By PAUL A. BARRA
LEESVILLE — Take dozens of high school kids who are supposed to be on summer vacation, strand them for a week in piney woods with no TV, no computers and no telephones, feed them early in the morning, keep them up at night praying, roll them through exercise programs and drill them constantly on the Bible.
Sounds like some sort of religious prison, right?
For the 61 youth who participated in this year’s diocesan Christian Leadership Institute, the week of July 5 was actually a liberating experience. They come to CLI to improve their lives.
“This brings us closer to Christ,” said Marie Connelly, 16, of Our Lady of the Lake in Chapin. “That closeness makes us better leaders.”
The Institute is a time with plenty of activities designed to liberate teen-aged frustrations and channel their energy.
At a typical evolution one day, 10 teens tried to get everyone over a rope tied between two trees while they kept in physical contact with each other. Eight made it, but when they tried to get the ninth one over, his foot touched the rope and the whole process had to start all over again. Frustration etched on their flushed faces, the kids decided to pray before working out an alternative strategy. Then they sang a spiritual, bodies swaying and anger dropping away.
In the end they did not accomplish their goal before time ran out. They walked off to lunch in high spirits nevertheless, with frustrations defeated by being shared.
“This is a whole community-building experience,” said Randy Feller, director of the 318-acre Kinard Conference Center where the Christian Leadership Institute was held. “They take what happens here and transfer it metaphorically to what happens in real life. We try to help them make those kinds of connections.”
The teens also connect with each other. Broken down into ten faith communities, each named after one of Paul’s letters, the kids learn to work as teams rather than as individuals. They know what’s going on at the camp; it’s what they want from their church.
“It brings me closer to God and to other human beings. It’s lots of fun but we learn at the same time and leaders seem to pop up out of this kind of environment,” said Michael Loehr, 15, of St. James in Conway.
At the center of it all is the dynamism of Jerry White, director of the Youth and Young Adults Ministry Office of the Diocese of Charleston. White is everywhere every day, leading songs, organizing photo shoots, creating impromptu skits, encouraging, disciplining, listening and leading. He holds high expectations for Catholic young people in South Carolina.
“We train them morally and lead them to the Lord. They are destined to be leaders in their faith, and the best leaders are those who serve other people,” White said.
A worship service designed by the students themselves ended each evening. At one of them, the 11 counselors washed the feet of their charges.
Jane Myers, director of religious education at the Paulist communities of St. Paul in Seneca, St. Andrew in Clemson and St. Francis in Walhalla, called White “incredible.” The eight teens from her parishes who participated in the CLI will form the leadership core of their teen groups, she said. Lisa Gent of Blessed Sacrament in Charleston said that the counselors have to “step out and let the kids lead.”
They led, and they grew. At the beginning of the week they were singing songs, according to music consultant Allyson Moring of Blessed Sacrament, but by the end “they are singing prayers.”
Kelley Price, a College of Charleston student who took time off from her summer job to be a counselor, observed the faith of the youngsters deepen even as she watched. She was particularly impressed, she said, with the personal sharing that took place at the prayer services in the evenings.
John Waters, youth coordinator of the Midlands Deanery and at St. Joseph in Columbia, was awed and encouraged by what he saw happening at the Christian Leadership Institute: “It’s inspiring to me. We learn more from them than vice versa, and it gives me hope for the future.”
Karla Hoppmann of Waters’ church shared that hope.
“It’s good to get youth involved in the Church,” Hoppmann said. “It can be frustrating, but not here!”
One of those involved was Ian Clarke-Pounder, 16, of St. John the Beloved in Summerville. He memorized, and recited to White, the name of every book in the Bible. Another was Kerry Stuckart, 15, of St. James in Conway, who popped up as a leader among leaders. Stuckart said that the skills she learned at the CLI could be applied to any task. The reason? “Because God is in each one of us,” she said.
White closed out the Institute by telling the participants that the purpose of the week was to send back Christian leaders who can now share Jesus with their friends at home. As the teens said their tearful good-byes and headed home to their televisions and telephones, none of them acted as if they were being released from prison.