Armed with pickaxes and cross saws, and loaded down with heavy backpacks, they look like a group of 20-something men who are simply enthused about a week of outdoor challenge and adventure. However, a closer look reveals a band of brothers eager to be formed in what it takes to be real men of God. Meet the men of Wilderness Outreach. 

Since 2007, John Bradford of Lancaster, Ohio, has been taking small groups of men deep into some of our nation’s most magnificent forest areas to work, pray and form fellowship. He said his Wilderness Outreach apostolate combines his longtime love for backpacking and his zeal to share his Catholic faith. He has 10 outings planned for this year. 

“It’s a gift ... to do this ministry,” Bradford, 59, said. “It finally feels like I have arrived at the point in my life where God is saying, ‘This is the work that I want you to do.’ It’s great. I feel like a young man standing on the edge of an adventure.” 

Becoming ‘real men’ 

Nick Weidenbenner has been with Bradford since the first Wilderness outing four years ago. The 24-year-old said that these weeklong treks go beyond any kind of retreat or mission experience he has had. 

“This is a real, authentic experience for those who are disciples of Christ,” Weidenbenner told Our Sunday Visitor. “The whole self, heart, mind, soul and body, is edified. Instead of talking about and learning about God, Wilderness Outreach invites you to taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”  

In his mission to challenge priests, seminarians and laymen to be the real men God has created them to be, Bradford has outlined several disciplines that serve as the backbone of each outing. Bradford said that a priest always accompanies the group. The men wake up early and begin each day with prayer; then there’s Mass, breakfast and off to work they go. 

Whether they are in the desert southwest of New Mexico or the Golden Trout Wilderness area of California, the men work closely with the U.S. Forest Service in helping to build or clear trails or erect retaining walls. Bradford said that the Forest Service staff members have commented several times that his group is the best volunteer group they’ve seen. 

The group heads back to basecamp around 4 p.m. They can clean up with a swim in a nearby stream, before dinner and a campfire. 

Bradford said they spend about two hours each evening discussing “the challenges of being a Christ-centered man of God.” 

Prayer and work 

Two years ago, 37-year-old Father Jonathan Wilson made his first Wilderness Outreach expedition. He said he has been impressed with this apostolate and its power to change lives. 

“The apostolate is rooted in fidelity to the magisterium, grounded in prayer and the liturgical life of the Church, and it is a powerful expression of the Benedictine motto, ora et labora — prayer and work,” said Father Wilson, who is the pastor at Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Newark, Ohio. 

Father Wilson said there is a strong connection between the outdoors and male spirituality. “I can’t say I fully understand the connection,” he said, “but I know I have experienced it. There is something about getting away from technology and the many creature comforts that we have come to expect. In the wilderness, men face themselves and, ultimately, God in a way that our distracted, noisy and multitasking everyday life rarely requires of us.” 

Eddie O’Neill writes from Wisconsin. For information on this year’s expeditions, visit www.wildernessoutreach.net.