Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh

Dirty Vagabonds bringing teens into the faith

Teens and missionaries from Pittsburgh and Sharpsburg on retreat. (Photo courtesy of Dirty Vagabond Ministries)

Dirty Vagabonds bringing teens into the faith

Hanging out on city streets can expose vulnerable young people to violence and drugs. Thanks to a growing street ministry, more teens are experiencing the saving love of Jesus.

As many as 40 teens attend weekly outreach nights led by Dirty Vagabond Ministries at St. Maria Goretti Parish in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield, Garfield and Friendship neighborhoods. Up to a dozen youth join in worship nights and Bible studies, and two young men plan to formally enter the church next Easter.

Across the Allegheny River in Sharpsburg, Dirty Vagabond missionaries are in regular contact with about 20 teens. They met many of them at a local park, and just four months later they are gathering at the new Underground youth center at St. Juan Diego Parish.

Sacrificial gifts to Our Campaign for The Church Alive! helped provide start-up grants for the ministry, which embraces Pope Francis’ preference for “a church that is dirty because it’s been on the streets.” The “vagabond” reference is rooted in Jesus’ command for his disciples to go out by twos to meet and minister to those in need.

“There’s a lot of brokenness in these teens’ homes, including alcoholism and heroin use by adults,” missionary Ryan Ackerman said. “About 90 percent of them live with a single parent or grandparent.”

“There are a lot of fractured families with parents in rehab or in jail,” said Father Michael Decewicz, pastor of St. Juan Diego. “Sometimes, the least safe place for these kids is at home.”

“They’re yearning for a consistent presence of love,” said missionary Shannon Keating, who partners with Ackerman. “We try to show that we’re here to love them unconditionally.”

With strong support from other local pastors and civic leaders, the Sharpsburg missionaries began with barbeques, laser tag and trivia games. As they earned the trust of teens, they extended an invitation to go on a retreat. Soon they will offer “breakout nights” which include a faith message. Then there will be an opportunity to join discipleship groups and Bible studies.

Some young people are going to church regularly for the first time in their lives.

“Many of our teens went on evangelistic retreats last summer and fall,” said Christopher Kerfoot, who works with missionary Milan Chaump and adult volunteers at St. Maria Goretti. “Two teens even came with us on a mission trip to New Mexico to serve poor people living on a reservation.”

Members of both parishes have embraced the efforts. A core team of young adults and college students at St. Maria Goretti joins in the breakout nights, while another group assists with event planning, prayers and fundraising (see accompanying box).

“Praise God for the two young men who are going to be baptized and confirmed,” Kerfoot said. “It’s been a blessing to walk alongside them in our journey to heaven.”

The strong start in Sharpsburg “is really awesome and exciting,” Keating said. “To me, this isn’t just a job or a cool experience. I feel convicted by the call to action to go forth into the streets and make disciples.”

Runners Needed

Fundraising is an important component of Dirty Vagabond Ministries (DVM), the only official Catholic charity of the Pittsburgh Marathon. For the eighth straight year, they are seeking marathon participants.

“Each year about 100 runners of all ages and abilities join us,” according to Andy Lesnefsky, director of mission advancement for DVM. “About half are relay runners, and the rest participate in the 5K race, the half marathon or full marathon.

Participants receive:

  • Free registration with guarantee to raise a minimum amount of funds
  • Team dinner before the race
  • Tech running shirt
  • The knowledge that their involvement helps to change lives

Learn more and sign up at

Teens and missionaries from Pittsburgh and Sharpsburg on retreat. (Photo courtesy of Dirty Vagabond Ministries)

Teens and missionaries from Pittsburgh and Sharpsburg on retreat. (Photo courtesy of Dirty Vagabond Ministries)