Senior Editor-Writer, Michigan Area
NORTHPORT, Michigan (MIC) — It’s been a little over three years since Brandon Ahmicasaube Smith experienced a vision around a campfire in Northport, Michigan.
In the summer of 2012 Brandon felt disappointment at the close of the annual camp meeting. Suddenly he was aware as never before that “the best thing my dad ever did for me was take me to camp meeting.” That night Brandon started talking about a Bible camp with his mother, father and a good friend who remained after others had gone home. “I had this awesome feeling that my people are not alone. Christ is with us!” he remembers. “We must tell them! This new camp must happen.”
The new camp soon had a name … Spirit Journey. The new camp soon had the support of others beyond Brandon’s family. And today Spirit Journey Camp is giving young Native Americans new insight into their identity, purpose and future direction in life.
“I feel great about where Spirit Journey is headed,” Brandon says. “We have gotten this far and have had camps for two years with about 50 kids in attendance. That’s been a
great blessing!” Three cabins have been built and it will take at least three more cabins to house the entire camp in 2016. In the meantime, teepees and tents provide shelter. “But the cabins are best when it rains!” Brandon notes.
About ten congregations and other individuals have given support to Spirit Journey, some in-state and some out-of-state. There’s no funding for payroll so the effort is all volunteer. When he is not tutoring young people in Northport, Brandon works construction with his brother, Brent, in Grand Rapids.
Yes, Spirit Journey is more than a week-long camp. In January of 2015 Brandon started an after school homework lab and basketball program. About ten kids, 4th grade through high school were involved four days a week. “This has really made a difference in the kids’ grades,” Brandon reports. “All of our students are now getting A’s and B’s.” He would like to find several more tutors and hopes to establish a base for the lab at nearby Keswick United Methodist Church.
“Spirit Journey,” Brandon asserts, “is not just a five-day camp. Spirit Journey is a lifestyle.” Work ethic and attitude are enhanced by the routine he is helping to establish in the lives of children. “Mostly I am tutoring the kids who are not in sports,” he says, “helping them to stay on task. The value of getting good grades … I try to keep that in their heads.”
Joys and challenges
Brandon finds great joy in the expanding Spirit Journey “family.” While his initial encouragement came from his mother, father and siblings, he rejoices as others catch the vision and move it forward together. “It gears me up,” he says, “when others participate. It helps me feel we are on the right track with Spirit Journey.” While much focus has been on the facilities, that’s not where Brandon’s heart is. “Whenever we leave camp we must face the world. It is the sticking together in day to day life that makes me most happy.”
He says the biggest challenge has been the unique position Spirit Journey has between Christian organization and Tribal organization. “We are really standing alone,” he explains, “but that allows anyone to step in and touch lives for good by showing the world how God is at work.”
The Spirit Journey Board of Directors has immediate plans to improve the shower facilities and dining hall at the camp. Three more cabins—at a cost of $6,000 each—are on the drawing board.
Lending a hand
Birmingham First UMC is one of the local churches that has adopted Spirit Journey. Jeanne Fritz, comments, “We have been involved with Spirit Journey on many levels, from making six 14 ft. teepees to raising money through arts and crafts fundraisers, and donations.” Jeanne notes that education has been an important form of support, as well. “One of our important endeavors is to educate people about the plight of the Native Americans and why they experience many challenges today,” she explains. “We have found that most people are unaware of the role our government and churches played in taking children away from their families and placing them in boarding schools.”
Jeanne and others traveled to Northport in June to build a cabin. Then some were also present for the camp in August as part of the cooking crew. “We were fortunate to see firsthand what Brandon has been able to accomplish by working with these children,” she remarks. “He teaches about God and the Seven Grandfather teachings ( honesty, humility, truth, respect, bravery, wisdom and love). He teaches about self-respect and how it is important to make good choices.” Visitors witnessed the teamwork building among the campers. “I saw how each child was proud to be a ‘Spirit Journey Kid,’” Jeanne concludes. “That is life changing!”
Sally Meese, a member of Leland UMC, recounts, “I became involved in Spirit Journey about two
years ago when Brandon spoke with passion about helping local Native American children caught in the downward spiral of addiction and poverty. I recognized in him the signs of someone answering the call to a God-sized mission.”
Since then Sally has given time and resources to the Spirit Journey mission. She and other members of Leland UMC were part of the camping community this summer. Sally was in the audience for the variety show on the last evening of camp. “Many parents were moved to tears to see their children blossom,” she reports. “One girl, Nahdi, hugged a teepee pole and said, ‘I never want to leave this place!’” Sally supports Brandon in his dream to expand next year’s camp to two weeks.
Brandon’s mom, Brenda Hendley, serves as Development Director for Spirit Journey. A partner from the start three years ago, Brenda is pleased with the fruits of the program. “The academic success achieved this year through the after school tutoring program proves that significant change can happen when consistent programming is available.” Brenda has also seen parents of Spirit Journey Kids work side by side with camp staff. “That’s huge!” she adds.
She is thankful for the many who have become true ambassadors for Spirit Journey. “Last fall,” Brenda says, “twelve women from Birmingham drove four-and-a-half hours to Northport to see, first hand, what the camp is all about.” Now Birmingham UMC is helping Spirit Journey go to the next level as a non-profit.
A bridge has been built between Leland and Birmingham through the efforts of Mary Hofmann, who is leading the UMW study, “Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival,” via Skype between the two churches. The book was authored by Thom White Wolf Fassett, former General Secretary of the General Board of Church and Society.
Brenda cites the United Methodist Church in Mentor, OH as “another miracle.” They heard of Spirit Journey by word of mouth last spring, raised $10,000 and 30 Mentor members built two cabins during their week in Northport this summer.
Brenda’s greatest concern is sustainability. “Our new board is working hard at fundraising goals,” she reports. Full-time support for Brandon is sought so that consistent mentoring and tutoring may be offered to the children in Leelanau County. Spirit Journey is an approved Advance Special of the West Michigan Conference, Lane 5. Donations may be made to the Conference Treasurer, P. O. Box 6247, Grand Rapids MI 49506. Brenda Hendley may be contacted at email@example.com; please phone Brandon at 231-590-4063.