Desire for radical Christian life leads couple to ministry on reservation

Catholic counseling center founder gives up practice to run parishes with wife

In helping his clients figure out their lives, psychotherapist Kenn Cramer, 36, was figuring out his own.

Cramer, founder of St. Raphael Counseling in Denver, which combines psychotherapy with the truths of the Catholic faith, recently made a major life decision that will satisfy a longing to live a more radical lifestyle for Christ.

In September he will leave his practice and comfortable Highlands Ranch home to do mission work along with his wife, Laura, 32, at Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana.

“When Laura and I got married (three years ago) we played around with the idea to do something extraordinary for Christ,” Cramer said. “We talked about … the evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, and what that would look like for a couple.”

Through spiritual direction and much prayer, the couple finally decided the time was right for Cramer to move on from St. Raphael’s, which he opened in 2009. Yearning to go on mission, which both had previously done, they felt a call to serve the most impoverished in the United States. Cramer sent out inquiries to several dioceses.

“For a while, I felt like a hot free agent,” Cramer said with a laugh. “People wanted our help. … It was clear almost from the get-go that we were being led to Montana.”

After visiting Fort Belknap, home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, they decided there wasn’t a good reason not to go.

“They need help and we have gifts to offer,” Cramer said.

The couple will serve as parish life coordinators, a position provided by canon law when there aren’t enough priests for an area, to run three parishes and a chapel formerly staffed by the Jesuit order, which left Fort Belknap last month after 128 years of ministry.

“Laura and I will be fully running four churches on the reservation,” Cramer said, listing everything from administrative duties to offering religious education and organizing weddings, funerals and Communion services.

A newly ordained diocesan priest, Father Garrett Nelson, assigned to a town 40 miles away from what will be the Cramers’ home in Hays, population 800, will celebrate Mass at the churches once a week.

“All of us in the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings look forward to Kenn and Laura joining us,” Bishop Michael Warfel told the Denver Catholic. “I am fully confident with their wealth of experience, formation and many gifts they each bring, combined with a sincere love for Christ and the Church, they will be effective ministers to the people of the Fort Belknap Reservation.”

Located on 652,000 acres of plains and grasslands in north-central Montana, Fort Belknap has nearly 7,000 enrolled tribal members with about half living on or near the reservation. The main industry is agriculture, consisting of cattle ranching and growing alfalfa. Although the rolling terrain and wide sky are beautiful, problems of extreme poverty and high rates of alcoholism and suicide among Native American populations overall are challenges.

“It is quite destitute,” Cramer said. “I feel this call to help bring purpose and mission and hope from Christ to these people.”

As the United States drifts further into secularism, the inherent spiritual spark, wonder and awe of Native Americans are gifts they have to share with the Church, he said.

“They can be some of the best evangelizers of the Gospel because they are born out of destitution,” he said.

Dominican Sister Kathleen Kane, who has served the tribal populations in Montana since 1973, said she is looking forward to the Cramers’ arrival.

“There is a great need on the reservation for a steady, prayerful presence and also for leadership development in the parishes,” she said. “The skills Laura brings with her background in youth ministry will be invaluable. Kenn’s expertise and experience in counseling will certainly be a great help to many who are grieving or looking for direction in their lives.”

Laura, who is leaving her job as an executive assistant, and who previously worked as a nanny, a household manager and served in young adult ministry, will draw on those experiences to help run the parishes. Cramer, whose powerful conversion story includes recovering from substance abuse before becoming a psychotherapist to help heal others, plans to put his abilities to good use as well.

“We’re going into an area with a lot of brokenness,” he said.

Cramer hopes to enter diaconal formation in his new diocese, which upon ordination would allow him to carry out some sacramental duties, including baptisms, weddings and funeral services.

Although leaving the counseling center he founded is bittersweet—Cramer said he’ll miss his clients—he’s confident his partner, clinical psychologist Jim Langley, who is taking over St. Raphael’s, will continue to fulfill the center’s mission.

“I’m leaving it in good hands,” he said.

As for he and his wife, they are excited to learn about the people and culture they’ll be serving and to grow in faith as they help others to do the same.

“In light of the recent Supreme Court decision (permitting same-sex marriage), everyone is questioning how to respond to living in a post-Christian nation,” Cramer said. “This is our attempt to show that marriage can be lived out through the evangelical counsels and to make our marriage a brighter sign of God’s love for the world.”

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.