DEMARCO: The poverty of our anonymous youth

January 24, 2023

As Christians, poverty is something we are called to address. Most, however, do not realize that there are different forms of poverty aside from material poverty. And what is the great poverty that has stricken our young people of today?

I was standing at a busy intersection in downtown. The woman I was speaking with has been homeless for over 20 years. I asked her what she missed most, and she answered, “I miss hearing my real name. The name my mama called me when I was growing up. My friends out here on the streets, they only know me by my nickname.”

I am dumbfounded. This woman who has no home, no possessions, and no teeth, misses none of that; not a hot shower nor a warm bed, nor a roof over her head. No, what she misses is hearing her name. She misses being known by someone else. Deep down inside, we all desire meaningful and personal connection. God designed us that way.

Fast forward a few years, and I am sitting in a cafeteria at the local high school.

The teenager I’m speaking with says he doesn’t have any friends at his school. All of his friends are online. He has met them through video games and chat rooms. “They are my closest friends in the whole world. My only friends. But it’s kind of weird that they only know me by my screen name. They don’t even know my real name.”

It suddenly dawns on me that both the homeless woman and the high-schooler share the same kind of poverty.

It’s no secret that since the introduction of the internet, people have become more isolated and distanced from their communities.

Teenagers these days don’t go out to the mall or roller rink. Instead, they spend their Friday nights on their phones scrolling social media or at their computers gaming. They lack meaningful conversations and intimate relationships.

With the anonymity of the virtual world, no one ever has to get to know anyone. But we are created for community and God deeply desires to know us on a personal and intimate level (...He calls His own sheep by name. Jn. 10:3). This human longing for deep, meaningful relationships will never go away, and unlike other forms of poverty that are more physical, this one can go ignored for longer periods of time and thus worsen, leading to depression, isolation and despair.

To the adults: So how do you alleviate this social poverty amongst the youth? You start by putting yourself out there. You may not know a lot of young people, but surely you have a nephew or a neighbor who is young. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them and strike up a conversation.
Perhaps you have a niece at a family gathering who is sitting by herself (scrolling on her phone), or maybe you are at the grocery store, and the checkout clerk is a teenager. Ask them what their name is and how their week has been. Or ask about their shoes or jewelry. Show interest in them as Christ showed interest in others. Engage them and connect. Expect for these conversations to be awkward, and don’t let it deter you.

If we say we love Christ and would do anything for Him, then that must include enduring a bit of awkwardness and humiliation for His sake. Never underestimate what God can accomplish through you (even in the little things!).

To the teenagers: It’s time to challenge yourself. It’s time to connect with others in a personal way. This means being more intentional when you are with your friends.

Consider leaving your phone in the other room next time your friend comes over to hang out or log out of social media for one day. Or maybe challenge yourself by sitting with the loner kid at lunch or calling your grandma to ask about her day. Having more meaningful relationships in your life will require that you are more vulnerable with others. Do not be afraid. Christ was the perfect role model for this by constantly putting Himself out there when encountering others.

Addressing this poverty is important because in recognizing our need for each other, we recognize our need for Christ. It’s tempting to want to convince ourselves that we don’t need anybody and can do this all on our own.

But so much of life is out of our control, and we need the help and support of others; we need the help and support of God Himself. 

Breanne DeMarco was the youth minister of St. Bartholomew parish.

(Photo by Ravi Sharma/Unsplash)