Especially after last week’s snow storm over the course of Wednesday and Thursday it is hard believe but this time of year my thoughts begin to turn toward summer, in particular summer camp.
It is no secret that Camping Ministries, especially the camping ministries of the New England Annual Conference, hold a special place in my heart. Summer youth camping, I believe, is one of the best things that any youth can take part in. The skills gleaned from living with 8 to 10 other youth, the self-esteem developed from swimming, boating, and participating in other camp activities, and the lasting relationships with counselors, area directors, administrators, and other campers are deep and lasting.
What church camp gives a youth, and a volunteer for that matter, though is an enveloping in and a bodily experience of what it means to be a part of the body of Christ, unlike any other experience. I would make the bold statement that I am who I am today because of my participation in camping, first as a camper, then volunteer youth leader, and then as a staff person.
I grew up in a United Methodist Church that became an extended family. The members of the congregation that were my grandparents age became like surrogate grandparents because I grew up away from where my grandparents lived. I remember being very young and one or two of them showing up at special events that I had at school or coming to visit us at home. We also had a pretty good network of youth and had an, albeit small, active youth group.
Despite having a great church family while growing up, when I went to Camp Mechuwana I was forced to leave my comfort zone and let go of some of the worldly things that I had become accustomed to holding on to, things that, in our Holy Scriptures we are told not to put all of our trust in. I was given the great gift of being pushed, first to make it through my first week in fourth grade (I was quite homesick!) As I grew accustomed to being away from home for a week I was forced to partake in activities that I would have never been able to participate in otherwise. There’s something special about going through a ropes course, playing water games, or even playing Cheetoh Head with a group of other people your age that you only met days earlier.
During my teen years I fought going to worship and it eventually became a point of contention between my parents and me (those of you currently going through this, either teens or parents, don’t worry, it’s normal and eventually eases up.) What church camp gave me was a space, with friends and mentors, to wrestle with my faith and to show me what it meant to be a part of a Christian community at one of the most formative times in my life.
The peripheral benefit to Christian Camping, for me, was the development of the ability to live in community with my peers and a boosted self-esteem. In a time when most youth struggle with self-esteem issues, I was given a great gift in my connection with a camping program that afforded me the courage to be who I was in the face of competing messages from the church and mainstream culture. When I was in high school and it was time for me to get a job, it was that same summer camp I attended as a camper, that gave me the opportunity to stretch my wings and learn the value of a dollar.
In a time in my life when I was trying to figure out what I believed, who my friends were, and what my next step was going to be, the deep relationships that I developed at summer camp were where I found God’s guiding hand and compassionate word. It was a volunteer in the camping program I was so closely associated with that first saw God’s calling on my life to enter parish ministry and spent hours upon hours fostering in me a passion to see the Reign of God on earth. It was the camp director, my first boss, who taught me best how to love people where they were in their life and care for them from that point, no matter who they were or where they were in their walk with God. When my grandmother died when I was a junior in high school, it was the camp community and the youth program they operated in the off-season that gave me a community that enveloped me in love and held my hand as I grieved and this year, when my grandfather died it was the same community that ten years earlier held my hand and walked with me, that held my hand again as I grieved the loss of my third grandparent.
This summer I get to pass on this great gift to the future generation as I take my 5 year old niece, Caliyah, to her first half-week of camp. She'll get to sleep in the same cabins that her mother, my sister, and I slept in as children and youth, swim in the same lake, and eat in the same dining commons. What's more, though, is that she'll get to experience the love of God in a community that will encourage, comfort, challenge, and inspirer her as she continues her journey with God.