Lessons from WorkCamp

Before I was installed as the Bishop of Arlington last December, many people told me about WorkCamp, an annual week of faith and service organized by our Office of Youth Ministry. They said that I had to experience the size and scale of the logistics involved in transforming a school into the backdrop for an intentional Christian community, and organizing more than 1,000 youth and adult volunteers into 160 crews that will make the homes of their residents warmer, safer and drier. More importantly, everyone promised I would be amazed at the charity, joy and hard work of those involved when I came to experience it firsthand. 

I finally attended my first Arlington WorkCamp during the last week of June, and believe me, it lived up to the anticipation! I witnessed high school students and adult volunteers practicing joyful service, praying daily and experiencing the mercy of God. As Christian witnesses, they offer each of us these three fundamental attributes of the life of a disciple.

First, on a grand scale, WorkCamp provides an example of the joy that flows from Christian service. This year, over 800 of our diocesan youth, almost 200 adult volunteer leaders and over 175 volunteer contractors gave up a week of their summer vacation to paint walls, repair roofs, build wheelchair ramps and perform many other home improvement projects for families in need. Not only that, but these campers sacrificed to be a part of WorkCamp, raising money beforehand to participate and, while at camp, waking up early each day and working hard to get the job done in the hot June sun. 

From the world’s point of view, this does not make sense. Why not go to the beach and relax instead of working so hard for strangers? But after only a short time spent with the campers and adult volunteers, I was able to see the joy that emanated from their charitable acts. It is so profound that many of the campers and adults return each year because the joy of helping others is something they cannot find in a vacation or a trip to an amusement park. They came to know what we all should know as disciples of Christ, that when we offer our lives to others in charity, we find genuine peace and lasting joy. It may seem paradoxical, but it is not: the more you give of yourself in Christ, the more you receive from Him in return. 

The second lesson we learn from the WorkCampers is the importance of prayer and the Eucharist in our daily lives. Each morning at 7 a.m., the entire camp gathered for daily Mass before heading out to the sites. At lunch, they would pray and share their faith with each other, inviting their residents to join them. When they returned in the evening, they would gather together to praise the Lord in song before heading out once more in small groups for more prayer and faith sharing. 

In addition to daily Mass, the Eucharist was a central part of their prayer. There was a chapel where the tabernacle was available for campers to be with Jesus. During my visit, I was honored to preside for Eucharistic adoration, including bringing our Lord on a procession through the crowd gathered in that packed gymnasium. I was inspired by the silent reverence of over one thousand people as I brought Jesus into their midst, and their desire to draw nearer to Him was visible in their faces. As the presence of our Lord in the Eucharist and the practice of prayer throughout the day strengthened each of the participants at WorkCamp, we know it will do the same for us as we seek to fulfill the will of God in our lives. 

Finally, WorkCamp revolves around God’s mercy. By their service to those in need, each participant helps others to encounter God’s boundless love. In order to show the mercy of God, they also needed to receive that mercy from others and from God. 

Mercy was demonstrated in the kindness shown to fellow campers and the teamwork that each crew showed as they labored together and looked out for each other. However, the most powerful display of God’s mercy came during the Penance service, when I joined 57 of my brother priests to hear the confessions of the campers and adult volunteers. For over an hour, the long lines to receive God’s mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation gave compelling testimony that in order to give the mercy of God, we must know the experience of that mercy ourselves. May we celebrate regularly this precious gift in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Through their service, prayer and mercy, the teens at WorkCamp have given us both a gift and a challenge. Their beautiful hearts, tremendous enthusiasm and great zeal call all of us to bring Jesus to our streets, communities and our world that needs Him and our faithful witness now more than ever.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017