Into the Wilderness

Brad* snorted his last line of cocaine one day before leaving for a Young Life adventure camping experience. Once his group strapped on their backpacks and hit the trail, things got rough. Brad would brag about his sexual endeavors or drug use and show off his body piercing. He tested the tempers of leaders and trail guides and behaved belligerently at every turn. His leaders and trail guides were patient and prayerful, continually loving Brad despite his rebellious behavior.

But, midweek, Brad’s attitude began to shift. He began to notice the fellowship. The group had spent their days sharing their lives — around the campfire, during meals or quick breaks — by telling stories about their experiences. Brad saw Christ’s love in action as the group helped each other during their journey. He also experienced the beauty of God’s creation, and realized that he was a part of that creation. He was ready to make some changes; he was ready to step into a relationship with his Creator.

A long tradition
In the Bible, when a person wants to commune with God — witness His beauty, power and glory — he or she ventures into the wilderness. Moses, Elijah, David and Jesus are some of the people who went into the wilderness to experience God. Young Life is sending kids out to experience that spiritual tradition. Adventure camping has had a special part in Young Life’s programs for more than 30 years. It is meant to give kids opportunities to grow in and deepen their faith. With a group of Young Life friends, the kids travel to camp for a week of extreme activity.

“The week is designed to give kids more tools for growth, more food for thought, more opportunity to have deep conversation while being challenged to trust God in very tangible, faith-building situations,” said Courtney Thomsen, part-time property staff person at Mountain Lodge, which is located in northern California.

Many of them, for the first time in their lives, have time alone in solace. They aren’t able to turn to their iPods, cell phones or video games. Through adventure camping, kids experience God in a way that they wouldn’t normally have at home — through rivers, mountains and trees, through community-style living and intense experiences, physically, emotionally and spiritually.

“The day-to-day activities allow for experiences that provide experiential learning and excellent opportunity for transference of the things learned to their life at home,” said Rob Duyker, property manager at Beyond Malibu. “We use metaphors and analogies. For example, the rope in a rappel or rock climb can be an analogy to God. Our trust in that rope can also be a tangible understanding of how we could trust in God and what that might feel like. We spend time in Scripture and time alone to reflect on our relationship with God, and we see His awesome creation.”

Exploring this relationship can challenge kids not only spiritually, but also physically and emotionally.

“After the trip kids may behave differently at home because they have been able to overcome something, an obstacle,” said Matt Toth, with RMR: Backcountry in Colorado. “It tends to solidify faith in an awesome way because it comes through the confines of pain, struggle and challenge.”

Leap of faith
Whitney* signed up to go to Mountain Lodge with her Young Life group from an urban area of San Francisco. Before her trip, she had never left the city; it was the first time she traveled over the Golden Gate Bridge. She had begun a relationship with Christ earlier that year and had been attending club and Campaigners regularly. On the trail, everything was a challenge for her, especially cliff jumping. Whitney stood, terrified, at the edge of a 12- to 15-foot cliff staring into the water below, refusing to jump in. When, all of a sudden, the 40 kids who had gone before her, still wading in the water, began chanting her name.

Whitney began to cry. “I can’t believe they’re yelling for me,” she said to her leader, Christie Howard, also a Young Life area director in San Francisco, who was standing with her and holding her hand. After a few minutes of grappling with her fear, Whitney counted to three and leapt into the cold water.

“Kids are really searching for what their faith means,” Howard said. “It reminded me of a cloud of witnesses — all of the people cheering and showing the love of Christ. It was the highlight of Whitney’s week and it will always represent stepping out and doing what she was afraid of — trusting God.”

Knocking down walls
Frank* was a football player, very big and tough, who decided to go backpacking at Wilderness Ranch. During the trip he got stuck in a muddy sinkhole and sank down to the top of his boots. He tried to get himself out of the mess, but the more he struggled on his own, the more the mud sucked him in. When the female trail guide went back to help him, he was in tears, struggling with his physical exhaustion and the fact that he was falling behind everyone else.

According to Matt Ismert, creative camping coordinator for Wilderness Ranch, such experiences on the trail break down walls and open the door for guides, leaders and kids to talk about important spiritual issues. After Frank had rejoined the group, “the spiritual metaphors really began flowing,” Ismert said, “the avoidable muddy spot that a distracted high school student couldn’t miss, the struggle to extract himself with his own power from the mess, the emotions of failure, fear and exhaustion and then his reliance on the guide who helped him out of the mud.” Frank left Wilderness Ranch knowing that he could count on others — even those who seem weaker — to help get him out of life’s muddy sinkholes.

Coming down from the mountain
The adventure camping experience gives kids something to take home — the feeling of knowing that they can persevere. Kids learn they can overcome impossible odds with Christ, whether they are climbing up and down a mountain in British Columbia or facing challenges to their faith at home.

“Coming down from the mountain” — getting back into their daily lives at home — is a hard task. Many of the kids walk into worlds where their faith is mocked, ignored or hated. But their experience in the wilderness can lend some perspective.

“When you’re on the mountain you can see where you’ve come from,” Toth said. “You can also see where you want to go. We have great perspective on the mountain, but nothing lives on the mountain, there is no vegetation. But if [kids] look in the valley they can see where the animals live, where things grow and flourish. God is the Lord of the mountain, but also of the valley.”

* an alias