The 20 young people who spent a week at the Ninos Y Jovenes Para Cristo Retreat at the Pinelands Center this summer couldn’t wait for it to start and then didn’t want it to end.
“What’s hard is when Saturday morning comes,” said Rev. Rolando Santiago-Fuentes, one of the clergy and counselors who were on the retreat. “It’s like we had such a great time, but now we are going back home. During one week, we are able to experience God’s grace in a special way through friendships, fellowship and playing sports.”
Some of those friendships have been developing for years, while others are just taking place. Those friendships have kept Santiago’s son, also Rolando, coming to the retreats for nearly 10 years.
“My son has been going there since he was 8 years old,” Santiago-Fuentes said. “You could offer him a trip to Disney or somewhere similar to that, and he would not miss camp for that. The friendships he has made in camp, he sees them now as his brothers and sisters. The bonds he has established, especially with some of the other pastors’ kids, he will say these are my brothers.”
While the retreat week has the potential of to be a highlight of a young person’s life, Santiago-Fuentes points out that there is more than emotion involved. He says that is evident in the youths in the weeks and months after the retreat.
“When they come back, you can see how they change in church,” he said. “Their attitude changes and you see a change in how they relate. And the new bonds they make at the retreat, they get stronger. But certainly the retreat changes them. Some a lot, and some a little and for some, God is working inside of them.”
One of the other primary leaders at the retreat was Dover UMC pastor Charles Perez. He said the retreat has had a significant impact on young people from his church.
“I’ve never seen my youth group so on fire for God,” Perez said. “And I sensed there was a lot of healing for them as well. One young lady was at our Friday night campfire with everyone, I hugged her and gave her a kiss on top of her head and I said I love you as a daughter.
“Her mom told me that meant the world to her because she had never heard that her whole life.”
The entire week was full of activities, such as boating, a mud war, a Bible scavenger hunt and a talent show. The daily schedule also featured time for group Bible study, worship and times for personal reflection.
“It is a very Christ-centered time,” Perez said. “We allowed campers or counselors to do a devotion if they wanted and it allowed the kids to be involved in Bible study and evening worship.”
Those daily moments built up to that Friday night service, which Santiago-Fuentes and Perez each said was a key spiritual time for the week.
“Two of our junior counselors had torches and when we said ‘God said let there be light’ those two got up and lit the fire, some of the kids were pretty emotional that night,” Perez said. “We had some other pastors there to pray over them, too.”
Those two counselors were the younger Santiago, and Fabian Burgos.
“Because those two were counselors for the first time, we had them build torches, and then we beat the drum and they walked in all the way from the back and lit up the fire,” Rev. Santiago-Fuentes said.
Another spiritual part of the campfire is having the youth privately write down something they need to let go of, then after praying about it, putting that piece of paper in the fire. Perez says it’s not always an easy thing to do.
“One kid held it so hard in their hand and asked me if can God help me out with this, and I said of course,” Perez said. “That was another holy moment.”
Those kind of moments not only have the youth not wanting to leave, but wondering when they can come back.
“The one thing you hear them say a lot, is ‘when is the retreat next year?’ “Santiago-Fuentes said. “The impact is so strong, even weeks after the retreat is over, they are saying when is the retreat next year?”