by Mike Baird

Driving into Willow Park Christian Camp at Eastern Beach in early October brought back a flood of memories.

My first Joshua Men’s Retreat was held here in 1996. I remember walking into a room full of men roaring praise and worship and thinking, “I’ve come home”.

My search for Christian men’s fellowship had led me to Pentecostal church gatherings that were great, but I missed a Catholic flavour. No adoration, no morning prayer, no Reconciliation, no priests, no Mass. 

Here, Joshua offered it all. Willow Park has become an institution for Auckland Joshua men’s retreats. Founded in 1935 by Christian philanthropist Robert Laidlaw, Willow Park is now surrounded by multi-million dollar real estate. Parts of the camp reflect its longevity with gaps in the walls showing daylight.

In a way this suits the Joshua retreat. No hundred-thousand dollar sound systems and smoke machines here. Just ordinary men seeking a closer walk with Jesus. 

This year the retreat held a special attraction for me. The calibre of the advertised speakers was stellar with Fr Michael Gielen as keynote speaker and Bishop Emeritus Denis Browne and Michael Pervan both leading workshops. 

The weekend’s theme “Embrace God’s mercy and be empowered” was unpacked beautifully by Fr Gielen over a series of five talks. He told stories of when he both received and dispensed mercy. These underpinned his entreaty for us to soften up our hearts and receive God’s mercy. This in turn would lead us to become men of mercy ourselves. A merciful Church presents the most attractive face to a world wanting and needing to see a merciful God. 

We were told the heart-softening process is no picnic at the beach. It more resembles a war zone. Happiest people, said Fr Gielen, know how to keep friends. They do this by saying “sorry”, often.

We were encouraged to thank our wives when they point out a weakness. This was all part of the transition from being a “dead man walking” in a cave to becoming a man fully alive, walking in the light. 

Bishop Denis’s workshop was like a fireside chat with a wise and seasoned prophet. He led us into a discussion on Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), his exhortation on the family. Here was a place for mercy to be extended to those Catholics living in irregular relationships.

Yes, it is a minefield, but the Church is being called by Pope Francis to go dance in it anyway. Michael Pervan led a fascinating workshop on iconography, the re-emerging art form of the Church. He explained how God becoming incarnate in his son Jesus allowed the Church to depict him for the first time. The icon is always a depiction of the mystery of the Incarnation. 

The weekend finished with a celebration of 30 years since Joshua’s inaugural retreat in 1986. Fred Webb, a founding member, recollected how the fraternity came about with the meeting of two men previously unknown to each other, himself and Maurice Schischka. Maurice’s son David then spoke of his deceased Dad’s vision for Joshua and his legacy left to encourage us.

The retreat has left me pondering the closing words from Fr Gielen. Do I want to just exist or live, be a dead man walking or a man living an adventure? Mercy is inextricably tied up in my fiat, my yes to living the adventure.