Mother, son share their journey of grief and hope
‘In our culture, we don’t know what to do with…
“Last night was the first night I went to sleep before 1,” a high schooler with a proud face yet tired eyes told her counselor. Like most of her peers dressed in shorts and T-shirts, the student carried a metal water bottle decorated with stickers.
Sean Algeier, a York alumnus returning in the fall to serve as the university’s campus minister, led the “Morning Show” to energize campers for the day ahead.
Algeier, who previously managed tours for Christian musician Toby Mac, played popular songs over a speaker as the students clustered into groups.
Campers from 22 youth groups in eight states attended Soul Quest, an annual event designed to energize young Christians through worship and small-group activities.
Each group had about 20 students with different backgrounds. Rather than keep campers with their home groups, leaders reassigned students based on age so they could make new friends and gain fresh perspectives.
“What is your favorite thing about this week so far?” counselor Mason Yarbrough asked her campers.
“This group,” a girl named Alivia Aerni responded.
“Our group got really close, really fast,” Yarbrough told The Christian Chronicle as her campers socialized. “They can bond over how those experiences made them feel, even though they were different. I think that’s a place where they really start to connect.”
Her co-counselor, Jordan Herring, nodded in agreement. Both counselors are York juniors who got involved with Soul Quest through campus connections.
Throughout the week, leaders see campers open up about their lives and grow in their faith. Students who are naturally talkative might find themselves listening more, while the quiet campers might become more expressive in their groups.
“They all bring a unique energy,” Yarbrough said. “Some of them are funny, and they make jokes and make everyone laugh, and some of them are really smart and have always had inquisitive things to add to the conversation.”
“One guy didn’t talk the whole first day,” Herring added. “Last night we had him dancing with us.”
“One guy didn’t talk the whole first day. Last night we had him dancing with us.”
After praying in a circle to start the day, each group walked to its designated classes, the majority of which were taught by visiting youth ministers with the theme “Scarred Faith.”
Youth ministers teach three classes each day of the week except Wednesday, which gives students a lot of time to spend together.
Each class wrestled with its chosen New Testament Scripture. At times, teachers cried, sharing from their own experiences. Students opened up about their doubts and struggles.
Jason Hawkins, a youth minister for the Odessa Church of Christ in Missouri, brought four kids from his church to Soul Quest. During his class, he asked each student to use one word to describe themself.
“My name is Alivia, and my adjective: I’m loud,” Aerni said. The rest of the group laughed and nodded in agreement.
“One word to describe me is probably cognitive,” another camper said, “which means I think a lot, maybe too much.”
“My name is Cole, and my word would be the opposite of cognitive, because I don’t think a lot,” a student wearing sweatpants and a hoodie said with a mischievous smile.
As each camper spoke, the rest of the group listened attentively, offering the occasional giggle or nod. Although the students had met each other just a few days prior, their care for each other was evident.
With a population of just over 8,000, York, Neb., is an unlikely location for a large Christian summer camp. Soul Quest lacks the resources other church camps have in more densely populated areas, said Tim Lewis, who has been co-directing the camp for 20 years.
Part of Soul Quest’s mission is to serve the community surrounding it, Lewis said. In the middle of the week, campers spend one day doing various service projects in town.
“We have to be more creative when we do anything — without being flashy — because we just don’t have access to big city entertainment,” he said. “It’s not an entertainment race. It’s relational based.”
Students are with their groups for almost every activity at Soul Quest, and the week is focused on building relationships, Lewis said.
Soul Quest is a great way to recharge the students’ spiritual batteries, Hawkins added, while providing youth leaders some respite from organizing the entire week.
“I feel like it’s set up so we can just be here with our kids. Most of the youth ministers here, if we go to other camps, we’re often in charge.”
“I feel like it’s set up so we can just be here with our kids,” Hawkins said. “Most of the youth ministers here, if we go to other camps, we’re often in charge.
“They do such a good job of scheduling things once we get here,” he added. “And even when the kids have difficulties, their counselors can help. It is a good break.”
After classes, the campers trudged to the East Hill Church of Christ — about a quarter-mile from campus — for worship. As the sanctuary filled up, the level of energy within the crowd of campers noticeably rose.
“You’re not ready for this,” a girl from Yarbrough and Herring’s group said with an excited smile.
Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder. The East Hill church sanctuary, with its vaulted ceilings and stained-glass windows, was barely big enough to hold all the campers, counselors and ministers.
Worship leader Andy Spell, who has led Soul Quest worship for 17 years, started an unexpected mashup of songs.
Soprano singers began “Oceans” by Hillsong UNITED. Tenors joined in with “Praise You in This Storm” by Casting Crowns, altos with “Our God is Greater” by Chris Tomlin. The bass line carried the traditional hymn “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus” by Robert Lowry.
Algeier, who leads the entertainment every day at Soul Quest, said Spell brings a unique energy to worship that gets every camper involved.
Campers — moved by the music — clapped, raised their hands, beat on pews and sometimes stomped.
“The singing is so rich and wonderful,” Algeier said. “Everyone is into it.”
After singing, students settled down to listen to speaker Josh Ross.
Ross, the lead minister for the Sycamore View Church of Christ in Memphis, Tenn., talked about building resilience while dealing with grief and loss. Multiple students in the audience began crying as he spoke. Their peers surrounded them with hugs and prayers.
Ross published “Scarred Faith” in 2013 and later co-wrote and published “Scarred Hope” with his mother, Beverly, in 2020. Ross lost his sister to a severe strep infection in 2010, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer twice.
Anticipation among students built as the evening keynote came to a close.
Each night at Soul Quest ended with baptisms.
Leaders said 25 campers at Soul Quest were baptized during the week, with about 150 campers going forward during worship.
Peyton Miller, 14, was baptized on the Thursday night of Soul Quest. Being baptized in front of friends and family meant a lot to her, she said, especially at the camp that helped her grow in her faith.
Her father, Kenneth, joined the celebration via FaceTime.
“Last year, I decided I was going to get baptized here,” the teenager said before her baptism. “Soul Quest has a big impact on my faith. It just helped me grow a lot more.”
Peyton’s mom Roni, who graduated from York in 2001, had a similar story. She was also baptized at a church camp when she was a teenager.
Church camp has a way of opening up students and making their faith stronger, Roni Miller said. Her experiences at church camp were pivotal for her faith.
“I love that she has people that she can share with,” she added, “and I love that she has a group leader that loves her — and that she recognizes it.”
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