In the past few months, I learned that middle-school students know what is going on in the world and are deeply affected by it. I learned that they understand the power of prayer, especially in interceding for others. I learned that they turn to God when they are scared. I learned that they love their families intensely. How did I learn this? I learned it during our weekly Zoom calls, during which I offered them hope, gave them the opportunity share their concerns, and directed them toward God.
When the pandemic hit and our program was cancelled for the remainder of the year, we wanted to check in with our older students. They were filled with just as much anxiety as the rest of us, and while we couldn’t provide professional counseling or answer all their questions, we could at least show them that we were praying for them and that God is always with them. I set up a weekly Zoom video conference call inviting all our sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students and two different catechists each week. The calls were 30–40 minutes long, and each one centered on a brief reflection from the Sunday Gospel. I usually challenge my students to be bold and active in their faith, but these reflections focused more on hope, comfort, and protection.
At an age when the approval of one’s peers is of utmost importance, middle schoolers are more comfortable participating in a video call if they feel anonymous. I did require students to use their first names and last initials to identify themselves so I could monitor the call, but they were not required to have their cameras on, and many did not. I wanted them to pay attention to the content rather than their appearance and that of others.
Zoom has a chat box feature in which one can send a message publicly to the group or privately to the host, which was incredibly important. Students would send me private messages in response to the questions I asked, and then I could read them aloud anonymously. They shared deep and inspiring thoughts that they never would admit to in front of their peers.
During each call, the catechists and I shared a consolation and desolation from the past week, a practice from Ignatian spirituality. Where did we experience the presence of God, and where was it harder to find God? We invited the young people to think of the best and worst things that happened that week to start to recognize God’s activity in their lives.
We ended each call by praying a litany. The short, simple responses encouraged easy participation. Then I asked the young people to share their own prayer intentions, and this is where it got deep. Intentions poured in my chat box faster than I could read them. Their prayers showed their concerns for others: the sick and dying, frontline and essential workers, isolated family members, those who lost jobs and income, and their own safety.
As we try to wrap our minds around possible models for faith formation in the fall without knowing the restrictions we might face at that time, I do know that I will continue to reach out and connect with my middle-school students in this way.