The Gospel challenge of embracing diversity

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Stephanie Schissel, left, performed an outdoor concert with her sister, singer/songwriter Aly Aleigha, at their parents’ home in Rice Lake in early July. This concert raised awareness for Vagabond Missions. (Catholic Herald photo by Jenny Snarski)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald staff

Ask Christians if they are against sin, and the expected answer would be “Yes, of course.”

However, ask if their lives always reflect that position, and likely they would have to admit some incoherence between belief and action – even acknowledge room for improvement.

That was an example given by Andy Lesnefsky of Vagabond Missions to parallel some of Catholics’ needed conversation and self-reflection regarding the reality of racism.

Lesnefsky is president of the organization whose mission is to break the cycle of hopelessness for inner city teens. Vagabond has 42 staff serving in eight missions spread over neighborhoods in four cities – Wichita, Kansas; Pittsburgh; Steubenville, Ohio; and Greenville, North Carolina.
As a Catholic mission, Vagabond looks at racism as a Gospel issue, and “the Gospel challenges us,” he said.

He also stated the term “racism” has been vilified and narrowed to hard lines of “racist” or “anti-racist” without being real about the human realities crossing the spectrum. Lesnefsky noted especially in the universal Catholic Church, diversity is a reality, as is the unity of faith and dignity of all as made in God’s image and love.

Vagabond Missions was founded by Andy’s brother, Bob Lesnefsky. The brothers grew up in a diverse family in Philadelphia; of their eight siblings, six are adopted – one is Peruvian and five are black. After 15 years working as a youth minister in Pittsburgh and serving on the board of Vagabond, he felt called to work more directly with their mission.

“Oftentimes, the people who need mission and ministry the most aren’t getting it,” he said, acknowledging the Catholic Church, over the last 100-plus years, has done “a great job of helping people with stuff, but not always giving them Jesus.”

“We exist to serve that need,” Lesnefsky added, “To help kids experience Jesus in the inner city.”

Each mission includes a youth center and self-supported missionaries who serve teens in the area through afterschool programs, weekly youth group and worship events and a lot of “incarnational presence.”

In additional to small group gatherings, each mission team offers discipleship groups for teens wanting to learn more about God, the Scriptures and the Catholic Church.

Since the organization started 14 years ago, of the more than 3,000 youth Vagabond has worked with, 130 have come into the Catholic Church.

Rice Lake native Stephanie Schissel served with Vagabond Missions in Steubenville during the 2019-2020 academic year and will be moving to Greenville to continue working as a missionary with teens starting in July.

“We are always seeking new ways to connect with new teens, always striving to help each person know they are wanted, known and loved,” Schissel shared.

The 2019 Franciscan University of Steubenville graduate said the past year has really opened her eyes and heart to the many teens “longing for connection and support.” She said her favorite part about being a Vagabond missionary is “the opportunity to see the raw side of the teens we serve and to be able to reciprocate that transparency and bring Christ into those moments.”

Lesnefsky described their missionary work as always motivated to share the Gospel with teens, but said it often starts at a “pre-evangelization” stage.

“We believe when kids tangibly experience Jesus in the inner city, their lives are changed forever,” he said, referencing again the organization’s concept of incarnational ministry.

“It imitates what Jesus did,” Lesnefsky explained. “He showed up where the people were. We do that in relationship. We do that on the basketball courts, we do that showing up week after week after week after week.”

Most of the teens come from unchurched families and grow up immersed in cycles of violence, neglect and broken family life. The organization has found the time of high school provides the ideal opportunity for an intervention point to help break these cycles and get kids on a different trajectory through the love of a community and a personal encounter with Jesus.

Lesnefsky noted Jesus was willing to jump into people’s messes.

Even though most of Vagabond’s missionaries are white, Lesnefsky affirmed, “Any difference is always overcome by love, especially if you’re coming motivated by the Gospel.”

He added simply getting to know and understand someone else’s experience is important and impactful.

In Schissel’s words, “The Lord created his children with care down to every unique detail, and it is our role to marvel at those intricate details that make each person a reflection of God’s own image instead of fearing them and letting the differences fuel disharmony.

“Our vision is to break the cycle of hopelessness in the inner city. This hopelessness is a result of experiencing neglect, absent parents, and an overall lack of a love and nurturing support and can be manifested in undesired behaviors.

“These teens grow up without anyone really in their corner, rooting for them and calling them to be the best they can be. But as a missionary for Vagabond Missions, I live every day to love the teens and give them the support they need to thrive.”

Schissel shared that as a white person growing up in a predominantly white, Christian community, she didn’t understand how racism could still be around. However, her time working with teens in a community of color has given her the opportunity to see into their struggles and to experience some of the uncomfortable and unwelcome turning of heads.

She said instead of letting that bring annoyance, “Many of our teens go out of their way to say hello and ask the staring people how they are doing.”

The young adult missionary echoes Lesnefsky’s call for openness and engagement.

“I personally think (the) way we can begin to remedy the brokenness of racism and injustice,” Schissel said, “is through conversation and connection. We need to be willing to be stretched beyond ourselves and truly learn how to give ourselves to others, especially if they look, think or live differently … We need to immerse ourselves in the lives of others in order to truly know who they are.”

Both Schissel and Lesnefsky recognize the reality of the inner cities cannot be compared with other regions and demographics, and they know not everyone will be called to serve with their organization.

Nonetheless, even without a direct sphere of influence, persons and especially Catholic believers who want to can be part of important discussions and solutions surrounding racism, they said. Everyone can reach out to people who are different in their own communities, whether skin color is or isn’t one of those differences. Everyone can support organizations that align with Gospel values and the church’s social teaching.

Similarly, everyone can be Jesus incarnate to another person, even when they cannot fully understand another’s struggles. Lesnefsky believes doing nothing out of the fear of doing the wrong thing is a temptation Christians need to avoid and one that black communities cannot afford.

“The Gospel always compels us outward,” Lesnefsky said, describing the disposition of willingness to “show up … to listen and learn.”

One practical point he made was being attentive to having statues and images in Catholic churches that are welcoming to people of all cultural backgrounds and colors of skin – something that is not hard to do, as the list of Catholic saints includes wide diversity – men, women, married, single, priest and both male and female religious; white, black, Asian, Hispanic, Native American; young and old, cradle Catholics and converts.

Schissel is grateful for her opportunities to put an appreciation for diversity into practice.

She explained, “I care for the whole person: body and soul, and I love them and seek to serve each person I encounter wholly. That takes conversation, understanding and exposure to something new and different. But in this past year, I have come to know some amazing teens that show me every day that God is complex and beautiful, because I see a new characteristic of his face reflected in every person I have the honor to meet.”

Vagabond missionaries rely on the generosity of others who want to join their mission spiritually and financially when they cannot contribute physically. Anyone wishing to support her in this mission is invited to visit https://vagabondmissions.kindful.com and select “Stephanie Schissel” in the dropdown menu.

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