I have had the good fortune to attend several different church camps over the years. I’ve gone as a pre-camper and a regular camper, a junior counselor and a regular counselor. Most recently I’ve been a counselor/Bible teacher/craft lady. (Space is limited at our camp so every adult has to wear a lot of hats.)
It takes a ton of planning, packing, and preparing before; washing, itching, and airing out after to make a week of church camp successful, so why do we do it? I’ll answer that question with the following reminiscences:
One of my favorite things about visiting different church camps is the variety of traditions. At the very first camp I attended, they had a special initiation for new campers. Without giving away too much, it involved someone in a tribal costume, a baseball bat, and a wet washcloth that the unsuspecting camp newby would eventually sit on. This same camp began every morning around the flagpole with the national anthem before breakfast. Then we couldn’t eat breakfast the second day unless we could present a stamped and addressed letter home to mom and dad.
As a teenager, my family went to churches that had no youth group and thus no church camp so I went to camp with friends. One camp had a surprisingly serious cabin vs. cabin lip synch competition. I played a very believable Ringo on the drums in “She Loves You.” They also asked many of us to participate in The Dating Game. One night, I was the “winner” and was treated to a candy bar at the Snack Shack with my date. It was as full of romance as you would expect. That is if you expect romance 1) at the Snack Shack, 2) with someone who would not have picked you if not for an inconvenient partition wall separating the bachelor from his three choices, and 3) it’s romantic to be gawked and hooted at by your date’s obnoxious friends.
When I was in college, I went to camp as a full-fledge counselor. I was so excited and nervous to slip into the shoes of people I had admired for years. Counselors who knew to bring playing cards and hair rubber bands and scissors and clothesline and shaving cream and dozens of cans of Deep Woods Off. (If you’re not sure what the above list is for, you may not have ever been to a real church camp.) So when I got the list of eleven-year olds that would be in my cabin, I made them each a hair scrunchie with a personalized note and a tiny sized candy bar. These were first time campers and I felt the weight of their apprehension on my shoulders. Then something natural and yet unforeseen happened. It began with one girl running to find me in the mess hall a day and a half into the week. She led me back to her friend who waited for her return in the latrine. “I’m bleeding!” she moaned to me through the closed stall door. I ran back to my cabin and found a maxi pad and a pair of her undies. I talked her through the application of the adhesive strip as I rinsed her soiled undies in the sink. This was her first ever period. Understandably, she asked to call her mom on the pay phone in the mess hall so she could come and get her. After she left, five more girls experienced their entrance into womanhood at the not-so-capable hands of Counselor Abby throughout that week. I think I would’ve rather that they passed around chicken pox instead.
For the past two years, I have attended a church camp with my husband Brent and our three kids. Our camp directors do an amazing job of keeping the kids busy and happy. As I mentioned, one of my jobs at this camp is to help with the crafts. Watching kids ages 9-13 battle for craft supplies is a Darwinian case study. There’s a finite amount of brushes, paints, screwdrivers, etc and it becomes dog-eat-dog around the craft table. It may be true that the meek shall inherit the earth but I’m not so sure they’ll ever get that bowl of yellow paint. Older girls, buoyed with self-confidence and purpose, smile at younger campers and say, “Can I see that brush…just for a second?” Before you know it, she’s got the brush at her table and she might as well be painting the Sistine Chapel for the amount of time it’s taking her to finish with it. I assumed I was asked to help with crafts because I’m fairly crafty but really it’s because I grew up with two sisters, am raising twin daughters, and I know when you have to step in and help a sister out.
As of this year, my favorite camp memory is actually something that didn’t happen at camp. Let me explain: About a week before camp, I had a dream that we were at camp and we got an email informing us that we finally had a match for our adoption. I told my husband and my fellow counselor about my dream. (She’s the camp photographer so I warned her, half-jokingly, that I’d need her to take pictures of the moment when we told our kids.) The more I thought about it, the more it felt like it might really happen. We’ve been waiting for a match ever since we sent in our paperwork in November so there’s no real reason to assume it to be that week—I just had a feeling. Brent tried to check email on his phone several times, but the service was spotty. When we got home on Saturday, we unpacked, looked at the bills and magazines, watered the dead flowers in the planters on the porch, and Brent checked email. Sure enough, we had received an email with attached photos and medical information for a precious 16 month-old named Philippe. It had come the day before and we had missed it.
I’m not sure why the big reveal didn’t come out the way I had dreamed but maybe that’s just the way it is with church camp. You plan and prepare for nearly every contingency, but in the end you have to just go with it. Some of the most meaningful memories happen when a young heart is pulled toward Christ, new friendships are forged, or you find in yourself an independence that you never knew you had. And maybe none of that was truly planned. I’m so thankful for all my church camp memories and I pray that my kids will have golden ones as well.