25 Years of Steubenville Summer Conferences

I vividly remember the summer of 1994, a summer that would change my life forever. I had just graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL (just north of Orlando) with a degree in theater, and was busy playing bars with my band and working at an improv comedy club. The band was really starting to take off (we had just won a “best of Florida band” contest and were getting airplay across the state) but many of my friends from the comedy club were moving to L.A. and I was tempted to try my luck in California. Florida or California? Music or acting? These were the things on my mind in the summer of ’94.

In the midst of it, I had accepted an invitation to speak at someplace called “Steubenville, Ohio”. I had met someone who worked there (Jim Beckman) a few months earlier when I was a volunteer helping a work camp that was run by my local parish in Winter Park (this was the first “Catholic Heart Work Camp”, and I was the first Carpenter Commando, for those of you who know what that is). Jim appreciated my gifts of comedy and music and thought I could “liven up” a conference that was, at the time, featuring guys in ties and short sleeves. It was the first summer they were going to have two conferences, with over three-thousand people at each one.

My first impression of Steubenville was, well, not impressive. Orlando is known as “the city beautiful”; Steubenville as “the city of murals”—which means they painted the sides of empty buildings to make the place look more vibrant. I hadn’t been to a “charismatic” conference before (back then it was full-blown praying in tongues, “resting” in the Spirit, etc.) and wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the first weekend and felt blessed, but didn’t think this was something I’d be doing a lot of in the future.

Since the conferences were on back-to-back weekends I spent the week in between at Steubenville. I was also there helping a group of students do skits and serve the conference, most of whom were local. I was really impressed by their faith and devotion.

So on Monday I was praying the rosary, asking for guidance on whether I should pursue music or acting, and thought I heard, “drop everything and move to Steubenville”. This was not one of the options I gave the Lord. I also wondered if I was imagining it, because Jim (youth minister in town) was moving out and they needed someone to take over.

On Tuesday, as I prayed the rosary again, I heard it louder, not so much a voice but a message deep into my heart: “drop everything and move to Steubenville.” Now I’m thinking, okay, this is weird. I figured I’d pray again on Wednesday and see if it faded.

On Wednesday, right after making the sign of the cross to begin the rosary, I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest: “DROP EVERYTHING AND MOVE TO STEUBENVILLE.” It was as clear as anything the Lord (with help from our Blessed Mother) spoke to me. So I called up the band and told them it was over, and called friends at the club and let them know I wouldn’t be coming back. After the conference was over, I travelled back to Orlando to get my stuff, had a couple “goodbye” parties, then drove north to move to the city of murals.

The funny thing was, I wasn’t sad to leave the band or the comedy club. I was so excited to hear the Lord speak to me so clearly, I was confident that whatever He had in plan for me was way better than anything I could plan for myself.

I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Theology at Franciscan, met my wife and got married there, got a great job in upstate NY doing youth ministry for a number of years, and in 2004 came back to teach. My family, my career, and really everything that I’m doing now in life all stems from that summer of ’94 when the Lord spoke to me and I said “yes”.

This July, I completed my 25th year of doing youth conferences. I’ve spent more of my life doing youth conferences than not, and every summer is an incredible blessing. I am particularly grateful for the fellowship that those conferences bring, especially as I dealt with (and still dealing with) the unexpected loss of my dad. To help me grieve, Jesus sent all of my best friends to Steubenville, Ohio to pray over me and support me.

At the end of every summer, when I put down my guitar for the last time, I thank Jesus for the blessing these conferences have been in my life, and say a prayer that I might get to do it again, should it be His will. It has been for the past 25 years. I can’t wait to see what is in store for the future!