By Susan Fawcett
The week after Christmas, I found myself at a conference for Episcopal high school students at Kanuga (a camp and conference center in North Carolina) called ‘Winterlight.’ Two hundred students came from as far away as New Jersey and Miami to be there. Leading this event was a group of 56 adults, many of them college students, most of them under 30 years old.
Winterlight’s theme this year was “You are the light of the world.” Each day’s activities, music, worship, program time, and small group discussions touched on some particular aspect of that theme, as we sought to let the light of God shine through us.
The week was truly remarkable, highlighted by several events. In the space of three hours in one afternoon, the Winterlight community packaged 33,000 meals for Stop Hunger Now, which will go to Haiti and Tanzania for famine relief. An evening variety show celebrated the talents—diverse and sometimes silly—of the participants. A New Years’ Eve Eucharist ended with laying-on-of-hands for the graduating seniors, and dancing and singing that quite literally shook the rafters of the Kanuga chapel. Between these events were the smaller moments that happen on retreats, time-out-of-time—meals, walks, discussions, games, singing, and connections forged between people who otherwise might never have met.
The story of Winterlight is a unique and particularly moving one, and I can’t recommend the conference enough as an opportunity for any high school students you might know. Kanuga also offers a similar summertime event called ‘Youth Week.’ But that is not exactly the story I’m trying to tell here.
What has stayed with me since the conference ended is the power of the Winterlight staff, many of whom are college students. Their high caliber was evident in some obvious ways—the professionalism of the music and of the audio-visual work, for example. Several skits involved pre-recorded digital videos that had been expertly directed, recorded, and edited. The music team managed to include professional and amateur musicians on a repertoire that went all the way from Christmas hymns to Rihanna’s Umbrella—a feat in itself.
Moreover, each day’s program was developed by a team of staff, not by a professional (nor seminary-educated) keynoter. Their articulate presentation, compelling faith, and creative teaching mechanisms could not have been more effective.
The staff showed their power in more subtle foundational ways as well. The care they showed for each other in developing a staff community that was open to newcomers, the remarkable compassion and patience they showed for the participants, the energy they brought to each day’s program, all of these things were significant. I was particularly impressed by the utter lack of cynicism the staff showed about their work. These people truly believe in the power of God to shape lives through community. Winterlight is not, for them, just one way to occupy youth over New Year’s Eve or pitch church propaganda. For them, it is a very real connection to God, a privilege, and a holy task.
Conference co-coordinator Rebecca Nelson Edwards reflected about this same issue. “Because I grew up participating in Winterlight as a teenager and then transitioned onto staff, it seemed normal that 60 people would detach themselves from home and family for the week after Christmas (including New Year’s Eve!) to spend time with 200 teenagers talking about God and faith and learning to love yourself. As I began working in the ‘real world’ a few years ago, I started to gain more appreciation for the miracle that actually is, even within the Church. Not only do these folks give significant time and energy to this endeavor – they’re really good at it, and that evolves not out of any particularly special training (other than Safeguarding God’s Children, of course) or skill, but just out of a deep love and willingness and energy.
Every single member of the staff could be counted on both for leadership and pastoral care at any given moment, and it was most gratifying to watch ministry taking place everywhere you turned during the week. Actions that might seem heroically gracious anywhere else are commonplace in the Winterlight community.
“This year I really began to look around and notice how young most of our staff is – over half of them are still college students, which only makes me all the more impressed at their competence. I’m surprised even more when I hear most of our younger staff members talk about their day-to-day lives outside Kanuga, because many of them, like typical college students, don’t necessarily keep up their involvement in church or even Canterbury groups.
“In other words, these aren’t just a bunch of church nerds who have nothing better to do. They’re ordinary folks from all walks of life who have been touched by the Holy Spirit at Winterlight and want to pay it forward. It’s one of the most genuine ways for ministry to be born.”
Edwards’ observation about the young age of the staff bears noting. One of the aspects of the conference that most impressed me was the ‘Torchbearers’ program. College freshmen, on staff for the first time, serve as Torchbearers. They have some special tasks at the conference, including finding a new and creative way to light the Winterlight candle at the beginning of each day. They also meet together as a group each day.
Christopher Turner, a former Winterlight coordinator and currently Executive Director of Grace Point Episcopal Camp and Retreat Center (Diocese of East Tennessee), helps run this aspect of Winterlight. He noted that the Torchbearer program was developed to bridge that ‘gap’ year after high school graduation. Not just forging a sense of team spirit or reinforcing the rules, the extra time spent as a group under the guidance of more experienced leaders offers them a separate time to process the transition from participant to staff member, from youth to adult.
‘Young adult ministry’ has been getting a lot of press and energy lately. Churches have been engaging their young adults with Pub Theology events, small groups, conferences like Camino, and alternative worship services. That is all well and good. I was captivated at Winterlight, however, by the leadership of these young adults, some of them only one year out of high school.
This is a generation that learns not by listening or even by talking but by doing. What opportunities for doing ministry, for real leadership are we creating for young adults in the church? How are we creating intentional routes for young adults to transition from ‘youth’ to ‘adult’ status, the way Torchbearers do at Winterlight? And if these college students and twentysomethings have so much to offer (and gain) from church leadership, why are so many parishes bemoaning their lack of young adults in the pews on Sunday mornings?
As a priest who works mostly with youth in my parish, I have spent a lot of time telling middle- and high-school students how important their voices are. They hear over and over again that they are full members of the church, that they have the power to change the world, and that their faith can be inspiring for others. But beyond high school graduation, there often seems to be something of a desert out there, marked by small oases of college ministry and camp counselor experiences.
I was touched at Winterlight that there are in fact many other powerful ways for young people to continue to do ministry in college and beyond, perhaps with more freedom than might be possible within the framework of a parish.
The Rev. Susan Fawcett keeps the blog This Passage. She serves a parish the Diocese of Virginia, and supports the work of the General Convention publication The Center Aisle.