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THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
When Children Find Their Faith
If teens and young adults choose deeper beliefs, their parents may be either disconcerted or encouraged by the changes in their family.
By Mark I. Pinsky | Sentinel Staff Writer
July 17, 2004
Luz Gonzalez and Raul Acetty had little religion in their lives, either in their native Puerto Rico or in their first four years in Orlando. But six months ago, when their two children were attracted to the Catholic faith, the couple did not object.
"I wanted to learn more about God," recalls daughter Lusmary, now 12. "It came from inside of me."
Gonzalez and Acetty accompanied Lusmary and teenage son Jonathan to Blessed Trinity Catholic Church in Orlando every week during the months leading to the children's baptism, first Communion and confirmation at the Easter Vigil in April.
After the kids' Saturday classes, the family worshipped together at the church's Spanish-language Mass. While Luz still attends services, Raul confesses that his interest has waned.
When the Prophet Isaiah writes, "a little child shall lead them," he is describing what Jews and Christians alike see as the idyllic age of the Messiah. Although we're a bit short of that era, some children, teens and young adults are choosing a deeper faith than their parents -- and in some cases influencing their families by their example.
Their elders may be gratified by this turn toward faith; or they may find it disconcerting.
Surveys suggest that only a minority of young people will choose a deeper religious commitment than their parents. Indeed, according to the National Study of Youth and Religion, conducted by the University of North Carolina, only 17 percent of teens say their faith is stronger than their parents' faith.
But these young people feel strongly that their faith shouldn't automatically be determined by their families, says Pearl Gaskins, author of I Believe In . . .: Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Young People Speak About Their Faith.
"Young people are searching for answers, trying to define their identity as individuals, beyond their family," Gaskins says. "It takes a lot of courage. It's difficult to choose a path where you're not supported by your parents."
The reasons for doing so vary, says Christian Smith, a sociologist at UNC who conducted the youth-religion survey. They range from youthful rebellion to a close relationship with a grandparent who serves as "their spiritual mentor," he says.
Sometimes the catalyst is a mission trip, a pilgrimage or some intense spiritual experience.
"A friend may have drawn them into a youth group," says Smith, or an experience at college may revive a dormant faith.
Family ambivalence is not unusual.
When Aaron Sweigart's parents separated, his Deltona family stopped going to church. It wasn't until years later that Sweigart's musical career brought him back.
His singing group, Sincere, performed several concerts at Deltona Lakes Baptist Church. Sweigart, 22, found the "kindness of everybody, the interest and love" of the congregation to be something he couldn't ignore. Soon he was attending services on Sunday mornings and leading them on Wednesday evenings.
At first, he recalls, his mother approved of his involvement, but as his faith deepened, there was a shift.
"It was two years ago that I got really devout in my faith," he says. "Some of my family changed a little bit. They thought I'd lost my mind."
The difference was largely theological. Other family members believe "there are other ways to God besides Jesus, and that really caused some problems between us."
His mother thought him "close-minded," Sweigart says, so he changed his approach.
"I prayed about the situation," he says, "and spoke to the pastor. I started trying to do anything possible that would be right in my mother's eyes."
Sweigart, who works at a restaurant, hopes to become a minister. In addition to modeling Christian behavior, he says, he learned "when to shut up" about his faith.
As a result, his mother supports him in his desire to enter the ministry, "but there are spiritual battles between other members of my family and me."
Marc Blatt of Orlando has had a smoother spiritual journey. His dramatic turn toward observant Judaism resulted from a trip to Israel three years ago, while he was a student at the University of North Florida.
"When I was in Israel, I prayed every morning and studied the Bible and practical Judaism," he recalls.
While he was growing up, Blatt, 24, enjoyed learning about his faith, he says, but didn't feel a deep commitment. He didn't observe the Sabbath, and his family didn't keep kosher by observing Jewish dietary laws.
The four-week trip to Israel changed all that, strengthening his historical identification with Judaism, as well as his religious commitment: "There is no difference," he says. "You can't have one without the other."
When he returned to college, he put his faith into practice. He started lighting Sabbath candles and keeping kosher. "It wasn't easy," he says. "It was hard to give up Mc- Donald's -- I grew up on Mc- Donald's."
After graduation, he returned to his parents' Orlando home. He began taking courses in Judaism and Hebrew at the University of Central Florida and teaching classes to youngsters at his synagogue, the Southwest Orlando Jewish Congregation.
"My mom was understanding," Blatt says. His father, he says diplomatically, "didn't disapprove."
Marvin Blatt, 56, says he is pleased with the change in his son.
"He's much, much more observant than we are," he says. "We do what we can. We're very proud of him. We couldn't be prouder."
Acknowledging their pride, Marc's parents made their own commitment.
"We sat as a family and decided to make the house kosher," says Marc, who will attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in the fall, in hopes of becoming a rabbi. "To me it was a big thing."
The effect of youth
Even young children can influence their families.
John Tipton, 46, credits his young daughters for his embrace of the Catholic faith.
"Watching them grow and become more interested in the church and their faith made me interested," says Tipton, who attended Presbyterian services as a child. When he married into a Catholic family, he attended church with them.
Tipton says his interest in Catholicism intensified last year, when his daughter, Hannah, now 9, began preparing for her first Communion. Inspired by her fervor, he enrolled in conversion classes.
Hannah "almost assumed a mentor role," he says. "She would light up" as she helped him with his studies.
And no one was prouder than Hannah when he was baptized in April at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park.