While throngs of people party in the streets each spring in the bacchanal that is Carnival on St. Thomas, hundreds of their neighbors slip quietly away to campsites, to churches and to missions, avoiding the Revel in favor of the Renewal.
Like many other congregations, Grace Baptist Church sponsors a camp for youth and adults that coincides with the last few days of Carnival, when the festivities reach a crescendo. Some years, members travel to St. John for a get-away. This year they will be at Magens Bay for three nights, beginning Thursday. They were there this time last year too, along with some people from other island congregations.
Campers come equipped with food, grills, air mattresses, and other gear.
“We take our tents and we stay at one of the camp slots that they have,” said the pastor, Rev. Glenroy Whyte.
There’s prayer and song, games, movies, swimming and hiking.
“We call it Easter Camp,” he said, although it is held not at Easter but at Carnival. It was already a tradition when he came to Grace Baptist a few years ago.
“It was people in the congregation wanting to do something different,” who started the annual camp, he said. “Actually it was designed to take them away from the Carnival activities that they really don’t want to be a part of” so they can be in “a quiet spot.”
He’s expecting about 25 to 30 people at the campsite this year, children, adolescents and older adults.
Some other churches specifically target teens during Carnival.
Seventh-day Adventist congregations sponsor youth groups that take part in a variety of activities throughout the year. Pathfinders is for ages 10 to 15. At 16, participants graduate to AY, or Adventist Youth, which includes members in their early 20s. For both groups, camping trips at Carnival time are a highlight each year.
Popular sites of the past include the V.I. Environmental Resource Station on St. John, Magens Bay on St. Thomas and Concordia on St. John. This year, a group of about 30 Pathfinders are heading to Virgin Gorda for the weekend.
“We get them out of the Carnival area,” said Pathfinders coordinator Caroline Ryan. “It keeps the young people away from the melee, and keeps them out of trouble, really,” she said. Instead, “They get in tune with nature” and they can concentrate on the spiritual, and on the positive.
“As a church, we try to discourage them from going to Carnival,” said Geoffrey Fleming, an AY Leader who is coordinating his seventh camping trip this year. “It isn’t a positive experience for them. In their age group, it’s not really about culture,” he said.
Too often, what youth encounter is not rich tradition but rather an atmosphere of violence, sex and drinking.
Alternatively, Fleming describes the camping trip as fun, life-affirming, and a maturing experience.
The teens and young adults work together in subgroups and draw lots for camp chores. There’s sharing and camaraderie, an emphasis on leadership skills, and there is counseling, Fleming said. The What’s-Said-Here-Stays-Here Rule applies.
The event has proven so popular that it draws repeat campers, including students attending college in the States.
“Some fly in for it,” Fleming said.
The Youth Mission Trip of the St. Thomas Reformed Church is also popular, appealing to high school students from around the island, including some who don’t even belong to the church, according to the pastor, Rev. Jeffrey Neevel.
Students spend a week abroad, volunteering their sweat for such projects as building classrooms and refurbishing orphanages. They’ve been to Haiti and to Guatemala and, more recently, to the Dominican Republic. This year they’ll return to the island’s Jarabacoa region.
“Last year we started building a house for a couple that’s in need, and we’re going to continue on that,” Neevel said.
“We painted a church last year” too, he said, and over the years “We’ve poured concrete floors for a lot of things.”
The 26 students and five adults this year will stay at a Youth for Christ camp.
Members of the mission group actually meet many times throughout the year. They sign up for the spring trip early in the school year, and must make a commitment to raise funds for the trip and to participate in at least two outreach activities in the Virgin Islands. Recent home projects include a litter clean-up in Bovoni and painting a Salvation Army building. Early this month, the group conducted a clean-up on Water Island.
Neevel has considerable experience working with youth and said he finds that typically, “they learn more on a one-week mission trip” than they do all year long in youth activities.
“Carnival’s great, but it’s not maybe the best environment for kids,” he said. In contrast the mission trip is always a powerful experience for them, and provides them with a different perspective on the world. “It’s life changing for them.”
Some denominations plan guest speakers or other special activities during Carnival Week to draw their congregations to church.
This year will be the 15th annual When Women Worship Conference. It will feature evangelist Doris Riley of Shekinah Global Ministries in Memphis. A registered nurse, she also holds a doctorate in ministry, according to conference officials.
“We invite all the churches,” said Jacinth Roberts of the Global Life Church on St. Thomas, which sponsors the event. She said about 200 to 300 people usually attend.
The conference runs from Tuesday through Thursday, starting at 7:30 each night, at the church on Raphune Hill. There is an all-day session on Wednesday, which will include a free lunch, health screenings and wellness tips. Participants are encouraged to bring a gift for a gift exchange.
Roberts said the conference is meant to be a time of fellowship and empowerment. It’s held during Carnival week “to give an alternative so Christians so that they cannot be diverted to worldly activities, to things that won’t build them up spiritually.”