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 | By Marissa Nichols

Forming Youth by the Lake

“DYR is one of the reasons I have worked for the Church for over 14 years.” Row David participated in his interview as a true youth minister in action: video chatting on his cell phone from a parish mission trip in Texas. Flanked by Mesquite trees, Holy Spirit’s youth minister shared his experience amongst the pine trees of South Lake Tahoe, where he first attended the Diocesan Youth Retreat at 18 years old. “The Tahoe retreat really helped me see my own faith in a new light. Seeing other people on fire with their faith inspired me to get more in tune with my personal faith. That ignited me to continue volunteering for youth ministry in my home parish, Saint Lawrence.”


How DYR Began

In the late 1990s, former diocesan director of youth Vince Nims, while on vacation at Lake Tahoe, noticed a sign saying ‘Zephyr Presbyterian Conference Center.’ For whatever reason, he felt compelled to check that place out. He turned into the parking lot to explore the area and felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to start a diocesan retreat here at this site.

Under Bishop Pierre DuMaine, Nims began the Diocesan Youth Retreat at Zephyr Point Conference Center in South Lake Tahoe. It started with a cohort of about 15-25 high school youth. After some promotion, pictures, and simple word of mouth of how great this retreat was, it grew to what it is now, with almost 250 high school youth attending every year.

Row David’s first DYR was after his freshman year in college. “I never went as a high school youth, but I heard about it as a leader when I graduated. My first impression of the retreat was, ‘Wow, this is a really cool hidden gem that the Diocese of San Jose has!’” He applied to be a leader in training and then became a regular adult leader. Row shared that he has attended every summer since 2002 and has led the five-day event in several different capacities. From 2015 to 2018, the diocese invited him to coordinate the retreat, and he has been back at it again since 2023.

The Impact of a Diocesan Youth Retreat

Row spoke about some of the other effects of the retreat that he has previously encountered. “Immediately after the retreat, you see the buzz that DYR inspires even on social media: participants evangelizing to other youth about just how cool, fun, or formative it and about how they found or rediscovered Christ. These are teens saying these things!”

He reported that the youth frequently ask, “When's the next retreat?” They want to come back even after high school graduation, with some even becoming the next generation of leaders. For him, this speaks to how impactful their experience was. He, too, has been where they are. “When I was an 18-year-old kid, you know, I was searching for purpose in my life, trying to figure out who I was.” For him, the entire DYR  experience is “illuminating” because, “it just sheds light on a lot of things,” he explained.

Personal Transformation Through Leadership

Row shared his faith journey and DYR’s role in it: "Through my early 20s, I gained a lot of insight by just allowing myself to be seen as Jesus sees me. It allowed me to access my prayerful side and be challenged to grow in my faith.” Row considers the retreats to have challenged him to see himself as Christ sees him, guiding how he has chosen to use his gifts and talents and helping him understand his purpose in life. “I mean, if you had asked my 18-year-old self if I would be working for the Church for 14-plus years and coordinating DYR, I would have scoffed at that idea. But looking back at it now, I see how God has had a hand.”

Discerning his purpose in life led to Row switching from a secular job after college to ministry, and he has never looked back. “Each year that I return to Zephyr Cove when it is filled with our Catholic high school youth, I am always awed by the wonderful sense of unity we have as a diocese. I recognize how great God is and how blessed we are to have this retreat in such a beautiful, pristine site. For me it confirms that it’s where I need to be.”

He is not the only diocesan leader whom DYR has impacted. The current diocesan director for youth, Kevin Bernaga, was once a participant at DYR when Row was a young leader. Row recalled, “Kevin came in as a youth and then suddenly was on fire with this faith through DYR.” While not all participants circle back to lead at DYR or work in ministry, it is one example of how Row experiences the fruit of his leadership. “I hear all the time from youth and adults that the retreat was a very formative experience in their spiritual lives.”

God comes through Creation

It’s an experience that continues to evolve and change with the times. “I would say we approach DYR nowadays differently from how we did 20 years ago; the landscape has changed with regard to society, social media, and what youth are going through.” Row explained that camp activities include listening to keynote speakers, praise and worship, workshops and breakout presentations, and opportunities for Mass and the Sacraments. But one thing never changes, and that is the location itself.

The serenity of the environment draws everyone to encounter the Lord through creation and enjoy recreation. “We can just jump in the lake and have fun and just relax and be and then after dinner time we have evening program, in which you can attend a sunset Mass, adoration, or reconciliation.” For Row, reconciliation is the activity that most impacts him. He described the sacrament of healing at the lake: "Wednesday evening, we offer the opportunity for reconciliation, and no words can describe it. To confess one’s sins while overlooking the lake during sunset is one of the most beautiful things that I have come to witness and experience. What better testament to God’s love is there than viewing God’s creation and being forgiven of your sins at the same time?”

All Are Invited

Along with being transformational, Row confessed that at the end of the experience, it is normal for a leader to feel a satisfying tiredness. “It is from a five-day retreat packed with activities, and you become gassed out as a leader. But it is a good tired. You spent an entire day full of energy, joy, and life. You play, pray, and reflect on your day, and in that exhaustion, you can still recognize just how great God is.”

All Catholic youth in the diocese, from graduating 8th graders to graduating 12th graders, are invited to attend. Row shared that the length of the experience can be a concern for some, but he explains: “Five days is the best way to get to know others deeply, meet new people and strengthen current friendships. I want to encourage the youth: whether you are comfortable or not to be away for that long period, try to recognize that maybe you might be pleasantly surprised at what the Lord might have to offer to you in that extended time.” MN

Row David, Pastoral Associate for Youth at Holy Spirit Parish and Coordinator of the Annual Diocesan Youth Retreat (DYR)

Marissa Nichols is the managing editor and lead writer for The Valley Catholic, the magazine for the Catholic Diocese of San José. She attends mass with her family at the Santa Clara Carmelite Monastery. She loves gardening, anything yarn-related, and the outdoors.

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