Diving Into the Murky Unknown

by Trapper S. Kinchen
Stein in Gonzales’ Jambalaya Park. Photo by Keli Hayden.

Stein in Gonzales’ Jambalaya Park. Photo by Keli Hayden.

Many millennials tend to be islands unto themselves. Our generation is one of the world’s most capable, but we are often self-restricting. Fear of failure sometimes drives us away from opportunity, and insecurity often forces us to repress our enthusiasm.

Each of us has experiences worth sharing, and we all possess the ability to positively influence our fellow man. You do not have to be perfect or highly skilled to make an impact. All you need is confidence.

Courtney Stein is a shy girl with a keen perspective, and she is a powerful example of how pushing past uncertainty and wading into something new can make a remarkable impression on other people’s lives.

She lives in the boggy lowlands of Ascension Parish on the edge of Gonzales. She is a writer, scholar and – from August to April – a volunteer catechism teacher at St. Theresa of Avila Catholic Church.

Twenty-five-year-old Stein works full-time as a receiving manager at a Baton Rouge bookstore. She has a keen interest in young adult and children’s literature, and has translated her obsession with reading into a passionate pursuit of learning.

She graduated valedictorian from East Ascension High in 2009, got an English degree from LSU in 2013, and received her MFA in creative writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts one year ago. Studious, hardworking and determined, she is an ideal student, and after years of practice has become a first-rate teacher.

Stein’s official role at St. Theresa is teacher’s aide. “I take the kids, one and one, and help them learn their prayers and process their catechism lessons,” she said.

For anyone unfamiliar with the concept of catechism, Stein explained it as, “a nine-month, in-church class held so kids can learn more about their faith before making the official decision to become a full member of the Catholic Church.”

Catechism provides young Catholics with information about the Church’s tenets, and educates them on how specific rituals function inside and outside of mass. Each church has its own parish school of religion (PSR) where classes are taught. Because it concerns spiritual development, catechism is never taken lightly.

 Stein holding her journal.

Stein holding her journal.

Nearly a decade ago, the director of the St. Theresa PSR asked Stein if she would be interested in helping. St. Theresa, like many churches, is always in need of volunteers, and the director felt Stein would be a good fit for working with the parish’s children. Nevertheless, the thought of teaching was intimidating, and Stein felt there were other people better qualified for the job.

“My immediate reaction was to say no. It scared me,” she said. Stein’s lack of self-assurance was overwhelming. She had only ever been a student, never a teacher. She thought, “Who am I to instruct kids? I don’t know enough. Honestly, who gives me the authority to be the voice of faith to these children? What if I say the wrong thing?”

She spent two days considering the consequences of accepting the position. Stein prayed about it, faced her anxieties head on and ultimately felt comfortable enough to say, “yes.” It has been six years since she first started volunteering, and it is something she has never regretted.

Teaching at the PSR requires serious sacrifices of Stein’s private life. It is a job that affords her no financial compensation, but takes up a great deal of personal time. Its only reward comes from the enjoyment of passing on wisdom to a fresh generation of Catholics.

Fortunately, that satisfaction is enough for Stein. Every August, she returns and starts working with a new group of kids. Her fear of teaching has vanished. “I now know teaching is just sharing knowledge with another person, and a big part of it is being open to other people’s experiences. We’re all capable of that,” Stein said.

Like a parent, Stein appreciates each student’s special point of view. “Every kid I teach brings a different life experience to the table. Their uniqueness causes them to process information differently and sometimes ask tough questions. I learn from them as much as they learn from me,” she said.

Stein in front of her church.

Stein in front of her church.

And that, Stein said, is why she is motivated to teach — so she can keep learning. The students force her to approach even basic material from new angles. No information can be taken for granted. “We’ve had kids come to our class who’ve asked, ‘who’s Jesus?’ or ‘what’s the Holy Spirit,’ and that’s hard to hear,” she explained. “As Christians, we occasionally forget about the people – especially children – out there who don’t know the fundamentals. Luckily, in catechism, they get the chance to learn about the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.”

All of her students – regardless of their familiarity with Christianity – are curious. When a child asks “why,” Stein always says, “Everything can and should be traced back to the Bible. If you have any questions about your faith, that’s where you need to start.” And Stein is frequently compelled to turn to the Word herself when students pose difficult questions.

Part of being an effective teacher is admitting when you do not know the answer. “You won’t always have the correct response, and you’ve got to be prepared to admit that. You also have to be ready to do everything you can to figure the right answer out. Not just for the kids, but for yourself,” Stein said.

Searching for the “right answer” is the driving force in Stein’s life. She is a member of a large Acadian family that practices centuries-old religious and cultural customs. Growing up, there was little separation between her spiritual and social upbringings.

However, the rituals and traditions in which Stein was raised come with a few limitations. Occasionally, her opinions shift from both the official doctrine of the Catholic Church and her family’s conventional worldview. But, she knows neither her faith nor her perspective is mutually exclusive. They each work together, in their own particular ways to make her a productive person.

For Stein, faith is not defined by stiff regulations. It is about embracing your imperfections and exercising the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Stein holding her rosary.

Stein holding her rosary.

Her practical approach to faith makes Stein an ideal candidate for ministering to children. She also brings a great deal of life experience to the classroom. As a teenager, she came up against some fairly steep psychological obstacles.

Ten years ago, Stein suffered a heavy emotional setback after ending a friendship. “I went through a very tough time my sophomore year of high school. I was deeply depressed. I had some really bad thoughts,” she explained.

Fortunately, she reached out to her family, friends and a therapist for support. Her healing also came, in part, through prayer. “I prayed a lot! Even when I didn’t want to – and to be honest, I mostly didn’t feel like praying – I did it anyway, and it helped,” she said.

Stein, like many of us, still has moments of doubt and self-condemnation, and she occasionally feels her closeness to the Lord “come and go.” But, she said, “It’s normal to question and feel insecure in your faith once in awhile. You just have to work through it – don’t settle – in order to strengthen your bond with God.”

No two of us are the same. Whether it is through teaching, creating or competing, each of us has something extraordinary to contribute to the greater good. Self-assurance does not always come easily. Sometimes we have to step out in faith before we can develop authentic personal strength.

Life is a bottomless and uncharted sea of opportunity. Waves of uncertainty often push us away from our potential and blur our point of view. Like Stein, we must take a deep breath, wrap ourselves in confidence and dive into the murky tide of the unknown. The ripples we create have the potential to impact someone else’s life in a big way.

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