Hello EDSD! I recently joined 50 youth, eight of who attend my parish–St. Bartholowmew’s in Poway–for the 2023 Diocesan Youth Epiphany Retreat at Camp Stevens. I am the Director of Communications and the Assistant Director of Youth Ministries at St. Bart’s, so when eight of our students (four middle-schoolers and four high-schoolers) wanted to go to the Epiphany Retreat, I couldn’t have been more excited. I experienced this retreat last year, and I knew that this opportunity would enliven the students and give me a chance to chaperone and encourage my youth to attend again this year. It was one of the most fulfilling spiritual weekends I’ve had in a long time.
Growing up, I learned about youth groups and became jealous of my protestant and non-denominational friends whose churches had discussion groups and social events for their youth. My Catholic church and the other one in our town had schools attached to them; therefore, they didn’t even think to provide anything besides CCD (religious ed) classes for us public school kids. In eighth grade, my mom and I got together with some other peers and parents to approach the head pastor and start a youth group of our own. We’d meet once a week in a room over one of our members’ garages, listen to contemporary Christian music, discuss a topic of the evening, plan an annual ski trip, attend a diocesan event a year, and eventually, World Youth Day. At least I had something. It wasn’t enough. It came nowhere close to what our EDSD churches, our diocese, and Camp Stevens offers our youth today.
When we arrived, the 50+ attendees checked in and found friends old and new in the dining hall. The camp and diocesan staff welcomed us. We served one another meals and prayed as Jesus did with his disciples. We had delicious food cooked by the camp staff, decided on rules for the weekend, turned in cell phones, and gathered into small groups.
Throughout the weekend, we discussed salt and light, elements from the Epiphany gospel readings. We enjoyed fellowship with one another and welcomed new friends to join in the conversations and fun. We sang around a campfire, made s’mores for a treat, prayed for our world, made bracelets with words of intention, painted rocks for inspiration, climbed a ropes course for challenge and exhilaration, cleared trails around the property for service, and participated in communion for our spiritual fulfillment–making memories that will last a lifetime.
These weekends are just as much fun and fulfilling for me as a grownup, facilitating and witnessing our youth’s camp activities as it is for the students. I also had a chance to do things I never did growing up and be myself in every way, something that was not a safe thing for me during my childhood or as a young adult. At St. Barts, our diocesan events, and Camp Stevens, I am allowed to physically present myself as I feel comfortable. I am a female with a short haircut and often wear masculine clothing. My relationship with my wife is affirmed, and it is safe to share this aspect of my life with anyone if I wish to do so. But even more importantly than spaces being safe for me, I am identified as a safe adult who represents a community of LGBTQ+ believers in Christ, with whom many of today’s youth identify and need. I am grateful to be seen as worthy of filling that role and honored to be an example to all of our youth that anyone can be a believer; and that everyone is worthy of God’s love, including them, wherever they may be in their physical expression, gender, sexuality, and spiritual journeys.
The Rev. Hannah Wilder joined us to celebrate the Holy Eucharist and incorporated our Youth Leadership Council. One of the students was invited to serve at the altar, which connected our students even more with the liturgy. It was a beautiful moment that I will cherish. I was so proud of this student. And I am incredibly grateful for the gifts that Rev. Hannah brings to this camp, our church, and our diocese while simultaneously being a vibrant member of the LGBTQ+ community. How cool is that? Our youth can see LGBTQ+ leaders and clergy of various ages, races, genders, orientations, and more! That is mind-blowing to me.
Finally, on Sunday morning, a group of teens was lingering at their dining table after breakfast. I let them know they needed to finish up. “We don’t want to finish breakfast and cleanup…that means that camp is over, and we don’t want to leave,” they said. Guess who the majority of these campers were? – our non-binary and LGBTQ+ youth. And I didn’t blame them. I would have felt the same way had I found a group of peers in such an open, safe, affirming, and supportive Christian environment. They get to be who they are AND love Jesus. AND BE LOVED by Jesus. And what a perfect theme for our year for our diocesan youth: Beloved. Thank you, Camp Stevens, the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, Charlette Preslar, my fellow youth ministers, the Youth Leadership Council, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, and my wife for making it possible for me and all present to have the weekend that we just had. If you are reading this, know that you are “Beloved” by our Lord, God and Savior. God Bless.