Teens grow in faith and confidence at bilingual youth conference

Lindsay Steele
Catholic DJ Gabriel Eshel motivates youth conference participants at Bridge View Center in Ottumwa Aug. 12.

(Lea esta historia en español en la página 9.)

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

OTTUMWA — Bilingual teens from the Diocese of Davenport assembled in the Bridge View Center Aug. 11 for a weekend of fun, fellowship, prayer, music and witness talks.

“This event was prepared specifically for you, so enjoy it,” local event coordinator Ana De La Torre told the youths. “God was waiting for you. We have prepared great things for you.”


Nearly 50 Hispanic youths from Ottumwa, Columbus Junction, Iowa City and Oskaloosa participated in the two-day event, hosted by the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry. Cecilia Delgado and Anai Diaz of New Hampton, Iowa said they traveled three hours to the conference after hearing about it at school.

The conference began Friday evening with the Adrian Esparza Band leading the youths in praise and worship music against a background of inspirational images. The band and emcee Miguel Galan offered encouraging messages in English and Spanish to help the youths feel welcome. “They said they are happy we are here,” said Mariano Chavez, a high school senior from Ottumwa. That sentiment set the tone for Mariano’s weekend as he made new friends and engaged in the talks, activities and worship experiences.

Fr. Mallory

Father Dale Mallory offered a witness talk after sundown Friday. The parochial vicar of parishes in Ottumwa and Bloomfield said he went through times of doubt and anger in his teen years before answering the call to priesthood. In seminary, he fought feelings of inferiority and thought he needed to change his appearance and personality to fit the image of what he assumed a future priest should be. “I even shaved my head,” the curly-haired priest told The Catholic Messenger after the talk. In time, he learned that he didn’t need to “become someone else” to pursue his vocation. “God loves you as you are, but he can help you to become the best version of yourself,” Father Mallory said.

College student Mariana Lopez of Ottumwa found encouragement in the priest’s testimony. “No matter how many times he pushed God away, God was waiting for him.”

The evening ended with Catholic DJ Gabriel Eshel offering testimony and combining inspirational songs with danceable beats. “He got everyone on the floor and playing with balloons,” recalled Francisco Lopez, a freshman from Ottumwa.

Eshel, a 27-year-old from Guadalajara, Mexico, told the youths he struggled during his teen years but came to trust God after a profound experience at a retreat. He now uses his musical abilities to bring glory to God. “Give the Church a chance,” he said. “God will give you the happiness you’re looking for.”

Eshel took anonymous notes from the youths in which they shared their thoughts on God and the Church, something he does at every youth event to better respond to their needs and experiences. Eshel told event organizers that the youths in Ottumwa had overwhelmingly positive things to say about the Church. “Someone shared that this was a place they felt safe and happy, and that was very touching to him,” said De La Torre, co-director of religious education for St. Patrick and St. Mary of the Visitation parishes in Ottumwa and St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Bloomfield.

Lindsay Steele
Nataly Marquez and Viridiana Ortiz of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Ottumwa clap along to praise and worship music during the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry’s youth conference Aug. 12 at Bridge View Center in Ottumwa.

After a sleepover in the Bridge View Center, the youths ate breakfast and listened to praise and worship music. Chicago-based psychologist and professor Victor Alvarez spoke to the youths about social media, mental health and active listening skills. He asked the youths to encourage and lift up their peers. “You are the Church. You can strengthen the Church here in Iowa,” he said.

Archbishop-elect Thomas Zinkula presided at Mass with assistance from conference participants. During his homily, the archbishop-elect shared a story about his father and his uncle. The men farmed together but had their own storage bins. One had a large family, the other did not have children. Each brother secretly gave the other extra grain, assuming the other’s need was greater. “God calls us to sacrifice ourselves in love for others,” he told the congregation. Loving God involves accepting everything as a gift from God, expressing gratitude for these gifts, and generously sharing them with others.

Eshel concluded the day with heart-pounding beats, joining the youths as they pumped their fists and clapped their hands for Jesus.

Zulema Peinado, a recent high school graduate from Ottumwa, said she enjoyed hearing the speakers’ testimonies alongside other teenagers and making new friends. “Experiencing that together makes us more united, especially the people we go to Mass with.”

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