Thursday, March 12, 2009

a place apart

One Sunday morning, way back in the day (think early nineties), I was sitting in the basement of our church in our 8th grade Sunday school room. I don't remember what we were talking about that particular day, though I do remember we called ourselves the LYON cubs (LYON stands for the Lutheran Youth Organization of Nebraska, which is the high school youth organization and since we weren't yet in high school, our teacher thought it would be fun to call us the LYON cubs... which caused a ruckus with the high schoolers, primarily my older brother, because we hadn't asked permission to use the name LYON). Anyway, back to my story, we were sitting there going through whatever lesson our teacher had planned for that day when our Pastor came in.

Now, I was very familiar and friendly with our pastor, Pastor George, because his family was good friends with our family. My dad is a pastor, as well, and was currently the Program Pastor (fancy name for chaplain, really) at the Martin Luther Home in town, which was a residential facility for adults with developmental and physical disabilities. So we attended this church as members.

Even though I have no recollection of what we were supposed to be learning that day in class, I distinctly remember what Pastor George was there to talk to us about. It seems that every summer they would take their 8th grade confirmation students to camp, so he was stopping in to talk to us about it and see who was interested. I definitely was, and so I wrote my name on the list of people who were.

That summer, it finally got to be time to go to camp. My parents brought me to church, where the van was sitting in the parking lot, and we loaded our stuff up and then set off on the road. Pastor George was driving, and then there was me and four girls. I was the only boy that had signed up to go and, while that made me a little nervous, I was still pretty excited to be going to camp.

When we arrived at camp, the minute we stepped out of the van we were greeted by some of the loudest and happiest people I had ever met. These counselors bounded up to us, offering to carry our stuff and to help us get registered and situated at camp. I remember we walked up to a table where more loud and happy counselors were seated, and there were two boards. Each board had hooks on them, and hanging from these hooks were little wooden tags designating what bunkhouse we'd be living in for that week, and then what group we'd be doing activities with during the day. One counselor, whose name was Daryl, was a big African-American guy. He was cracking jokes left and right, giving the campers and other counselors a hard time. I liked him right away, and so I looked to make sure that I picked to stay in his bunkhouse. He told me later that he noticed me looking at his nametag and he thought I was trying to avoid being in his cabin. Pastor George was standing by me as I made my selections and he told me that he had seen two of the girls from our church pick one of the camper group (we called them villages) and he pointed out which group they had chosen, so I took that one, as well.

That week was pretty amazing. Our village was a lot of fun. Our counselors Daryl and Jen were awesome, they were friendly and seemed like they really enjoyed hanging out with us. The other campers in my village were pretty funny and we all got along really well. It was a great way to spend a week of my summer. I had such a great time that by the end of that week I was vowing to come back and be a counselor there when I was old enough.

Well, then I entered high school and my summers became filled with working and hanging out with friends. Summer camp got pushed to the back of my brain and I never did go to senior high camp or sign up to be a Counselor-In-Training like we had said we were going to do on the van ride home. Camp was slowly becoming a distant memory in the back of my mind.

And then I moved to college. I enrolled at Dana College, a private liberal arts ELCA college, which was appealing to me because it was small, it was Lutheran, it was far enough from home, and my older brothers weren't there. Immediately I became involved with the campus ministry at college, and I met some fun and faithful people there. One day, as I was walking out of our campus center after breakfast on my way to class, I saw a poster on the door. It said, "We are looking for 75 ordinary people to do extraordinary things." I was intrigued, so I stopped and read the rest of it. It was advertising for summer camp jobs at the camp I had attended in 8th grade. It said at the bottom if we were interested in working there then we should contact our campus recruiter who just happened to be one of my new campus ministry friends.

So I mentioned to her that I was interested and she got really excited. We talked a lot about camp, and she let me know when the Program Director from camp would be on campus recruiting. So I filled out an application and sent it in, and then when the Program Director was around I met her for an interview. We had a good conversation, and I ended up with a job offer, which I gladly accepted. So when the summer arrived I packed a couple rubbermaids full of clothes and other necessities, put them in my parents' car and we drove out to camp.

The minute we arrived at camp and I stepped out of the car, I was met by some loud and happy people. They bounded over to our car, offering to help carry my things. I think my parents were relieved that the place they were dropping me off at was filled with such nice and friendly people. So we unloaded my stuff, I hugged my parents good bye and they drove away.

And my life was never the same.

Those summers spent at camp were some of the most amazing of my life. It was at camp that I was exposed to the idea of full-time ministry. Even though my dad was a pastor, it had never occured to me that maybe I was called to some form of ministry. We had always gone to small, solo pastor churches where my dad was the only staff member besides the secretary. I had never met a full-time youth director or even known that it was a real job. But at camp I met so many great and unique and fun pastors and youth directors. It was really those summers that I felt God calling me to a life in the Church.

One of the youth directors that I met, and really liked, just happened to work at the church just down the street from where I went to college. Because of our connection at camp, I ended up attending that church and volunteering for several years with their youth. I helped lead Sunday morning youth group, I chaperoned trips and events. It was a great way for me to continue to be involved in youth ministry outside of camp.

I ended up working at camp for three amazing summers during college. To this day I believe that they were some of the greatest times of my life. Camp provides an amazing atmosphere for both the campers and the counselors. The campers get the experience of Church outside of the walls of the church. They get to engage in Bible study in the midst of God's great creation. They have the opportunity to be in a place where, hopefully, they don't have to have the same identity or labels placed on them that they do back in their regular lives - they have the chance to have a clean slate. It also gives them the opportunity to meet Christian young adults who are taking a summer of their lives to spend time with them, foregoing other summer jobs that might offer more money for the opportunity to live and work and play in that setting.

And it's good for the counselors, too. It gives them the opportunity to come together in an intentional community, to live together with people with a shared purpose. Like what happened with me, it gives them the opportunity to meet and engage with all sorts of church workers and volunteers, and maybe plants the seed of a call to ministry in their hearts. It gives them the opportunity to stretch and grow and practice their leadership abilities. And, like the campers, it often gives them the chance to have a clean slate, to start over, to be someone new and different in this place set apart. It also gives them the chance to meet some great new people and form some amazing new friendships.

To this day, camp remains an important part of my life. During my time in seminary, while I wasn't able to be as involved as I would like or in the ways that I would prefer, I did have some great opportunities through Wartburg Youth Leadership School as well as the Two By Two program which was a partnership between all eight ELCA seminaries and many of our outdoor ministries to experience several different camps and retreat centers. Now, as an associate pastor, I get excited for the summer, when I'll have the opportunity to take a busload of 7th and 8th graders out to the camp we attend, so that they will have the chance to have the same sort of experience and life-changing relationship with camp that I have been fortunate enough to have. And for the past year I've also served on the Board of Directors for the camp we attend.

So, what it boils down to is that I think camp is an amazing place. One which I think everyone should have the opportunity to experience. As a camper, as a counselor or other staff member, as an adult, as a volunteer... Camp is amazing because it provides a place set apart for us to experience being Church outside the walls of the church, and it continues to be important not only to me, but I believe to the life of the entire Church.


  1. That's a great story about the power of church summer camps to change a life path. I was a geeky loner at Luther Crest in MN, until I discovered that they'd let me play the rickety, out-of-tune piano during activity time. Here I am 15 years later as a church organist!