In the height of summer, a group of roughly two dozen teen-agers gathered at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City for a week that would leave them all greatly changed on the inside, many for the first time.
This was a convening of Catholic youth throughout the Diocese of Jefferson City for the annual CHRISTpower retreat.
According to Father Daniel Merz, retreat Spiritual Director, the changes in the youth were extremely noticeable.
“One set of parents said that their child was different when he was picked up from when he was dropped off,” said Fr. Merz. “He seemed more engaged with them, more at peace. He gave them a hug. They were kind of very happily surprised.”
Fr. Merz went on to mention a girl from his own parish who attended the retreat and had told him she was “glad her parents made her come.”
The priest attributed this change in demeanor to the quickly built and reinforced sense of community that the CHRISTpower retreat is designed to instill in all who partake of it each year.
Those who prepare the annual week of service and reflection hope their youth retreatants put that sense of community to work in addressing with real-world struggles.
“Their experience of community and faith that they had on the week of CHRISTpower is the sanity,” said Fr. Merz. “When they go out into the world and experience a lot of other kinds of negative things or pressures or chaos; that’s the insanity.”
This was the 16th CHRISTpower to be held in this diocese.
First organized in 2004 by James Bockwinkel; his parents, George and Ginny Bockwinkel; and many adults who are active in youth ministry, the annual retreat has taken many turns through the years.
“Each year is different,” said this year’s retreat’s lay director, Joe Reinkemeyer. “There are elements that don’t change — most notably that God is always at work — but each retreat is custom-made and has its own distinct vibe.”
The 2019 CHRISTpower included 21 youth participants; 15 core team members; another 15 volunteers who helped with logistical support, planning, music ministry and other tasks; and dozens of additional volunteers who in groups of three to 10 people provided breakfast and dinner on each of the days.
Generous benefactors covered much of the cost. Helias Catholic High School served as home base.
All of these people and groups helped make this year’s retreat a uniquely unforgettable experience for the retreatants and the hundreds of people whose lives they touched.
Responding to love
Mr. Reinkemeyer devised the theme for this year’s retreat — “Credo: A Relentless Love.”
Relentless love “is what Christ offers us, what Christ is constantly trying to give us, His relentless love,” said Mr. Reinkemeyer. “For me personally, it was, ‘How do I respond to that?’”
He said that the entire week’s lessons and spiritual reflections were based on the four pillars of the Catholic Church: creed, sacraments, morality and prayer.
Each lesson, while unique in its own approach and execution, could be drawn back to one of those four pillars.
This was Reinkemeyer’s eighth consecutive summer attending the CHRISTpower retreat — first as a participant, then as a team member.
He saw the opportunity to direct the entire week as a chance to offers some of his good experiences back to God through those who are just beginning the adventure.
“When we started planning for this year’s retreat, I said I’m trying to design a retreat that I needed when I was in high school,” said Mr. Reinkemeyer.
From the Upper Room
Starting on Day 1, the retreat went about building small faith communities, known as teams, within the larger retreat community.
“What really stood out to me was how fast we became a close family,” stated Luke Hinton, a participant on this year’s retreat.
Participants were given plenty of chances to be challenged in their faith, with teams doing service work throughout the week at such locations as the Salvation Army food pantry and kitchen and Capital Projects, a mailing and packaging company that mostly employs people with physical and developmental disabilities.
The sense of community grew stronger as the week went on.
“I became very open with (my teammates) and one day started discussing religion with them,” said Luke. “I was saying I didn’t realize we were describing our relationship with Jesus and how awesome this has been.”
In Fr. Merz’s eyes, that same unique sense of community that in a week’s time got high-schoolers comfortable with the idea of talking about their faith to their peers, also helped prepare the young retreatants for dealing with the world outside CHRISTpower’s positive atmosphere.
“We go to the Upper Room to not just be reshaped but to be armed,” Fr. Merz said. “So yeah, over that week of CHRISTpower, we openly spoke of being armed with the virtues of strength and love and service and community that they can then hopefully take with them out into the world.
“And when others are being negative or being indifferent, then they can reply to that. They can say, ‘No, it does matter, and this is why.’”