Jenna Liechty Martin lives in the peaceful woods with her husband, Peter, and son Henry. She is nearing the end of her second year as executive director at Camp Friedenswald. Before this she spent three years working in Belfast, Northern Ireland through Mennonite Mission Network. She enjoys watching the seasons change, walking through the woods with her family, spending time with friends, and sitting around a campfire.
I wake up to the cries of my eight-month-old son. Attempting to sooth him to sleep, I pace from room to room with little success, until I step outside and into the dark night and am surrounded by a full symphony of sounds. Immediately his cries are replaced with silence, and soon sleep follows. But I remain awake, babe in arms, in awe of the nighttime sky and sounds, wondering how anyone could sleep through this.
On a recent late-fall morning I noticed the brown oak leaves on the porch and knew: winter is creeping in.
When the sycamore tree’s leaves fell several weeks earlier, I anticipated the blaze of color that would soon fill the peaceful woods at Camp Friedenswald, looking forward to the reds and yellows that would fill the forest. But once the oak leaves fell, I knew that this brief season of color was coming to an end. This realization surprised me, not because I didn’t know that the leaves would fall and winter would come, but because I recognized that oak trees held their leaves longer, something I wouldn’t have noticed in previous years.
A moment of recognition: I am awakening to the rhythms of God’s creation.
I am privileged to live and work at Camp Friedenswald (meaning the peaceful woods), a Mennonite Camp and place of retreat in southern Michigan. Living in the woods amidst the old growth forests and rare prairie fen wetlands has awoken in me a deepening appreciation for and understanding of God’s creation. While growing up in the Midwest, seasonal changes have always been quite obviously marked by wardrobe changes (time to get out the coat, scarf, etc.), living in the peaceful woods has made me increasingly aware of the daily changes and promise within creation.
Over 65 years ago, leaders within the conferences that merged to form Central District Conference, felt a need to establish a place for retreat and for Christian formation for the youth and young adults in their churches.
They recognized the importance of stepping away from the routine and busyness of everyday life in order to be renewed and to reconnect with God, self, others and nature.
This same vision continues to guide Camp Friedenswald today.
I recently received a call from a woman grieving the sudden and tragic death of her husband. She shared memories of the summers her young family spent together volunteering at Camp Friedenswald. In the midst of their busy lives, their weeks at camp provided the gift of shared meals and time together. She remembered those weeks as ones of reawakening for their family; an awakening to the need to reorder and reprioritize their lives. In the midst of her grief, she expressed deep gratitude for the gifts that came from taking time away as a family.
Jesus’ life provides us with an example of the importance and necessity of retreat. In the midst of his ministry, and oftentimes in the midst of the “busiest” seasons, Jesus retreated up the mountain to a quiet place in order to “wake up.”
Of course, God is no more present in the peaceful woods than in the midst of the city; nor does the Spirit’s activity flow among us at camp more readily than in a congregation on a Sunday morning.
But what is different, and what sets places like Camp Friedenswald apart, is the invitation to retreat, to let go of the to-do lists and over-scheduled lives, and to be wholly present.
At Camp, in the company and community of other seeking souls, the invitation is there: wake up! God is present in people, in nature, in the community. The Spirit is moving among us, calling us to reconsider and reorder our lives. What is different about camp, is that we are given permission, sometimes in the middle of the night, to climb out of bed, step outside and notice what has been true all along. We wake up.
My hope and prayer is that Camp Friedenswald can be a place for people of all ages to retreat and to awaken to God’s activity in their lives. Whether it be through singing around a campfire, standing in awe of the starry night sky, noticing the subtle changes of an oak tree, or simply sitting in silence,