Burning Marshmallows in Silence: Thoughts on Being a Camp Dad

I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock clashing with the creak of the springy folding bed that, along with two 2” inch mattress pads and a sleeping bag, served as my place of rest in the office located in the front of the camp lodge. The only camp dad for 70 or so girls on what was, for many, their first overnight stay, I was able to have a bit of quiet and privacy to write, read and prepare myself for the next day. 

My trusty decade-old boots

After washing and getting dressed- t-shirt, long pants, boots, a red bandana, name tag and trusty flat cap- I greeted the weekend kitchen staff and began to help them put frozen French toast sticks and sausage links onto large trays for baking. The girls would be hungry, and they would need the energy to get through the weekend. I did what was needed, trying to say prayers in between each placement. 

Later that day, I would be helping girls roast marshmallows, play tether-ball, and learn how to safely hike down steep trails. And then I would wake up and do it again, with a sense of peace all the way through. 

As I drove home with my oldest daughter asleep in the back seat, I wondered why it was that I felt such a strong sense of peace in my duties. It was a peace that would carry on as I was serving during AFCon’s Divine Liturgy, and then later as I helped prepare the kitchen for 150+ day campers the week after AFCon. I would lead another hike, this time to teach Juniors how to find a good walking stick, and how to think about their strengths and areas of growth as change agents. How is it that I found this peace in working with campers, but lost it as soon as I returned to my normal duties? 

In talking to one of the camp directors, she hit the nail on the head when she said this to me:

“It’s nice not to be in charge all the time.”

In my life, I have a lot of duties and leading to do. I am responsible for providing economic stability for the people I love. I have a lot of leadership tasks and duties in making my living. I am a source of support for many people. I spend one evening a week teaching people how to become better leaders. 

I think the best lesson I got in leadership, and in being a positive presence, was from being a part of campouts. I was the one camp dad on staff, who helped make sure fires were adequately extinguished, who got sticky hands from roasting marshmallows for dozens of girls and their leaders, and who kept them safe on the trails. In those moments, all I could do was breathe, pray to be blessed with adequate wisdom, and simply serve with passion. I realize that leading is often about quietly serving with passion and enthusiasm, rather than out of control or a desire for power. 

In the days where I suffer from severe doubt about being able to make a decent impact on someone’s life, I have to remember the faces of the girls who frantically tried to blow out their flaming marshmallows, who smiled as they walked to the campfire circle with their new friends, and who came home happy, telling their families about what they learned from their leaders and aides. 

We can all fall into the trap of thinking that impact has to be something dramatic and major. 

But stepping back and being a calming presence for them, rather than a leading one, isn’t a bad way to go, either. 

After all, we’re not really in charge. 


Reflections on AFCon, #5: Home

Nearly a week after the end of AFCon, there is still a lot on my mind about it- enough to the point where going back to my day job has been challenging in terms of focus. Part of the challenge has been that it has been 18 months since I was introduced to AFCon, and the entire time, I wanted to attend and be a part of it. In ten years of Orthodoxy, this was my first trip to Antiochian Village, and I remember the initial feelings that I had as we worked our way through Ligonier and toward the camp. They were feelings of “Wow, this is happening; we are actually in Ligonier, there are signs to the camp on the road, and it is really taking place.” A lot of mental energy has gone into the anticipation of one day, someday, being able to be in a place that, for a decade, people have spoken so highly of.

I find myself longing for more of the face-to-face interaction that came from being in physical community with the people that, for most of the last two years, I have only known virtually. More chances to drink coffee and have breakfast with the table of women I met from the Southern states. More porch and couch conversations. More silent meditation walks, and more opportunities to serve in the altar.

The small-world stories of AFCon are what brings wonder. Meeting family, and seeing how they connect to the rest of your web of people. Meeting others who’ve studied what you have studied, and who’ve had experiences like yours. These had a profound effect on Jen (who met her childhood neighbor’s niece at AFCon); this morning, she said to me that the stories led her “to realize that Orthodoxy threads are through our whole life. Like the gold threads in my bookmark. It wasn’t a fluke that we are who we are.”

Even small things, like the things we bought from the Antiochian Village bookstore, had those stories. We found the same icon of Noah and the ark that adorned Mari’s preschool classroom. As this was also a couple’s retreat for us, we came back with a lot of books on family, marriage and the like.

Years ago, as a young Catholic girl, Jen’s grandmother gave her a Marian prayer book as a gift, which she has kept to this day. That weekend, she found a new prayer book to the Theotokos at the store, seeing it as a bridge between her religious past and her Orthodox life. During a medical test that frightened her deeply, Jen told me that she only had about five minutes to read amidst the fear, and that prayer book was right there. In her words, it “told me exactly what I needed to read.”

There is still a lot to read, write and process from last weekend.

And there will continue to be things to think about and write about.

Reflections on AFCon, #4: Service

Before AFCon took place, there was a call for interest to see if anyone wished to serve in the altar. Seeing an opportunity to be an altar server in a beautiful liturgical setting, I asked for, and received, a blessing from my priest to serve under Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, as well as Fr. Nabil Hanna from St. George Church in Indianapolis. I was eager, not only to be serving, but also because I would have the opportunity to serve under one of my favorite authors and podcasters. I figured that there would be others who were equally excited to serve.

When I arrived to Sts. Peter and Paul Chapel on Saturday morning, I did not expect that I would be the sole altar server for the entire Divine Liturgy. In my home parish, I am typically one of at least five acolytes each Sunday, and apart from the occasional Great Vespers, I have never served by myself. I suddenly realized that I would be in charge of incense, fellowship bread, and preparing the hot water for Communion. Having never done all of this at once, let alone by myself, I had to tell Fr. Andrew and Fr. Nabil, “Please tell me where to go, and what to do, and I will do my best.”

As the service progressed, however, I found myself going back and forth too many times to have time to worry much. Even when a few things happened- I was late getting the fellowship bread ready, and we discovered that the kettle had not been plugged in when we needed it- there was nothing but love in the altar, and support for my learning. Fr. Andrew and Fr. Nabil were patient, helpful, and willing to answer my questions, in between requests of “Incense, please” and “Fill this cup twice,” among other things. It was a simple, joyful way to learn the Liturgy more fully, and when I left the Chapel, I found myself wanting to serve more.

Ultimately, while AFCon was definitely about writing and podcasting, the Divine Liturgy, and worship on the whole, were at the core of the experience. We were all at AFCon because we wished to serve and minister with the talents that we have. We write about things that spark our interest; while some are drawn to patristics and ecclesiology, others examine the world of parenting in the Church, while others use Orthodoxy as a framework for creative projects that are for general audiences.

Frederica Matthews-Green, in her keynote address, presented us with the following question: “What is your garden plot to nurture?”

In the altar, the answer came to me: “Helping to share the beauty of the Divine Liturgy, living in a sense of wonder while doing so, and sharing that storied wonder with the world.”

Reflections on AFCon, #3: Pilgrimage

Because my trip to AFCon was my first visit to Antiochian Village, I saw it as an opportunity for pilgrimage, as well as renewal. Based off the idea of a pilgrimage as “a journey or search of great moral significance to the Orthodox belief and faith,” it felt more significant when I was asked by Fr. Fred, our priest, to visit the grave of St. Raphael of Brooklyn (who was re-interred at the camp’s Holy Resurrection Cemetery in 1989), and to pray for our parish.

St. Raphael’s grave is located near the graves of many other major figures in the North American Orthodox world; Metropolitan PHILIP Saliba (+2014) and Bishop ANTOUN Khouri (+2017) are both buried next to St. Raphael, and Archbishop VICTOR Abo-Assaly, who worked to unite the divided Antiochian movements during the 1930s, is buried there as well; like St. Raphael, his remains were also re-interred at the cemetery.

There was a lot of anticipation for visiting St. Raphael’s grave, not only in our family, but also among AFCon attendees; however, before we arrived at the Village, we discovered that the camp would closed off to AFCon attendees. This was disappointing to hear, as I had really looked forward to going to visit the grave; however, it was arranged for us to make a group visit. Led by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, a large group of us AFCon attendees made the walk up to camp.

Jen and I both began the walk, albeit slowly, as she has been experiencing some knee issues, among other health concerns, and was afraid that she would not be able to make it. She told me that though it was difficult, and she kept telling me to go on without her, she found that some sort of spiritual magnet- in this case, St. Raphael- kept her going. In her words, “God, through the prayers of St. Raphael, pulled me kicking and screaming.” She never turned around, and the two of us eventually made it in time to hear most of what Fr. Andrew was telling the group.

Fr. Andrew told us many stories of those who were buried there, including some of the life of St. Raphael, including his dedication to traveling around the nation- usually by train- to minister to his flock. I had read, in his biography, that he would serve Antiochian communities of any size,spending the entire day hearing confessions, performing baptisms and weddings, ministering, and sleeping very little. Sometimes it was a large group in Brooklyn; other times, it was a small group of immigrants in the Mississippi River valley communities. He worked hard and slept very little (1-2 hours a night), which would ultimately lead to his early death at the age of fifty-one.

Bearing that in mind, as we took our short journey to the camp, and our longer journey to the Village, I found myself thinking about the pilgrimages to the faithful that St. Raphael took. Much like St. Brendan the Navigator, he traveled from place to place, even though he always had a destination in mind. His ministry was also his askesis, a challenge that would test any human who is enduring a pilgrimage. St. Raphael sacrificed for the good of something bigger, demonstrating his selflessness and devotion to God’s creation.

As the line of veneration grew shorter, I found myself in a state of joy, eventually saying to myself “St. Raphael of Brooklyn, pray unto God for me, my family, and the members of our parish.”  I found myself wondering how many campers walk by his grave each day during their sessions. There are stories of St. Raphael making his presence known throughout the camp, but what about the impact of seeing the grave of a saint, or of those who strove to emulate Christ to bring Orthodoxy to the world? I wonder what it would be like to frequently be near a saint, much like I did when I saw St. John of San Francisco’s relics in San Francisco, which is visible and accessible on a daily basis.

I wondered how others- especially those who were part of the parishes he founded- felt his impact. I wondered how many would become pilgrims themselves.

Reflections on AFCon, #2: (Co-)Presence

For this reflection, I am pleased to have Phoebe Farag Mikhail, a Coptic Orthodox Christian, author of Putting Joy into Practice and blogger at Being in Community, share some thoughts on AFCon about a very prayerful experience that we had together while at Antiochian Village.

On Friday morning of the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference, I attended a workshop by Angela Doll Carlson in which she talked about how humanity struggles with the concept of wilderness: surroundedness, pressed upon us, that isn’t always physical, and is sometimes virtual. Looking at all of us as creators who are co-creating things with the One who made us, Angela also said that we had to find our way in the wilderness, err on the side of beauty, and hold to one major task:

Identify, embrace, and share beauty with others. And also share that sense of wonder that comes from doing so.

During the second session, I chose to take a walk through the meditation trail at the Village, taking in a little of what Angela discussed in her talk: “forest bathing.” The trail at the Village has multiple icon altars for prayer, contemplation, and meditation, and it is a simple, one-mile trek through the woods. The entire weekend’s temperature was around 60 degrees, and there was a nice breeze that made its way in between the trees, combining with the sunshine to create what felt like a perfect climate for a forest walk.

While walking through the woods, I came across my fellow writer, Phoebe Farag Mikhail, who was also walking the trail. I said hello, but after that, neither of us said a word to one another.

We each walked at our own pace, staying at each icon and waiting up for one another before going on to the next stop. We were in complete silence and presence the entire time.

Personally, I’ve never experienced such silent co-presence with another person. I’m a talkative person and I struggle with silence. But in that hike, something flipped, and I was able to do so.

I too attended Angela Doll Carlson’s talk, and similarly inspired decided to walk the meditation trail. What we write is influenced by our surroundings, Angela had said, and I knew I wanted to enjoy the beauty that surrounded us at the Antiochian Village.  I hastened to take the meditation trail during another session, when I knew the walk might be a quiet one.

Then, something unusual happened to me when I walked up a small incline – I started to feel my lungs constricting a bit, a tightness linked to my very mild asthma. Realizing I did not have my inhaler with me (I often forget it because I rarely need it), I stopped to take my breath and see if I could recover by slow breathing. I wrestled with the idea of continuing the walk slowly or returning to my room get my inhaler.

Then, I noticed Nic coming up the trail. I waved to him with some relief. I decided to keep going; Nic didn’t know it yet, but I figured that with him there if something were to happen to me, he could call for help.

My intention was to take this trail in silence, perhaps take some photographs and maybe sit down and write some reflections. When Nic joined me, to my relief, he also walked in silence and didn’t expect conversation. As much as I do enjoy talking with a fellow writer, at a conference full of words I wanted a break to listen to the forest.

The wind blew against the trees, creating a sound akin to the ocean’s waves. Cicadas chirped and occasionally fell silent. Leaves and grass crunched beneath my feet.

I took different photos than he did. We noticed different things and stopped at different places. At one point, I did sit down to write some reflections. When I got up, I started walking again and almost took a wrong turn — wordlessly, Nic pointed me in the right direction. I didn’t have an asthma attack, but without Nic I might have missed lunch!

It dawns on me that as Orthodox writers who often write about our faith, that is really our role. We have a faith that “the Lord handed down, the Apostles preached, and the Fathers kept” in the words of St. Athanasius the Great.

As a spiritual writer, this can sometimes be intimidating. After all, what more can we add to Scripture and the Church Fathers and Mothers?

Perhaps it’s not so much adding as it is pointing each other in the right direction along the path.

Reflections on AFCon, #1: Connections

It’s Thursday, June 13, and my wife and I are driving towards Pennsylvania in order to attend the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference at Antiochian Village.

It’s our youngest daughter’s fifth birthday, so we spend the morning with her at our hotel, spoiling her with gifts and breakfast cake (and getting her a cool opportunity to take a birthday photo with all the Miss Indiana Teen contestants, who happen to be staying in the same hotel as well).

For Jen and I, this is the first overnight trip we’ve had as a couple in five years. We’ve been married for nearly nine years, so this is a big thing for us. We relish the chance to drink our road coffee in peace, eat Skyline chili, and have the tough discussions that we have always had when the kids are asleep or at school.

We find a Tim Hortons- a nostalgic source of caffeine and sugar- and get stuck in traffic in Wheeling, West Virginia, of all places.

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We have to call the Village to set aside some food for us, and literally arrive ten minutes before Frederica Matthews-Green’s keynote begins, being lucky to find some extra chairs for the packed house at AFCon.

We get to hug and embrace the people we’ve been talking to online for the last few years.

I meet my blog mentor/godmom/editor, Elissa Bjeletich, for the first time in person. Jen meets Summer Kinard, whose work and friendship has been very valuable to her over the last few years. Lots of other introductions follow.

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And then there is Presvytera Katherine Baker, with whom both of us start talking to during social hour, and with whom we begin to have amazing conversations about contemporary culture, family, and our path as Orthodox Christians.

And then she asks me where I’m from. I say “Southern Indiana.”

She says, “Where in Southern Indiana?” I say “Mount Vernon.”

“And your last name is Hartmann? One of my grandparents is a Hartmann.”

I wonder if it’s the other clan of Hartmanns in our area (there are two). Bells begin to ring in my mind. I start listening to her describe her family, and start texting my parents back in Indiana to check the family genealogy book.

Lo and behold, the two of us are not only from southern Indiana, but we are family. Family. Family. Her grandfather John, and my great-grandfather William, were brothers. We grew up a county apart from one another. She and Fr. Matthew are deeply connected to our godparents, Fr. Daniel and Mat. Chelsea Greeson, and still do to this day. The connection was, in this case, triangular.

This was a huge moment in our faith life.

In nearly a decade of being Orthodox, we have been the only members of our family (as far as we knew) to be part of the faith. And as of that evening, we realized that our families were connected all along, yet we had no idea.

That evening, we stayed up until 2:00 in the morning talking, catching up, pondering life.

We knew AFCon would be a very transformative experience. But not in the way we expected.

If anything, it taught us that our deep sense of connection that we have sought already existed, and would be unveiled at the right time. 

Guiding Self-Discovery of the Sacraments: A Review of A Child’s Guide to Confession

Sometimes a sequel is just as solid, if not better, than the original.

In the case of A Child’s Guide to the Divine Liturgy, its sequel- A Child’s Guide to Confession– is a good example of that. The “gold book,” as it is often called by my youngest daughter, has been a big hit with her and her sister, who’ve been able to take the book and use it during Divine Liturgy to make connections. Taking the simple text, vivid and relevant illustrations, and pocket-sized portability of the original, A Child’s Guide to Confession builds upon it, with simple but meaningful additions such as a guide for parents.

When I told my oldest daughter (who is almost 8), about the book, she was excited, and when it arrived in the mail, she immediately started to look through it, saying she liked the illustrations and the questions that children can use to prepare for confessions. Many of the questions are similar to the simple “red prayer book” that is often sold in Orthodox circles; my daughter, who loves and frequently uses her red book to pray, had no problem making the connections between the two.

For parents who are working to guide their children through the sacrament of penance, this is also a good resource to learn how to best approach it: through more prayer and thought than reading. The process of thinking and preparing highlights the experiential nature of confession in a way that kids and parents can easily understand. There is also space for children to write their own prayers, as well as a glossary to help define unfamiliar terminology. The section for adults, “A Short Guide for Parents,” is both encouraging and realistic, reminding parents to not helicopter their children into coerced confessions, but to instead serve as a model of repentance for our kids. Given that parents are encouraged to serve as models, A Child’s Guide to Confession is accessible enough for older children to use and model the sacramental process for younger children. It is not only a well-designed resource, but one that should be a vital part of an Orthodox family’s bookshelf and icon corner.