For 28 high school students from Catholic parishes throughout the Diocese of Jefferson City, answering the question of who God created them to be is at the heart of CHRISTpower, an annual weeklong journey of service and community in its 13th year.
Helias High School is the site of the retreat, an experience "designed to make you more aware of the importance of service to those in our community as part of our Christian life, and to help you discern the future God has planned for you," according to the retreat's application.
The teenage participants arrived Sunday and will stay for the week, through closing Mass on Saturday. During a week of voluntary lack of access to cellphones and portable devices, the students spend their days serving people at various sites in the area, like the Salvation Army, Villa Marie senior community and Jefferson City Day Care. At the end of each day, they celebrate Mass in Helias' new chapel, reflect on scripture and upon their experiences of the day before settling down to sleep in classrooms.
On Wednesday, five students and their site supervisor sat down to talk about their work, the relationship between faith and service, and what it means to be able to experience the kind of community they share on retreat.
Heidi Ames, of Chamois; Rayni Hartman, of Russellville; Ben Hudson, of Jefferson City, and an incoming senior at Helias; Peter Reinkemeyer, of Syracuse; and Elle Wilbers, of Wardsville, and an incoming sophomore at Helias; and their supervisor, Chris Korte, spent Wednesday at Capitol Projects.
Capitol Projects is a nonprofit sheltered workshop for adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. The facility has contracts with local manufacturers, state departments and others for services including packaging, sorting and assembly, mail preparation and product inspections.
"It's more about impacting the people we serve," Reinkemeyer said of the meaning behind simple acts like helping workers package bags, inspect plastic bottles and package archery targets.
Ames added: "I think a lot of it is people want to help change the world. Even though we're only doing this for the week and doing little things, it's a little step to help better the world."
"It's kind of just showing that love (of Christ)," Hartman said. "In one of our meditations last night, we had said that where there's love, there's Christ; and if we're here serving people, we're showing Christ's love. It's kind of an act of God."
Hudson explained sharing love through service is something that happens when fully present, rather than being something he consciously thinks about: "The stuff you do really shows your intentions — rather than saying it, showing it."
Community through service ideally isn't a one-way relationship.
"I hope in some way, if they were to think at the end of their day, 'Where did I see God today?' they might say, 'I saw it in one of these teenagers that sat with me, or that helped (on) the project with me,'" Korte said.
He said the students on retreat ask themselves the same question each day: "Where did I see God today?"
Friendships are made and renewed each year at CHRISTpower.
"Some of my best friends I've met here on this retreat," Reinkemeyer said.
This is not the first retreat for Hartman, Hudson and Reinkemeyer, while it is for Wilbers. The bonding experiences they share are about more than laughs over inside jokes, though.
"There's not a lot of Catholics that went to my (public) high school. I was the only one in my class, so it's nice to have people that I can actually hang out with that understand my love for God," Ames said.
Korte added: "How many times do you have friends that pray together? It's kind of weird, but it's special to have a friend that you can go to church with or say a prayer with, or be goofy and sing songs with."
"Participate, don't anticipate," was the advice Hartman gave for future retreat-goers; in other words, live life not necessarily without a plan, but be open to surprises by what comes from unexpected interactions.