KAUKAUNA — The 10 points of the massive deer’s antlers shone like a surreal halo in the early morning light of opening day of the 2001 bow hunting season.
Although the animal appeared 100 yards away, Jim VandeHey, perched in a tree stand and outfitted in camouflage clothes and face paint, had no trouble seeing the deer slowly making its way toward him across an open field near his rural Kaukauna home.
VandeHey took a full, 70-pound draw of his compound bow assuring the arrow perched in the arrow rest would travel at maximum velocity toward its target.
As VandeHey counted the seconds until the deer came in range, his thoughts turned to a prayer he offered to God at the start of the hunt.
“My pre-hunt ritual always includes connecting with God through prayer,” VandeHey said. “Well, I had applied for a new job, but was hung up on the fact I wouldn’t be able to hunt so much. I was joking with God — that’s kind of how our relationship is — and I told God he could erase all my job concerns by allowing me to get a buck right now. I kid you not. That deer was lit up like a bright light was shining on it.”
VandeHey got the deer, ending his hunting season.
He didn’t get the job, but with God’s blessing realized the time and opportunity to accompany his father on a Cursillo, a three-day retreat or “short course.”
The story is one of several VandeHey, 41, tells men attending “Right on Target,” a pilot program of the Green Bay Diocese developed in conjunction with the Department of New Evangelization.
Right on Target is a 90-minute program aimed at increasing the desire in men, particularly those with a passion for hunting, hiking and other outdoor activities, “to make their relationship with Christ better each day,” said VandeHey, a member of Holy Cross Parish in Kaukauna.
“I don’t go into any big theological teachings or anything like that,” VandeHey said. “The program is a discussion involving a good mix of hunting and hiking experiences where God has reached out to me and had a major impact in my transformation to always loving God even more.”
Julianne Stanz, director of new evangelization, said Right on Target “is an initiative where we are intentionally trying to reach out to men not fully engaged in their faith.”
“Part of new evangelization is to reach out with new methods and expressions, to reach out to men we might not necessarily see at Sunday Mass,” Stanz said.
As many as 50 participants have attended Right on Target programs from Niagara to Leona to Oshkosh since September.
Presentations are still planned for Dec. 3 at St. John Nepomucene Parish in Little Chute and Dec. 10 at St. Joseph Parish in Green Bay.
VandeHey leads off the sessions with the story about the opening day deer hunt 12 years ago.
“I call it my Cursillo buck. I was hoping to get a deer right away for another purpose related to a job, but God hit me upside the head with a two-by-four asking me to refocus on him,” VandeHey said. “I attended the Cursillo with my dad. For me, it was a reawakening to have focus and balance in my life and a realization my ideal was heaven. I wanted my relationship with Christ to be first and foremost.”
VandeHey also tells of his first encounter with Christ during a youth leadership retreat in the Rocky Mountains in the summer of his senior year in high school.
“It was a solo day when we could be by ourselves. I threw out a challenge to God saying ‘I want to hear that you love me. I want to know it.’ As clear as day I heard a voice say ‘Jim. I love you.’ I jumped up, but no one was around. I knew at that moment it was God telling me he loved me. That was the day I started living my life for Christ,” said VandeHey, who, in 2014, will mark his 25th year of taking area youths to retreats in Estes Park, Colo.
A graduate of the diocese Commissioned Ministry Program, a lay ministry leadership program now called the Emmaus Program, VandeHey said he feels God has given him gifts to understand and convey to others how to grow in their faith through the outdoors.
“Hunting and the outdoors is about connecting with God. It’s about being in nature, being one with all of creation. I don’t think you can help but see God in the outdoors if put in the right mental state,” said VandeHey, who owns and operates Proven Whitetail Systems, a business helping landowners improve deer habitat and hunting on their land.
The Bible is VandeHey’s first stop before he begins a day’s hunt.
“I open up a page and read whatever I feel God is trying to say to me. That is my focus for the day,” he said. “I try to say the rosary every time I am out hunting. Sometimes it takes me 20 minutes, sometimes four hours. It depends on what’s going on. I just try to let my mind go and let God work.”
VandeHey’s outdoor evangelizing began several years ago when he and Fr. Matt Settle came up with the idea of offering free, one-day bow hunting retreats, initially with groups of up to 15 men, but now limited to two or three hunters.
“I go and sit with the hunters in a blind and let the Holy Spirit guide the discussion. We have some tough discussions such as why does the church teach what it teaches? We discuss that a lot,” VandeHey said. “God has given me the ability to have truthful discussions with and walk with people in their journey to discover who Christ is. You can’t learn about and evangelize about your faith if you don’t know who Christ is and don’t love him with all your heart and soul.”
VandeHey said the Right on Target programs usually go from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., “but the earliest I’ve gotten out of a meeting is 9 p.m. People stay and talk.”
VandeHey and the New Evangelization Department are currently working on developing a hunter safety retreat for youth at Camp Tekakwitha near Shawano.
“One of the other things we are hoping to grow out of Right on Target is ‘man camps’ at Camp Tekakwitha,” VandeHey said.
Man camps, planned as weekend retreats, give men “the opportunity to do man things, including outdoor games, fishing, canoeing and hiking,” VandeHey said.
“Men need an opportunity to be with men and do man things,” he added. “We will have discussions about God and what it means to be a man of God.”