Everyone loves a summer cookout at the beach, but the monthly Wednesday night bonfires at Doheny State Beach in Dana Point—a collaborative effort sponsored by the youth ministers of five Orange County Catholic churches—are something special. Dozens of teens, young adults, parents and youth ministry leaders attend for fun, faith and community.

On one recent July evening, there was the usual fare, of course—hamburgers and hot dogs were grilled and s’mores roasted on sticks over the fire. Socializing and dining followed along with informal games in the park next to the fire pit, but then the real purpose of the event emerged.

“I love everything about the bonfires, the way that they lead my kids to God,” said Laura Alonso, whose three kids, Santiago, 11; Valeria, 14; and Diego, 18, recently attended a bonfire. “I want my kids to know that God is here for us. This is important, especially with all the negativity we are living in. It’s important to show kids that God is always there for us.”

The bonfires began years ago as a weekly Wednesday night summer series at St. Edward the Confessor parish. In subsequent years, the youth ministers of South Orange County (Deaneries 6 and 7) met monthly for networking, social time, prayer and collaboration.

“In those gatherings, we decided to collaborate on the weekly bonfires with all of our teens to give them an opportunity to see the wider Church, have an opportunity to build new relationships, and pray together,” explained former youth minister Matt Zemanek of St. Timothy’s, now the church’s director of Adult Evangelization and Faith Formation.

The bonfires are open to all high school students. The churches involved are St. Killian’s, Mission Viejo; St. Timothy’s, Laguna Niguel; Mission Basilica, San Juan Capistrano; St. Edward the Confessor, Dana Point and Corpus Christi, Aliso Viejo.

George Vasquez has been Corpus Christi’s youth minister for five years.

“God called me to the youth ministry,” he explained.

He said he first got involved in youth ministry when he was a teen, and never left.

Socializing and feeling a part of the community bring many teens to the bonfires.

“This is my first year,” said Emily Lynch. “We joined the Sky program at St. Killian’s so when we joined, we decided to come to this one too.”

Accompanied by her dog Asher, Michelle Moz, 20, of Mission Basilica parish, said, “I’ve been with the youth ministry for six months and this is my fourth bonfire. I have friends who invited me and I like being together.”

Angel Zemora, 20, said she’s been attending the bonfires since before the pandemic.

“It’s a nice environment and a nice way to spend a summer evening.”

But for Juan Cied, 20, also from Mission Basilica parish who’s been coming since 2012, there’s a deeper dimension.

“I like coming here because the people here relate to the things that are important to me,” he said. “We struggle to believe but being around people like this, we begin to change our minds.”

As the recent bonfire came to an end —the burgers and s’mores eaten and the games over — everyone gathered at the fire pit to join guitarist Zeke Flores who sang, “Good Good Father,” many reading the lyrics on their smart phones so they could follow along.

As the daylight began to fade, prayers brought the evening to a close — until next month.