It’s 30 years this month since faith based youth group Search held its first weekend retreat in Scoil Mhuire Buncrana, helped by volunteers who had travelled all the way from Chicago to share their experiences in youth work. The visitors had come at the invitation of Creggan man Martin McLaughlin who wanted to solidify the work he had already been doing in the community centre on Fanad Drive.
After looking for a way for young people to experience the re-awakening of faith he had received through a Cursillo course, Martin settled on the Search format and the rest as they say is history.
Three decades on, the group still meets in the AOH hall every Sunday night and is respected for its youth work across the city and beyond. As the Search message continues to spread, the group hopes to expand its summer schemes and workshops with the help of the diocese and make faith based community work an integral part of church life. At the beginning of July Search ran its annual summer scheme at St Joseph’s Parish Hall in Galliagh and will run another in August in Creggan. As Martin McLaughlin explains the group hopes to expand a community based faith through all ages groups while bringing the fun back into prayer.
“What I envision is a ‘faith journey’ where we are working within the community at every stage in life,” said Martin. I was 31 when I did a Cursillo course and when I had finished I wondered why I had to wait that length of time to find that kind of relationship with God. Our vision is that we should start with the summer schemes for primary school aged children, then move on to the Star programme for 10 to 13 year olds, the Cor programme for ages 13 to 15, Search for ages 15 to 18 and then onto something like Youth 2000 and Cursillo.
“Anyone who witnessed our summer schemes would say that the children had fun first of all. Our ethos is based on that of the great Saint Don Bosco who believed that prayer and faith should be fun. The children played and had a good time at the summer scheme and then there was prayer attached to that. They might have gone home and said to their parents that it’s ok to say a wee prayer or to sing a song about God. But our primary aim isn’t to fill heads with religion it’s to bring self-esteem to young people.
“We believe that young people who experience a power greater than themselves have a better chance in life than those who don’t. We don’t want to force religion on them, we want to bring it through fun. Our mission is to help the church develop these types of youth programmes.”
Martin believes that the Catholic Church needs to take note of organisations like Cornerstone and the work that they do in the city.
“I’m a Catholic born and bred and I love my faith,” said Martin. “My concern is that we are wide open to being penetrated by other sources. There was a time when I would have criticised groups like Cornerstone but what they are doing is bringing joy and fun into the lives of young people. I would prefer that a young person went there rather than turning to drink or drugs which is the sad reality of what often happens. We have just had a meeting with Bishop McKeown and felt that he was open to what we were saying. We told him that the church wasn’t doing enough work with our young people and discussed the idea of a faith journey.
“Some of the young people who came on board with Search in the very early days are still at the forefront of the group. But just as important as having social workers and teachers on board is having people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Oonagh McAllister for example has been with us for 23 years. She has two degrees and many of our volunteers are similarly well qualified but the person who works at Marks and Spencers is as good if not better for our organisation because the best ability someone can bring to us is just to be available.
“We found that in the early days in Creggan. Our meetings became popular because we were just available and giving our time to listen to the young people. As the meetings grew I wrote to a couple in Chicago called the Bewleys about a programme they had called Search for Christ and that’s how Search really came into being. But I have to mention the help we have had from people like Johnny McCallion, George McCann, George McDaid and of course from my wife Eileen. What we really need to do now is to open our eyes to other attractions for young people so that they don’t make the easy choices. The easy choice is a six-pack of beer. We need to be listening and offering another way.”