Who Will Be Victorious?; Vicksburg Leadership Retreat

The men and boys of Kepha’s St. Peter chapter meets the enemy on the battlefield to conquer sin and death.  Who will be victorious?

-by Andrew Smith

Vicksburg, MS (MetroCatholic) - At first we thought it was unusual that our end-of-year retreat at Vicksburg National Military Park for Kepha’s Leadership Retreat was accompanied by the hottest, most muggiest weather any of us Texans (some born and bred here) had ever experienced.  One of our members called it “Africa-Hot.” But by the end of our weekend on the battlefield, exploring the campaign and siege of Vicksburg, having fun and experiencing dynamic orthodoxy and infectious joy, we realized that the heat of the sun was a symbol of the heat of hell that awaited us if we did not win the battle against sin.  Such is the challenge put before all of us and one we enthusiastically take up in Kepha, the Brotherhood of the Iron Will.

Kepha rallies around 5 anchors: prayer, apologetics, brotherhood, mortification and charity via monthly retreats and shared daily prayers in an attempt to ascend “Towards the Top!” a phrase that one of our Big Three, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati used to encourage others to get to Heaven. 

After a year of retreats in the Dallas-area, we head to Vicksburg, Mississippi to spend the weekend on the battlefield that commemorates the famous Civil War battle of 1863.  The purpose of the retreat was simple: Apply strategies learned on the battlefield of war to the battlefield of the soul.   We would study leadership and strive to imitate the examples of those who were victorious.  Not always easy to do, because as we learned, sometimes sacrificing yourself completely was the only means to victory.  It was the example of Christ himself, the original Man of an Iron Will. 

We learned about General Grant and his risky strategy to take Vicksburg, the “Gibraltar of the South.”  We saw that hesitation in the face of a deadly enemy who is relentlessly pursuing you can have fatal consequences.   We learned about bloodshed and sacrifice.  We looked in awe as we observed just how close the lines between the opposing armies were during the siege and asked how it was possible anyone came out alive at all?

We learned about Brigadier General  Lloyd Tilghman, CSA, the famous Confederate leader who sacrificed his own life so that his army could live to fight another day.   

After lunch we played dodgeball , a sport that is not considered nice, but we do it anyways, because we know that boys must learn to get up after being hit.  The boys of Kepha positively scream in angst if we don’t schedule enough dodge ball time on a retreat. 

And since it would not be right to come to a Civil War battlefield and not engage in a little warfare ourselves, we fill some balloons with water and split up into teams.  One team climbs a tall hill, plants a flag and dares the other team to take it.  This is a challenge that is irresistible and the boys are innovative in developing a strategy to take it every time.  By the time the third assault team sweeps up the hill, the defenders are taking cover in an abandoned motel and raining down water balloons like an artillery barrage at Gettysburg.  Yet, they left a weak spot and to exploit it John Peter climbs onto the shoulders of Brandon to grab the flag from a second story anchor and the attackers take the flag for the third and final time.   Brotherhood, again, wins the day.

We head to the cathedral-like structure that is the Illinois monument to pray the Divine Mercy chaplet and in the midst of a crowd of tourists, we kneel to give thanks and remember the sacrifices of those who went before us.   I was tempted to speak softly so as not to disturb the roaming tourists, but not 7 year old Joseph, who promptly kneels down and recites the prayers in his normal voice that penetrates the area.  As I watched him pray, with eyes shut tight and head turned towards the heavens, I was reminded that I have so much to learn and that prayer is a God-given right and not something to be ashamed of. 

We move on to the north-east end of the battlefield where “states-rights” Josh  practices mortification by doing a battlefield report on someone he does not like, General Ulysses S. Grant.  But he smiles and does it anyways.    

Our act of charity for the retreat was to pick up any trash we saw on the battlefield, but by the end of the day, none of the boy’s bags were full as the battlefield is kept immaculate.  Imagine if we too kept our souls so clean so that no one would have to come after us to pick up the mess?

We end the day climbing all over a might war-ship risen again, the USS Cairo.  This deadly iron-clad man-of-war was mighty in its time but was sunk by a hastily-put together torpedo that probably should not have worked at all.  As we look over the re-built wreckage, we realize that even the mightiest among us can fall, but that to get back up again is the true measure of our worth. 

But the thing that really raises the lump in our throats is the crosswalk through the National Cemetery where 17,000 Union soldiers are buried, most of their names unknown except to God alone.  As we march through the cemetery in silence holding our crosses, the voices of the soldiers cry out to us as if one.  Their message is clear: Take up the mantle of freedom, pass it onto the next generation, raise up men to be strong in their Faith.  On top of a graveyard hill in the cemetery, we realize that death is the price of victory.  Death on a battlefield, death on a cross, death to ourselves and to our own wants.  It has to be this way.  The old has to make way for the new and men must, once again, take up the bitterness of the cross today so that future generations will be free. 

Sunday morning we are given a lesson in brotherhood when 12 year old Austen is given the “spirit of brotherhood” award at the end of the retreat and when asked to give a speech, he breaks down and acknowledges that he has been disrespectful and does not deserve the award, a beautiful new leather-bound bible, which he promptly hands to another boy who he says deserves it more.  We all pause because we don’t know what to say.  Where else will a 12 year old learn about brotherhood in this way?

After working through discussions of whether or not the Civil War was fought over states-rights or slavery, we head to Mass where the readings were from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, exhorting them to “stand fast, therefore,  and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”   We might still be fighting the Civil War here on earth but the Man upstairs clearly has it all figured out. 

Kepha will start its 13th year in September 2010 and future retreat themes will cover Pope John Paul the Great’s landmark encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pro-Life Apologetics, the Rosary, the Eucharist, the Fathers of the Church, a Chastity retreat  and much more.   If you are father with sons or no sons, or a single man, clergy or seminarian, then we invite you to attend one of our retreats and experience Dynamic Orthodoxy, Infectious Joy for yourself.   And as Blessed Pier Giorgio, one of Kepha’s Big Three, used to say, “May God give you iron will, that does not bend and does not fail in his projects.” 

Andrew Smith is a Regional Director for Kepha based in Texas.  For more information visit www.kepharocks.org. 

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George Vogt (3725 Posts)


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One Response to “Who Will Be Victorious?; Vicksburg Leadership Retreat”

  1. Corey Harned says:

    GREAT JOB, Andrew! I too encourage all Catholic men and boys to come and challenge yourself. Do you have what it takes to become a Kepha Brother?

    Come and see.

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