CLEVELAND, Jan. 11 (RNS) -- Michele TePas was trying to talk about sexualabstinence in a middle school on Cleveland's East Side, and one boy keptdisrupting the class by acting out the role of the experienced playerabove any need for sex education.
In exasperation, TePas asked where the nearest church was and wentdown the block to pray during lunch. As a 25-year-old suburban Catholic,TePas knew it was not going to be her background or experience thatwould allow her to reach the boy. She knelt before a statue of the Holy Family and prayed, "Lord, he's beyond me. Get him, will you?"
TePas said she returned to the classroom full of passion, andgradually, over the next few days, the adolescent began to soak in therealities of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. By the end ofthe week, the boy was one of only three in the class of 25 whocontinued in the abstinence education program.
"For me, my work is prayer," TePas said of the relationship betweenGod and her job. "The whole time, your words, your strength. I couldn'tstand here without you."
Ask 100 20- to 40-year-olds what they would ask God if they had thechance, and there are no requests for a new BMW or the chance to be adot-com millionaire. Instead, whether they are Orthodox Jews, black Muslims, rural Protestants or suburban Catholics, many of their greatest fears have to do with choosing the wrong paths in life.
Their work is an important part of their lives, and their lives andfaith are intertwined. This generation in general does not live out itsfaith in church, but in factories, corporate offices and classrooms.
A lifetime of Catholic schools, honed by years with a spiritualadviser at the University of Notre Dame, has given TePas a deep faiththat thrives on spiritual practices such as the adoration of the BlessedSacrament. The Bay Village woman prays incessantly, from saying the rosary onthe way to work to reciting novenas at night before bed.
In that faith, she finds the strength to get up each morning and goto work talking about sex and drugs to inner-city teens, some of whomhave endured rape and physical and sexual abuse. Like a celibate priestgiving marriage counseling, she must enter a world outside herexperience only with faith.
But she is still unsure about her future. Is God's calling tocontinue in this work, do something else or meet the right man and be astay-at-home mother?
"My greatest fear is, am I making the right choices?" she said. "IfI die right now, have I done what God wants me to do?"
In music such as Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," movies such as"Heathers" and "Reality Bites" and books such as Brett Easton Ellis'"American Psycho," there is a wariness and sense of alienation among GenXers about what some see as a materialist culture left them by the babyboomers.
William McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion inBerkeley, Calif., and author of "American Mainline Religion: ItsChanging Shape and Future," said many of the students coming to hisschool were people who had made their fortune in Silicon Valley and nolonger wanted to put off their spiritual journey.
"Now," they say, "I can devote myself to my love for God."
If some in the baby boom generation spent their younger yearsprotesting the establishment, and then ended up joining it with avengeance, there is a growing attitude among many Gen Xers that theperson with the most toys does not win in the end.
"Religion for me is personal," said Milosh Markovich, who attendsSt. Sava Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. "I'm here to perform certaindeeds, and that's to be a good person and treat everybody equally andfairly. I'm trying to find my own definition of making my family happy andbeing a good person."
Growing up in a culture that has abandoned prayer in school or incity hall, and where fear of controversy leaves religion largelyinvisible in popular culture, they are cautious about discussing theirfaith at work.
But it is there.
It is there when Bill Murray, 41, who attends the young adult groupat St. Ladislas Catholic Church, says he tries to show patience andunderstanding when training yet another group of people at work incomputer programming that seems so simple to him.
And it is there when Dr. Vesna Kutlesic, a 32-year-old psychologistwho also attends St. Sava's, feels God in the room with her when shedeals with patients who have been physically or sexually abused.
"I rely on God to help me to know what to say, how to make theirlives better," she said. "For those kinds of things you have to rely onsomething larger than yourself."