Faith, fun, nature and peace.
That’s what a group of 70 Lebanese youth experienced at a five-day camp hosted by the Mission de Vie (Mission of Life) religious order at the Village of Peace, situated in a pristine mountain setting in Mashraa, Lebanon.
During a morning break before group discussions, the youth, aged 13-18, congregate on the grounds, chatting and laughing. Lively music with a rap-like beat erupt from a speaker. It’s the camp’s theme song, Peace in My Heart composed and performed by Mission of Life Brother Christopher Malkoun. The youth line up and dance in unison, with actions to go along with the lyrics: “Everyone who sees me … discovers God who is in my heart. … Peace is in my heart. … I will give my peace to other hearts.”
The camp focused on how, with Christ, to confront difficulties in life.
“People think that in order to be happy they shouldn’t have problems and difficulties, but our experience is that there’s no life without problems,” Mission of Life Sister Gioia (pronounced “Joy-a”) Sawma told the Register.
“Youth are preparing to get through life. We want to help them to really live, through Christ, everything — first, by remembering that they are a beloved son, a beloved daughter, of the Father,” Sister Gioia explained. “Youth have exceptional potential. They just need someone to accompany them.”
“Cool” took on a new meaning for youth at this camp.
In a presentation, Sister Gioia’s spoke about “being cool” as “being strong when faced with problems in life,” Sister Gioia explained, adding that youth may have difficulties with their parents or with friends in school, but they need to choose how to be “cool.” She pointed to Jesus, asleep in the boat as his disciples were anxious amid the storm in the sea. “The Lord was sleeping because he was cool. He believed that storms will be calmed,” she explained.
Sister Gioia equipped the youth with a “COOL” formula to follow: “C” is for choosing how to live the experiences of their lives; “O” means that every experience is an opportunity; the second “O” is for “once” — an opportunity that is given to us one time; and “L” is for “love,” when one really believes that every situation represents a chance to grow in love in order to experience true joy.
Joy is what characterizes the Mission of Life, founded in Lebanon in 2001. It is the first order in the Middle East to include priests, brothers and sisters. Currently there are 43 sisters, 37 brothers, four priests and three deacons in the order.
Its mission centers around serving the poorest of the poor and the neglected in society and in proclaiming God’s word.
Volunteers play a crucial part in the Mission of Life. Currently there are 250 volunteers, plus an additional 70 who have completed a spiritual and humanitarian formation program.
The order is “surely joyful,” Sister Gioia told the Register. “This is a gift from God. When you see our brothers and sisters, they are joyful, because we believe that joy is the fruit of our relationship with Christ.”
The 70 youth who participated in the camp are among the order’s 200 members of “Youth of Life,” who gather regularly throughout Lebanon for spiritual formation and service projects.
The order engages youth in a realistic way so as to deepen their faith.
“Youth today are seeking to be radical — and I mean this in a good way. They want to find the truth. And they need a smile, love. They find this in our community,” explained Mission of Life Sister Juliana Chamoun.
Camp participant Joe Abdo, 18, has been involved with Youth of Life since he was 14.
“I had another way of thinking when I started. I used to think God is something big and scary. Now, he’s like a friend to me, and I feel I’ve become more mature in my faith,” he told the Register.
The Village of Peace, the site of the camp at 4,265 feet above sea level, realizes the long-held dream of Father Wissam Maalouf, founder of the Mission of Life order, to create a space in nature for visitors — in particular, families — to find inner peace.
As Sister Gioia explained, “As we always believe, when it’s God’s time for a certain project, God will provide all that we need to do it. Many generous people helped.” Benefactors for the order are fondly referred to as “Apostles of Providence.”
The project was completed in two years and inaugurated by Cardinal Bechara Rai, the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, in early July.
The site includes a 100-year-old stone building with a chapel that has served as a retreat house for the Mission of Life order. A new building was also constructed, featuring a gymnasium-like area for basketball, sports activities and games. Colorful posters grace the interior walls: “Play for love,” “Play for peace” and “Play for life.” That space also serves as a conference venue and dining area, with an adjoining kitchen. Dormitory-style lodging and additional conference rooms are upstairs.
There is no charge for visiting or lodging at the Village of Peace, although donations are accepted.
A breathtaking view awaits visitors. In the distance, majestic Mount Sannine, at 8,622 feet above sea level, faces the site. A panorama of red-tiled roofs of villages, like fields of poppies, accent the picturesque landscape.
A rugged hill serves as a backdrop for the Village of Peace. Therein lies a treasure: the “Way of Life,” a rustic hiking trail carved into the hill, dotted with oak trees and tall pines. It features seven stops for prayer and contemplation, focusing on the baptism of Jesus, the Samaritan woman, the miracle at Cana, the “Flame of Peace,” Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the Garden of Gethsemane and the cross.
The ambience of each “station” reflects its respective theme and includes a prayer. The Samaritan woman features a well. Statues of sheep gather at the Good Shepherd station, with the Shepherd’s staff resting against a bench and his footsteps beneath it carved in wood.
To reach the Garden of Gethsemane, one must ascend before descending to reflect on the Crucifixion. Carved into a boulder is the radiant face of Jesus, his eyes gazing toward the final station, a tall cross on the summit of the hill.
The prayer posted at the Gethsemane station reads: “Yes, Jesus, we want and desire to walk with you this path, to express in our turn the summit of love for you, who attracted us entirely to you by being raised up on the cross.”
The peace-focused station is called “Christ, the King of Peace.”
It references John 14:27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you.”
That station area includes a large “Flame of Peace” sculpture and seven smaller peace “flames,” upon each of which the word “peace” is written in a different language: Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian and English.
Youth of Life member and camp participant Andre Chemaly, 18, said the atmosphere at the Village of Peace fosters contemplation: “It’s a great, quiet place for praying. You can isolate yourself from the problems of the world. You come here and feel the peace. And when you reach the cross, you feel that you have achieved, with Jesus.”
Jacimta Kreidy, 15, said she enjoyed the opportunity to make new friends at the camp. “The sisters and brothers are very understanding. They make faith fun,” she told the Register. “If you have faith, at least you can get through every experience in life. Surrounded by trees and silence, you feel serene here.”
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.