by Steph Craig

Windows down, the latest country hits blasting – we had been winding our way into the forest-covered mountains of Dahlonega, Northern Georgia, for about an hour when the sign suddenly appeared: Camp Hidden Lake. This was it. We had finally arrived. As we turned onto the twisting entrance road, climbing higher up into the leafy hills, my heart thumped with excitement. The anticipation vibrating off my two new friends was almost tangible.

As a Cradle Catholic who had never really been involved in church ministry, I had taken a blind leap of faith and travelled to the middle of the United States where, for some mysterious reason, God apparently wanted me to work as a Life Teen Summer Missionary for six weeks. Truth be told, my life has never really been the same since.

The picturesque camp looked like something straight out of the Parent Trap movie that had originally inspired my desire to work on an American summer camp many years ago. More importantly, it is hallowed ground. At Camp Hidden Lake, modern day saints-in-the-making are born. It is home to hundreds of teenagers every summer, who leave with lives wrecked (in the best possible way) by a God, faith and love unlike any they have ever previously encountered. It is a place where nuns and priests can be found splashing their way through mud pits, tubing down rivers and skating around on long boards – freer and happier than I ever thought those engaged in religious vocations could be. It is a place where glory stories of changed lives reign supreme.

Above all, Life Teen’s Camp Hidden Lake is a place where people love others fiercely and authentically, always seeking to put another’s wellbeing above their own. It was this profoundly new way that I saw people treat one another – rushing to help one another, to serve each other and lift one another up – that made me think Camp Hidden Lake must surely be the closest thing to Heaven on earth. Even upon our arrival, we were greeted by the ever-selfless service crew, streaming down the hill towards our cars, banging on the windows, shouting and singing and dancing in delight. In any other situation, it would have been downright petrifying to have 25 strangers haul you out of your car, embrace you like long-lost family and welcome you ‘home’ with hearts of pure joy. But not at Camp Hidden Lake. I remember wondering where on earth Life Teen had managed to find all of these people – they were so different, so alive, so full of excitement and laughter.

As I was soon to learn, that was what people on fire for their faith looked like. And most amazingly to me, they were all young, Catholic adults. Up until that point, I had only ever encountered people who exuberated such a passion for God in more upbeat, new-age churches. Never before had I come across young, Catholic university students who were excited about the prospect of three hours of adoration, prayer and mass early on a Monday morning, let alone young adults who were seriously considering a vocation as a priest or sister.

Sounds crazy? Believe me, at first it was. But then I also slowly began to be affected by this joy, this passion and the unmistakable spring in your step that comes from six weeks of daily mass. I began to look forward to evening prayer sessions with my missionary sisters, singing the Hail Mary at the top of our voices under the Georgia stars. I too welcomed bewildered teenagers ‘home’ to camp in the same jubilant way. And I wondered on numerous occasions what we would have to do to get South African Catholics as zealous about their faith as those Life Teen missionaries.

At first, it wasn’t easy though – as nothing worthwhile ever is. After a week of training, my germophobic self had been faced with the perils of smelly and muddy messy games, had been exhausted by early morning holy hours and had failed to accomplish a very scary trust fall exercise. I was way out of my comfort zone and the day before my first set of campers was due to arrive, I literally cried to go home. How was I supposed to minister to these teenagers?

It was in this distress that my fellow missionaries gave me the best possible advice. “Steph,” they said. “Just love them.” Love them with all your heart and might, and God will do the rest – which is exactly how it happened. I realised that if God wanted anything to happen with these campers’ hearts, then he would take care of it. After all, as the Catholic cliché goes, God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. It was a lesson I learnt over and over again that summer, as I began to explore the powerful force that is selfless love lived out in service of others.

That’s the most amazing thing about love I think – it’s an endless resource. The more that is asked of you, the more you find within yourself to give. It never runs out. And what a blessing that is because if there was one thing I learnt that summer, it is that so many people are hurting in this world. There is so much suffering, I am overwhelmed by it at times. Thank God for our hearts that can feel and break, and thank God for the endless love he gives us so that we may give it away – the world is in desperate need of its healing.

I still don’t know why God sent me to camp that summer and I still don’t know what he wants me to do with the lessons I learnt there. But I do know that my heart has been on fire ever since – one cannot spend time at a place like Camp Hidden Lake without emerging as a changed person. Words will never be able to fully describe the immense range of emotions and experiences that I had there, and I long to return to those days with all my heart.

My desire for anyone reading this article is that they may be infected with the passion, wonder and love for God that my missionary brothers and sisters had so much of. I want to see young South African Catholics filling the pews of churches, singing the hymns like they mean it and living in the fellowship that is so important for us as we walk this tough journey together. If you are reading this, may your heart be set on fire and burn with such excitement that you too run around dancing and singing with a joy that cannot be contained. And if you ever get the chance to do any form of missionary work, grab it with both hands. In return, God will change your life forever.

About the AuthorProfile Stephanie

Steph Craig

Born and bred in Cape Town, I am an ardent Stormers supporter, affectionate animal lover and aspiring runner. I enjoy spontaneous adoration sessions and being mind-blown by theological truth bombs. I suffer severely from Wanderlust and meeting new people makes my heart happy. The sight of the stars never ceases to amaze me.