It was almost exactly 25 years ago that I made one of the most significant decisions in my life; I signed up to be a counsellor at Camp St. Louis (then known as the Youth for Christ Camp).
While I’d like to say this decision came from a desire to grow in my faith or to serve others, the truth is far less noble. I signed up because I wanted to spend time with a girl. God, however, had something completely different in mind for me.
Over the course of that first summer in 1997, I spent two and a half weeks at camp. While my romantic ambitions crashed and burned, my experiences at Camp St. Louis changed me. It changed the way I related to Jesus whom I encountered in a new way that camp season. It also planted seeds for what I’ve done ever since.
At the end of that summer, I was invited to come back serve as a member of the camp team the following year. This is a role I treasured over the following seven years when I would spend all or part the summer serving at camp. Being on this team was my first experience of youth ministry. There, I gave my first talks, led my first small groups, and gained confidence on the guitar. But beyond the impact camp had on my future professional life, I think there are three other ways in which my experience of camp ministry continues to influence me:
A Habit of Daily Prayer
While I had been getting into prayer within my youth group activities, it was being a leader at camp that inspired me to really pray daily. Our days at camp had many opportunities to pray, but at the same time there was also an expectation that those of us who led would take our own life of faith more seriously. And so, my life of prayer grew. I began to include in my daily prayer a few minutes of silencing my heart and mind to listen to God in the chapel. To this day, my favourite place to pray is still early in the morning in the chapel at Camp St. Louis, sitting on the floor near the tabernacle under an open window.
The Gift of Community
When I was on the team at camp, I lived in a small house that summer with several guys who were very serious about their faith (three are now priests, and one is a Benedictine monk). They showed me what it was like to live among a group of people who were committed to pushing, pulling, and dragging one another to follow Christ more faithfully. After our campers went to bed, we prayed the Rosary together. We discussed prayer, St. John of the Cross, and how God works in our lives. I soaked it all up and have tried ever since to continue to surround myself with people who put God first in their lives in hopes that we might push, pull, and drag one another onward towards Him.
The Joy of Serving Jesus
Being entrusted to care for people’s children is a huge responsibility. Each week involved a lot of work to make sure that kids were safe, had fun, and that we were doing justice to the beauty of the faith we were sharing with them. But amid all of that there was a great deal of laughter and joy. Whether it was an early-morning team meeting, a particularly intense round of capture the flag, or the need to unplug a toilet (again), we played practical jokes and made a point of not taking ourselves too seriously. Sometimes the laughter was so intense I was brought to tears. The lesson I learned then is one I’ve never forgotten: it is a great joy to work with and for Jesus. I’ve tried to keep this front and center in the parish and school ministry I’ve served in ever since.
In many ways, learning these lessons about prayer, community and joy in my early adult years have shaped not only the way in which I serve youth, but the man I try to be in every part of my life. These experiences left such a lasting impression on me that every year in June and early July, my heart feels drawn back to the shores of Moose Lake and the memories we made at Camp St. Louis and a part of me wants to go back there. But that chapter in my life has now passed, so instead I take a moment to pray for those charged with camp ministry as well as the young people they’ll serve … who need to learn these lessons just as much as I did 25 years ago.
–Mike Landry is chaplain to Evergreen Catholic Schools west of Edmonton, and serves as an occasional guest speaker and music minister in communities across Western Canada. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain, Alta. with their five children.