When I was a kid camp was one of my favorite things. Once a year (or twice in 8th grade) I would stuff a variety of overalls and colorful tshirts in a bag and head out- bound for the long dirt road that, just over the train tracks, led to a week of gritty bliss.
The camp I happened to attend was called Camp Cherith. It was Christian, not sure what demonination. It was an all girls camp till I was about 13 when they started to admit limited numbers of boy. And it was full of all the stereotypes, troupes and activities that all summer camps in the 90s had. We had boating, fishing, rifeley and archery. We had crafts, made boondoggle, did wood burning, rode horses, swam, canoed. We had morning devotions and evening bonfires where we danced and screamed and sand lengthy ridiculous songs that finally settled into soft coping lullabies with partically acurate sign language. We had meals family style with plenty of banging and spills and the best hot chocolate I still have ever had.
I loved that place. Camp was a place where I could be popular- where I could be me and people celebrated that, even the wierd bits. I would proudly walk from activity to activity with friendship braclets half-made dangling from my overall pockets. I would run to the snack shop to carefully select a candy bar with the ten dollars my parents had put on reserve for me.
To this day I remember the feeling of being roused from bed by the bugle, walking into the chill morning air and sitting on a sticky plastic disk in the dewy grass to quietly read my bible before breakfast. All these years later- that feeling remains embedded in my mind as one of the most consistently calm times I have ever spent.
Of course- most of my feelings of confidence at camp were most definitely supported by the staff. Being a (mostly) all girls camp the staff were unsurprisingly all women. We would arrive at camp, bags in hand and shuttled off to different cabins and tents. There we would find our new bunks decorated with glittery stickers with our names painstakingly printed on them. Our counselor, bestowed with a bird name, would greet us with a smile and neon shirt- generally her hair wrapped and a bandana on. And immediately we would feel wanted and loved.
I was at camp 9 years. I remember every counselor i had. But i had some favorites.
Indigo- we made her cry one night because we wouldn’t go to sleep.
Star- she was so cool and so pretty and spunky. The year I was there 5 of the girls in the group of 8 got their first period.
Ruthie- really butch, really sporty, really tough, not afraid of anything.
Cuckcoo- from the Czech Republic.
Scarlet- Gentle and sweet and loved games. I was definitely in love with her.
I wanted to be like these women. These women who were fun and funny and spunky and who were there to sing songs and hang out with US! They were so important to me- from the girl who taught me to ride my first horse to the ladies that served me extra eggs in the morning, they were my heroes. I never once thought of them as anything but something to love and aspire to.
I always wanted to go back.
But a whole summer is a lot to find time for… and with that excuse, I never have.
But I think of it a lot.
And this week, well I am thinking of it constantly. Because, as it so happens, I am working at a different camp- Royal Family Kids Camp. It’s a one week camp for children who are abused or neglected. My mother has run it for years and finally, FINALLY, I am able to come too. It’s not easy. We work long hours- up at 7 and done at 11. We hear terrible stories- little girls who talk about the time their father shot their mother in front of them or little boys who want their face paint to look like they have a black eye like they did the one time their uncle hit them. Or just kids who don’t say they have a home. Kids who are forgotten about.
While they are here we spoil them. That’s it, that’s the point of the camp. To, for one week, spoil these kids and prove that we care. And that God cares. That we don’t know why these things were allowed to happen to them but that doesn’t mean they are not valuable… so we throw an everybody birthday party, we give them presents, we let them eat as much as they want, we feed them candy, we hug them, we sing to them and read to them and boat with them and craft and have tea parties and play dress up and do sports and have a carnival and put on plays and eat and do whatever they want. A week where they get to decide what life should be. There’s a camp grandma and grandpa, there are aunts and uncles and counselors and then, the mes- craft people and food people and drama people and more. And we just pour what we can out, send what we can home and just keep saying that god loves every one of them and we do too.
Many of you know, those words arnt always easy for me to say. Being a queer Christian I have had plenty of people imply that God might love me but that doesn’t mean he loves every part of me. And sometimes the words catch in my mouth. My mind wants to say “God loves you I think but some people make me question that sometimes and it’s ok to doubt but I want you to find a faith that is loving, even if it’s not this exact image of God we are forcing down your throat”. After all, what if I spend all this time telling these kids this and then one turns out gay and suddenly they equate this camp… and the other Christians telling them they don’t belong… and suddenly all our words are meaningless.
But you know what? It’s camp. And camp isn’t about doctrine. It’s about joy. And it’s about love.
And so I find myself not bothered by these catching words. Not bothered by the fact that my mother feared to let me be a counselor in case someone found out I was gay and brought up a case against my spending time with children. Instead, camp overwhelming the worry of not being accepted or respected and just fills me with peace.
And I can look at each of these campers and say “yes!!! The God we have here at camp is FULL of these things! Full of damp cabins and love notes and the hum of crickets in the early morning and swimming and creating and sharing and joy!” And most of all- he is full of love. He is full of laughter. He is full of grace. And I am convinced, that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
I have been pondering this unexpected peace i have with camp and the sort-of stereotypical Sunday school teaching we have been doing and I have really come to the conclusion that all of this is wrapped up in my youth, my childhood at camp cherith.
I didn’t know it at the time but my camp had a no discrimination policy and there were a few counselors and even the director that were gay. But it didn’t matter and we didn’t talk about it- we just did our activities and talked about God and loved every second. No fire, no brimstone, no contingencies.
Actually, that camp is where I accepted Christ into my heart for the first time. I was 12- old for a kid who grew up in the church. It was one of those dewy mornings spent reading the Bible. When we finished our counselor drew us into a circle and asked us our thoughts. After a conversation she said she wanted to pray for us and said if anyone wanted to make room for Jesus to live in our hearts we could. And I did.
I am not sure I believe this step is necessary- but I do believe it’s symbolism is beautiful. And I remember feeling so at peace and so joyful. And so… accepted.
How fitting, then, that here I find that same peace. That above the racket of confusion and the people that someone still don’t believe that I am “Christian enough”. That I don’t pray enough, believe enough, agree with them enough. That here- where the air is muggy and the bugs are plenty and the songs are loud. That here we are able to strip this all down and say, in a clear and simple voice- you are loved and worthy of love. You are loved by God. You are loved by us. You are loved by me.
Camp gave me that love.
Now I have this simple chance to give that love here, here at camp.