Winter Dreams: The Warmth of Church Camp
I guess it’s not surprising that, while staring at about eight inches of hard packed snow in my yard, I am already thinking about summer. For a lot of people summer means lazy days at the beach, quiet moments in the sun, and long nights sitting on the front porch enjoying the cool evening air. But, for me, it’s not quite that.
When I start to dream about summer, I think about welcoming campers to Mechuwana, the Methodist church camp that I spent more than a decade working for. These days, I continue to serve as a volunteer. For me, then, summer on the shores of Lake Annabessacook and Lower Narrows Pond—the camp may be a short drive from Augusta, Maine, but it feels a world away—means days of dealing with homesickness, asking high school volunteers where they need to be, navigating late-night trips to the bathroom because someone forgot to go before they got into bed, and issuing reminders that if kids haven’t showered by Wednesday, they probably should. Summer also means the regular ritual of asking campers (especially in the precious hours before Friday pickup times and parent-child reunions) whether they have brushed their teeth at all during the week.
Shaped by the rhythms of camp life, summer is waking up very early and staying up very late, setting up activities and breaking them down. Best of all, summer is welcoming anxious campers coming to camp for the first time—and then watching them grow as they begin to assert their independence and learn life lessons they cannot learn anywhere else in the world.
Something magical happens when we send a whole bunch of 12- and 13-year-olds off to experience the ropes course for the first time. For some of them, simply staring at the ropes course itself is challenge enough. Forget actually climbing up on the platforms and wires! And the great thing is that Camp Mechuwana is full of such challenges. For some kids, camp marks the first time that they have ever seen a real, live canoe on the water. Or been in the woods. Or been away from TV for 24 hours.
One camper I remember with particular clarity had never swum in a lake, and she was convinced that she would contract some sort of untreatable disease by wading into the clear, frigid water. All I can say is that there is something awe-inspiring about watching a camper muster up the courage to tackle an anxiety like that, armed only with the assurances of a camp counselor she met just the day before. It takes nerve to trust complete strangers with one’s life and well-being, whether one is challenged to swim in a lake or to walk blindfolded through a makeshift challenge course.
Another camper I will never forget was a little boy who was not wanted by his family. One day, his mother dropped him off at summer camp with only the clothes on his back, never intending to return and get him. When the director and I took him to his grandmother’s house, we found something from an old, German fairy tale—collapsing roofs and porches. The little boy, who desperately clung to a worn-out basketball jersey that the director had given him, slowly walked into the house, where he was greeted not with smiles and hugs, but with snarls and name calling.
I wish scenarios like the one I’ve just described weren’t true, but they are. That little boy was hardly an exceptional case. I have met countless other children just like him: kids who are emotionally bruised and beaten and left to lie in a ditch, like the hapless traveler in Luke’s gospel. If you know the story of the Good Samaritan, you might be thinking about a metaphorical “ditch.” But for these kids, the holes they’ve been thrown in by the time they get to camp are all too real. Their lives at home are fraught with yelling, anxiety, and senseless blame for things they have no control over.
The work of church camp is not just to give such children and youth the opportunity to swim, hike, canoe, stay up late laughing with new friends, and complete arts and crafts projects, but also to help them to live into Christian community in a way that I believe no other ministry or setting can.
When done well, camp offers an encounter with Christian love in its most experiential sense. In the middle of the regular camp routine, something I can only call “mystical” happens in the midst of the gathered campers and staff. It is not about camp activities. It is about learning how to be followers of Christ in more meaningful ways. Church camp possesses the power to pull words on the pages of the Gospel out and make them come alive. Children and youth who go to camp may, over time, experience processes of formation that enable them to them serve as living, breathing testaments to the amazing stories we Jesus Followers base our understanding of the Good News on.
The kids who come to camps like Mechuwana learn more than how to swim, how to paddle a canoe, or how the alluring smell of those contraband crackers Mom sent from home helps foster friendships with skunks and squirrels. Through the heartbreak of small failures and moral triumphs—through the experience, for example, of stealing a cabin screen and then having to find enough guts to face the camp director and accept responsibility for one’s actions—campers learn how to embody the Gospel in profound ways. When a kid’s camp boyfriend or girlfriend breaks up with them on Wednesday, they learn that there is a community that loves them, as their friends surround and support them through the remainder of the week (which sometimes feels endless). Of course, there’s plenty of teenage angst to fuel revenge plots, but campers also learn how to embody the love of Christ expressed in morning devotions by forgiving and letting it go.
During summer days away from home, there’s enough time to let everything soak in. At church camp, kids don’t just learn about the Good Samaritan. They learn how to be Good Samaritans to each other in tangible, concrete ways. They learn to think about the bible stories that campers, staff, and volunteers share every day. Those narratives put flesh on the bones of a Gospel that campers end up living in their own lives.
In the end, camp is about more than words. It’s about how we all live together for the week. I know the experience can be both formational and transformational, because it has been for me. Participating in the community that forms as a result of church camp is incredible: as campers, staff, and volunteers form connections, relationships deepen and a sense of being church begins to take root.
Camp Mechuwana will always be special to me, because it nurtured my call to ministry and then cultivated that call. When I found it difficult to hear the whisper of the Holy Spirit, Camp Mechuwana served as a megaphone for God. When it felt like I had lost my sense of direction, it was the camping community that carried the flashlight and helped me find my way on the long, winding trails that have made up my life.
Frederick Buechner has written of Christian community, “We are above all things loved—that is the good news of the gospel—and loved not just the way we turn up on Sundays in our best clothes and on our best behavior and with our best feet forward, but loved as we alone know ourselves to be, the weakest and shabbiest of what we are along with the strongest and gladdest.”
This is the kind of love I have found at Christian church camps. It’s the love that I, along with other staff members and volunteers, have tried to offer. It’s the love that I trust makes the Gospel come alive in community for the kids we serve. As Buechner describes it, “To come together as people who believe that just maybe this gospel is actually true should be to come together like people who have just won the Irish Sweepstakes. It should have us throwing our arms around each other like people who have just discovered that every single man and woman . . . is not just another familiar or unfamiliar face but is our long-lost brother and our long-lost sister.”
On cold, cold winter days in New England, the idea of such love keeps me plenty warm. If you’re looking for a warm-up before you start shoveling that driveway, check out the American Camp Association Find-A-Camp website in order to find church camps in your area. Who knows? Maybe you’ll send your kids for a week. And maybe you’ll volunteer yourself.