This summer, I went on two mission trips with my church youth group through Sierra Service Project. SSP was founded in 1975 by a group of United Methodists (now it is more ecumenical) who wanted to provide young people with the opportunity to serve with others in rural and urban communities. Last week, we slept on a gym floor in Chiloquin, Oregon, where we served members of the Klamath Tribes (a few weeks ago, we were in Susanville, CA serving the Susanville Indian Rancheria). All of the youth are split up from the church groups they came with and put into work teams. My team helped stack firewood and painted a shed for an elderly woman with painful arthritis. The work teams labored from 9am to 4pm everyday, shared a simple PB&J lunch at the worksite alongside a midday devotional, came back to shower, and then participated in evening programs, which included cultural programming from a representative of the Klamath Tribes. Oh, and lest I forget that the youth have their cell phones taken away on Day 1.
We had a wonderful time learning from our homeowners, about God, and more about each other, but there was one thing that really amazed me about the SSP experience: the youth bonded very quickly. There was something magical about a gym floor being the great equalizer. On the first night, the staff encouraged everyone to take off their “cool jackets” and put on their “social sweaters” instead. There was programming that talked about dismantling stereotypes. The theme of the week was “Just Love, Just Serve,” which connoted the idea of a simple (of course, we know its not that simple!) love of our neighbors and also love and service that enacts justice for all in our world. The youth participants really took this to heart and a very welcoming environment was developed quickly. After six days, there were tears in many youth and adult eyes, knowing that this glimpse of God’s love in human community was over until next summer.
Since SSP is a Christian organization, many of the themes had a scriptural basis. Each workgroup developed a covenant based on 1 Corinthians 13 (“Love is patient, love is kind…”). We had discussion and an art project based on Micah 6:8. On a spiritual walk, we interpreted the Lord’s Prayer and discerned what God might be trying to tell us directly. The last night ended with a Love Feast, an old Methodist ritual (we are known for our potlucks, after all!), where we served each other in community a sweet treat (vanilla wafers and peanut butter, in this case) to show how sweet God’s grace is in our lives. Overall, it was a well-blended mix of faith, love, and service with enough take-aways to continue similar work in our local church settings.
For myself, I know that United Methodist camping ministry has been a huge part of my faith formation. It is where I was affirmed most and where an inkling of my own call to ministry began. There is just something about getting away from one’s quotidian life and taking an adventure with little expectations and seeing what you can discover about God and yourself. For teenagers and young adults, these experiences are priceless.
Being an interfaith leader and a contributor for this blog, my SSP experience got my intellectual and dreaming wheels turning. What would be the benefit of weeklong (or longer) camping/service trips with an interfaith focus? Would there be a benefit? I think there would be immense benefit, but such a program would have to be very tactful and intentional. Much like faith formation in any tradition, forming a young person for leadership in a religiously diverse world is not to be done halfheartedly. Needless to say, I think organizations like Sierra Service Project have a really good model from which an interfaith focus could begin.
Are there any thoughts from other interfaith leaders out there?