By Celine Klosterman
Between leading 45 overnight retreats for high school students and giving 90 to 100 talks a year, John Donahue-Grossman gets plenty of feedback on the issues teenagers are dealing with.
“What they talk about is finding a sense of belonging. ‘Am I lovable? Does life have any meaning?’” he said.
The storyteller and workshop presenter reminds teens that each person is a beloved son or daughter of God. “We’re all valuable because of our baptism. You don’t have to chase things outside you. Everyone is deserving of human dignity, including yourself.”
Donahue-Grossman will share that message during his time as keynote presenter for the Diocese of Davenport’s high school youth rally Oct. 21 in Coralville. In a talk on peace, justice and human dignity, he’ll challenge high school students to take responsibility for each other.
“If you want respect, you need to be willing to reach out to others.” Mother Teresa, when asked why she ministered to the poor every day, said, “When I look into their eyes, I see Jesus in a distressing disguise.” All Christians can learn to see Jesus in disguise, Donahue-Grossman said.
A former volunteer with a Catholic Worker community in Bloomington, Ill., he knows “everyone has a story. When we understand someone, we’re more likely to have compassion. When we have compassion, we’re more likely to act with justice” than to judge.
His passion for social justice and the Church helped lead him to a ministry of storytelling.
He felt called to help build the kingdom of God since age 10, when he pretended to celebrate Mass in his living room. Later, a friend who was attending a high school seminary influenced him to listen more closely to God’s voice.
Also inspirational was Donahue-Grossman’s mentor and first pastor, Father Kevin Farrell at St. Joseph Parish in Addison, Ill. Then, in college, the future speaker fell in love with the story of St. Francis of Assisi, an Italian who traded a life of worldly privilege for one of preaching and poverty.
Donahue-Grossman considered the priesthood as a young adult, but discerned it wasn’t his calling. He graduated with a degree in journalism and public relations from Illinois State University, but determined communications wasn’t the field for him, either.
“A campus minister at the Newman Center said, ‘I think you’re still called to ministry.’” So Donahue-Grossman took a position as a youth minister. He also volunteered in the community, which led to invitations to speak on poverty and homelessness. “It slowly grew over time. I thought, maybe I’m being called to this, so I started marketing myself.”
Since 1987 he has spoken at workshops, parish missions and schools to more than 1 million people. For several years, he worked full-time as a presenter and retreat leader. But today, he works full-time directing retreats at LaSalle Manor Retreat Center in Plano, Ill., and moonlights as a speaker — with engagements sometimes 10 days in a row.
The husband and father enjoys the ministry despite its challenges, such as knowing there’s more money to be made elsewhere. “It’s well worth it,” he said.
Youth rally details
“Made to Serve” is the theme of the Diocese of Davenport’s 2012 high school youth rally, which will take place Sunday, Oct. 21, at the Coralville Marriott. In addition to two keynote presentations by John Donahue-Grossman, the day will include breakout sessions, Mass with Bishop Martin Amos, presentation of youth ministry awards, a skit by the Diocesan Youth Ministry Committee music, lunch, games and fellowship.
To sign up, contact your parish’s youth leader as soon as possible. For more information, visit www.davenportyouth.org or the Diocese of Davenport Youth Ministry group on Facebook.