Cue the famous theme song.
Only we’re not talking about the shark movie. We’re talking about St. Nicholas’ youth group, newly dubbed “JAWS.” We’re not sure yet what JAWS stands for, but we know that we built our community around the name this weekend at Camp Mikell.
I’ve been doing youth ministry for many years, and have taken a lot of kids on retreat and I’m still blown away by what God can do with an eclectic group of teenagers, some adult chaperones, and a camp setting.
This weekend, Graham Horne, Peggy Martin, Heather Roper, and I took 16 of our youth to Camp Mikell in Toccoa, Georgia. For most of the group, it was the first time they had ever been our diocesan camp and conference center nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains. For some, it was the first time they had ever experienced a few days at such a camp.
We left Friday afternoon, loaded up in four different cars. By the grace of God, we made it through Atlanta with very little traffic. We stopped for dinner on the way up, and already I could tell these young people were starting to bond. While many of our youth have grown up at St. Nicholas, and while they may see each other at school occasionally, very few of them hang out regularly. That’s because their ages, interests, and activities are all different. The thing that binds them together is St. Nicholas.
We arrived at Camp Mikell around 9:00pm, earlier than I expected. There, we met Cami Fanning, a sophomore at Georgia State College in Atlanta and our youth intern this fall at St. Nicholas. Cami is wanting to get some youth ministry experience, so she will be planning events for our group this fall. She led us in many games, including one called “Moose Moose,” where each participant had to come up with an animal and act like that animal. The name “JAWS” came from that game, where Graham had to be a shark and shout “Jaws!” In his fantastic English accent, which the kids loved, it sounded kind of like “Juhs.” After games and worship, we settled into our cabins and got to bed only to be serenaded by a major thunderstorm.
Saturday we dined on Camp Mikell’s excellent food, and Heather led the youth in a drawing prayer exercise. The theme of our retreat was “Building Community,” and so we engaged in the ropes course led by the Blue Ridge Outdoor Education Center at Camp Mikell. In the morning, we participated in a number of challenges where the group had to work together. We adults sat back and watched the group come together. Leaders emerged, everyone shared their gifts, they communicated, they encouraged one another. The highlight of this for me was one activity where they had to balance the whole group on a “boat” without it tipping over. The catch was, they had to choose a leader and only that leader could direct them. They chose Sam Dixon and she did an awesome job of handling the stress of leadership.
After lunch, we took the kids to the high ropes course, which is a challenge course hung in the trees 30 feet up. The youth were all given the option of participating or not, and most tried it. Even the ones that didn’t had roles to play in encouraging and helping their friends make it through the course. All the kids were hooked into harnesses and were safe at all times, but being 30 feet up in the air can be very nerve-wreaking! At the end of the course, they got hooked into a zip line and zoomed down to the ground, where a crew was waiting with a ladder to unhook them. It was on this course that they all shined. They shouted encouragement to one another, they helped each other out, and they built their community.
Saturday night we went swimming and had a bonfire, and we ended the night with a game Sam suggested called the “Nice Game.” Each person went around and complimented their peers. These kids get critiqued and name-called all the time in the “real world.” To see them all sit around and say wonderfully nice things to each other was incredibly moving.
Finally, on Sunday, we concluded our weekend with a hike up to the Camp Mikell cross on the mountain and Holy Eucharist, which they served each other.
I told the youth that if they want to keep this community going, they have to commit to one another once they go home. This will require all our encouragement, especially the parents. Get them to Sunday School, get them to church, get them to youth group! If the above is any indication of the kind of community these young people have created, we are missing an opportunity if we don’t let them continue to nurture it. And those of us who are not these kids’ parents, we are called to support them, encourage them, include them, and help them become active in the life of the Church. This includes allowing us the opportunity to create a program that gives them more experiences like the one they just had. I’m incredibly thankful to Graham, Peggy, Heather, and Cami for spending the weekend and being an observer of the Holy Spirit’s work this weekend!
It’s an old saying where I’m from that the youth are not just the Church of tomorrow, they are the Church of TODAY! That was never more evident than it was this weekend. Rejoice that our young people have begun the journey of building community with one another, and join with me as we build it with them!