Good Holy Week topic: “Is there somewhere you have had a profound spiritual experience?”


BOONE, Iowa, April 7, 2023 – Here’s a tried-and-true way to put some oomph in your conversations around your Easter, Ramadan or Passover tables this weekend.  Have everybody share a reflection for a couple minutes on this question: “Has there been some specific place you remember as having a profound spiritual experience?”

That’s what a group of us were doing over lunch in downtown Des Moines during this week in 1994.  And I’ve been telling and re-telling the story ever since.

My great pal, the late Chuck Corwin responded so quickly and with such certainty that he caught us all by surprise.  “Chapel Point up at the Y-Camp” northwest of Boone, he answered, explaining that he’d ridden a train to summer camps there as a kid in Des Moines.

Alex Kretzinger is executive director of the Y-Camp located northwest of Boone.

“When you’d climb the steps up to Chapel Point,” Corwin continued in his long-ago testimony, “they had log slabs on the trees you’d pass on your way up, and on those logs they had carved or painted the words of the hymn, ‘This Is My Father’s World.’ And when you got to the top of that hill, from that outdoor chapel there you were looking out over the Des Moines River valley. I remember it as one of the most beautiful views I’d ever seen. It was like, ‘There really must be a God in heaven for something like this to be here.’ I remember it as the first real spiritual experience of my life.”

So the next day, Wednesday of that ’94 Holy Week, I drove to northwest Iowa for a column I was doing for the Des Moines Register.  On my way home, I realized I could easily drive through the Y-Camp.  I stopped there, asked a couple of workers where Chapel Point was, and they pointed me toward a switch-back sort of stairway going up a bluff a couple hundred feet high.

I made the climb and stood a few moments huffing and puffing in the little outdoor chapel on the bluff top.  I looked down at the camp below on the bank of the Des Moines. Then I looked west, where for miles I could see the greening landscape.  It was like I could hear and almost touch Y-Campers all the way back to 1919 here at this place they’ve all called “The Closest Place to Heaven on Earth.”

Chuck Corwin was right! 

I drove into Boone, stopped to get coffee and make a phone call (this was before cell phones).  I called Corwin, reported where I’d just been, and told him that Chapel Point and the Y-Camp are just as good and powerful and inspiring as he said they were. 

Chuck Offenburger and Ellen Corwin at one of the landings on the stairs leading up to Chapel Point on our climb this year. Ellen’s husband Chuck Corwin, who died in 2017, was our inspiration for all this.

For 30 consecutive Holy Weeks now, we’ve had a Wednesday gathering of Corwins, Offenburgers, friends, Y-Camp supporters and staff of the YMCA of Greater Des Moines to have lunch at the camp. Then in a circle, we contemplate the “profound spiritual experiences” we’ve had, share stories of those, and sing “This Is My Father’s World.” Those who are able climb Chapel Point.  We’ve done this in weather ranging from ideal to awful.

We always leave with a sense that we’ve had a meaningful couple of hours together. 

Check it out in the photos here and below, from our time together this week.

This time of year, the Y-Camp is so serene.

Of course, it is not quiet and serene when it’s doing its best work.  That comes during the five weeks of summer camp, when the place is boisterous and rambunctious.  Hiking, swimming, horseback riding, competing in sports, singing, praying, meeting new friends, feeling new feelings.

That’s when 2,500 kids from all over are here, along with 80 summers staffers.  During the rest of the year, the Y-Camp’s full-time staff of a dozen or so take care of thousands more who come for meetings, reunions, weddings and special camps.

Mary Riche and Chuck Offenburger together at the pulpit in the outdoor chapel atop Chapel Point.

Many know that the YMCA of Greater Des Moines, and thus the Y-Camp, took major hits from the pandemic.  Usage of facilities and memberships went into free-fall.  Debts soared.  The future was frightening.

The organization’s board hired Leisha Barcus, who in 2018 became its first female director in its 150 years in Des Moines.  Alex Kretzinger stepped up from the Y-Camp staff to become its executive director and is now in his fourth year in that position. 

The leaders, their board and key supporters did a deep study and re-focusing of all operations, and ultimately put ownership of the Y-Camp in a new non-profit, the “Five Fires Foundation.”  The name comes from a summer camp tradition of having meditation services around five fires located along one of the camp’s trails. They negotiated an operating agreement with the YMCA, continuing to follow the organization’s tenets and its practice of serving all

With several major donors stepping up, the financials are turning around, morale is strong and enthusiasm is high.  Kretzinger told us Wednesday that $500,000 of important infrastructure improvements at the camp have been made in the past year.

The future seems secure again in this spirited and spiritual place.

The gang of friends and Y-Camp staffers and supporters who were together this week. This was right after lunch in the Dining Hall, which was well-decorated for Easter weekend. Left to right in front are Melanie Mellinger, Leisha Barcus, Ellen Corwin, Dodee Pugh, Bonnie Green, Terri Hale, Kevin Pokorny and Alex Kretzinger. In back left to right are Chuck Offenburger, Mary Riche, Martha Gelhaus, Stan Moffitt, Victor Aspengren, Eric Jaeger, Sierra Kuisle and Sean Gundersen.

Here’s the late Chuck Corwin on our visit to the Y-Camp in 2015, showing off the certificate he was awarded at the camp in 1955.

The “Dinner Grace” that Y-Campers have sung for decades, and which we always sing when our group is there.

Lunch together on Wednesday of Holy Week, prepared by veteran Y-Camp chef Eric Jaeger.

Complete with cheesecakes!

Love the Y-Camp benches in the dining hall.

Two of the real veterans of Y-Camp experiences who were with us again this year are Dodee Pugh, of Johnston, and Stan Moffitt, of Boone. When Moffitt began his reflection of spiritual experiences at the camp, he began, “You know, I started coming to Y-Camp in the summers of World War II…” Moffitt, now 89, bought an official Boy Scout bugle a few years ago and sometimes plays it during our little Y-Camp services. Read about the camp history of Pugh and her family in the plaque shown in the next photo.

The family of Ray and Dodee Pugh have a deep, wonderful history with the Y-Camp, as this plaque at the camp explains.

Some priceless camp memorabilia on display in the headquarters building.

Our group begins singing “This Is My Father’s World,” the old hymn that has been like an anthem at the Y-Camp.

Mary Riche and Bonnie Greene, back down from Chapel Point.

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2 thoughts on “Good Holy Week topic: “Is there somewhere you have had a profound spiritual experience?”

  1. I did not realize that we have this gem right here in central Iowa. I’ll have to go visit Chapel Point!

    • City - Jamaica
    • State - IA
  2. We really enjoyed reading “The Closest Place to Heaven on Earth”. One of my favorites is the Grotto of Redemption in West Bend. Even that old orange water tower by the Pavilion at Chautauqua Park in Red Oak has a place in my heart.

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