WAKEFIELD — Every year, teams of young adults from around the country hit the road, armed with suitcases, sleeping bags, and hearts burning for Christ. Each team leads retreats six days a week, and when not on retreat, they share their faith whenever and wherever possible.
After nine months traveling around the United States in a van, including a recent visit to Rhode Island, these young people are tired from their travels, but spiritually energized.
When NET (National Evangelization Team) began in 1981, Mark Berchem, NET founder and executive director had no idea that it would grow to 10 teams in the United States and be replicated in Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Uganda.
“We were just trying to share with young people the tremendous difference it makes in one's life to know, love and serve Christ,” he said.
According to NET Ministries, in an average nine-month season, each NET team, composed of young adults ages 18-28, will travel 20,000 miles, serve 7 to 8 dioceses, facilitate close to 150 retreats, stay in 125 host homes, and reach 8,500 young people with the Gospel.
Many team members develop lifelong habits of prayer, frequent reception of the sacraments, and ongoing service in the church, Berchem explained. Most describe serving with NET as the best and hardest year of their life.
“What makes NET successful is the combination of relying on the power of the Holy Spirit, having team members who are willing to serve generously, and holding up to them the high calling of following Christ,” he explained. “Teaching the retreat skills is easy. Living a radical Christian life is difficult, but attractive to young people.”
With a busy ministry schedule, the NET van is home sweet home.
“Put any group of people into a van for a year and you will see many challenges and potentially great growth,” Berchem said. “Different personalities rub the rough edges off of one another. You have to learn how to respect, forgive, honor and serve one another or it will be a long year.”
Joseph Moreno, 27, of California, said that traveling in the van was the best investment and time of fellowship for his team.
“You get to know each other really quickly when you drive in a van together,” he said.
After an 8-hour drive from Virginia, Moreno and his fellow teammates reached the Diocese of Providence to offer a retreat at St. Francis of Assisi Church, Wakefield, and live with local host families for a week.
“We had our No Obligation Day while in Rhode Island and needless to say, being so close to the beach made our Californians very excited,” the team explained.
The Castro family of Narragansett hosted three of the NET girls this year, their second time hosting a NET team.
“It is an awesome experience to meet new people, invite them to be part of our family life and show them around South County including visits to Iggys and Brickleys,” said Diane Castro. “The fondest memories of hosting Netters are enjoying home cooked meals with them and the evening jam sessions with the host families and NET team. We look forward to hosting more teams in the future.”
The Craig family from St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Wakefield, said that it felt like the young missionaries were a part of the family.
“It was an enjoyable and fulfilling experience meeting a group of faith-filled young people,” said Tina Craig. “It is extraordinary that after seven months traveling in a van and sleeping on floors, they are so cheerful and never complain.”
Dan Mahoney, 24, knows first hand how powerful the experience of NET is and he was happy to share what he learned with his parish. Mahoney first learned of NET in the third grade when his parents hosted a team at a U.S. naval base in Germany. Mahoney served as a team leader for NET from 2007-2008.
“I absolutely loved NET,” he said. “It was nice to truly be a missionary. You give up the comforts that you get used to and when you just have a backpack, sleeping bag and suitcase you learn what you truly need. You get a lot closer to God and rely on him and your teammates in hard times. My prayer life changed 1,000 percent.”
Returning home from NET was difficult, Mahoney explained, remembering the challenge of adjusting back into everyday life.
“You go from such a group of positive people where everybody is striving for that same goal of growing holier,” he shared. “To come back into the world where that’s not always what’s going on was hard. I have to make sure I set that prayer time for me. Even that means waking up 45 minutes early. It has to be a priority.”
Dan’s mother, Carol Mahoney said that NET challenged her son to be a leader in his faith.
“Some people join the military, some go to NET,” she said. “In some ways, it’s the same-you get up at 5 a.m. and off you go. We were excited when he said he wanted to do NET. It was the greatest thing in the world for him.”
Teammates learn what it means to truly love and to truly be loved. And most often, it is not the ministry skills that the young people notice on a NET retreat, but the love that the team members have for one another. According to NET, about 15 percent of NET team members seriously discern a religious vocation after serving.
“Over 50 NET alumni have been ordained as priests, over 30 are living as religious sisters, and dozens are currently in the seminary or religious formation,” said Berchem. “Of course, the vast majority pursues the vocation of marriage and enters into strong Catholic marriages where many would say, ‘I learned to love on NET.’”