It’s a cold Saturday in November, and Tom and Janelle Van Erp have driven from their home in Battle Lake to St. Johns University to watch their son Andrew play football. After the game, Tom and Janelle warm up in the student center with their son Evan and daughter Grace, as well as Janelle’s parents, while waiting for Andrew to join them.
Tom, a teacher and coach, and Janelle, a physical therapist, were raised in central Minnesota in loving Catholic families and strive to instill the Catholic faith in their own children. They speak easily and openly about their faith and the role that Central Minnesota TEC has played in their personal lives and professional lives. The dreary gray weather outside does not diminish the joy on the faces of this family as they discuss what the TEC retreat has meant for them individually and as a family.
TEC — Together Encountering Christ — is a three-day retreat program structured according to the Paschal Mystery. Retreatants experience talks, music, discussions, Scripture, liturgy and fellowship.
What sets Central Minnesota TEC apart from most TEC programs throughout the country is that it welcomes people of all ages whereas most TEC programs are geared to teens. This might just be the key to the overwhelming success of Central Minnesota TEC, which has served nearly 38,000 retreatants during the course of its 40 year history. Currently, Central Minnesota TEC hosts one retreat a month, with groups ranging in size from 50 to more than 100 retreatants.
Tom and Janelle, parishioners at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Battle Lake, have five children, Evan, 23, Andrew, 21, Nick, 18, Brady, 15, and Grace, 14. Evan, Andrew, and Nick have already attended and volunteered on TEC retreats, and Brady is looking forward to his first this December. Grace will go on her first TEC in a couple years and says she can’t wait to understand why the rest of her family has found the experience so transformative.
Janelle was a high-schooler when she experienced her first TEC, eventually convincing her parents and two sisters to participate as well. Tom was finishing up his college career when he first got involved with TEC, volunteering at many retreats after his own life-changing experience as a retreatant.
When asked about the impact of the retreat, each member of the family has distinct experiences, yet common themes emerge.
Janelle’s parents, Jerry and Rene Beddow, who live in Sauk Centre and attend Our Lady of the Angels Parish, emphasize the positivity that seems in stark contrast to much of what we experience in our daily lives. Though retreatants and volunteers might be walking through dark times in their lives, TEC shines a light in that darkness. It has an edifying effect that lasts long past the final day of the retreat.
Tom reminisces about coming home from his first TEC. He was at work when an executive who rarely spent time in the break room came in and noticed that Tom seemed different. The man pulled his TEC crucifix from under his shirt, matching the one Tom now wears, and the two men immediately shared a new bond. Tom said this type of experience is not uncommon because TEC engenders a sense of community among all people who have participated and often leads to lifelong friendships.
Having finished his post-game activities, Andrew joins the rest of the family. Evan and Andrew do not fit the stereotypical image of disengaged, media-obsessed youth. Both young men speak passionately and eloquently about TEC.
Evan, a young professional now living near the Twin Cities and attending St. Paul Parish in Ham Lake, says his closest friends are fellow TEC retreatants. He talks about how when he was growing up his family would get together with other families that his parents knew from TEC. “We’d play baseball awkwardly with some other kids our age.” But he and his siblings didn’t understand why they were getting together with these other families until all the children were old enough to attend TEC and then it clicked.
Andrew goes on to explain how on a TEC retreat people form deeper friendships because the walls that we put up around us in daily life come falling down and people feel comfortable being their authentic selves.
As each family member is struggling to find words that adequately describe an experience as formative as TEC, Tom finally comes up with the word “acceptance,” to the nods of his family members. The unanimous opinion of the family is that TEC is a place where all are welcome. It doesn’t matter what your faith life looks like or even if you have one at all.
Jerry, or Shorty as he is known to his friends, claims TEC is so successful because the environment is supportive and safe. Furthermore, Janelle believes that God’s providence is at work in bringing people to TEC exactly when it needs to happen on their life journey.
For Janelle, TEC is a chance to first look inward at one’s own life, to recognize how much we are loved by God, and then to turn ourselves outward. She explains how the three days are themed “Die, Rise, and Go” thus encouraging retreatants to focus inward first, asking questions like “Who am I? What am I doing? What is my purpose here on earth? And then how does that apply to the world?” There are talks each day, given by people of all ages, that pertain to the theme of the day.
She summarizes her own experience by saying, “I have learned what God’s love really is and I have learned how to be Christ’s hands and feet.”
Finally, when asked if they invite others to go on the retreat, they all laugh, smile and nod. “All the time,” says Andrew. He then tells the story of inviting his roommate from freshman year of college. “He trusted me,” shrugs Andrew.
Mike Lentz, director of Central Minnesota TEC, says that it’s easy for people to invite others because retreatants are so profoundly impacted that they want their friends and family to experience the same love of God and community that they have experienced themselves while on TEC. He explains that TEC takes very abstract theological concepts like the Paschal Mystery and makes them concrete and personal.
Although tens of thousands of people have been directly impacted by TEC as retreatants, it’s impossible to quantify the effect that TEC has had on central Minnesota. The Van Erps are one example of the way TEC is reaching people at all ages and forming true disciples of Christ. Central Minnesota TEC is the new evangelization at work in our local church.
Molly Powers is a wife and mother of two young daughters. Prior to staying home with her children, she spent 12 years working as a teacher and campus minister. She, husband Kevin and their children are members of Holy Spirit Parish in St. Cloud.