|One of the many team competitions at the first Conquest summer camp in the Holy Land.|
August 26, 2008. George Khoury, a senior double-majoring in Computer
Science and French at Hope College in Michigan, is not
your typical college student.
He is a native Palestinian Catholic, part
of a tiny and often forgotten population in a land
dominated by Judaism and Islam. Palestine’s Roman Catholics, who make
up less than 2% of the total population, sometimes find
themselves caught in the crossfire between Jewish and Muslim extremists.
They end up carrying the burden of economic and political
consequences they did nothing to merit. At the same time,
they often struggle to find support in the practice of
These difficult circumstances had always made George Khoury sensitive
to the importance of building up the Catholic community in
Palestine. But what he didn’t know was that he would
be called upon to play a big role in an
initiative that would bring a dynamic, new experience of the
faith to Palestine’s Catholic children: the first ever Conquest summer
camp in the Holy Land.
|George Khoury, who ran the logistics of the camp.|
Invited to Serve
father works in close conjunction with the Legionaries of Christ
stationed at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center,
it was only a matter of time before the talented
21 year old got in contact with Fr Eamon Kelly,
Fr Eamon presented to him the big picture of
what Conquest clubs are all about: values and character formation,
spiritual formation, fun, friendship…
Then he sprang the invitation: “What
do you think about helping out as a counselor for
the first Conquest camp in Jerusalem?”
George was attracted by
the idea. A summer camp for local Palestinian Catholic boys
was sorely needed. Sometimes the Catholic formation given in the
schools (with non-Catholic majority) tended to emphasize the historical aspects
of Catholicism while leaving aside the faith itself. And most
summer camps in Palestine are all fun and sports—a welcome
break from the rigorous intellectual effort required during the school
year, but hardly a school of virtue. In George’s words,
growth in virtue during an ordinary summer camp “would be
considered rare, accidental, and highly welcomed but seldom striven for.”
|The Conquest boys in Bethlehem.|
he said yes.
After a few more meetings with
Fr Eamon, George found himself handling more and more responsibilities
for the fledgling camp. He was getting donations from local
companies and businessmen, arranging budgets and reserving transportation, organizing the
meals and swimming excursions, and scheduling Masses at the holy
sites. Before long, all of the logistics and finances had
fallen onto his capable shoulders.
An Ancient Land through New Eyes
the camp began. From July 7 to 12, 2008, a
group of 17 Catholic Palestinian boys ages 10 to 14
gathered at the Pontifical Institute Notre Dame of Jerusalem
Center as their home base.
All of the activities were
|A moment during the boys’ apostolic outreach.|
held in Arabic, and the talks, competitions, and parts of
the Mass were translated by John Nesnas, of Kingston College
in the United Kingdom, and two bilingual 12-year-old team leaders:
Johnny Barakat and Musa Nimatalah.
The boys went to visit
different holy sites every day, with daily mass and prayers
in significant locations. George had organized their trips so that
they would be walking in the footsteps of Christ´s life.
In each place—from the grotto of the Annunciation to Bethlehem
to Galilee and Nazareth to Jerusalem—the boys had fun but
meaningful activities that helped them retrace the steps of Christ
early life, public ministry, passion, death, and resurrection.
typical day at the camp would start at 7 am,
with prayer, breakfast, and sports activities presenting a virtue to
be conquered that day. Then came lunch, followed by more
activities, such as: team competitions in Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the
Mount of Beatitudes; a boat ride on the Sea of
Galilee; a water-park activity in Tiberius; speed climbing the Mount of
Temptations; Mass at Gethsemane; climbing the Mount of Olives; and
visits to Golgotha, the Holy Sepulcher, Emmaus and the site
of the Ascension. Each day ended with a recap by
the group, with dismissal at around 7:30 pm.
In the midst of all the fun and competitions, the
boys were gaining something precious: they were learning to see
the faith—and their own country—through new eyes.
Parents know when a
|The boys’ favorite activity by far was swimming.|
summer camp has been successful because they can see the
results in their children. After this Conquest camp, George Khoury
said the parents were raving about the changes they had
One dad leaned over to Deacon Michael Sullivan, LC,
and whispered: “They’ve changed—I can see it! Ever since the
camp, it’s as if they are more mature. They now
know when it is time to take something seriously.”
Some mothers had tears in their eyes when thanking George
and the Legionary priests because they saw that their boys
had gained new virtues and a deeper knowledge of their
After the camp, several kids were begging for next
year’s camp to be much longer than a week. They
wanted a month. And after the boys’ camp, the parents
signed up twice as many of their girls for the
Challenge summer camp to be held a week later.
When asked what he saw in the spirit of
the Palestinian Catholic boys, Deacon Michael Sullivan, LC, said that
they have a resilient joy.
“I was refreshed and moved by
the joy and simplicity of boys who live their Catholic
faith in the midst of an environment that is anything
|The Palestinian Conquest boys overlooking the Old City of Jerusalem with Fr Eamon Kelly (left) and Deacon Michael Sullivan (right).|
but supportive,” he said.
One of their first Conquest
activities was a competition for virtuous acts. Deacon Michael was
surprised to see how quickly they grasped the spirit of
charity that the activity was meant to teach.
“Rather than being
interested in their own team’s totals, members from both teams
began raising their hands to tell me about the virtuous
acts of members of the opposing team, fully aware that
their ‘opponents’ would be awarded points for these acts. This
went on and on and became a regular activity,” he
“These boys got beyond points and got closer to God.”
another occasion, the boys happened to run into a group
of Regnum Christi young men from Mexico, right in front
of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. The bond was
“I’ve never seen two groups so instantaneously happy together,” said Deacon
Michael. “Just a stone’s throw away from Calvary, little boys
speaking Arabic and young men speaking Spanish and English hit
it off in a matter of seconds. Charity knows no
borders or language barriers.”
Looking back on the experience,
|The gang in Galilee.|
Deacon Michael, who will be ordained a priest at Christmas,
counted it a blessing. “I went to teach the faith,
but they ended up teaching me,” he said.
too, the experience was a satisfying one. He had played
a major role in organizing and running the first ever
Conquest club in the Holy Land. He had seen the
boys changing from one day to the next, and he
had the satisfaction of knowing that his hard work had
been invested in a most important cause: the spiritual good
of his own people.