University retreat reveals lessons in life and love

OMEMEE, Ont. – Tucked in a small village of nearly 1,500 people, God revealed that He can be a source of hope for all nations.

Athletes in Action (AIA) Canada held its annual Eastern Retreat on March 24-26, an event dedicated to uniting AIA campus programs across Ontario and Quebec. Located at the Mill Stream Bible Camp & Retreat Centre, the final head count neared 100 participants between students and staff, spread across twelve universities.

The experience was spectacular,” said Simon Beeksma, a second year wide receiver from Carleton University. “It was amazing to see that there were so many people in the same mindset.”

Athletes were kept busy over the two-day event, rotating through a series of lectures, social activities and competitions, including a competitive ball hockey tournament.

The retreat, which also occurs in British Columbia and in the Prairie provinces, provides one of few province-wide opportunities for students to enjoy an organized experience together. Jenna Kelsall, a pole vault specialist from the University of Toronto, emphasized how important the AIA community has been in her development within the Christian-student-athlete trifecta.

“They understand the pressures that are faced in that lifestyle,” the fourth year student explains, “and being in that community – that receives Jesus as Lord and Saviour – it just provides so much freedom.

“They talk about how God fits into our sport, and also how that [integration] can teach lessons that go beyond sport.”

Some of these impactful lessons were presented by Ryan Dawson, the weekend’s guest of honour. As the former National Director of Athletes in Action, he came into the retreat with a wealth of wisdom and experience in the athletic world from a Christian perspective.

Dawson proved to be a highly respected speaker among the students.

“I want to model my life after [Dawson’s],” said Beeksma. “The way he controlled the room and portrayed his message was remarkable.”

Dawson’s four in-class sessions explored a number of themes, from receiving God’s love to transforming obstacles into opportunities, to leaving a legacy marked by Jesus. Perhaps the most poignant discussion, however, tackled a pertinent topic among university students – sex and relationships.

Playfully nicknamed as “The Talk,” students were given the dual opportunity to listen to Dawson speak and address their fellow staff members through gendered panels. Students spoke candidly with their male and female mentors, successfully creating a conversation on an often-tabooed subject within Christian circles.

Mitch Kernick, also a wide receiver, was pleasantly surprised with the atmosphere that resulted from the discussion.

University of Waterloo Wide Receiver, Mitch Kernick. Photo courtesy of Michael P. Hall for OUA Sports

“Everyone on staff was on the same page,” said the third year student. “They genuinely care about bringing up a generation of truthful followers of Christ, and having them walk in purity.”

Kernick, an AIA leader on his team at the University of Waterloo, stressed the importance of highlighting some of the other, more “predictable” themes brought up during the retreat. Moreover, he noted how the development of our faith often stems from these principles.

“Understanding that we are God’s beloved is step one,” he said, “otherwise, everything that’s built from there will be less genuine.”

Moving forward, many students are looking forward to AIA’s keystone event: National Training Camp (NTC).

“NTC is really a place where everything about AIA comes together,” said Kernick. “The teachings, the community, the relationships, the practice you get to apply the lessons you learned, and really a place where your faith can become real for you.”

Kelsall, finishing up her third year on U of T’s leadership team, echoed these sentiments.

“Just go!” she laughed. “NTC is a unique experience you can’t get in any other way. You’re surrounded by other Christian athletes [who are] just as excited about sport and God, and it’s a huge encouragement.”

Kelsall remarked the immense practical value of NTC, explaining how it can teach critical skills of glorifying God through one’s sport instead of leading two separate lives, as an athlete and a Christian.

“Anyone who puts a significant amount of time in their sport needs to learn these lessons,” she said. “I’m still journeying through this, and I’m definitely not perfect! But God uses all lessons for good, and there’s so much freedom and joy in knowing that God created sport for His pleasure.”

“Knowing that we can put our whole identity in Him. … It becomes a totally different game.”

As for Beeksma, a first-time retreat goer, NTC is looking like a realistic possibility.

For the 48 hours I was [at retreat], I’ve never felt so happy, so included, and so loved,” he said. “If you are on the fence for NTC, try the retreat. It will give you and short and sweet look into what happens at NTC.”

In case there was any room left for doubt, Beeksma left some captivating words of persuasion for any athlete who may consider attending the retreat in the future.

“I would first ask if they loved to eat. If they answered yes, then I wouldn’t need to say anymore.”

Shayna Lewis
University of Ottawa
Athletes in Action Canada