Oakhurst is just one of the 1,800 locations in 180 countries where a Youth With a Mission (YWAM) base camp has been established. It all began three years ago, when YWAM Yosemite Director, Nate Nielsen and his wife, Joy, came to Oakhurst to set up the camp housed in what was once an area church on Road 426 and Hangtree Lane.
Currently 26 students are in the midst of Discipleship Training School (DTS) which readies them, after three months of study, to apply what they have learned in the mission field.
This cadre of students will follow in the footsteps of last spring’s group, traveling to Greece where they will focus on the Syrian refugee crisis. Syrian refugees represent the largest number of refugees seeking asylum in Greece, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency, with 866 Syrians arriving there between Aug. 16 and Sept. 16 in a country that has taken in 169,993 since January of 2003.
The YWAM Yosemite group will spend up to three months there performing outreach in the form of mission work. The current group of students come from Ojai, Milwaukee, North Carolina, Texas, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Learning the nature of God
The students attend three hours of daily lectures covering a variety of topics: Biblical Overview, the Holy Spirit, Hearing God’s Voice, Relationships and Ministry and Evangelism. Students are “learning the character and nature of God and then about missions and evangelism,” said Lissa Sterling, director of the YWAM Yosemite DTS.
YWAM began in 1960 as an international volunteer movement and while the initial focus was on youth from a variety of Christian backgrounds, cultures and traditions, there are now opportunities for mission outreach for youth and adults alike.
When asked for a profile of the “typical” YWAM participant, husband and wife team staff members Colton, a Yosemite High School graduate, and Lissa Sterling respond simultaneously that there is none. Usually, students are in the 18-35 age range. The majority are fresh out of high school and between 18 and 23. They come “hungry to learn more about God and their faith and take (what they learn) into the mission field,” Lissa said.
Joe Fitzgerald, 20 and a current DTS student, grew up in a Baptist church where his dad served as a pastor. After attending a semester of community college and working in a lumber yard and a wine bar, he decided to apply for this fall’s DTS at YWAM Yosemite. He is not sure what path his life will follow after his six months here.
Last year, Jasmine Lee, 26, traveled from Auckland, New Zealand, with her family spending three days in Yosemite National Park. “It (Yosemite) was the most beautiful place and I knew I wanted to come back,” she said. For the past two years, she worked part time as a kindergarten teacher in her home country while also completing a post graduate program in special education.
“What I thought I knew about God was limiting him. I’ve always wanted to live out my faith more but I didn’t really know how to,” Lee said. She feels her experience at YWAM Yosemite has “stretched” her.
“It has been life transforming. It challenges my perspective,” and she finds she is capable of doing things which “I thought I was not capable of.” An additional benefit has been the chance to develop strong friendships with fellow students.
Many of the current students learned about YWAM through their home churches, or from friends or family who had participated in the program, but Lee found YWAM through a Google search.
Madison Wilkins, 18, is from Michigan but recently moved to North Carolina before coming to Oakhurst to do her DTS. “Hearing God first helps put everything into words and makes it easier to talk to others,” she said in explanation of how her training at YWAM Yosemite has made a change in her life.
Andrea Beck, 18, from Milwaukee heard about YWAM through her church youth program. She was looking for an experience to fill a “gap” year after high school. She feels she is “learning to hear from God a lot more and that will provide guidance as far as what I’m going to do after this.”
After working her way into a management position with Chick-Fil-A in her hometown of Greenville, Texas, Rachelle Lostritto, 25, felt she was being distracted from her real life’s purpose by her job. So she started saving to be able to attend a DTS. She had helped care for her sister with Down Syndrome and taught karate but felt she had additional ministry to do. She comes from a home school background and her experience with YWAM is the first time she has lived away from home.
From military to ministry
For 21-year-old Olav Sorheim from Sogndal, Norway, participating in YWAM has given him his first opportunity to visit the United States. He began attending church at age 12 or 13 in a church he describes as having a Baptist tradition but being a bit more charismatic.
After serving in his country’s military for a year, he knew he wanted a chance to enjoy nature, another country and another culture. He has savored the outings to Yosemite National Park and the chance for the “confirmation of views and sometimes changing views” in light of his experiences in this DTS. He has found the study of the general perspective of how the Bible is constructed, and its historical context, has given him a chance to explore the application of the theoretical to daily thinking.
Anna Biggs, 23, from Indiana comes from a Church of Christ background. She graduated from a Bible college in Tennessee and taught Bible last year to third through fifth graders in a Christian school in Puerto Rico. “I just felt like God was leading me here now. I came into this not finding direction of what to do next and am (now) considering working here,” Biggs said. “I am praying about becoming staff here at YWAM Yosemite. God’s showing me.”
The staff wants students to leave with skills that will allow them to continue to grow not being “ignorant to the call to gospel and missions.”
“Students undergo a transformation over six months,” Biggs added. “They come to know more about God and that changes them and their life plans.”
In addition to the three hours of study each day, DTS participants have assigned duties at the base location. There are outings to Bass Lake and Yosemite and there is homework. Breakfast is at 7 a.m. each morning, followed by an hour of quiet time for personal reflection and devotions. For Beck, the “lectures really help daily devotions. I sit in my hammock during quiet time and I look up and go ‘wow.’”
On Wednesday afternoons, the students participate in community outreach which might be a mercy ministry, work with Yosemite High School students at the end of the school day, or evangelize in the local community.
In their mercy ministry, students lend a helping hand. Recently some were raking leaves and performing other yard clean up duties for older residents of the community at Oakhurst Mobile Home Estates, while others were in downtown Oakhurst talking to people on the street, sharing their faith.
One evening they were in downtown Fresno talking to people in Courthouse Park and other afternoons they can be found volunteering at the area’s convalescent hospital.
Staff and students alike must have a monthly support base in place to participate in YWAM. Students must have about $6,200 in support lined up before being accepted to a DTS. This covers training, room and board, air travel to and from home and passport expenses. Students make a six-month commitment but staff members make a two-year pledge to serve.
The students do not really know what to expect in the approaching second phase of their DTS, their mission work in Greece. “I am hoping to combine practical kinds of ministry ... and also to share love and a message,” Sorheim said.
“We are basically modeling Jesus to share God’s love,” said Lee. “In Greece, we will be showing love without judgment ... like Jesus had compassion on people who were outcasts.”