Youth pastor bridges gap between youth and religion

It’s a chilly Friday night, but warmth abounds within the four walls of a downtown Montreal Church. Refreshments and remnants of a chocolate cake brought in to celebrate a teenager’s birthday sit on a nearby table. Two boys burst out in laughter when a voice shouts, “okay guys, everyone come in the middle.”
Boys and girls start moving chairs to create a circle. The game period is on.
The voice is that of Philip Penalosa. With his purple-chequered shirt, black squared frames, dark-washed skinny jeans, Penalosa looks more like he has been ripped out from an urban style magazine than a Christian youth one. But, the 22-year-old is more than proud to assert himself as a Born-Again Christian youth leader.
For almost a year now, Penalosa has been interning at the downtown church. Every Friday night, along with other leaders, he devotes his time to the CENTER, an acronym for Christ Empowering Normal Teens to Evangelise and Reach Out.
Every Friday at 7:30 p.m., teenagers aged between 12 and 17 meet to play games, discuss the Bible, and share stories.
Penalosa believes his young age makes it easier for teenagers to approach and confide in him.
“I’m still not married, and I’m still a student. I’m not that far off from them,” said Penalosa, a theology major at Concordia.
Growing up in a close-knit Filipino Christian family, Penalosa, who felt he did not have a mentor he could relate to as an adolescent, started to question his faith.
“I didn’t really understand it as a kid, and that’s why I rebelled, and did a bunch of stupid things,” he explained.
He started to indulge in marijuana and binge drinking.
“At first, it’s a social thing, but then you drink to start forgetting your problems and getting wasted by yourself,” he added with a touch of regret.
Penalosa says his family witnessed the changes in his character, but they all refrained from saying something, except for his brother.
“When he told me ‘we don’t even know who you are anymore,’ it sparked something in me,” said Penalosa.
At the age of 19, Penalosa was contemplating telling his parents that he wanted nothing to do with their Church and faith. But after attending a ministerial conference at the SaddleBack Church in California, his life took a turn. The message delivered by pastor Rick Warren ignited something in him.
He says Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, changed his perspective on life and restored his dormant faith.
“It all started to fall into place,” he said. “It (the book) also inspired me to really pray, and to really talk to God.”
He stopped drinking and engaging in activities he believed were not serving God’s will, and sought to better understand the “backing and background of his faith.”
Upon deciding to become a pastor last semester, Penalosa decided to focus solely on theology, having entered Concordia as a film and theology student.
After going through troubled years, Penalosa understands what kind of issues Christian children and teenagers often face. He believes the hyper-sexualized culture teenagers evolve in does not have a very positive influence in their lives, which is why he decided to dedicate his life to supporting Christian youth, and strengthening their faith.
“We live in a pretty crappy society,” said Penalosa. “There are so many hard challenges that you have to face as a teen these days.”
At age 14, Grace McAuley knows these challenges well. She finds that Fridays at the CENTER act as reminders of what she should really be doing in her life.
“I set a goal for myself of no swearing,” said the young girl, motivated by Penalosa’s teachings.
The youth pastor has also inspired 14-year-old Patrick Murphy. The teenager has been attending the CENTER since grade five because it helps him when he has hard weeks.
“Phil has really influenced me to live for Christ,” explained Murphy. “Just to know that God is always with me is really comforting.”
And for that, Patrick is thankful to have Phil as a leader.
But for Penalosa, the time he spends at the CENTER is not a sacrifice.
“This is time I need to give,” he said. “You know what, never in my life have I felt this happy.”

Related Posts

Read more
This past academic year at The Concordian has been one for the books. Between onboarding a mostly-new staff…