Almost one year ago, before I’d heard anything about the news that Rhode Island was going to be searching for a new bishop, I committed to returning as the chaplain to the Diocese of Arizona’s Youth program at Chapel Rock Camp.. I had spent a week there being present to the teens but more so to the counselors and staff. I found the experience incredibly rewarding. So I asked if I might come back the following year, and sign on for the whole program rather than one week.
Little did I know then that the day before the first day of camp this year would also bring the news that I had been elected to serve as the 13th Bishop of Rhode Island. Knowing in the weeks before that I needed to be with my congregation at our Cathedral the day after the election, no matter what happened, I had already planned to arrive at camp a day late. When I did manage to get up to the mountain, the young people were very excited about what had happened and had lots of questions. I tried to answer them as best I could, though truth be told, I had more questions than they did, and fewer answers than I wanted. The next few days were a rush of phone calls, emails and appointments as I tried to get everything done that needed to be done given the short time that remained before General Convention and the scheduled hearings on the election that take place during its two weeks.
But, by the end of the second week, things calmed down enough, the email deluge slacked off enough and I had all my paperwork in process, so that I could finally re-engage with the youth. It was the primary reason that I was there and I didn’t want to miss my last days with them. Many of the young people and the counselors were from our Cathedral congregation in Phoenix. One of the counselors was my daughter. It was clear that they all, campers and counselors, were having a deeply spiritual experience and I wanted to share as much of that as they would allow.
On Thursday night each week of camp, the schedule calls for “Prayer Stations” as the final activity of the evening. Prayer Stations are one of the most highly rated parts of the camp schedule. They’re a set of experiences set out on the lawn in the dark with candles and lanterns that the young people can “do” in any order they wish. If you’ve ever been to an emergent church liturgy with worship stations, you’ve seen the basic idea. As the night grew darker, and the stars shone brighter, the young people moved from station to station experiencing God and the numinous in different and increasingly profound ways.
I and a friend of mine who were both serving as chaplains that week were sitting on chairs at the very back of the lawn with a sign that read “Ask a priest anything”. The thinking was that as the young people made their way through stations questions or feelings would start to arise in them and having clergy available to work with them to find answers would be very helpful. It turned out to be an excellent plan, but things went off in an unanticipated direction.
The young people who came to sit with us that night were hurting. They’d been hurting for months, but it was the supportive camp community, the loving counselors and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit on that night that allowed the young people to finally open up with a priest they barely knew about the depth of their pain. And there was a lot to share. A lot of tears flowed. It was an incredible and sacred moment; the sort of thing that a priest prepares for all his or her life so that when it happens, the priest can be fully present to the person who heart is crying out in pain to God.
There’s not much I can say about the specifics of what was said. We promised the teens that what they spoke to us about would never be repeated. But you can probably imagine much of it; fears about their parent’s marriage, about the lack of work and new found poverty, fear that was driving them to drugs, fear that God hated them, fear that they would never be loved… Their words would break your heart if you could hear them. They broke mine. I believe they broke God’s too.
But God’s love broke through to them that night somehow. It wasn’t anything the clergy did — we just listened and cried with them. The healing began by having their pain acknowledged and validated by the clergy, but was really completed by the incredible accepting love that was showered upon them by their community of peers. The shower of love was a response to the overwhelming pain felt by a person who was finally able to give words to what fear lay in the depth of their young heart.
The healing process continued throughout the next two days. God was present to these people and they felt that presence, often in ways they never had before. God allowed that presence to seep deep into the cracks in of their souls that had opened and allowed the pain to pour out. God’s Holy Spirit flowed in, making level the places that were strewn with rocky memories.
What I remember most strongly though was the look on the faces of the campers on the final morning. They were in a final gathering on that same lawn, saying goodbye to one another and to their counselors. As that was happening I struck by how the emotions playing out in their expressions, which had been so closely guarded when they arrived, were now openly shining with the most tender and shy looks of hope.
Hope. So many people rediscovered hope that week. And what is faith in the end but hope?
I am convinced by this experience that we in the church have an urgent task to do with young people. It’s not to convince them of the rightness of our beliefs or moral stances. It’s not to call on them to do heroic things for others. It’s not teach them of timeless truths of God. All those will happen automatically if we focus on the main thing. We need to find ways to let the young hope again. We need to find ways to convince them to open themselves up to God’s love and healing actions so that they can have the same sort of experiences of the reality of God that the young people at Chapel Rock have had.
I am going to be working very hard I think in the years to come to find ways to let people trust enough that they will open themselves to God. I hope that I find people who will work with me. Because, trust me, those eyes filled with the first flickering glimpses of new found hope are worth whatever effort it will take.