Parenting teenagers can be synonymous with worry and problem solving. On easy days, our children lay their concerns at our feet with little to no coaxing and we provide them with sage advice based on our personal experiences. On difficult days, we try to guess what’s troubling them and fumble for words when the problem falls into the category of “sensitive subjects no one wants to talk about.”
Today’s world is a particularly harsh place in which to be raising daughters. Young women are a marketing demographic targeted by a parade of industries determined to make girls question their looks, their opinions, their relationships, their faith, and their futures. They can’t get away from messages that twist the values being taught at home. And so much of what they see and hear is a distorted version of the morals their parents have tried to instill in them since birth.
With no escape from it, and no end in sight, young women carry heavy burdens. They are forced to filter and judge and choose and conform in ways that are vastly different from, and in some ways, more threatening than anything their mothers faced.
So what do you do when you ask a teenage girl if she’s okay and she says, “I’m fine” …but you know she’s not?
Two youth ministers at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Apex are producing a series of documentaries aimed at helping parents and teenagers answer that question and talk through today’s toughest topics.
A Lack of Resources
Liz Sams and Janine McGann were leading hundreds of teenagers through faith formation programs every year and finding it impossible to ignore the startling trend emerging as girls confided in them and sought their guidance. Many of the girls shared the same troubles. Sams and McGann wondered, “If this cluster of girls exists in our youth group, how many other girls suffer in silence beyond our church community?”
Sams and McGann wanted faith-based resources that would encourage discussion of topics like friendship and familial bonds, dating and sex, body image and self-worth, social media pressure, perfectionism, pornography, and abuse. They were sensitive subjects that young women and their families found difficult to talk about.
“In ministry, I heard the same struggles over and over but there were not a lot of resources that covered these topics, the really hard things to talk about. I wanted a curriculum or some way to discuss the common challenges that all girls and women are facing,” Sams says. “I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for. When Janine and I talked about it, she said, ‘We’re meant to create something better.’”
In 2015, the women were being interviewed by filmmakers from 4PM Media in connection with the making of a self-guided Catholic video series about the Holy Spirit. Out of curiosity, McGann asked the filmmakers if they would be interested in making an hour-long DVD to be used for St. Mary Magdalene Church’s high school girls’ retreats. The goal was to tell a relevant and meaningful story that covered seven key topics, but do it in a way that held teenagers’ attention with beautiful cinematography and an engaging soundtrack. The filmmakers shared their vision and said yes. Not at all expecting the positive response, and not quite prepared to dive into movie-making, Sams and McGann tucked the idea away for another year.
“Looking back, it makes me laugh,” McGann says. “God taps people on the shoulder. I said ‘You want me to do what? Go pick somebody else.’ On paper, none of this should make sense. We have no education in [filmmaking].”
Sams has a political science degree and worked in human resources for an insurance company prior to becoming involved with youth ministry
at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church in Cary. In 2007, she accepted the position of full-time High School Youth Minister at St. Mary Magdalene Church. McGann joined the St. Mary Magdalene staff in 2013 as their full-time Middle School Youth Minister after being a personal trainer, a job that helped pay for a graduate degree in speech-language pathology.
McGann says, “I focused on women’s health and wellness and saw the real brokenness in women not understanding their identity and having a warped relationship with their bodies and how they viewed themselves. I wanted women to understand their innate beauty and worth and not buy into the lies that the world tells us [through] fear-based marketing campaigns.”
The women held another retreat for high school girls in January, 2016, once again using outdated resources. They decided it was time to act.
“Our previous careers had led us to a point where we were using our skills, but God’s hand was in all of this,” Sams recalls. “God had been writing this story all along. This is what He intended for us to do—and to do together. We emailed [4PM Media] from the retreat and asked ‘how do we do this?’”
Speaking to Sparrows
Pre-production planning made it clear that the simple hour-long video to be used on retreats was meant to be something much greater and far-reaching. The message needed to be available to a larger audience.
“We meet moms that want to empower their daughters,” Sams explains, “but they don’t know how. We don’t have the vernacular. We don’t know how to articulate that to our daughters. We want them to make better choices, be stronger and more confident, but we don’t know how to instill that in them. We know what we want them to be, but we don’t know how to get them there. Our culture is about striving, striving, striving, but Janine and I found in her work with adult women and my work with teenage girls, that women identify with what they do, their role in life. They’re missing the message of who they are.”
McGann adds, “At the root, women are not their accomplishments. They’re not what they produce or their grade point average. If we say we want to empower women, [girls believe] they have to produce something; they have to be perfect. But, if they can root their identity in the way God sees them, they’re already loved. There’s nothing they have to do or earn. They don’t have to be anxious or stressed; they can exhale and begin to use their gifts.”
“Speaking to Sparrows” is a full-length documentary that evolved after hours of filming and editing, adding sound and music, and polishing details. It’s not a curriculum. It doesn’t teach or preach. It’s storytelling. Everyday women sharing their experiences, honestly and genuinely, in a way that’s meant to speak to other women who can relate but who feel alone.
Project Light Ministries
Making a documentary for women about today’s societal pressures has come with a sense of responsibility and, McGann says, “It’s one we don’t take lightly. We want to protect and guard women. Through brokenness, women can experience healing and a freedom they never knew before.”
That’s why she and Sams shied away from a more conventional release of the movie and instead have chosen to distribute it in a way that encourages a supportive environment for its viewers. Individuals and groups who wish to show the movie can arrange screenings and purchase hosting kits that include leaders’ guides, participant journals, and other discussion materials.
With “Speaking to Sparrows” ready to launch, Sams and McGann were determined to generate additional resources for young men and the parents of teenagers. They envisioned an organization through which they could distribute “Speaking to Sparrows,” produce additional films, and create and offer a platform of supplementary information beyond hosting kits. They created Project Light Ministries. Operating as a tax-exempt nonprofit, they can offer retreats, workshops, consulting, and presentations to complement “Speaking to Sparrows” and the other documentaries once they’re completed.
Attend or Host a Screening
“Speaking to Sparrows” is a long-overdue resource. By telling their stories, women shine light on the harmful influences in today’s society and, in doing so, they are helping others in need of support and healing start conversations. Sams and McGann hope that everyone watching the film finds reassurance that they are not lost or alone.