Youth minister Jacob Coffman goes the extra mile
By Katy Beedle Rice
Jacob Coffman, youth minister for the Diocese of Juneau is tired. Last week he returned from the trip of a lifetime where he shared Mass with 3 million Catholics and stood 15 feet away from Pope Francis. Since coming home from World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro he’s spent his time helping out with Vacation Bible School at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, revving local teens up for a September diocesan-wide retreat (the first in over 5 years), moving to a new apartment, and trying to recover from jet lag.
Talking with Jacob about his past 10 months though, one realizes this is just par for the course. On September 14th, Jacob left his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina to drive 3000 miles and then take a 3 ½ day ferry ride to finally arrive in Juneau, Alaska, his new home, just in time for the annual Diocesan Full-Time Ministers meeting. Jacob recalls, “I drove off the ferry and then two hours later I got on a plane and went to Wrangell.”
Jacob found out about the job opening in Juneau while browsing on the website catholicjobs.com. Jacob recalls, “I sent my resume in and the bishop called me two days later. At first I had thought, ‘there’s no way I’m going to get a job in Alaska.’ But then when the bishop called me about it, I thought ‘This is real!’”
Along with being a resource for the Juneau Diocese, Jacob also coordinates the youth group for teens in Juneau from both St. Paul the Apostle and the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary parishes. After returning from the Wrangell meeting, Jacob got to work reviving the Life Teen Ministry in Juneau, coordinating fundraising events for World Youth Day Rio, and planning a road-trip to the Alaska Catholic Youth Conference (ACYC) in Anchorage.
Jacob’s roots in youth ministry go back to his own high school experience when he acted as a peer minister at retreats. He reflects, “None of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the director of youth ministries in my diocese, Jerry White. He kind of turned everything around. He provided me with an opportunity to step up in my faith and help minister to others.” Another figure who still mentors Jacob in ministry is his former high school youth minister. A high point of the World Youth Day experience came when Jacob realized that the pilgrims from Juneau were on the same flight back to the United States from Rio with his South Carolina youth group: “I was able to introduce [my youth minister] to the three teens who went from the Juneau Diocese and to my pastor.” Jacob counts on his former youth minister for support and ideas: “I’ll call him and ask him about retreats and how he does them and stuff like that.”
For the World Youth Day experience, the number of participants from Southeast might have been small, but Jacob knows the impact was anything but. “These are memories they are really going to cherish. They dove all in.” As for himself Jacob reflects, “For me especially what I really found moving, was the moment during Adoration when they took 5 to 10 minutes of silence. You had 3 million people on the beach and not a sound was going on. We were 50 feet from the water and you could hear the waves crashing against the beach. It was just completely silent and you knew that 3 million people recognized that that was the true presence of God right there in front of us.”
For the past ten months, much of Jacob’s time has been spent making sure that young people from Southeast Alaska had the experience of traveling to World Youth Day and ACYC—even going so far as to shave his head and beard in a fundraising event. “I’m willing to do whatever I can to get teens to a retreat,” Jacob says, though he admits that next time, “the beard stays.”
For the ACYC trip, Jacob led a group of ten teens and a few adult chaperones on an epic road trip from Haines, through Canada to Anchorage. The drive took two days with the group stopping in Tok for a night. Jacob said with the 4 hour ferry ride and 16 hours of driving, the group easily won the honor of longest travel time to get to ACYC. When Bishop Burns met them at the conference he told the teens, “You took a pilgrimage.” Jacob added, “My kids keep asking me if we can do that again. They loved it.”
For next year’s conference, however, Jacob said the group might need to rent a bus or two if his plans for the future come to fruition. “I challenged Bob [the youth minister of St. Benedict’s parish in Anchorage] that Southeast Alaska would have more teens attend than his parish. [This past year] his parish had 54.”
As a youth minister, Jacob strives to show teens a lived example of discipleship. “It has to be real to them,” he shares, “You have to tell them, this is how I experience it in my own life.” Sharing faith experiences from his own personal faith journey has become a touchstone of his ministry, “I’m not going to tell you anything I haven’t seen or experienced myself.” Although Jacob feels comfortable sharing his personal experiences with teens, he’s not always sure it gets through. “I always wonder about my talks, like if I talk too much, and sometimes I feel like they’re not listening. Then at the Teen ACTS retreat a teen came up and said, ‘You know when you said this . . .’ and I was like, wow, they are listening.”
As Jacob looks ahead to another year of ministry in Southeast Alaska he has some big plans. First is a Diocesan Youth Retreat, the first in several years, which Jacob is coordinating. He’s bringing up a group, “5 Thousand,” from South Carolina with whom he’s done retreats before. Now that the Juneau youth group is up and running, Jacob would also like to spend time traveling to the other parishes and missions around Southeast Alaska offering assistance and ideas as the Diocesan Youth Minister.
Jacob’s plans for growth and enthusiasm for his ministry might give the youth minister from Anchorage pause about their bet for the next ACYC. His passion for bringing teens to Christ through retreats, ministry and pilgrimages knows no bounds. As Jacob says with a laugh, “I already lost all my hair for it.”