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Ecology education goes to camp

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HAPPY CAMPERS: Franciscan Brother James Lockman, a restoration botanist, explains the wonder of trees during sixth-grade camp. (Credit: Christina Bagaglio Slentz)

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By Christina Bagaglio Slentz

SAN DIEGO — March-ing forth, we continue to explore the seven goals of “Laudato Si,” the focal points of Pope Francis’ encyclical — or letter to the faithful — calling our attention to our responsibility to care for God’s gift of creation.

Building on the first two goals, “Response to the Cry of the Earth” and “Response to the Cry of the Poor,” which recognize the entanglement of humans with that of the environment, this month adds the goal of “ecological education.” The Vatican defines this education as a call to rethink and redesign educational programming and institutions “in the spirit of integral ecology … to foster ecological awareness and transformative action.”

Planting seeds of faith
On Feb. 13, our diocesan Creation Care Ministry launched a new program for the ecological education of some of our youngest Catholic community members. We teamed up with Whispering Winds Family Camp to help host the first “6th Grade Camp” in our region to be held at a Catholic facility and to include Catholic catechesis as part of the students’ week-long experience.

Approximately 80 sixth-graders from St. Didacus, St. Rita, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, and Santa Sophia  Schools gathered on the mountain in Julian with the help of some of their teachers, the adept coordination of the camp staff, and a lively cadre of Life Teen Missionary camp counselors.

Scripture, trees, crawling things, and the human family
For a half day, the diocesan Creation Care Ministry engaged with these energetic students, rotating them around four stations of activity. In what’s known as “Shepherd’s Hall,” the sixth-graders were asked to play the “Would You Rather?” game, compelling them to contemplate the many joys of the gift of creation as presented in the first chapter of Genesis.

Would you rather gaze at the stars or watch the sunrise? Spend a day at the beach or a day in the mountains? Hurry and choose your side of the room and don’t let your friends influence you! What speaks to you in the gift of creation, and how does this shape your relationship with God? The students shared deep insights and lighthearted laughs about their likes and dislikes.

Next, the students were treated to time around a fire circle, where Brother James Lockman, OFM, a restoration botanist and Franciscan friar, shared with them the wonder of trees, truly magnificent earthly creations that make human life possible. Brother James then invited the students to become co-creators, planting 80 acorns to help grow next year’s Creation Care trees for distribution at our annual Feast of St. Francis Tree Festival.

Helping students understand the interconnectedness of the human family, seminarian John Murcko, who recently completed coursework studying “Laudato Si” at the Franciscan School of Theology, led the students through a station designed to reveal how we are all “neighbors.” The sixth-graders were challenged to disentangle a pile of their shoes and reorganize themselves in a new order, meeting new “neighbors” within their group. As Jesus responds to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” with the parable of the Good Samaritan, our seminarian John expertly unpacked this story with the students, highlighting the way our impact on the environment affects our poorest and most vulnerable brothers and sisters around the world.

Teach your children well
San Diego Zoo Safari Park professional snake wrangler Allan Chornak, a lifelong camper/venturer at Whispering Winds Family Camp, provided the fourth lesson of the day. Full of passion for all of God’s creatures, Allan centered his presentation on one of the most vilified members of the animal kingdom, the rattlesnake. He dispelled the mythology that gives rattlesnakes a bad rap, inviting students to re-examine their preconceptions about nature and to take a deeper dive into ecology. His enthusiasm was certainly infectious!

And his impact should be no surprise. The grandchild of some of the earliest Whispering Winds Family Camp attendees, Allan learned to love creation from the very start, a necessary first step to recognizing our sister, Mother Earth, as a revelatory gift to be cared for in response to God’s love for us.

It’s our sincere prayer that our 80 sixth-graders will have fallen in love with this gift of the earth by the end of the week and will grow in their knowledge of God’s love and capacity to care for creation in return!

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