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
"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
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."