Born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana, John Young could never have imagined he would become the director of Liberia Mission, a community of love, learning, and faith for over 400 poor and orphaned children. Liberia, a small country in West Africa, continues to experience the lingering effects of a brutal 14-year civil war and deadly Ebola outbreak, which have contributed to a lack of infrastructure, intergenerational poverty, and poor health care in the country.
“The civil war was so much more than destroyed buildings and bloody conflict, although it was certainly that as well,” says Young. “The social fabric of the country was all but torn apart. Ebola ravaged entire communities and created another generation of orphans all over again.”
Liberia Mission offers a quality Catholic education to over 400 children and provides a home for 30 resident students. The 25-acre campus includes St. Anthony of Padua School for kindergarten to ninth grade, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church, separate residence buildings for boys and girls, a student-run piggery, and accommodations for program managers and volunteers. Since 2003, Franciscan Works, a Chicago-based nonprofit founded by a Franciscan priest, has provided financial and operational support to the mission. Working together, Franciscan Works and Liberia Mission empower the next generation of Liberians to break the cycle of poverty to become future adults of faith, character, and integrity who can support themselves, their families, and their communities.
Searching for ‘Something Better’
Young’s missionary journey, which would eventually lead him to Liberia, began in 2009, shortly after he had completed his BA in film arts. He entered Comunitá Cenacolo, a Catholic lay community founded by Mother Elvira Petrozzi. “I was 24 and found myself disillusioned by the world,” he says. “I was seeking ‘something better’ and needed healing.” The community has houses around the world, and Young began his journey with them in St. Augustine, Florida.
“The community proposes a simple, faith-based lifestyle consisting of prayer, work, and friendship,” Young explains. “I especially grew fond of eucharistic adoration, a moment in which I would begin to hear God’s voice in my heart. I would pray for the next step in life, and God would always answer.”
Young spent three years in Italy with Comunitá Cenacolo. “It was there that God confirmed my calling to Liberia,” Young remembers. In 2011, the community opened a mission there. Two years later, on the feast of St. Francis Xavier, Young arrived in Liberia at the St. Josephine Bakhita Catholic Mission. “My three years there truly laid the foundation for the work I am doing at Liberia Mission because both missions care for poor and orphaned Liberian children,” he says.
Young first heard about Liberia Mission from a fellow missionary who had recently attended the mission’s 10th-anniversary celebration. In 2015, Young visited the mission. “I was immediately impressed by what I experienced,” he recalls. “I left in awe of the mission’s various initiatives: the piggery and microbusiness, the school, and the work programs.” When Young came back to the United States, he began searching for a way to return to Liberia. That’s when he discovered an opening for a position at Liberia Mission.
“I began at Liberia Mission as a communications and operations coordinator, combining my prior missionary experience and media-based education to assist in daily operations, as well as boosting the mission’s visibility to the outside world,” says Young. In January 2020, Young was asked to become mission director. It’s a position that requires him to wear many hats—overseeing operations, administration, child protection, finances, communications, and more.
Franciscan to the Core
Now in his third year as mission director, Young draws inspiration from St. Francis, the patron saint of Franciscan Works. “St. Francis went out of his comfort zone and physically suffered for the sake of the Gospel; I take a lot of inspiration from his example,” he says. “One of the Franciscan charisms we strive to live fully at the mission is respect for the dignity of the individual. Each and every person at the mission, student and staff alike, is created equal in the eyes of God.”
Young continues: “These children had nothing but a name. When they arrived at Liberia Mission, they could play soccer, go to school, and make friends.” While being mission director has its challenges, Young understands the true calling of his role: building relationships and sharing God’s love.