether you're nervous, whether you're scared, the reality is God's asking me to show up each and every day, he's asking me to be on my hands and knees in front of him to minister to these kids, to bring him to this inner city. And that's all he's asking. And from there, trusting that he'll guide me and he'll guide the team.”

Showing up every day may sound simple, but in practice, it can be tough. It’s demanding and humbling, and it requires a radical trust in God that takes a daily effort, Micah said.

He said his work with Vagabond has challenged some of the romantic ideas of mission work that he started with.

“I really was surprised by how hard it actually is,” Micah said. “I knew it was going to be hard, but I think I was surprised by how hard it can be. Sometimes you question like, oh man, what am I doing? What am I doing here?”

And there’s a challenging spiritual aspect to the work as well, he said.

“To be honest, everything gets harder to a certain extent because when we step into this world and say, ‘Yes, I'm a missionary. I stand for the Church. I stand for Christ and I want to bring him to these inner-city teens,’ we put a target on our back in a spiritual sense. The devil doesn't want that,” he said.

“And it's not like we're going to the nice parts of the world. We're going to areas where the devil believes he has won. And for us to go in there, obviously there's going to be a lot of fight against that spiritually. So that's also a huge challenge.”

The idea of quitting crosses Micah’s mind more than he’d like to admit, especially when he thinks about his friends working 9-to-5 jobs with comfortable salaries and none of the stress that comes from worrying constantly about the wellbeing of the teens he’s come to love.

“But then I remember how much I love this ministry and how much it's needed. We have kids who have never heard of God or Jesus or the Bible, or we have kids who have written off the Church. We have all these things in a community where nobody is willing to invest, nobody's willing to really go the whole 101% and invest in these kids,” he said.

“And that's a sacrifice that God asked us to make and has asked me to make. And maybe there'll be a day where he asks me not to, but as of right now, he's telling me to stay and I'm staying.”

After working as a team lead missionary in North Carolina, Micah now serves as area director in Philadelphia.

Over the past few years, he says he’s been surprised by his own faith, and by seeing God at work.

“Some of the kids are from the roughest parts of anywhere, and to see God moving in their hearts little-by-little is just amazing for me,” he said.

“I had a kid who was in a gang, he was in New York. From nine years old, he's selling [drugs] in the street. I meet him in North Carolina. He was in another gang. And just through investing in him as a friend, just through praying with him, just going to church, hanging out with him, he decided to turn his life around and just like that, he made a complete 180 and he left the gang and he was trying to get out of the streets and find a good job.”

Micah said seeing the way that God can bring hope to what seems like a desperate situation has been transformative for him.

“The grace of God is so powerful. I know a lot of people say that. I think when I was a kid, I heard that all the time and I'd never truly believed it. But in these last three years I’ve realized it really is true.”

An ‘unbelievable season of growth’

Since its inception in 2006, Vagabond Missions has grown to 13 mission sites across eight cities.

“The last few years have had this just unbelievable season of growth and the Lord doing some pretty amazing things,” Andy said. “We've really quadrupled our mission in terms of staff, funding, what we're doing with teams, the kids that we're able to reach….we've really just tried to learn over the past few years what it looks like to expand.”

“Really what has happened is we've just had cities all over the country approach us,” Andy said. “It feels like every other week there's a call from another city, from another place.”

Sometimes the calls come from a diocesan office. Other times, they are from residents who want to reach underserved kids in their neighborhood.

Andy said the board makes a discernment process about expanding to new cities, then start raising money, and get permission for their work from the local bishop.

“We have, I feel like, a beautiful relationship with the Church where we're often serving alongside …local parishes, helping them do things that they can't do, or maybe don't have the resources or the capacity right now to do on their own,” he said.

Archbishop Thomas Rodi of Mobile, Alabama praised the Vagabond missionaries for showing inner-city teens that “they are capable and lovable.”

Although Vagabond Missions is not affiliated with the archdiocese, Rodi told The Pillar that he had some familiarity with the ministry’s work.

“They are dedicated to reaching out to at-risk young people, bringing them to the love of God, and helping young people realize their dignity and self-worth,” he said.

As Vagabond has expanded its footprint, organizers have worked to figure out how their model works in unique settings across the country.

“It's exciting. It's also a little overwhelming at times, but we just know if it's meant to be in a city, God usually opens the right doors for both funding… [and] having a local person in leadership who can both get and understand the city, but also understands and gets the vision of what we're doing. So someone who could really run with the vision, kind of help grow that in the local area there,” Andy said.

For his part, Johnson said he believes the Vagabond model is necessary because many urban  parishes have not adequately reached out to the young people living in their neighborhoods.

“As a pastor, I’m responsible not just for the people who show up to Mass on Sunday…I'm responsible for every single person, canonically, who lives within the geographical boundaries of our parish,” he said.

“And because so many of our pastors and so many of our parishes are not investing in the inner-city neighborhoods throughout their geographical boundaries, Vagabond missions is absolutely necessary. The missionaries are doing the work of investing in a relationship of walking with teens, of helping teens encounter Christ, of giving teens a safe place to go after school so they don't get caught up in gangs, so they don't get caught up in a lifestyle that is dangerous.”

Johnson said he hopes that “as Vagabond continues to grow, it will inspire and encourage parishes to collaborate with what Vagabond is doing, but then also to just do it on their own. To say, you know what, why aren't we investing in the inner-city neighborhoods throughout the geographical parish? By inviting those kids to Bible studies, by inviting those kids to adoration, by making sure those kids have a spot on our youth group retreats, by making sure those kids have access to our, our Catholic schools.”

For his part, Andy said Vagabond’s board believes they have found a model that is sustainable, replicable, and scalable in neighborhoods across the country.

“There are many needs in the inner city, and poverty looks different in every community, but at the heart of it is the same basic need that every human, every teen, has to be known and loved and experience hope and joy,” Andy said.

“At the end of the day, we're offering them this encounter with Christ, and we want them to be saints that are rooted in the life of the Church.”

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