It’s almost March and it’s getting to be that time when people in churches start thinking about summer camps and I, for one, want to support them. They are, by far the best money the church ever spent because the tangible buys access to the intangible. I’m not exactly sure how it happens, but over and over and over again, I have seen lives transformed forever because of a week at camp with a Christian them. What I am sure about is that Holy Spirit is at work in the combination of time away from “civilization”, time away from “real life”, time with a community and time with a decidedly Christian intent.
In my time, I have seen and\or worked at Deering in New Hampshire (where my life was changed), Silver Lake and Camp Wightman in Connecticut, Warner Farm and Bement in Massachusetts, and Skye Farm in Upstate New York. I have been a camper, an advisor, staff, and Dean and — in each case I have seen people learn about Christianity in the best way possible — via experience. For those “not from here”, none of my camps have ever had a day where you “Come to The Loooordddd!” are baptized and\or “saved” publicly. That kind of thing is about theology, about what you think. I know people who have been, but this is not that. You can argue about what people think and whether it’s right or wrong. You can’t argue about experience. The kinds of camps I am talking about offer experience of God in ways that no form of intellectual Christian Education could ever match. That part is hard to explain.
Now, as far as I’m concerned, any camping experience is a good one. Aside from the mosquitoes, time away from The World is great. No news, no loud noises, no arguments, no pollution to speak of, no phones or computers — no extra stimulus of any kind. It’s just you and nature and whatever else you bring with you. Well, OK, the large drunken family two sites down with every piece of technology at top volume can ruin your time out there, but they’re not supposed to. To the extent that time camping doesn’t include them, any time away can be a transformational experience. The ability to hear yourself think, to not have the crush of an agenda or schedule is an experience we don’t get very often in modern society. Quakers do it as often as they go to worship, but they are an unusual sect.
It also doesn’t hurt that the places I’ve listed are all in beautiful country in the middle of forests or woods. The hills of New Hampshire are by far the most gorgeous to me, but each of the camps I have mentioned has it’s own peak time — summer or early fall — when it is especially nice. If you’re one of those people who like nature, Christian camps generally offer that, as well. That is one part of what makes these places life-changing, but it is only one part. And that may be why camps are so expensive to own — because of the views and the cost of the land that goes with those views. I don’t know, but it is one part of the magic.
Sitting around thinking about the Bible or praying is also a good thing that can transform a life. These things happen at each of the camps I mentioned. Usually, they are a part of morning worship or evening vespers put on by the people that attend that session. For instance, the 4th grade staff and campers might do worship one day and the 9th grade campers might put on worship another day, with less ministerial-type help. The thing is, that, for once, worship actually comes from the people involved. It says what they want it to say. Faith is expressed in ways that mean something to the kids, then the teens. Original songs appear, people who never thought anyone would listen are suddenly talking, people who never thought about worship are suddenly leading it. In many churches, the kids and teens are shuffled off to Sunday School, so they have no experience of worship except for Christmas and Easter. For others who do see it in church, it’s that boring thing that the old people do. But here, at camp, expression of religion takes root. People actually experience and express the Spirit for the first time. This is a part of the magic of Christian camp that secular or regular camp misses. Anytime in life people can come across the Holy Spirit, it’s a good day and it happens daily there.
What happens when the Spirit moves, you are able to feel and hear it, and you are surrounded by beauty? You find the beauty in yourself. That is the beginning of the transformation that camp allows for. But wait, there’s more!!! What happens next is the final thing that happens to change the world– community is created and imagination becomes experience. For some of us, not-even-imagined reality becomes experience.
When I arrived at Deering for the first time at age 14, I was a city kid in the midst of depressing times that my family had come to accept as normal. I was geeky and depressed and not all that into hygiene. This either made me the brunt of people at school’s jokes or was a response to them. Jr. High had been hell, and I didn’t expect anything more from High School. And yet, somehow, Bob Kyte, our youth minister convinced my mother that I could go to camp because I was somehow going to be important. What he didn’t mention was that, in his eyes, everyone was important. And that was the where the transformation started. Deering was a 6-day-long camp and, for the first 3, I felt out of place and strange — not bad, but not all on-board, either. But three days of living in a non-judgmental community began to stir something in me and I began to note something was different in this little world in the New Hampshire hills. About mid-week, I figured out what it was — people assumed I was human and that was all I needed to be to be accepted there! Why? Because they assumed — and acted like — the Spirit was in me, just as it was in everybody! What a radical concept!!!! To this day, I see people’s lives transformed when I simply treat them like human beings and assume that means something to them. How do I do it? It’s easy because I have experienced this little community of 100 people as a teen and it seemed like the real world. Never again would I settle for what school taught about the way the world “had” to be. Never again would I settle for what Bruce Hornsby says, “That’s just the way it is”. In fact, I remember being at peace, almost high, for the first week or so after I got home and being angry when my mother said, “welcome to the real world”. I knew, on a gut level, that we had choices about how to live, and that the community of Deering Sr. High Camp was just as real, if not more so, as the depressing world my mother knew. I chose to live like I was worth something, and that others were, too from there on in.
Of course, I didn’t always succeed, but that spirit (or Spirit, if you prefer) and my love for community has always gotten me through. In college, I helped to organize an anti-nuclear power\pro-alternatives group. In seminary, (with absolutely no knowledge of what I was doing, mind you), I started a prayer group that was incredible. In my classes now, I see the class as a community, and tell my students that we’ll all get through this together, because everybody has gifts and the reading might be too much for one person to take in. Over the years, I have led various youth groups, and community has come out of them, as well, leaving me friends for years to come. In fact, for a brief time, I started a small church with friends that impacted my life and (I think) theirs as well. I say this not to brag on myself at all. It doesn’t seem like me that has done these things, but the Holy Spirit working through me, and it has been my pleasure to be a part of each of these communities as well. I have been lucky to be part of them, as much as people tell me they’ve been happy to be a part of the group.
But here’s the thing: this is what I have done with my life and I guess it’s pretty cool. But I am nowhere near the only one affected by these experiences of Christian camp. If you multiply what I have managed to accomplish by thousands and then make it exponentially stronger, you have the effect on the world that church camps have had. I personally know of “truckloads” of ministers who got ordained after experiences at Deering, Skye Farm, Silver Lake, etc. The former Conference Minister of the Connecticut Conference trumpets her time at Silver Lake as an incredible part of her journey. For the church’s investment of one week of camp, the church received a lifetime supply of ministry hundreds of times over.
Did I pass the gift on to my Youth Groups and my own children? You bet I did, and I still do. One of the things my wife and I shared when we first met was experiences of church camp, the letdown after coming home, and the hope that someday others would experience what we had known. Has it paid off? Oh, so very much. The people that I have sent to Deering came back having a wonderful time as well. And those who didn’t do ministry as a job, use their lives as ministry. Sometime last year, I wrote a blog piece called “For Friends” and it was this huge list of the accomplishments my cohorts at Deering had accomplished in their years since being there. I also wrote about Camille Utterback and Gordon Sherman and all the incredible gifts they have given to the world. Daily, some part of their world is changed because they were changed all those years ago. All for the cost of a week’s tuition at camp.
It is years later, and Deering has faded into UCC history because the denomination thought it couldn’t afford it. I’m sure that Silver Lake and Sky Farm, and Camp Wightman struggle to this day to keep cabins fixed and usable, and have a director on-site. I’m sure that equipment still costs money and paving, plowing, and plumbing still needs to be dealt with. And I’m sure that denominations and Conferences consider their ministries as something else that “needs” to be cut as they struggle financially. I want to say that this would be a grave error because Church Camp is the best money the church ever spent. It did and does things on scale that’s hard to imagine.
But, since the denominations are struggling financially, there are other ways to keep this incredible gift alive.
1) If your church has kids that want to go Church Camp, for goodness sakes, send them! Send as many as you can!
2) If your church has money to give, send donations to the camp that’s near-by or sponsored by your denomination.
3) If you can volunteer there, do so.
4) If they have clean-up days, take your youth group, both to connect them to the place and to help keep it up. Best friends of mine have gone to Deering reunion weekends and have understood what I meant just by hanging out.
5) And if your denomination thinks about cutting necessary funding (camps don’t need all the latest and most expensive technology, but they do have needs), say no.
With the world’s tangible money, the church’s camps create the intangible — a world that’s better and community of the Spirit. It’s what we do as a church and it’s one of the best ways we do it.