By Christine Simek
Agape is the word used by early Christians for the love they believe God has for humanity. Capuchin Youth and Family Ministries, headquartered on Route 9D in Garrison, is a Catholic community built on the tenets of agape love: service, care for creation and focus on justice and peace.
The Capuchins are a global organization of friars who model themselves after St. Francis of Assisi. Founded in 1528 in central Italy, the order has become a major force in the Catholic Church. The friars assigned to Garrison focus on youth and family.
“What we do here is called ‘relational ministry,’ ” explains Erik Lenhart, one of two friars recently transferred here from a parish in Connecticut. “The information we share is important, but we do that through knowing people first. Without relationship, nothing happens.”
To accomplish that, the center hosts retreats and programs throughout the year. They are open to anyone and include weekends for middle and high school students focused on community building and bonding with peers. The goal is to help each adolescent have his or her own personal encounter with Christ.
But what makes a 15-year-old decide to spend a sunny October weekend at a seminary learning about Scripture rather than kicking a ball around on a soccer field?
“What gets them here is a search for something bigger in their lives,” says Tom Brinkmann, CYFM’s executive director. “But we also do a lot of service projects, so that’s a hook, too.”
The projects include service retreats, such as one that took place on Oct. 13 to 15, in which families gathered for prayer on Friday and spent the rest of the weekend building bunk beds for disadvantaged children.
Brinkmann says the retreats offer teenagers and their parents the opportunity to unplug, get quiet and let God speak to them. He says children often get pigeonholed by peer groups early in their lives, but “if they are able to come here at a time when their personality is developing but without the baggage of ‘We already know who you are,’ it can be very helpful. Here they become part of an accepting community, and I see kids flourish.”
The friars also host outreach retreats twice a year for high school and college students to spend a week in prayer, learning catechism and volunteering. During past retreats, students have worked in soup kitchens and at hospitals with end-stage cancer patients and have tutored children with disabilities. “The kids get outside of their bubbles,” Brinkmann says. Lenhart notes that social media provides connections but not community, “which is, as humans, our deepest desire.”
The retreats at CYFM are designed to focus on beauty, goodness and truth, Lenhart says. “We share the catechisms, the echoes of ancient wisdom and truth that make our lives meaningful,” he says. He adds, with a laugh, “It’s not necessarily making our lives easier, but more meaningful.”
The summer Appalachian Mission is CYFM’s largest retreat, with 85 participants who spend nine days in Harlan County, Kentucky, deep in the heart of Appalachia.
Harlan, the county seat, is a struggling coal mining town, and one of the poorest communities in the country. Capuchin volunteers make nursing home visits, run a vacation bible school and distribute clothing and children’s books. In addition, five teams are dispatched to repair homes.
Another program, Cap Corps, which Lenhart oversees, inspired him to join the order 15 years ago. He was a first-year cadet at West Point on Sept. 11, 2001, which shook his world view. Soon after, a friend sent him a biography of St. Francis. Lenhart noted that the saint, at one point, had wanted to be a soldier, too, but ended up on a wildly different path.
“I recognized that something was not in alignment with who I was, what I wanted to be and the type of community that I desired,” Lenhart explains. As it happened, a few months later, he attended a Cap Corps retreat at CYFM designed for cadets. “God was presenting me with something,” he says. “After that, it wasn’t hard to make a decision to leave the academy.”