CLEVELAND, Jan. 11 (RNS) -- Michele TePas was trying to talk about sexual abstinence in a middle school on Cleveland's East Side, and one boy kept disrupting the class by acting out the role of the experienced player above any need for sex education.

In exasperation, TePas asked where the nearest church was and went down 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 that would 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, and gradually, over the next few days, the adolescent began to soak in the realities of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. By the end of the week, the boy was one of only three in the class of 25 who continued in the abstinence education program.

"For me, my work is prayer," TePas said of the relationship between God and her job. "The whole time, your words, your strength. I couldn't stand here without you."

Ask 100 20- to 40-year-olds what they would ask God if they had the chance, and there are no requests for a new BMW or the chance to be a dot-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 and faith are intertwined. This generation in general does not live out its faith in church, but in factories, corporate offices and classrooms.

A lifetime of Catholic schools, honed by years with a spiritual adviser at the University of Notre Dame, has given TePas a deep faith that thrives on spiritual practices such as the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. The Bay Village woman prays incessantly, from saying the rosary on the way to work to reciting novenas at night before bed.

In that faith, she finds the strength to get up each morning and go to work talking about sex and drugs to inner-city teens, some of whom have endured rape and physical and sexual abuse. Like a celibate priest giving marriage counseling, she must enter a world outside her experience only with faith.

But she is still unsure about her future. Is God's calling to continue in this work, do something else or meet the right man and be a stay-at-home mother?

"My greatest fear is, am I making the right choices?" she said. "If I 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 Gen Xers about what some see as a materialist culture left them by the baby boomers.

William McKinney, president of the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., and author of "American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future," said many of the students coming to his school were people who had made their fortune in Silicon Valley and no longer 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 years protesting the establishment, and then ended up joining it with a vengeance, there is a growing attitude among many Gen Xers that the person with the most toys does not win in the end.

"Religion for me is personal," said Milosh Markovich, who attends St. Sava Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. "I'm here to perform certain deeds, and that's to be a good person and treat everybody equally and fairly. I'm trying to find my own definition of making my family happy and being a good person."

Growing up in a culture that has abandoned prayer in school or in city hall, and where fear of controversy leaves religion largely invisible in popular culture, they are cautious about discussing their faith at work.

But it is there.

It is there when Bill Murray, 41, who attends the young adult group at St. Ladislas Catholic Church, says he tries to show patience and understanding when training yet another group of people at work in computer programming that seems so simple to him.

And it is there when Dr. Vesna Kutlesic, a 32-year-old psychologist who also attends St. Sava's, feels God in the room with her when she deals with patients who have been physically or sexually abused.

"I rely on God to help me to know what to say, how to make their lives better," she said. "For those kinds of things you have to rely on something larger than yourself."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad