This week and last, my wife and I are chaplains at a Christian summer camp called CYC in Ocean Park, Maine. This is the fourth summer camp I have worked on as staff, after being a camper for four years at Deering Camp and Conference Center, in Deering, New Hampshire as a teen. Last night, as we gathered around a campfire, I saw glimmers of each of my previous camps and I remain convinced that they offer some of the greatest good available to our youth, to our faith, and to the world. If that sounds like a stretch, witness the events of last evening.
The teens here were simply asked what they had learned after being here a week. According to them, what they had learned was that their lives could be changed forever by having their spirits loved into life. As we sat around the fire, I noticed that the songs said things like “How could you be seen as anything less than awesome?”. Who couldn’t respond to being told that for two weeks in a row? The camp director told one camper publicly that it was okay if they got angry at God for a big loss in their life, that God was big enough to handle it. What kind of a place gives people permission to safely express their anger and doesn’t grow healthy individuals? People talked about finding family here in ways that regular life simply couldn’t offer. Youth who had lost a parent at a young age talked about filling that hole with camp staff here and feeling whole for the first time. Children of poverty and crime and drugs spoke of having hope for the first time in their lives. Children of the suburbs spoke of feeling connected in ways that they thought only schools or their family life could offer.
I have served on staff at Deering with its roots in my denomination (the United Church of Christ), Skye Farm near Albany attached to the United Methodists, Silver Lake Conference Center in Sharon, CT (also attached to the UCC), Camp Wightman in Griswold, CT, and now here at Oceanwood, with its connection to the American Baptist Churches. In each of those places, people have become attached to their camps, their experiences, their friends for life. In each of these places, community leaders have arisen and changed hundreds of lives — many through being ministers, but others through teaching in schools, working with special needs children and adults, others through being social workers or community organizers, nurses or doctors. Each of these people sees the beauty and possibility in the people they work with because they now see it in themselves, and believe that God sees it in them as well. They have self-esteem and meaning writ large in their lives. How many organizations can say that?
These are not judging, critical, Bible-thumping, apocalypse-seeking, literalists who talk about sin and fund-raising in the same sentence, as Christians often are on television. The staff and campers here are loving, caring adults, teens and children who come for the sake of their spirits and their lives and their emotional well-being and do it for no or very little money. This is fun people having fun in ways that don’t involve sex or drugs or guns or gangs or anything that is killing children in Chicago this summer. This is the alternative to lives of jealousy, greed, skepticism, and violence which passes for life these days for far too many of our children. This is good people making good things happen from good lives –and terrible ones. This camp — like each of the others — is full of emotionally whole people coming from — and going back to — desperate places. I can’t stress enough that the world needs places like this.
And yet, denominations are closing places like this because … well, I do not know. Maybe the model of “summer camp” is dying, but as nature suffers, our connection to it becomes vital to life. Maybe the costs or liabilities are too much for denominations to handle, but what about the costs of having leaderless denominations or cities and towns rife with need? Maybe it’s a reflection of churches that are losing members in their own pews or don’t know how to reach out to youth, but if we don’t reach out to them or make worship mean something to them, how are there going to be lives which focus on meeting. Maybe kids don’t care or know about places like this, but introduce them to it and they clearly do care.
Five camps, in different places, with different roots, and having different traditions all have the same results — people with lives that matter, who are excited by hope and willing to help the people around them. I remain convinced forty years after my first experience at Christian camp that lives are changed and leaders are built by and I literally know hundreds of people who feel and act the same way. They are worth investing in. They are worth attending. They are worth so much to the church and society as a whole. They change lives. I hope you or your church or your family — or all of those — will be a part of the experience and make your community and the world a better place.
Deering has closed, as I said, and is now owned by someone else.
Here are links to the other camps I talked about.
Silver Lake: <a href="http://silverlake.ctucc.org/"
Christian Youth Conference (CYC):
(BTW, I get no money for talking about these places/groups. They’re just good places.)