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Teen faces 'awesome' mission

The Snell Isle resident will begin a nine-monthmission trip "to see where I am with God."

Published July 5, 2006


Andrew Johnson is like most teenagers. He likes to hang out with friends and have a good time. In coming months, though, he'll take a path less traveled.

In August, the 19-year-old Snell Isle resident will leave St. Petersburg for a nine-month evangelization mission to Catholic youth around the United States. He'll also use the time to think and pray about becoming a Franciscan brother, a life-changing decision that would require giving up marriage, career and material possessions.

"It's definitely a time for discernment and to see where I am with God," he said.

Johnson's mother, who speaks of her son in glowing terms, was "a little bit surprised," when she learned he was thinking of joining a religious order.

"I have always thought that Andrew would end up finding someone he loved very much and fathering a family," Caryle Johnson said. "He loves children. He's playful. He's got a great sense of humor. It never occurred to me that he would forgo the pleasure of a family."

Her son, who will take a year off from St. Petersburg College, will be one of 90 young people - ages 18 to 30 - participating in the Minnesota-based National Evangelization Teams or NET Ministries program.

His life for the next few months will be relatively Spartan. He will be allowed one backpack, a suitcase, a sleeping bag and a pillow and will travel in a 14-passenger van. He will get a stipend of $100 a month and must raise $3,400 to help pay for expenses such as health insurance and gas. With several weeks to go, the YMCA lifeguard and security guard is still short $500.

Angela Pasyk, a spokeswoman for Net Ministries, described the application for the program as "fairly intimidating."

"The main thing is that you look for someone who is mature enough, who has a strong faith and someone who is good with people. Those are the three main characteristics," she said.

Those who know Johnson well describe those very qualities.

"He's just an amazing young man," said Keith Aeschbach, youth minister at St. Raphael's on Snell Isle, where Johnson is a parishioner.

"Andy is such a social young man, but he is so selfless and empathetic. He truly has such a giving heart," he said. "It's not a stretch for me to think that he would be thinking of a religious order."

His mother offers similar insight. "It surprises me all the time with how open and loving he is. There's a simplicity to him and the simplicity is that he loves God, and he trusts that God will lead him somewhere," said Caryle Johnson, a prosecutor for the State Attorney's Office. "He doesn't spend a lot of time wondering about the what if's. He just figures that God will take care of him and push him in the right direction, and he wants to be open to it."

Her son, who sprinkles his sentences with enthusiastic exclamations of "cool" and "awesome," says he spends a lot of time praying. Late Friday evening he pointed out the tiny chandelier-lit chapel where he sometimes prays. If the sprawling waterfront church is locked, he prays in the garden, often in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.

His right wrist is covered with bracelets testifying to his faith. One is a rosary he crafted out of string "to remind me to pray." Another is stamped with the words "Jesus Freak." Still another says "Souled Out." Usually, Johnson said, he prays for others, but he prays for himself, as well.

"I'd like to be a saint, so I ask God how I can better myself," he said.

But he admits it can be challenging to live his faith among his peers. "It's harder because when I mess up, they definitely point it out," he said.

"He's kind of a square peg in a round hole, if you judge him against most teenagers," his mother said. "He's always been more outward directed, trying to help people, very giving."

In December, Johnson will have a meeting with the Rev. Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

"I come back for a short time at Christmas, so we'll meet at that time to see where God has placed me," he said.

[Last modified July 5, 2006, 00:11:16]

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