My Week at Encounter
This blog post was written by Davey Creegan, a current student at the University of Maryland who participated in StPYG and was a member of our Teen Leadership Team when he was in high school. Davey was a Young Adult Leader on our most recent trip to Encounter the Gospel of Life Service Camp. [above: third from left]
What is Encounter?
Encounter the Gospel of Life is a six day long camp that sends high schoolers around the Washington DC area to do service, ranging from working at summer camps for children to doing yard work and moving furniture, and everything in-between. This year, there were roughly 240 youth, a host of adults, and about 30 young adults. While this was my fourth year at Encounter, it was the first time I was able to serve on the “young adult team”, college students who take on certain responsibilities within the group and assist the adults in making sure the youth are having the best experience possible.
The participants are randomly assigned to a group of 8-15 people (usually none of whom know each other) before the week begins and during the week go out with this group to an assigned service site somewhere in the area. The majority of the days begin with mass at 7am, followed by a brief breakfast. At 8:30, we are rushed out the door, and by 8:50, the Colony Ballroom is empty, and we are on the road to our sites, where we will stay in most cases until 3:00, and then return to home base at the University of Maryland. Following some free time and dinner, we move back to the Ballroom in the Stamp Student Union for some evening programming. At 10:00 or 10:30 we start to head back to the dorms, and by 11:00 it’s lights out. Wednesday night Reconciliation and Adoration occur, and Thursday night there is only a bit of programming and then we all break out our best moves for a dance party until it’s time to go back to the dorms.
I have attended Encounter every time that St. Paul’s youth group has gone so I definitely know the routine, but part of what’s so great about Encounter is that it never fails to surprise me. It’s designed that way.
Each year of Encounter has been unique for me because of the many sites at which I have been able to serve. I have worked with the elderly, people with cerebral palsy, and even participated in an “advocacy group” learning about immigration and speaking to congress members.
This year, as a young adult, I was happy to go to Inwood House, an apartment complex for the elderly and people with disabilities. I was eager to help my group if they had any trouble making connections with the residents, as I could use my experience at similar sites.
I expected the first day or two to be slightly awkward as the members of my group would slowly make their way out of their comfort zones and open up to the residents. What surprised me is that this took almost no time at all, because almost as soon as we were finished touring Inwood House and walked into the cafeteria to talk to the residents while they ate lunch, we were greeted by some of the biggest smiles I have ever seen and a slight breeze from the many waving arms motioning us to sit.
As I waited, expecting clumps of kids from my group to go to the tables with the most chatty residents. Again I was surprised to see no tables without a youth member from my group.
As it turns out, the residents of Inwood House wait all year for an Encounter group (or “Camp Inwood”, as they affectionately call it) to come, and everyone wanted a piece of the action. They loved us before we even had a chance to say hello. Throughout the week our group laughed with each other and with the residents as we made arts and crafts, washed wheelchairs, helped fix up the “little shop around the corner” for the residents, made a wall hanging (pictured right) for the main lobby, and just chatted with the residents.
We could tell how grateful they were to have us with them, and we in turn were grateful to be able to share this week with them. I was surprised to find how much about gratefulness I had learned from them. As I reflected on gratefulness during reconciliation and adoration, I was surprised to find that the people of Inwood House were the first example that came to mind.
I thought of their smiles, their delight at eating the cupcakes we made with them, their faces when they saw their newly cleaned wheelchairs. I saw that their gratefulness for everything that week cultivated a simple and beautiful joy in them, and I wanted to emulate that.
The only problem is that I had a hard time understanding what exactly what the source of all that gratefulnes was. I was fortunate enough Thursday and Friday to have two lengthy conversations with a resident at Inwood House (for the purposes of this I’ll call her Jane).
Jane, at first, seemed as though she wouldn’t open up to anyone but one of my adults who she already knew. In our first few interactions, we had barely spoken, but Thursday was different when I sat down with her in-between activities. I quickly learned that Jane is a Christian, and she began to talk to me about how grateful she is to have God in her life. She wasn’t an overtly joyful person on the surface, but I could see the joy of God in her as she told me she would pray for me.
It turned out the source of her gratefulness was simple. The single quote that will stick with me the most from the week is when Jane said “I know God is in my life and has a plan, and that’s all I need to be grateful”. Jane, if you’re reading this, thank you, I’ll never forget our conversations and I’m praying for you.
There was one final surprise waiting for me Friday as we were leaving Inwood House. As the bus rolled out of the parking lot and back to campus, for the first time in a long time, I wept. It was the first time in my life I can say I experienced a true catharsis, every emotion I built up over the week was released, and once we got to our gathering space on campus, I felt a deep peace and security in God, and that feeling has stuck with me since.
So here I am writing this after Encounter is over. Each year I have hoped for the same things: to leave camp with a renewed zeal to 1. grow closer to God and 2. “spread God”. This year I am surprised to have taken something away in addition to those two. I am surprised to find myself genuinely happier, and I attribute that not only to my strengthened relationship with God but to my successful efforts to be more grateful.
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