||At St. James School in Madison, participants such as, here, Ben Schmitz of Dodgeville, help re-paint two classrooms during the 2009 Love Begins Here summer service project in the Diocese of Madison. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
MADISON — The Love Begins Here service camp, held recently at various locations around the diocese, was not just paying lip service to the phrase “love your neighbor.”
It was teaching the youth who attended that even in a place as seemingly affluent as the United States there can be many people in need of help.
“It opens your eyes about how much people need help here,” said Sarah Garcia, a participant from Baraboo who had heard about the camp through her Confirmation class. “An hour away, there are people who need food, clothing, schools that need walls painted; there’s just a lot of stuff to be done here before we look other places.”
Youth mission project
Youth from around the diocese attended the youth mission project Love Begins Here this summer, averaging 22 participants a session. The project, inspired by a similar program in the Diocese of Salina, Kan., and sponsored by the Diocese of Madison Office of Evangelization and Catechesis, combines service and spirituality to help youth see the connection between the faith and the works it should inspire to love and serve others.
“They should always go together,” said Ben Schmitz of Dodgeville, a freshman in college this year. “Isn’t it ‘Faith without works is dead’?”
Schmitz had been to several other camps before, ones that visited other places outside the diocese. This one, he said, was more “eye-opening.”
“When you go somewhere else, you think, ‘Oh, there are poor people over there,” not that there are poor people here,” he said. “My perspective on who needs help has changed — I can help a wider variety of people than I thought.”
Over the course of a week, the youth were able to engage in different service projects, learn about the life of Missionaries of Charity founder Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, attend daily Mass, go to Reconciliation, and pray together. They did home repair; they delivered meals to seniors around Mt. Horeb; they landscaped for a man with Parkinson’s Disease; they worked on various projects to repair trails and flood damage at Durward’s Glen; they re-painted several classrooms at a Catholic school.
And that’s not to say that it was all work and no play; participants and leaders alike enthusiastically entered into games such as various icebreakers, swimming, and scavenger hunts. They also had a lot of time to bond throughout the service work, prayer and meditation, collatio (the Latin word for a shared meal or collective gathering), and talks on the Eucharist, vocations, human dignity, and more.
“There were so many times Gina and I looked at each other and said, ‘this is so much better than anything we could have imagined,’” said Lindsay Becher, youth minister at St. Joseph Parish in Baraboo.
She and co-organizer Gina Pignotti, were at the moment helping one of the teams paint a classroom at St. James School, Madison, in a style designed by participant Sarah Garcia and inspired by the blue-and-white habits of the Missionaries of Charity. Most of the painters were liberally covered in their medium, evidence of the long day they’d had, but none were without a smile and laughter.
“Without even prompting during the week, the kids would say, ‘I never knew that these people were in my own backyard,’” Becher said. She described how they had earlier helped a family of 10, one of whom has stage-five cancer, and other ways they had served their community. “From the outside, you don’t really know what they need.”
Working with and among the people they were serving helped build relationships and open their eyes to the power of service.
“Serving is faith in action,” said Sara Zeman, a 10th grade student from Watertown. “Putting that together — it’s powerful; it makes you think about how you’re seeing God in action.”
Zeman’s favorite activity of the week so far had been working at a mobile food pantry, where they helped by watching the kids and keeping them busy on the playground while their parents got food.
“People are so humble asking for help, and they really appreciate it,” she said. “I think one of the best ways you can help people and love people is just by smiling. So many of the people we’re helping, they feel unloved. Just by smiling, it makes them feel loved — and everyone deserves that.”
Those lessons and the lessons participants learned about their spiritual lives have already given rise to a desire to continue it beyond the camp. Several participants expressed a desire to continue the faith they had strengthened during the work camp. On an evaluation, one of the participants commented, “I didn’t think all of this would mean so much to me. I never would have thought that by the end of the week I’d be crying or care about the group/family as much as I do. My outlook on Church and the Mass reversed — I can’t wait to go.”
There’s already talk of a reunion for the camp participants this fall that would incorporate the ideas of service and prayer again, as well as talk of another camp next year. They’re already getting ideas on what service projects they could do from pastors and youth ministers.
“Every day we say, ‘Next year we’ll do this and that’; it’s just going to be a matter of which weeks to do it,” Becher said of the possibility of holding the camp again. “The kids have already said, ‘We’re coming back next year.’ So there’d better be one!”
To read more about the day-to-day experiences of service camp life, read the Love Begins Here blog at www.madisonlovebeginshere.blogspot.com