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Apr28WedIn a serene forest east of the hustle and bustle of Toronto, God's presence shines through. April 28, 2021 by Jennifer Venner
In the swampy, rocky environs of eastern Ontario near Belleville, there is a place that calls itself “the Refuge,” a Christian community that hosts summer camps and retreats. It covers several square kilometres, but most of the area remains a wilderness, with only rudimentary trails piercing the silent forest.
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My children, Sophie and Max, attended camp at the Refuge starting in the mid 2000s, meeting new kids and doing the usual camp activities: canoeing, hiking, arts and crafts. The main building is the only one with electricity, where the cook prepares meals and the counsellors live. There’s no Wi-Fi, no TV, no reliable cellphone service. The kids sleep in dormstyle cabins near the chicken coop and the garden, where most of their vegetables come from. And there is a goat named Conseula.
I had only been to the Refuge once, years ago, so when Max, now 15, invited me to a family retreat after the camps were finished, I eagerly accepted the offer. At home, my son was a bit of a loner who spent a lot of time listening to music on his iPhone, playing guitar in his room and brooding in that way so common to teenage boys. He was thoughtful and worked hard in school but seemed disconnected and lonely, even in a room full of loved ones.
Max was excited about me coming to the Refuge with him. The summer before, he had loved it so much that he begged to stay an additional two weeks, and the Refuge staff kindly obliged. He told me about how he and his friends would sneak out late at night and gaze at the stars, astonished by their multitudes. The Toronto kids had never seen the Milky Way. For the camp sing-alongs around the fire, Max played guitar, something he was too shy to do in front of his family at home. He wanted me to see all the places where he’d formed memories.
We arrived and I remembered just what a special place the Refuge truly was. Nestled in the forest, it had mystery and an alert, benevolent presence, watching over us all. The Refuge has a small altar with a simple bench, on which to contemplate in silence, surrounded by nature.
We found the Refuge staff sharing a meal outdoors and a cake for someone’s birthday. Gathered in this commune from different parts of the world, they spoke Italian, English and Spanish at the table. They played music and danced and sang as the sun went down. Max watched, a big smile on his face. He felt at home there.
The next day, we helped set up for the retreat with the staff. The founder of the Refuge, Mary Marrocco, asked Max to give a speech at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new refectory, a large, barn-like building that would replace a former tent. I was certain Max would decline, but he gladly accepted. He didn’t write anything down. “I’ll just wing it,” he told me with a shrug and a smile. I could tell he was pleased to be asked.
Around 40 people arrived that day to witness the ceremony. Max’s speech was heartfelt and sincere. He talked about how he loved the Refuge and how much it meant to him. Grinning and warming up to his audience, he joked about the former refectory tent and how it leaked on the kids’ heads when it rained. He went from being the guarded teen to a sincere, grateful young man who loved being part of something bigger than himself. Mary thanked him for braving an audience to share his experience. I was very proud of him.
We had to leave early the next morning, and I took Mary aside to thank her for the hospitality.
“This is such a beautiful place, so serene,” I said to her. “You can really feel God’s presence everywhere.”
Mary smiled and nodded. “It is a special place,” she concurred. “The world is changing, and we think it’s important that this generation understands that nature is our home. We are the stewards of God’s great creation.”
I agreed. “I have never seen Max so happy as when he is here. Back in Toronto, he can be a bit distant.”
We both watched Max helping to wash the dishes in an outdoor tub. He was laughing with his friends. “This is the way he always is, with us,” said Mary. “We love Max, and hope he keeps coming back.”
I hope he does, too.
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