The other night I was at a fundraiser for Tall Oaks church camp. While there was much hobnobbing and hand-shaking required of a young minister, there was an amazing moment in the evening that I will value even more than the tasty salmon filet. It was when youth from Tall Oaks gave witness to why people should support the camp. I've been all over and heard many stories of church camp fundraisers and read all sorts of testimonies from campers and there are two thoughts that come to mind when I am confronted by the overwhelming repetition of campers claiming that church is where they can be their authentic selves: that's great and why is it only at camp that people feel this?
Don't get me wrong-I am one of those campers who came to know and accept who I was through the love and support of camp staff, counselors and my fellow campers. I am grateful for the experiences I've had and could only wish such a wonderful camping experience on others. My wife can't understand what comes over me when I start speaking about these things-she too went to a church camp, but there she felt ostracized rather than affirmed. But in all my camping experience, I was the geeky kid who finally felt oaky-and even felt of some value-to be the child of God that I was created to be.
I spent a summer a few years ago working as a peace intern on behalf of the Disciples Peace Fellowship. Very simply, I was paid to be a camp counselor all across the country who not only did normal counseling duties, but to each place I went, I was a resource of information and an advocate for peace in all situations across the world. I offered resources to young students who wanted to know more about conscientious objector status (this was 2005 and there was still a fear of draft for Iraq), I shared stories of hope in debt absolving in Africa and talked about ways that communities in the United States were working on creating a more just society. While each camp had a different level of interest and awareness on these subjects, there was one common theme that the camps shared. On the last days, there was always a palpable sense of finitude that the social norms of the week-those of justice, inclusion, compassion and vulnerability-would unfortunately end once they got home to their school friends.
My thought on this subject is to propose a question: do our churches support this separation of church camp from the rest of church life? Do congregations allow for the vulnerability, spiritual quest and compassion that is often found at church camps? If not, how can they create these spaces for people-especially young adults-to honestly engage life's questions in a theological manner? Advent (which is rapidly approaching on Nov. 28) is a time when we prepare ourselves for God's arrival. Not just in the form of remembering a baby born to an unwed, teenage, essentially-homeless mother; but we prepare for how God shapes our communities. So, I hope in the upcoming weeks you can engage the question of "how do we prepare a church that welcomes peoples' authentic selves to the level that church camps do?" Maybe this Christmas, the church will be led, as the prophet Isaiah calls us, by children with visions of God.