by Alicia Venter
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Becoming a member of Scouts BSA can teach a young man ethical, life and leadership lessons that can influence him for the rest of his life. For 16-year-old Jake Harmon, joining his local Scouts troop guided him onto a special journey: to become Catholic.
Harmon made the life-changing decision in April, and spent the second week of July celebrating his newfound faith and his love of the outdoors at the Ten Mile River Scout Camp, an annual set of week-long retreats in upstate Sullivan County that started on July 9.
“We are all family here, and we come from all different states,” the Bensonhurst teen said. “Everyone comes from a different ethnic background, but the same people every Sunday are with Father Mark, having a Mass and it just grows our friendship and family.”
Two years ago, a curious Harmon went to his Troop 99 leader Brian Long and asked him about pursuing a Catholic award offered in Scouts BSA. Long, part of the Catholic Committee on Scouting, was able to direct him and his 18-year-old brother Gus Harmon to the Ad Altare Dei emblem program, with its objective to help interested Scouts grow in their spiritual experience with God and the Church.
“I took the class and at the end of it, I realized that I want to be Catholic for the rest of my life,” he added.
There are 97,651 Catholic Scouts, according to Catholic Scouting, a partner with Scouts BSA, a total that accounts for less than 10% of all Scouts. Ad Altare Dei offers awards and programs in all faiths, and while Harmon was originally planning to take the Jewish programs as well — because his mother is Catholic and his father is Jewish — after the Ad Altare Dei he attended he “just knew” he wanted to be Catholic.
The teachers’ guidance in this class allowed Harmon to learn about aspects of the faith that those who grew up as practicing Catholics may forget isn’t common knowledge.
“[They] did a really great job explaining to us and the whole class on how to pray and how to go up for holy Communion,” he said. “Even though some kids grew up in the Church — I didn’t, but they did — we all learned something. That was kind of a huge part for me, that we all became family through those classes.”
Harmon, alongside Gus and their 23-year-old sister Kayla, went through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes at St. Athanasius Church, in their Bensonhurst neighborhood.
“I guess they did a good job in the class, because they decided they wanted to be Catholics,” Long said.
Troop 99 meets at the St. Athanasius Catholic Academy, and during those meetings, when he looked across the parking lot and saw members of the St. Athanasius community participating in parish programs and events, Harmon grew even more interested in the Catholic faith.
“The amount of hard work they put into our community to make it so good is just really heart-touching, and I wanted to be part of that. I am so happy that I am now,” Harmon said.
Harmon’s parents did not raise their children in any one faith, not wanting to push their own religions on them.
“They both had different opinions, and they thought it would be better for us to choose,” Harmon noted. “So, when eventually we got to the age where they believed we were smart enough to choose and make an educated decision, we chose to be Catholic.”
During the retreat, Bishop Robert Brennan visited the Ten Mile River Scout Camp to celebrate Mass with the Catholic Scouts.
“It shows you some of the contributions that this experience of Scouting can do,” he said. “One of the things that happens here is a young person discovers more about themselves and who they are.”
In a video posted on Twitter, Bishop Brennan described the joy of being outdoors and its intersection with the Gospel. “Somehow or another, seed does land on good soil and God produces a harvest,” he said. “That’s got to give us great hope, doesn’t it? God will always find a way to produce a harvest.”
Recently, Jake and Gus went for the second part of the award through the Pope Pius XII emblem program, which involves reflecting on the time since their Baptism.
“It fosters God and country. That’s the bottom line,” Long said. “Unfortunately, there’s not enough of that going around today. We’ve got to keep it up, and keep it going.”