When Lauren Koath graduated from Franciscan University with a degree in theology and catechetics, she returned to Texas and became a parish youth minister. But God had different plans for her.
“I felt Him calling me to work with inner city teens,” she said. “I realized I had a heart for young people who didn’t know Jesus.”
After gaining experience working with underserved youth in Houston, Koath is now Vagabond Missions’ lead missionary in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The organization works to break the cycle of hopelessness in the inner city, connecting with kids exposed to drugs and violence and bringing them to Jesus.
They’ve had success in Garfield/Friendship, Sharpsburg, and Allentown/Mt. Oliver. Young people are attending church regularly for the first time in their lives. Eight teens are currently in the process of joining the Catholic Church through RCIA.
Sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! helped provide start-up grants for the ministry.
“We start by building relationships, showing that we care about them,” Koath said. “They have unstable home lives, living with one parent or another or with grandparents, bouncing between places every few days. They see violence on a regular basis and have never been part of a faith community.
“Their thinking is: Why dream any bigger? Nothing is going to change,” she said. “The rebuilding of a neighborhood begins with the resurrection of hearts, bringing back hope.”
Meeting teens on basketball courts, in parks and at school, missionaries mentor them and teach the faith, holding worship nights and Bible studies and hosting retreats and mission trips. When Allegheny County moved into the COVID green phase last summer, the missionaries held cookouts and met neighbors.
The light of hope is starting to grow.
“There’s one 13-year-old boy we’ve been working with,” Koath said. “He never used to really smile. Now he’s a different kid, with so much joy because he’s been told that he matters, he is worthy. It’s incredible to watch.”
“The word ‘incarnate’ means to put on flesh,” said Andy Lesnefsky, president of Vagabond Missions. “Each day our missionaries strive to do that by meeting inner city teens where they are at, and forming friendships with the ultimate goal of introducing them to Jesus.
“This is made possible by our generous mission partners whose donations make this Incarnation of the Gospel happen.”
Lesnefsky is making an end-of-the-year appeal for gifts that will be matched up to $300,000 to expand the ministry. You can learn more and donate at www.vagabondmissions.com.
“We are grateful for the continued support,” said Shannon Keating, Pittsburgh area director. “We have been able to reach more teens in different parts of the city because of the prayers and assistance from our local community and extending throughout the diocese.”
Pittsburgh is the national headquarters of Vagabond Missions, which also serves inner city youth in Steubenville, OH, Wichita, KS, and Greenville, NC.
Photos: Vagabond Missions