Summer Camp

I’m a huge fan of summer camp, especially camps with a goal of spiritual formation and enrichment. I gained so much from camp experiences in my childhood and youth, and it breaks my heart to think that too few kids get to enjoy the beauty of creation that camps often provide. I plan to write further in coming months about some of the reasons I am such a firm believer in summer camps, but first, I wanted to share (with permission) this story that friend shared with me:

When I was 11 years old, I went away to church camp in the mountains. To this day, it stands out in my memory as one of the most meaningful weeks of my childhood. It was an “evangelical” church camp, so there was memorization of Bible verses, praise songs around the campfire, and an emphasis on building community. It wasn’t like the “Jesus Camp” movie, but it had an agenda of getting the kids to “ask Jesus into their hearts” by the end of the week. The most impactful moment for me was when we slept outside under the stars one night. As a city girl, this was my first experience of sleeping under the night sky and it pierced me to the core. I felt so vulnerable and so very connected to God in a way that has never left me.
And so it makes sense that 30 years later, I made the choice to send my own daughter to a similar camp. I was excited for her to experience the same connection to God in nature and in community that I had experienced at her age. I knew that I’d be exposing her to theology I didn’t believe in anymore, but I trusted that she would meet God in a new way and I hoped that that would trump the more conservative theology. After all, that had been my experience. Or had it? Perhaps my memory is selective and I am just not aware of the ways messages have stuck with me for better or for worse.
This summer, we were driving home after camp. My daughter was radiant. I sensed a groundedness and joy I hadn’t seen recently in her “tween” self. She told me that she had never felt so close go God; that she felt close to herself. I asked her what it was that had made her feel that way, and she spoke of the music and the beauty of the nature. Yes. But when I probed a bit more, she told me about the last night of camp. Candles were lit outdoors and small groups gathered for a long night of sharing and storytelling. The camp counselors were talking to the kids about hearing and following God’s call. Wonderful! Then my daughter told me that her counselor shared a personal example of following God’s call in her own life. She had gone [overseas] earlier in the summer on a mission trip, but she felt sad because she had failed. My curiosity was now piqued. “What did she fail at?” I asked my daughter. “She said that she failed because she couldn’t get the the Muslim teenagers to convert to Christianity. They didn’t believe in Jesus.” “And why is that a failure?” I continued to probe. “Because they are going to go to hell.”
I was stunned. And yet, why should I have been shocked? I should have known that this focus on “saving souls” for the afterlife would be present. Why was I so upset upon hearing these words from my daughter?
Then my mind raced. WHY was I intentionally sending my daughter to a camp where she’d learn theology she’d have to unlearn later? Why was I spending quite a bit of money for my child to inherit a belief system that promotes the idea of other religions being less-than and hell-bound?
And yet, it did create this opportunity to have an amazing conversation. I was able to share with my daughter (hopefully humbly) why I didn’t agree with this. I was able to ask her if she thought those Muslim teenagers believed in God and how they were trying to live their lives. And we talked about Jesus and whether his emphasis was on where we go when we die or who we are becoming in this life on earth. None of these words would have flowed between us if she hadn’t gone to this camp.
And let’s be honest. Evangelicals do terrific summer camps for kids. They’ve got it down. It’s a great mix of a ton of fun and great relationships that really open kids’ hearts.
But at what cost? And is it fair to send an 11 year-old to be opened up to powerful messages about the nature of God and Christianity, only to be told by her mother on the drive home that those messages are wrong? That’s a kind of ambiguity that isn’t really fair to impose on an 11 year-old. Are there ways for me to open my child to this connection to God in other ways? Of course. Does she desperately hope she can go back next summer? Of course. Am I still torn even after this heart-wrenching conversation? Yes. I just can’t shake how formative those summers were in my own life. They charted a life-long course of seeking and finding a deep relationship with God. Yes, I’ve had to “unlearn” some stuff, but isn’t that a wonderful journey, too? Even if I didn’t send her to this place, she’d still have to unlearn stuff. She’s going to have to unlearn a lot of stuff just having me as her mom! Like we all have to.
So I am in a quandary. What is harmful (or at least unhelpful) perpetuation of a theology that teaches that the “other” must be changed into “us?” A theology that teaches that God picks favorites and requires us to ask Jesus-into-our-heart or else. And that is only one issue I had. There is also the way they spoke to the kids about sexuality and purity, not to mention the authority of scripture and its interpretation. I am someone who is able to see the gifts in all the different “flavors” of this thing we call Christianity. It is my hope that the healthy aspects of this particular flavor are the ones that will stick with my daughter. But I can’t control that and I’m just not sure…