Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Becoming a Family: The Great Sand Dunes Course 2014

Hiking for miles with 50+ pound packs. Learning to cook an entire meal in one pot over a tiny stove. Climbing a 13,0000 foot peak. Hiking over a mountain pass in a howling windstorm. Learning to keep walking even when cold, wet, and hungry. Struggling with altitude sickness. Discovering giant seesaws made from fallen trees. Worshipping together under a blanket of stars. Laughing, laughing, laughing. Learning to trust. Becoming vulnerable. Letting go of burdens. 

These are a few of the many adventures the EMH team experienced on The Great Sand Dunes backpacking course, August 18-28. Ten juniors and seniors, three instructors, and one instructor-in-training spent ten days in the wilderness in the first of their four core courses.

“This is the foundational course for the year, and we went into it wanting to establish what kind of community we are going to be,” said EMH Director Ben Little.  “We want to be intentional in creating a community centered on openness, trust, growth, and encouragement. We want the students to see themselves as a family.”

Every family faces challenges, and living together in the wilderness is one way to bring those challenges to the surface very quickly. Along with sickness, cold and rainy weather, and the dynamics of a new group, the students faced the everyday reality of different and sometimes conflicting personalities.

“The students handled the challenges well,” said Mr. Little. “It can be difficult to be patient when living that closely together and learning to be vulnerable. When you are a family and you let down your guard, that leads to conflict, and that is where growth often happens.”

Growth did happen in many ways. Kate, a junior, commented, “I learned that strength can come in many different forms, vulnerability being one, and that it is okay and sometimes good to be vulnerable.” Hawk, a senior, added, “I learned that we all can be put in situations we don’t like, but it’s how I react to those situations that really changes the outcome.”

The theme of the course was trust: What things are we trusting God for? How do we trust God with our identity? How do we trust him with our burdens? “We had some really meaningful spiritual conversations and good prayer and worship times,” said Mr. Little. “As we identified our burdens, some students really wrestled with that. We talked about the identity of a “son” versus the identity of an orphan, and how seeing myself as a son changes how I see life. The word Paul uses for “son” is a place of position. For some students that concept was really significant. Being part of a family can be difficult, but having that identity of a son is very important.”

Deanna, one of the instructors on the course, saw students grow in this area. “I watched as students learned to trust each other on an emotional level throughout the week. Each day they seemed to grow in their vulnerability with one another both on individual levels as well as communally. I listened as they grappled with the theme of trust. They shared with me the struggles they were
facing and how they felt either it was drawing them closer to God or it was showing them who God wanted them to be. During evening devotions, most students seemed to dig in; they wanted to discuss some of the hard questions.” 

Sarah, a junior, agreed. “I learned a lot about myself through this course. God reminded me of several areas he wanted me to grow and develop in as a daughter of God, such as my true identity, my dependency on Jesus, and how I need to work on putting Christ first in my life.”

One evening the instructors told the students to pick up a palm-sized rock and carry it with them throughout the evening. They were not allowed to put it down, even while cooking and eating. If they dropped it, they had to pick up a bigger rock. Later the group discussed burdens and named the burdens they carry. They were challenged to take their rock and throw their “burden” off the side of the mountain.

Deanna commented, “In a conversation the next day with a student, he said he was still thinking about his rock and wasn't ready to throw it; he wanted to be sure he was really entrusting it to God before he did.”

She continued, “I had a burden attached to my rock as well. I've had a difficult time trusting God with certain areas of my life, and throughout the week it was pretty heavy on my heart. In throwing my rock, I surrendered a part of my heart that I hadn't before, and it was profoundly freeing and peace-giving. That was a pretty powerful night.”

Another student reflected, “My biggest challenge was confronting my past, coming face-to-face with mistakes and memories I thought I had buried deeper and then having to confront them.”

In the midst of challenges, there was a lot of laughter and fun. “The group really just enjoyed each other,” said Mr. Little. They practiced many of the skills they are learning, such as map reading, route finding, and cooking in the outdoors. They crossed a mountain pass, climbed to the top of a peak, visited beautiful lakes, and hiked off-trail for several days.

A big highlight of this particular course was having Evelyn as the instructor-in-training. Evelyn came to EMH from Louisiana in the very first year of EMH three years ago. This year she will be returning to participate in courses as part of her training to earn a wilderness EMT. “It was really cool for me to be back on the first trip, the start of my journey,” she said. “I think great relationships were started, hard questions were pondered, and walls kind of opened a little bit. Overall it was a great trip.”

 To see many more photos from the course, visit our Flickr page.

Ekklesia Mountain High is a boarding and day-student program for high school juniors and seniors at Darren Patterson Christian Academy, in which approximately forty days of wilderness experience and leadership training is integrated with rigorous academics in DPCA's Biblically-centered environment.  To learn more, please visit the school's website at www.dpcaweb.org, and the EMH program's website at www.emhweb.org.

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