Faith Building in Maryland
Sunday, July 11th — After a 10 hour drive, I am standing in a very packed auditorium in Prince Frederick, Maryland, surrounded by 268 people, 80% of which are under the age of 18. Shouting and clapping, followed by singing and hand motions commence. Nope, not a concert. I’m at a Catholic Heart Workcamp – a mix between Habitat for Humanity and Jesus Camp. Already exhausted, I ask myself: why am I here? Surely the youth minister at St. Eulalia Parish liquored me up 8 months ago to coerce me into agreeing to chaperone our 57-kid group?
Believe it or not, he didn’t. I had done this same trip two years ago (and would have done it last year if not for cancer getting all up in my grill). The last time I went on the trip, I came out of it feeling very rewarded. As so often happens in life though, those memories and that feeling faded away over time. And now I am standing in the auditorium overwhelmed by Jesus songs.
Fast-forward, a week later – today, as I write from my computer back in Massachusetts. My experience in Prince Frederick is best explained by this excerpt from my dear friend Patty, sent to me on the day I departed for the trip: “It is a real sacrifice ~ and you know how those go ~ you think you are giving the gift and at the end of the day, you end up getting so much!” Like most things said by Patty, they are words of profound truth. So, arriving at this reflection in a very roundabout way, I want to share the gift that this week was to me…
My week in Prince Frederick was one of faith building and spiritual renewal, at a time when I really needed it. My heart has ached for the past months over some of the fear-based policies that the Catholic Church clings to. It is good to be a critical thinker, in my opinion, but I fear that I was beginning to grow cynical about the church. Catholic Heart Workcamp (CHWC) gave me a much needed dose of hope. It was a heavy dose, in fact, composed of a few key elements.
First, was the incredible Father Geoff Rose. Fr. Geoff preached a relationship with God rooted entirely in love; dismissing fear as the basis of an authentic relationship. How refreshing it was to experience his daily mass, through which he challenged us all to understand scripture in a new, enlightening way. I desperately wish I could share some excerpts or summations of his homilies with you, but I fear that I would not do them justice. I can say that I was inspired by his energetic approach to interpreting the readings and his commitment to social justice.
Second, was the amazing music by Andy Cloninger – a gifted musician who is moved by the spirit and, likewise, is able to move others with his spirit. Andy is a musician who constantly has his eyes aimed at the audience, feeling their pulse as he plays. With only his acoustic guitar and voice, he is able to get every single person in the room energetically and intimately involved in praising God. Best of all, he has a sense of humor that puts all anxieties at ease. Because let’s face it, the idea of singing Jesus songs with a bunch of strangers doing hand motions can be an overwhelming, “cultish” notion. That’s what runs through my own defensive mind anyway. But Andy is quickly able to overcome those defenses and break down the walls. The results were beautiful.
Together, Fr. Geoff, Andy, and the staff at CHWH laid the groundwork for some amazing stuff to happen. At the heart of CHWC is the service work (hence the H and the W). Typically, each adult leader (chaperone) is put with a group of 5 or so kids and sent off to a specific work site to help do a variety of tasks such as painting, yard work, cleaning, exterior work, social work, etc. My group was unique, in that it was composed of 6 adult leaders and only two kids. This was because we were given an intense project that turned out to be pretty awesome. We were assigned to Project ECHO which is a brand new homeless shelter in Prince Frederick. What I really loved about this facility is that it recognized the dignity of every human being, regardless of economic status, by providing a beautiful place to live. Unfortunately, ECHO did not receive enough funding for landscaping. We had our work cut out for us, but we were up for the challenge. In just three days we were able to: move 10 tons of top soil and 10 cubic yards of mulch, plant 40 or so trees and a bunch of flowers, build a retaining wall, and bury a crapload of PVC pipes in ditches to create a drain system for the run off from gutters. We were able to accomplish all of this thanks to the wonderful foreman Dickey Hayes (better known as D Hayes) who is retired and volunteered his time to lead this project; patiently explaining every step to a bunch of Bostonians who could barely use a shovel. Thankfully, we had two kids from Wisconsin who were much more able than we adult leaders. And so, miraculously (with the help of some residents too!), we got it all done with a day of work to spare. **PICTURES COMING SOON!**
Experiencing the service work with other young people, as well as the daily mass and nightly programming, was such a blessing. Often I think we have a hard time talking about God with each other. In some cases I think we lose sight of God’s work in our lives, and in some cases I think we are afraid to offend others by talking of God. That fear of offending others is not unjustified. Fr. Geoff put it best (I can only paraphrase), when he said that religion is so often used as a hammer to crush others. And so, I think we must be respectful of all forms of spirituality. That cannot be accomplished by abstaining from the sharing of our spirituality though. As long as it comes from a place of love, I don’t think it’s ever bad to talk about God or share our faith with others. On the contrary, it is that openness and receptivity that will lead to a strengthening of faith, I think.
Many lessons to be learned from this week, all of which I’m sure I can’t share as precisely as I’d wish. Best I can do is say that it was a tremendously uplifting week for me personally. Now the challenge will be to sustain that level of faith, which I think is a constant process. But it is a process that I’m (thankfully) growing more comfortable with.