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Pilgrim Firs mission camp is transforming for youth

Common Fire, a mission-based service/mission camp in the Kitsap community was launched this past June at Pilgrim Firs Camp and Conference Center, said Kaila Russell, chair of the PNC Outdoor Ministries Task Force.

Members of a team of youth from 9th through 12th grade from First United Church in Oak Park, Ill., were first Common Fire mission/service campers. Photos courtesy of Lydia Mulkey

A group of 22 youth and seven adults from First United Church in Oak Park, Ill., spent the week of June 25 to 29 at Pilgrim Firs.

Alicia Reese, pastoral associate for youth and congregational care, and the Rev. Lydia Mulkey, associate pastor of education, brought the youth.  Members of Fox Island UCC provided expertise as master builders to help with projects with Rebuilding Together - South Sound.

Alicia said her team ripped out the lining of a would-be pond and filled it in with rocks, tore out rotted boards of a deck and cleared out thorny blackberry bushes.

Lydia’s team rebuilt a rotting deck so the homeowners can safely stay in their home.

Five work teams partnered with Rebuilding Together and were helped build ramps and decks at different sites to help to improve accessibility for low-income and disabled people so they could stay in their homes.

One team builds bridge to make home more accessible.

“One man had been waiting in his home for a month, looking forward to this project so that he could leave his home,” Kaila said.

Fox Island UCC led the work stations.

“What a wonderful opportunity for this church to be a part of youth ministry, while supporting one of our camps,” Kaila said.

Part of each day was spent doing mission work.  The rest was spent having a camp experience at Pilgrim Firs.

Along with swimming, canoeing, hiking and hanging out, the program, led by Wade Zick, managing director of Pilgrim Firs, helped the youth focus on systemic issues that foster situations which many homeless, disabled and veterans in need are currently facing.

Through discussions, youth came to realize that changing systems takes time,” Kaila said.

“What a gift it was for youth to be able to experience mission work, have a camp experience and have the opportunity to process their experiences that come from doing service work,” she commented.

Lydia, who has taken the church’s youth on mission experiences since she started at the Oak Park church in 2012 going to Koinonia Farms, National Youth Event, the Yakima Christian Mission and other places, described Common Fire as a “fantastic experience” because the lodging, planning, food, organizing, service projects and debriefing were all included.

“I take the youth for mission experiences because I want them to have a picture and experience of living out their faith, putting hands and feet to their faith, and having experiences they can’t have at home,” she said.

Lydia said the youth, who recently shared about their experience for the church’s Youth Sunday in October, “were transformed.”

“They gained compassion and confidence,” she said.

Fun on the lake is part of the day.

One said he has become pen pals with one homeowner, for whom he helped do repairs.

“He now has a relationship with someone of a different socio-economic background, someone older and from a different area of the U.S.,” she said.  “He told of having a kind, caring friendship.

“The youth have learned that we are all connected and share a common humanity,” Lydia said.

She learned about the opportunity through contacts in Northern California, where she studied at Pacific School of Religion where Andrew Conley-Holcom of Admiral UCC was her neighbor.

“I appreciated the learning opportunities in the debriefing, reflection and worship that Wade led,” she said.

Lydia said that in other mission opportunities, she had to do the debriefing “on the spot,” because she did not know what they would be doing.  In some places she has had to “negotiate through the presentation of reflections in a theology that did not fit for youth from a progressive church.”

She and Alicia were able to focus on relationships.

One day, when most groups had finished their projects, the youth decided to make “blessing bags” with food, water, bandaids and other items for hungry, homeless people.  They asked Wade where to take them, and he suggested the Bremerton Ferry Terminal, where they connected with a ministry to give bags to their clients.

“Each camper made and gave two bags,” she said.  “While our youth have helped at the PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) program through which their church shelters people overnight on Mondays, they felt hesitant to walk up to and talk with people.  After they talked with the people, they found it was not scary.  They were just people.”

Wade is planning Common Fire opportunities for 80 participants a week in summer 2019.

“Churches that bring youth choose an area of focus for their week.  They are paired with  a service organization that syncs with their focus,” said Wade.

Focus areas listed on the website are housing, food, environment and social services.

Housing projects will involve building, renovations and landscaping. Food projects may be at the food bank or involve meal distribution.  Environmental projects may include clean-up, trail work or park department work.  Social services may involve working with people who are experiencing homelessness, with elderly people or at-risk populations.

Registration for youth and adult leaders will be $475.

Pilgrim Firs organizes work sites, offers housing, meals, an evening snack, evening programs, vespers and a Common Fire T-shirt.

When campers return to the camp at about 3:30 p.m., they have free time for swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking, fishing and relaxing.  At 5 p.m., church groups have breakout discussions until dinner at 6 p.m., followed by justice discussions and vespers.

Evening activities will include games, skits, a talent show, dance, board games and a sending ritual.

Pilgrim Firs staff does the work of organizing a mission/service week, lining up partner organizations, dealing with logistics, offering action/reflection times and providing the setting on the lake for recreation.

“The Kitsap Community has a mixture of urban, rural and suburban issues that are only increasing because of Seattle’s growth and area housing price increases leading to the displacement of vulnerable and poor,” said Wade.  “Kitsap is facing a growing number of issues including a rise in homelessness, food needs for families, environmental impacts with population growth and the clash of growth from Seattle flight with protectionism of a suburban/rural lifestyle.”

He added that there is also a large military presence with 17,000 employed at a shipyard.  That present can lead to the absence of social and family support systems when people face financial and personal crises.

The camps are for church groups with youth entering seventh grade through 12th grade graduates.  An individual youth may participate as space allows and on invitation of churches.  Church groups are being recruited from around the country.

“In the evening, we take our experiences of service and think about them through the lens of systemic issues and injustices that we, as Christians, are called to address.  The curriculum is being developed in collaboration with national UCC staff and local clergy,” Wade said.

Adult leaders will be responsible for managing the youth they bring and for helping lead small group discussions and activities.

On June 26, Alicia wrote that “tearing down and rebuilding ramps, emptying out and filling in pools, ripping out rotted boards and refinishing a deck, moving piles of boulders, pulling weeds, cleaning gutters. These are just a few of the things the youth group spent their first day doing.”

They were dirty, sore and tired, but a “good, satisfied” tired, she said.

The people they helped welcomed the youth into their homes, providing beverages, snacks and kindness, and sharing their stories.

“They are each so thankful for the help we are able to give them, and surprised that a group of teenagers would be willing to come all the way from Illinois to do this work,” Alicia wrote.

The first evening the youth talked about the upstream and downstream solutions.

“Often we focus on doing downstream work, addressing the symptoms of problems our societies face without looking upstream to see the causes of the problems, and working to make the changes that would make the downstream work obsolete,” said Alicia.

She added that the upstream issues that plague society, such as racism, sexism and classism, are so deeply rooted it’s easy to feel disheartened by the struggle to make the necessary changes.  She added that it can take years of behind-the-scenes efforts to make any changes that may only have a slight impact on these issues.

“We need to continue our downstream efforts of tutoring, food pantries, PADS, building and rebuilding things, and more,” she said pointing out that they fill needs and make a difference in the lives of people.

Alicia added that it’s also important to remember to ask why are these efforts necessary.

“We need to allow our righteous anger to fuel us to make changes that are necessary in our society,” she wrote on the first day, anticipating her hopes for the experience.

For information, call 360-876-2031 or visit


Pacific Northwest United Church News - Copyright © November-December 2018


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