A group of around thirty participants gather in the Wege Ballroom for Verso L’alto service project
Story by Zachary Avery, News Editor
Photographs courtesy of Zach Avery
On April 10, members of the Peer Ministry Team out of Aquinas’ Department for Campus Ministry and Service Learning led an engaged crowd of around 30 students through a full day of service projects, small group activities and prayer. This event, “Verso L’alto,” has been a combined effort from participants of Campus Ministry, the Catholic Student Fellowship and the Community Action Volunteers of Aquinas.
After gathering in predetermined small groups, attendees to Verso L’alto began working on their service project. During a typical year, Campus Ministry would sponsor a large group of students to leave campus together and take a retreat called “Encounter.” With student engagement as well as COVID health guidelines being kept in consideration by the Peer Ministry Team, service leader coordinator Brianna Haarer searched for service project options that could fit within the context of an on-campus retreat.
Brianna Maurer paints her decorative bowl for the Verso L’alto service project
“I found these bowl-making activities,” Haarer said. “It’s a program West Michigan Catholic Charities puts on, and they provide all the paints supplies and bowls.”
The bowls and plates that these participants glazed will be fired and then sent to God’s Kitchen, a community-based organization that offers a variety of services ranging from prevention and education to crisis intervention, for repeated use in their meal planning.
This crafting service project offered an additional purpose: It put participants into an environment where they could share their creativity with one another and encourage new design ideas. One Peer Ministry team member who was decorating their bowl with perceivable care, Youth Ministry Orientation Coordinator Judah Thomason, was particularly aware of the importance of being vulnerable and open with fellow students.
“The goal is to get to know one another so when you are on campus you don’t feel alone,” Thomason said. “You feel like you have community.”
In fact, one could say that the entire day’s festivities was centered around this idea of growing a community amongst Aquinas Saints. Each and every exercise that Peer Ministry Team leader Zach Gonring directed from the front of the Wege Ballroom for this initially indoor event was rooted in some sense of introspection, and then inspired openness with new friends.
“We first have to establish that relationship,” Gonring said. “It is first the relationship with one another, to then invite them deeper into a relationship with Christ and more spiritual fulfillment, and then to accompany them along that journey.”
While most would consider the evening adoration to be the climactic, key experience of a retreat like this, many were eager and excited to begin a mysterious “prayer hike” promised to participants on the posted itinerary. Included in that group of uninformed attendees was Peer Ministry Team youth ministry coordinator, Marie Kruger.
“I have never done anything like that,” Kruger said. “I have been on lots of retreats, and this is something different. I am really excited to see what is like.”
Students ended the Verso L’alto prayer hike at Wege Pond
The prayer hike began with each student being handed a “Prayer Walk Booklet.” These nine page long, stapled handouts included a list of locales around the Aquinas College campus, prayer and meditation exercises assigned for each one and a campus map for reference. At the hike’s end, participants were asked to let go of their inhibitions, guilt and whatever else may have come up during their individually led contemplation, by casting a stone into the center of Wege Pond. Through that release, the Peer Ministry Team hopes that students can step away from Verso L’alto with a new sense of balance and connection to nature.
“I think the best way that we can go about that is to assist in people’s own personal relationship with God,” said Jared Epkey, the Retreat Coordinator in-training for the Peer Ministry Team. “I cannot force that of anybody. So, I think this prayer hike is a way that you can each individually journey into your faith.”
With only a month’s preparation, Zach Gonring and his team of student leaders were able to organize an intricately designed experience for Aquinas Saints. While the success of Verso L’alto might shine a light on the end of a difficult semester for many students, for graduating seniors like Zach Gonring, the end of his tenure with the Peer Ministry Team is bittersweet.
“We’ve been really trying to push towards, I think, relational ministry,” Gonring said. “Being present to people on campus and building authentic relationships, because in terms of ministry there are steps. I think before you get a point of saying ‘Let’s talk about faith,’ it first has to come from a place of ‘Who are you?’ Real relational ministry is the push I hope grows.”