Youth Retreat in Kenya
In 1990 Saint John Paul II wrote his encyclical Mission of the Redeemer in which he declared that “the Holy Spirit is indeed the principal agent of the whole of the Church’s mission.” In this mission that Jesus has called us to, we depend on the Holy Spirit to guide us every step of the way.
After returning to our little village of Mikinduri, from Nairobi where we were taking language classes, we began talking as a family about what ministries the Lord may be calling us to. Katelyn and Anna expressed a strong desire to lead retreats for the young adults, but acknowledged the difficulty of establishing credibility among their peers. Little did they know…
At the November parish council meeting representatives from all seven of our parish’s outlying communities gathered to talk about upcoming events. After discussing the activities already scheduled, a gentleman raised his hand and said, “It would be nice if we could do something for the youth during their break from school.” All 25+ people in the room nodded and agreed that it would be nice to have something, but then the conversation moved on to other topics. I sat quietly trying to follow the conversation in Swahili, but found my mind wandering––maybe we could organize something for the youth. After whispering my thought to Chris, he and I prayed silently that the Lord would send His spirit to inspire us if there was something that He wanted to do through us. Almost immediately we got the idea of hosting a retreat for the young adults. We quickly scribbled a note to our parish priest who was sitting nearby, asking for permission to suggest the idea to the group. We also sent a quick text to Katelyn, who was with Anna, to see if they were interested. Within 10 minutes we were enthusiastically presenting our idea to the council. Straightfaced, they bombarded us with questions and seemed unsatisfied with our non-specific answers. We talked a bit about the retreats we led in Peru, told them about our reliance on the Holy Spirit, and assured them that it was going to be great. They didn’t look convinced, but agreed to consider our plan after it was more developed. Given their expressed desire to “have something for the youth”, we were surprised at their reluctance…until we learned that at the parish’s last retreat a participant was raped by a local man in his mid twenties who sneaked in unnoticed.
Slowly, they became friends with the three guys who serve as the young adult leaders of the group: George, Moseh, and Godfrey. As they continued to plan, Katelyn and Anna solicited the guys’ advice and invited them to critique their drafts. All praise be to God, George, Moseh and Godfrey were willing and available to meet on several occasions to fine tune the schedule. After the plans were complete Chris and I had to meet with a representative from the diocese to have it all approved. The gentleman was incredibly impressed with our thoroughness and felt confident that it would be a great experience for all that chose to attend….Come Holy Spirit!!
During the planning phase we were told that pretty much all of the kids attending the retreat speak English; however, during registration we discovered that less than half were able to understand what we were saying to them. So, during the retreat we intentionally spoke very slowly and used the British English that we’ve learned. Thankfully, we also could rely on George, Moseh, and Godfrey who translated what we were saying into Kimeru and also helped out by leading many of the activities.
As the kids were arriving Katelyn, Anna and Michael engaged the kids with fun and silly icebreakers. One of the group’s favorites was learning the Cotton Eyed Joe dance.
Thinking back to my career as an instructional designer, I talked with the girls about strategies for getting people into groups and the value of making even the simplest of tasks fun. They took all that I said and ran with it. After the icebreakers each participant was given a piece of paper with his/her name along with the name of an animal. S/he had to wander around the hall making the animal’s noise until all of the group members had found one another. It was interesting to listen to the sounds that they made for various animals. Also, it was surprising that they didn’t know what sound a horse makes because there aren’t many horses in Kenya. The kids told us that horses are weak compared to donkeys, and that they aren’t worthwhile for anyone here to buy.
After everyone found their group, we compared our registration records with who was actually standing before us to make sure that everyone was accounted for. We closed registration and locked the doors. There were 88 kids in attendance – HOW AWESOME!!!
Shortly thereafter, some local women arrived to serve everyone a delicious dinner of rice and beans, which the kids loved!
Immediately following dinner Chris gave the first talk on the universality of the church and the mind-blowing reality that we’re all one body in Christ.
Striving for that perfect balance, talks were followed by games and dancing; so, when Chris was done, Katelyn and Anna got everyone up again to dance. When it was time to settle down I led a handful of volunteers in an impromptu skit which illustrated God the Father’s role as our only judge. I had kids acting like runaway cows, and pretending to fix broken fences and water spiquets, which made the whole group laugh really hard. It was fun!! After the skit I talked to them about the importance of living for the Lord, and not allowing ourselves to worry about the petty criticisms of others. Given the fact that adolescents all over the world worry about what others think of them, we knew this topic would hit close to home.
Around 11:30PM the local women returned to serve the kids a snack to keep their energy up: homemade African donut chunks and sweet drinking chocolate (which we would describe as watery hot cocoa).
When we were planning how much time each activity would take, we allotted 20 minutes for this late night snack. However, it took more than double that amount of time because the kids ate and drank sooooo slowly as to savor each bite/sip of sweetness.
We obviously weren’t going to tell them to hurry up and enjoy their special snack…
So, we had to just wait patiently for them to finish. It was definitely eye-opening to witness their tremendous gratitude and desire to make this moment last for as long as possible.
To get the sugar pumping through their bodies, Katelyn and Anna taught the kids a dance to the song “Wavin’ Flag”, which was an immediate hit. After little instruction the whole room was stepping, clapping, spinning and singing in unison. To see them dancing, you can click on the following link. This video clip is actually of them doing the dance the following day, but it’s one in the same.
After Katelyn wore the kids out dancing all around, I gave a teaching on what it means to be free using one of my favorite scripture verses as the basis: “The truth will set you free.” (John 8:32) Although the kids were getting tired, they remained engaged which was encouraging.
The next activity on the agenda was adoration. Before bringing out the Blessed Sacrament, Katelyn gave a talk on the life changing encounters that she and her friends have had during adoration. She explained that there is nowhere in the entire world that she’d rather be than with Jesus in a candle lit space where worship music is playing. After Katelyn’s talk we filled the room with candles and turned off the lights. Chris processed in with the monstrance and asked for a moment of silence. The kids were so respectful. Shortly thereafter he began playing the guitar quietly and singing our family’s favorite praise songs; Anna, Katelyn, and I sang along. We had distributed copies of the worship songs so that the kids could see the lyrics, but didn’t necessarily expect them to join in. At one point, I opened my eyes, looked out at the crowd seated on the floor and realized that practically everyone was singing along. It was really, really powerful. Another thing that seemed to impact the kids was when Katelyn and Anna sang their favorite praise songs a capella and with TONS of emotion. I’m not sure that they’ve ever witnessed someone their own age proclaim their love for Jesus in such a bold way!
Around 3AM, as adoration was ending, Chris slipped out with the guys and took them to the dormitory at the boarding school here in our compound. It sounds like they quickly and uneventfully fell fast asleep…unlike the girls who took forever to get themselves ready for bed, to decide who they were going to sleep next to, and to arrange their belongings. After lights-out, we prayed as a group. I foolishly thought that the girls would go to sleep since it was about 3:45AM, but that wasn’t the case. There were hours of chattering, giggling and conspiring about the practical jokes that they were going to play on one another.
Most of it was typical teenage girl stuff; however, I was surprised when some of them pretended to be large cats (like lions and tigers), prowled about in the dark between the church pews making ferocious growling sounds, and then pounced on the unsuspecting girls who had fallen asleep. The awakened victims screamed and everyone else busted out laughing. I guess I never really considered how one’s culture would impact the types of practical jokes that they would play. There were a few times when I got frustrated with all the nonsense, not because it was keeping me awake because I knew I would be up all night, but because I imagined there were girls who wanted to get at least a little bit of rest before sunrise. All in all, it was fine and I’m happy that the kids had so much fun together!
Morning came early after such a long night. At 6AM the kids cleaned up their sleeping spaces and got themselves ready for the day by one communal spigot outside of the outhouses. Then, we all attended Holy Mass together.
After Mass we had breakfast. The local women prepared sour brown porridge, which is what most people in our village have for breakfast each day. I thank God for allowing me to drink it without throwing up. That may sound ridiculous, but each time I swallowed, my gag reflex was working overtime to try to prevent this liquid from entering my stomach.
Katelyn began the second day by explaining the relevance of all we had done together since their arrival. She connected each talk and activity to our faith and the journey that we’re all on.
She transitioned into a group activity in which each team had to use paper and tape to make a warrior costume for one of its members.
We’ve been told that the kids here in our area don’t have many opportunities to do group work or hands-on activities in school. They spend the vast majority of their time just listening to teachers talk at them. So, it was challenging for them to complete this task altogether. Chris, Anna, Katelyn and I circulated around the room to help out.
After the activity Anna explained the purpose of making warrior costumes and spoke to the kids about spiritual warfare. It seemed to be a topic that they had never heard about before so I’m super thankful that Anna felt inspired to cover it. I was also thankful that she talked about the unique challenges that adolescents face trying to live out their faith.
Next, we prepared for our final activity. The kids got into their animal groups one last time and organized themselves for relay races.
When we were done with the relay races we wrapped up the retreat by talking to the kids about how the spreading of the faith is like a relay race. As the baton is passed from one person to the next, so is the faith. We pray that as they fall more and more in love with Jesus that they’ll feel inspired to pass that on to others.
All of the kids left to go to the other side of our compound where the local ladies
had lunch waiting for them. Katelyn and Anna collapsed.
After resting for a short bit, we began the task of cleaning up the hall for the church group that would meet there later that night.
As soon as we all got back to our house we fell fast asleep. It had been a busy, busy, busy last few days.
When we awoke and talked about the retreat, we all agreed that the hard work was well worth it. The retreat was wildly successful on many different fronts: everyone was safe, it seemed as though they all had fun, our kids got to know many of the youth in this area, the local women were able to earn some money for their families, and hopefully the young adults encountered the Lord in a new way. In the days and weeks following the retreat many of the kids that didn’t participate have asked when we’re having another one because they heard that it was so awesome. Thank you Jesus!!! We attribute our success to the Lord, of course, and praise Him for giving us such an incredible team of mission partners who provide us with the financial means to preach the gospel in such creative and life-changing ways. We humbly ask for prayers, that we’re able to remain docile to the Holy Spirit, who is in fact the principal agent of missions, just like Saint John Paul II said.