A few months ago, Fr Francis, a Nigerian priest, came to my church in Churchill as an Assistant Priest to help manage the three churches in the area. He offered much enthusiasm to the community through his abilities to sing, connect and test the people. However, when my family hosted a Christmas dinner that he came to, he expressed his concern that the Church was not fulfilling the needs of the younger generation and that they would soon be the Church’s only hope of surviving. My church only has three teenagers who attend, so we couldn’t really start anything. In time I went on to talk about this awesome camp I know which caters for the needs of young people. He became interested instantly and insisted I give him more details.
When I found out that I was to be a leader on the Junior Camp at Safety Beach in January, I notified Ashley Trethowan (Don Bosco Camp Youth Ministry Coordinator) and asked if I could bring a guest. Fr Francis was thrilled when I told him he was welcome to join us for the week and to experience the life as a Don Bosco Camper, so to speak. He soon told me with work commitments to the church, his stay was to be only over two days at the end of the camp.
A few weeks later, on the Thursday afternoon of camp I received a call from Fr Francis. He was lost.
When John Rossato, the Camp Manager and I worked out that he was already in Dromana, we spoke to him continually for about an hour before realising he was never going to figure out where to go. So we got in the car and went off searching for him. We found him in his car five minutes down the road. As soon as we worked things out, we set off again back to camp.
From the first moment we arrived at the Camp we were surrounded by young children everywhere. Fr Francis was so impressed by the welcome he received. Leaders, campers and staff were greeting him with interest and respect. I soon had to leave him and left him in the capable hands of a young camper who showed him around the campsite, letting him look around at all it had to offer and the activities that were running. After activities had ceased, we all proceeded into the chapel to have Mass.
Fr Francis took to the kids with amazing energy. He talked about love, loving your neighbour and loving your friends. He used examples from his short experience at the camp of how love is demonstrated in very practical ways. He spoke about the welcome he received, the willingness of people to come look for him when he was lost, of waiting patiently for their turn to tie dye their tee shirts. He spoke of love as being actively concerned for the other.
Fr Francis has a great singing voice. He concluded his talk by teaching the campers a song, getting all the kids to sing;
“Hold somebody, tell them that you love them, put your hands together and praise the Lord.”
The kids loved it, holding hands and singing and doing the actions for about ten minutes. At the end of Mass he repeated the song. You could hear the campers and leaders singing that song into the evening and also the next day. It was such a catchy tune and so easy to remember.
We then went into free time and dinner. I had warned him of the dangers that dinner could be. He was impressed by the singing, chants and activities that leaders were doing to ensure that the campers had fun and that their stay was one to be remembered with joy.
Dinner started off as he thought it would but as soon as the main meal was over, the noise began. There was banging on the tables, everyone singing at the top of their voices and dancing for all to see. He looked over at me with confusion at what was going on but realised the only response was to join in.
Soon, everyone was quietened down and announcements were made. Pat, a leader, was explaining that it was Fr Francis’ birthday. Confusion spread across Father’s face once again as the ‘Happy Birthday’ singing started but soon it changed into a smile and then laughter. He started to realise what was going on and immediately jumped into the atmosphere of the camp. Kids were coming up to him, all expressing their “Happy Birthday” greeting to him in good spirit. He warmly accepted them.
More activities followed as he observed what we were doing. Campers talked to him asking about where he was from, what he did, where he lived and he even connected closely to some leaders. The night’s major activity was the disco and he sat and watched the kids and leaders dancing and singing together. Soon after I saw him dancing with a camper and I was amazed to see that a camper had actually taken the initiative and gone out to ask Father if he wanted to have a dance. He explained he couldn’t dance and wanted to sit down. However, the Salesian Sisters cornered his escape and encouraged him to continue. When it was all over we had supper and he retired for the night.
The next morning, Fr Francis continued to talk and be involved with campers and jobs that were going on. When activities started, leaders made sure he was involved in every way possible: letting him have a go at games especially ones like, ‘Honey, I love you’ where he was nominated starter and instantly made a camper laugh. As soon as the camp was over, he was flooded with goodbyes and hugs.
The next night I was back home at my parish mass. I was delighted to hear that Father’s homily was based solely on the ‘fantastic’ camp he went to. He explained to the parishioners that he was overwhelmed with joy and was impressed with how the leaders took time out to be with and look after children for a week. He continued to say, “I will keep talking about this camp next week and then the next week and again ’til I get to go next time.” He prayed for all leaders and staff at the camp that they may continue to do what they do on the camp with all the passion for the campers and for God.
I would like to express my greatest gratitude to everyone involved in the enjoyment of Fr Francis’ camp time. I was so nervous but I thank you very much for making him feel so happy.
By Catherine Gunn
Don Bosco Camp Leader