The summer before Nate Berkas started high school, he went on a camping trip that would change his life.
The lifelong Lutheran was raised as a missionary kid in Madagascar, but it wasn’t until Berkas spent five nights in the Boundary Waters with Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry, Cook, Minn., that his faith journey began in earnest. “It was the first opportunity for me to feel and see and experience God in a really tangible way,” he said.
Berkas went on several more trips to the area throughout high school and “loved every one of them,” he said. “Each of them came with their own joys and challenges and opportunities for growth.”
He became a camp counselor in college, spending four successive summers working with youth. “I realized through that experience that I was really passionate about outdoor ministry and really interested in pursuing that as a profession,” he said.
After Berkas discussed with the camp director what it would take to pursue such work professionally, the next step in his journey came through acceptance into the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission (YAGM) program. “I felt called to ministry in some capacity. I thought maybe that was outdoor ministry but wasn’t sure,” he said. “I thought YAGM was a great next step.”
The YAGM program invites ELCA young adults ages 21 to 29 into a yearlong journey in international service. They share in the experiences of companion churches and organizations in one of nine countries. Berkas applied for YAGM because “it was my own opportunity to see God at work in various ways around the world and to be formed and transformed by our companions.”
As a YAGM, Berkas was placed in South Africa, which “ended up being such a formative moment in my life,” he said.
“[YAGM] was my own opportunity to see God at work in various ways around the world and to be formed and transformed by our companions.”
The program requires participants to engage in ministry and issues related to race, globalization, poverty, class, power and privilege. Berkas and other participants served in diverse communities—both racially and socio-economically—committed to simple living while there and learned basic communication in other languages.
Serving with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa and seeing the impact of its ministries firsthand allowed Berkas to better understand how to live out his faith. “That ended up being really foundational for my journey, to realize that it’s not just an inward-focused thing, but it has to be outward as well,” he said.
From the onset of their time together in South Africa, Brian Konkol was impressed with Berkas’ interest in the relationship between faith and action. “I admire his ability to … continue to develop into someone globally formed and globally informed,” said Konkol, who at the time served as a YAGM country coordinator in Southern Africa with his wife, Kristen.
Once again, the most meaningful part of Berkas’ experience was the chance to spend time with youth outdoors, deepening their faith and relationships. “The South Africa program is focused on spending time in churches,” he said, “and it created opportunities for me to work with youth.”
For Berkas, an opportunity to help at a weeklong camp in Cape Town affirmed the importance of “outdoor ministry and creating space for young people to come [to an environment] that’s outside of their normal context … and to send them back renewed and refocused.”
A deep call
After returning home, Berkas worked for five years with the ELCA churchwide organization, stewarding the relationships between missionaries and their sponsoring congregations. He served with ELCA World Hunger for three years and ELCA Global Church Sponsorship for two.
His direct experience with the many facets of nonprofit management there was an asset when he accepted his current position. Berkas’ work at the ELCA involved “sharing the story of what the church is up to, and inviting people to join in that story, and helping them to realize they’re a part of it. All of those pieces culminated in going back to outdoor ministry,” he said.
“While I loved so much of what I was doing [to support churchwide global ministries] … where I feel most called is going back to that canoe trip after eighth grade, and thinking about how formative that was for my life.”
Berkas is now the site director for Wilderness Canoe Base, Grand Marais, Minn., where ELCA-related Lake Wapogasset Lutheran Bible Camp operates a program in the Boundary Waters. “I feel a deep call to this type of ministry,” he said. “I’m grateful for the way that all of this has worked together to shape where I am.”
Those who walked alongside Berkas on his journey anticipated his ongoing growth as a leader. “I am not at all surprised to witness the ways he continues to lead, and I fully trust that he has many great experiences ahead of him,” Konkol said.
Today, Berkas gets to give young people the same experience he had as a camper.
“For me at Wilderness now, so much of my hope for kids is to create moments for them to see and experience God in new ways, whether in the nature they’re part of, or within themselves or people around them,” he said. “My hope is for them to have opportunities for the Spirit to move within them in ways that may be different from what they’re used to.”