One couple’s road to the new evangelization
By Jean Torkelson
One day, in the late 1980s, the “saint geek” met the “woman at the well.”
But that was just the beginning. It would take years before Brad and Joia Farmer joined forces, got married, had kids, and launched their Four Pillars youth ministry.
Fast forward to 2012. The couple were tapped this year to bring a comprehensive youth ministry to the teenage parishioners of four Denver parishes: Blessed Sacrament, St. James, Christ the King and Good Shepherd.
With providential timing, the Farmers, both 38 years old, open their latest ministry in the year Pope Benedict XVI has called for a Year of Faith with an emphasis on the new evangelization. In his remarks, the pope noted that before the faith can be passed on to the world, it needs to be renewed among Catholics themselves.
“I have spoken of the need to rediscover the journey of faith so as to shed ever clearer light on the joy and renewed enthusiasm of the encounter with Christ,” the pope wrote. He added that the traditional notion that the faith is secure, even among Catholics, “can no longer be taken for granted.”
The Farmers, with long experience in national ministry, fit the pontiff’s call: they bring a youthful vibe and world-savvy backstory to their role.
Brad Farmer developed an early juggling act and comedy skills to become a successful, nationally recognized Christian entertainer who performs through Apex Ministries, founded 16 years ago with a friend, Gene Monterastelli.
He grew up in a strong Catholic family and, early on, became active in youth ministry. His faith held through the tumultuous college years, and soon he was reading the lives of the Church’s most heroic figures and describing himself, with a laugh, as “a saint geek.”
Joia is a former Baptist and self-described “practical atheist” who drifted through years of bad choices until she decided to give God “one last shot.” After she and Brad married, she found her own calling as a musician and motivational Catholic speaker who has been featured at rallies and conferences throughout the country.
Now in Denver, the Farmers bring the Catholic faith to their young and often skeptical audiences, many of them scarred by a world that often pushes them into early mistakes.
“It’s a style we stumbled on,” Brad said. “We use juggling, physical comedy stuff, storytelling, and give testimonies of our own lives, entertwined with (Catholic) truths. The purpose of the entertainment is to gain rapport and earn the right to be heard.”
Once they gain their young audiences’ respect, the Farmers can tackle the serious things—drugs, sex, family problems. They stress the need for chastity and offer hope, sharing “what happens when you let God use you instead of being used by other people,” as Joia puts it.
“My core message is always that redemption is possible,” she said. “I identify with the woman at the well, because she wasn’t judged by Jesus; what he told her was, ‘I know you, I love you, now, don’t sin anymore.’”
Early friends, different paths
Brad and Joia grew up in Wyoming and became friends at Casper College. But a deeper connection seemed unlikely. While still nominally Baptist, Joia looked at her friend Brad’s Catholicism, “and I wondered if we worshiped the same God. I sort of looked at it like voodoo.”
They drifted apart until, one day, Joia needed a place to stay. Both were living on the East Coast, and Brad suggested Joia could move into the house he shared in Washington, D.C., with Monterastelli and anyone needing hospitality.
All of a sudden, Joia saw the Catholic faith, up close.
“It was like a big Catholic group home,” Joia said with a laugh. Brad kept inviting her to Mass, but the invitation didn’t take. Something else did.
“Brad and Gene had a really good friend who was a homeless man,” Joia recalled. “I had never seen anybody love a homeless person before and it kind of opened my mind—not everybody is out for themselves. When he asked me to go to church one more time, I thought, ‘God, you’ve got one shot.’”
At Mass that Sunday, when the priest began to pray the familiar words to be “freed from all anxieties,” Joia’s world suddenly turned upside down.
“I never contemplated that I could be freed from all the anxieties I had pent up,” she said. “It was like God telling me, ‘You’re home.’ I burst into tears. And as any youth minister knows, crying is a sign you’ve done something good.”
More good things followed. Joia and Brad married, had three sons and adopted a daughter from China. As well-known members in the national youth ministry movement, they echo the concerns voiced by Pope Benedict.
“One of the biggest conversations in youth ministry is getting to parents,” Brad said. “If parents don’t know and understand the faith, it won’t translate to teens at all.”
“I am hopeful,” Joia added. “Kids are hungry, and I see the spark in their eyes. It just takes a more strategized plan to get to today’s youth—we live in an over-secularized culture, in a tyranny of relativism, and it’s confusing for kids. But I really believe this generation will be incredibly strong, and courageous Catholics will come out of it.”
Jean Torkelson: 303-715-3122; www.twitter.com/DCRegister