In May of 1997, to try and spend more time with a girl I liked, I signed up to be a counselor at the Youth for Christ Camp (Camp St. Louis) in Bonnyville, AB. It turned out to be one of the best choices I ever made. I had previously attended summer daycamps and scout camps, but the scope and experience of a week on the lake centered on my faith would leave a far deeper mark on me than I had ever imagined.
My arrival at camp was an eventful one. After the first evening- orientation (rules), an evening snack, and a campfire- I began my first morning by passing out and having a mild seizure in the morning prayer circle. One of the team and seminarians assigned to us for the summer then spent the rest of the morning with me in emergency waiting to make sure I was ok – it was my body responding to the stresses of family crises at the time- but it also allowed me the opportunity to find out a bit about what I had gotten myself into. The team was made up of young adults so impacted by the experience of serving the campers (and good at doing it) that they were invited back by Fr. Rolland Bissonnette, the camp founder, director, and quite likely a local saint. Sadly for me, Fr. B’s failing health never allowed him to be involved with camp to the extent he wanted to be while I was around. It seemed to be quite a community- and those who had been around were people I very much wanted to imitate. What had begun as the pursuit of a girl would turn into much more. I spent the better part of seven summers playing as a job- spending hours in the lake, playing capture the flag, acting in silly skits, and getting myself into trouble (hence the photo above- it was payback from one of the counselors for the things I did.) It was also there that I learned how to play guitar, tried my hand at painting, electrical, carpentry, plumbing, fixing my car, trying my hardest to find my future wife (she wasn’t there), learning to pray, serve, and love.
That summer experience of 2 1/2 weeks at camp – the first ‘counselor’ week, getting familiar with camp routines and life, and the rest serving younger kids as a counselor was the first step on my own I took to serve others, and it obviously meant something to the team, as they invited me to join them. And I did, serving with them in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, and visiting/helping out for small parts of 2001, 2003, & 2004; and over the past few years, I’ve been able to go out and help train the counselors and staff. Every year in June and early July, my heart feels drawn back to the shores of Moose Lake, and I try to pray for the worn that the current team is doing there (and at countless other camps in the summer), because that season of life has passed for me. That being said, the fact that I went to and served at camp has had a tremendous effect on me. While I would obviously point to my music (three hours of playing guitar a day will undoubtedly help that along) there are three other lasting effects camp has left on and in me daily:
1. The need for others. My first summer on team was my first real experience of a mature Christian community. While I had (and have) great friends from my youth group, it was that team- and particularly the guys on that team (2 are now priests, and one is a Benedictine monk) – who showed me what it was like to be among a group of people who are committed to holding each other up and pushing, pulling, or dragging one another to Christ. We prayed the Rosary together. We discussed prayer, St. John of the Cross, and how God works in our lives. It was the perfect place for someone who was a spiritual sponge like me, and it has made me continually try and keep myself surrounded with people who put God first in their lives… so we can drag one another onward toward Him.
2. The need to laugh. One night in mid August, at about 2am, we decided to play a prank on the girls- shutting off the power to their trailer, turning on the lights in their room, and then flipping them on and off (via a breaker, with the appropriate pauses to make sure we don’t damage anything, of course.) We dressed in black, snuck across the field acting like we were ninjas, and proceeded to pull our prank. While we understood the great responsibility we had, caring for the children of others and trying to share what is most important with then – Christ- we lived summers full of good, clean laughter at each other and ourselves, embracing the simple joys of life and never taking ourselves too seriously.
3. The need to pray. Period. While I had been getting into prayer within my youth group activities, it was being a leader at camp that actually led me to start to pray – to talk to God on a daily basis. Not only did I pray with the guys I lived with, but our day was full of prayer- morning prayer, grace, Mass, prayer at the end of campfire… and sprinkled with the Rosary, Confession, and the Way of the Cross for good measure. My favorite place to pray is still found in the Chapel at Camp St. Louis – just underneath the window, a few feet from the tabernacle.
My work as a youth minister really began at camp. The first talks I gave, first groups I led, and first young people I had the opportunity to love and see through Jesus’ eyes were all at camp. People there trusted and encouraged me in ministry: absolutely the seeds of what I do today. I hope be half as effective at teaching teens and young adults to pray, laugh, and support one another as camp did for me… because I know I owe a lot of who I am to the understanding of prayer, joy, and community that camp shared with me. Please pray for the incredible work going on there – and so many other camps – over these beautiful summer days.