When Major Henry Morris, The Salvation Army’s divisional secretary for program in Florida, uttered those two words and invited me to participate in it, I dutifully accepted the assignment of reporting on it. I pulled myself up at the bootstraps, quite literally in combat boots, placed my hair in a baseball hat, and quietly slipped into the background of the 2022 Men’s ‘Stand Strong’ Camp, taking care to give the guests and attendees the space they needed to convene in fellowship. I was determined to understand how Men’s Camp differs from a women’s retreat, at the least to get a distinct point of view.
With previous reporting on the Florida Women’s Retreat, I noted that though the focus of both the men’s and women’s retreats challenge one in their Christian walk, the men’s retreat is set apart by the competitive nature of sports built into the event program, and there were a ton of sports and game activities the men could choose from. It was a matter of deciding which one appealed to them at a given time.
In between sports, worship and sitting down to eat in fellowship, there were many special guests present throughout the weekend at Camp Keystone, like Lt. Colonel James Seiler, territorial business administrator, Atlanta, GA, Captain Damon Graham, ARC Officer, Hampton Roads, VA, recording music artist Damien Horne, and Lt. Colonel Ken Luyk, divisional commander, each one providing special testimony that touched the hearts of the men, mine included.
The first speaker of the weekend was Emaniel (E.B.) Brifil, representing the Tampa Corps, with a moving spoken word testimonial, poetic in its delivery, which stirred at the core of one’s heart, if not the minds of the men in attendance.
“What are we doing daily to grow in Him?” he asked. “This weekend is more than about the fun and the games… Men who will be more focused on the Glory of God than friendly banter and competition.”
He further illustrated divisive times that should not separate one from another by putting more effort into building the Kingdom of God, then into an ideology, a right wing or a left wing. “Men who will have an allegiance to God and not to a particular nation.”
Brifil encouraged the men to know about their fellow brother in Christ, to stand strong with them, “in times of joy and congratulations, but also in times of trials and tribulations.”
Lt. Colonel Luyk followed up by referencing the strength of retired 1992 Olympian British sprinter, Derek Anthony Redmond, who despite not finishing a four hundred meters semi-final because of a torn hamstring, became the face of hope, humanity, and perseverance. “When things do not end up the way you planned, when you messed up, when you went the wrong way, when you made some bad decisions, does anyone know the impact it may make?” Colonel said. He then invited everyone to bring their brokenness into the sanctuary, to find healing and redemption.
On Saturday, the next speaker up at bat was the lively, spirited testimonial given by new soldier, Pablo Lanes, Naples Corps, who drew a bit of laughter from the camp attendees. He talked about making some bad choices in life, he also mentioned how at three points in his youth he could have gotten into more serious trouble, but God had a plan in his life, and he survived unscathed.
“The Lord had a plan,” Pablo said. “The truth is, the way I lived my life, I should not be here talking to you today. On three separate occasions, I have been shot at, by some miracle I have never been hit. I always wondered why, but I can tell you with certainty the Lord had a plan.” He continued, “Through the Corps I was introduced to a life of selflessness, servitude and filled with the Holy Spirit, that, my brothers, was the Lord’s plan.”
“I don’t drive an old school Chevy with the 20’s, I drive the Corps bus with twenty screaming kids.” Pablo humorously continued in referencing the behavior of his youth, “There is only one thing that would make me go back to the ‘old’ me, that is if anyone ever hurt my kids,”
Pausing a moment, he said, “Sorry, that was just meant for my daughter’s boyfriend, who’s here today,” drawing more welcome laughter in the room.
“I know now what it means to be a real man, it is to stand strong against the lies of the enemies and to find peace and strength in Jesus Christ, which is where you will find fulfillment and the life that He planned for you.” Pablo finished his witty, engaging testimony by succinctly adding “God has a plan for my life, and He has a plan for yours as well.”
With that said, Captain Damon Graham, approached the pulpit to give his seat rousing message, titled “I want to be strong, but you don’t understand” chest thumping exhortation, speaking to the men in the WAC about character and excellence, especially when it comes to the unsupervised areas of their lives.
“Character is who we really are in the unsupervised areas of our life,” he said. “It is not what one does in the dark, but what one does in the light.”
Captain then asked what being ‘strong’ looks like by reflecting on the first miracle of Jesus, when Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, a story about what takes place in each individual soul as it begins to hear one’s spiritual calling. The invitation of union with our higher self, union with God is key in the miracle of turning water into wine.
“If you do what the Word says it is important because you do not know at what point in the process your water is going to turn into wine.” He continued, “You do not know at what point in the process you will be healed.” When God causes miracles, He does not want us to just believe in miracles, he wants us to believe in Him. The point is not the message but the messenger.
Standing at the pulpit, Lt. Colonel Seiler gave heartrending testimony of his lovely wife, Karol, whom despite having health challenges is healing and improving because of the power of prayer. Focusing on Matthew 7, he turned to the men and said, “I don’t know what the need is, but knock on the door, gentleman.”
Later in the evening at Vespers Cross, Lt. Colonel Seiler reminded everyone again to lean on each other in prayer, reflecting on John 15, 1-8, saying no branch cannot bear fruit by itself, and challenging the men to spend time in God’s word, that way we show God’s glory to others.
The rewarding experience of a Christian open-air retreat, like Men’s Camp, is that it can help to transform lives, providing an opportunity for the men to decompress, sharing fellowship, vigorously competing in sports as evidenced by the winning teams that came out on top, like Winter Haven winning at basketball and football, or Miami Sunset winning in softball.
The bonus of men’s camp also highlights fostering friendship too. That point could not be more succinct than in a video message conveyed by Major Mark Satterlee.
He asks, “Can you name six men who will one day carry your casket into church?” He then reminds us, like one’s mother may have said, ‘to have a friend, you must be a friend,’ referencing scripture in Ecclesiastics 4:9-10, “If either of them falls, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”
Men should stand strong, but not stand alone, especially in Christ. Men, like women, should lift each other up. We need to enable our sisters to help their brothers stand strong, we need to support one another in their walk in Christ, by being an example and allowing them the space to do so.
In closing out the weekend retreat, Major Morris said, “My prayer is that we do not leave here the same way we came, when we leave here, the Holy Spirit is in us, and working through us, and changing us in a mighty way, that God is using us, and will use us in a mighty way.”