Celebrating Camp Sandy Cove

This past Sunday afternoon I went on a prayer walk with my daughter. This in itself is unusual given I do not actively pray a whole lot and if I exercise I am more inclined to run than walk. Despite these inclinations it was sunny and quiet and with my daughter wrapped in a blanket we walked through a snowy wooded trail.

My prayers developed into a mini-biography of my life. Themes of gratitude and thankfulness pervaded my thoughts and words. I covered a great many things with an obvious focus on my wife, marriage, and my baby who was peacefully looking around in my arms throughout. But in addition to this the thing that came up again, repeatedly and forcefully, was my experiences at Camp Sandy Cove.

I’ve written a lot about my summers at camp and my journey from being a camper, to a counselor-in training, to cabin counselor, to leadership staff. The memories, the experiences, the friends, the growth, the impact camp has had on my life. When I found out last October that Camp was closing effective immediately, it truly was devastating to me and I know many others. 69 years of operation create a lot of impact in people’s lives.

This past Saturday I flew down to the Philadelphia area to attend the final celebration dinner for Camp. It was a fantastic time to remember, reconnect and yes, celebrate the history and impact of camp. The long running directors of the camp (plus many others I am sure) put on a meaningful and fun night.

I was asked by the director to be a speaker at the event, something I was deeply honored to do. I spoke about the impact of having the program director plant the idea in my head that I could be leadership staff. I also discussed how my career as a teacher keeps the impact of camp going as I positively speak into the lives of my students. Other speakers reiterated the great memories and impact of the camp experience.

As positive and honoring as the night was I also feel the need to identify with the feelings of sadness that the permanent closing of camp also raises. It is undeniably true to say that the beauty and fun and impact of camp will live on in the people who experienced and made it happen. But one of the true joys of camp was the temporary, brutally intense environment it created that brought together a staff and campers into a vibrant, spiritual, and even intimate place together.  That connection as a group of people creating the Camp Sandy Cove experience each summer together will never happen again. There is a very tangible, even visceral loss here that I believes need to be acknowledged and grieved.

I have a final memory I want to put down in words to close these thoughts about camp. On the final night of our camp program in my last year of staff in 2012 we had a carnival like activity. The field was filled with staff run games that campers walked around and enjoyed. There was a speaker near my office blasting music to create a fun atmosphere. I remember near the end of the activities really getting into the music and just savoring the atmosphere. Camp was over soon and I wanted to enjoy every last drop. By noon the next day all the campers and most of the summer staff were on their way home.

The beauty of camp is also the source of the the sadness and grief I think many of us have felt over the previous months. The intensity, the connections, the fun always came to an end. I imagine there’s a lesson there for us about life and spirituality too but I’ll save that for another writing.

We celebrated Camp Sandy Cove this past weekend both because of the fantastic memories and the undeniable grief that experiences quite like what we experienced will never happen again. I am ultimately sad that camp is permanently over but man am I glad that I got to play a part. I think there are a great many people who would say the same.


Teaching Every Student

In the US every student is entitled to FAPE, a free appropriate public education up to age 21 (or whenever they graduate.) This is a huge positive for our society as every kid in a community is expected and welcomed into a school. If students have poor attendance or simply do not show up, schools are legally required to check in on them. Public schools necessarily reflect the diversity, or lack thereof, of the community they are in. This is a huge positive for me as someone who very consciously chose to teach in a public school.

Of course public schools are not the only options in a country as wealthy as ours. Parents can choose private, religious, or public charter schools. Many choose to homeschool in various set ups for all or part of their children’s education. While I fully support a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their child I also think most public schools provide a clear and invaluable service to their communities.

I bring this up because Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence, took a job at a Christian School this week. Presumably this would be a pretty innocuous action but it made the headlines. If you want to read about the background here is the initial more liberal take and here is a more conservative follow up.

First some background. Christian schools across the country have policies similar to the one Pence now works at from elementary to higher ed. Statements of faith or belief, and other similarly worded documents all need to be signed by employees and students. Some schools are tiny, lack clear standards and may trend extremely conservative. Some are huge and rival the best public schools and colleges in the country. I personally coached at a private Christian school in the past because it was a good fit and they wanted me. I even applied for a teaching position there when no public school position was forthcoming. The fact that Pence’s school restricts LGBT students, while understandably upsetting to many, is a reality of thousands of schools across the country. They are fully within their rights to restrict their student body based on their genuinely held beliefs.

Many have responded by condemning Pence while others have defended her and the school. I want to take a slightly different take. The school she works at has a parent’s agreement which I want to quote in part here,

I understand the biblical role of Immanuel Christian School is to partner with families to encourage students to be imitators of Christ. This necessarily involves the school’s understanding and belief regarding biblical morality and standards of conduct. I understand that the school reserves the right, within its sole discretion, to refuse admission to an applicant or to discontinue enrollment of a student if the atmosphere or conduct within a particular home, the activities of a parent or guardian, or the activities of the student are counter to, or are in opposition to, the biblical lifestyle the school teaches…I acknowledge the importance of a family culture based on biblical principles and embrace biblical family values such as a healthy marriage between one man and one woman. My role as spiritual mentor to my children will be taken seriously.

What jumps out to me is that the school does not just require their students to uphold their beliefs and morality but their parents as well. While I do not discount the importance of a safe and stable home life this policy strikes me as unbelievably exclusive and regretful.

I have so many questions. Are kids from divorced homes allowed to attend? Are kids with single parents allowed? Are kids who parents are seen at the local bar expelled? How many students is this school rejecting because they do not have an idealized home or family life?

Every Christian church, camp, and ministry I have ever been a part of is unfailingly inclusive. They have beliefs, statements of faith, and even codes of conduct but everyone is welcome to attend a service, take part in a meal, or come for a week of camp. Every kid, every prospective member, every person who wants a meal is welcome. I cannot imagine working at a school that would base a child’s standing on the conduct of their family members.

While the opioid crisis has been in the news in recent years many people might not realize how this impacts the average public school. I have taught in my building four years now and every single year I have had at least one student with a parent who has died. Every single year. Kids are resilient and many show up every day and are fantastic. But one cannot deny the trauma of losing one’s parent before high school. Schools are on the front lines of this crisis every single day.

Maybe I’m reading it too harshly but by their own standards Karen Pence’s school would reject these kids because their home life does not match up to their ideal. This does not make me want to condemn the school so much as it makes me question why anyone would want to teach in a place that only accepts the good and the pure. Particularly one that uses the Bible as their guide post.

Schools are meant for kids. All kids. Private and religious schools are welcome to be as exclusive or inclusive as they wish, and most do a great job with the kids in their care. But one wonders how much many of these institutions are missing out on by restricting their student body. I head back to my public school tomorrow and for that I am grateful.



My Favorite…?

One thing that seems to pop up every year in my classroom is the question, “Am I your favorite student?” This is closely followed by its popular cousin, “Is ________ your least favorite student?” Students generally are curious what us teachers are thinking so I typically give an answer but rarely the one they want.

“All my students are my favorite! I like them equally!”

“I don’t have any least favorites! Why haven’t you taken your homework out yet?”

This year I’m teaching a new subject with 6th graders. I’ve never taught students this young but so far I am enjoying it. I am extremely hesitant to generalize about this in October but it seems to be an exceptional group of kids. I would like to describe one of them to you.

She is a happy, bubbly, talkative, kind sixth grade girl. She always says “Hi!” expressively in the hall when she walks by. She raises her hand everyday, participates actively and always has something interesting to say.  When she learned I liked soccer on the first day of school she excitedly told her dad that she had “found his favorite teacher!” because he was a big soccer fan too. Her mom showed up on back to school night, just as bubbly as her daughter, to tell me that.

The Monday she found out my birthday was the day before she announced excitedly that she was going to bring me chocolate and the next day she did. I won’t go so far to say that she was my favorite student ever but I looked forward to seeing her every single day just because of how positive and nice she was.

She also happens to be a Muslim who wore a headscarf every single day to school.

Her fashion sense is ridiculous. She has a different scarf every day that always seems to match perfectly with her shirt. The day after the Patriots first game of the season she wore a red shirt with the team’s name down the sleeve and a blue headscarf. Not that it would change my opinion of her at all but she speaks perfect English and I have no idea what her immigration status is.

I mention all this to make the following point. There are voices in our society who use fear to gain power, usually political. Some of these people like to decry those who are different and “other.” They scapegoat all immigrants, particularly Muslims, as those bringing violence and crime into our country. They decry the value of multiculturalism and diversity in our society and schools.

These voices are at best ignorant and misinformed, and at worst filled with malice, racism, and hatred. They should be ignored and marginalized for the inaccurate dreck that they are. Anyone who spends a day in even a mildly diverse classroom could see that the fears these people are exploiting have no basis in fact. The US is a country of immigrants, based on freedom of religion and expression. Diversity is and should be our strength and pride.

A few weeks ago my “favorite” student announced she was leaving by the end of the week to go to a nearby charter school she had finally been accepted to. I played it off in the moment but I was devastated. Teachers only get a school year with their students and then they float on to another hallway and grade. This student was only in my class about a month. I hope she comes back to visit at some point.

We are living in divided and acrimonious times. It is far too easy to “what about” ourselves to death when the latest outrage or rhetoric is splayed out by our leaders. What hope do we have?

I hope my student continues to grow into the intelligent and kind person she is and I hope we continue to acknowledge that what unites us is far more significant than the things that divide us.


Cups up to Camp Sandy Cove

After a nearly hour long commute home on a rainy Monday afternoon I opened up an innocuous email to find out absolutely devastating news. The summer camp I had grown up attending and consequently working at as a young adult was closing, effective immediately. Summer camp elicits lots of stereotypes and images for different people but this news is truly heartbreaking for me. I’m in full-on processing mode but here (in brief) is what Camp Sandy Cove meant to me.

I started attending when I was probably 9 or 10 in the mid-90s. It was in Pennsylvania back then and I was just a kid but I loved it. Soccer, archery, outdoor cooking, endless food and games. It was a blast. I attended only a week for a few summers and then three weeks and then, in my last summer as a camper, 4 or 5 weeks.

I knew that I had to become a counselor ASAP and entered their leadership program in the summer of 2000. I failed miserably, took 2001 off, and returned in 2002 for their counselor in training program. This was one of many, many times where through challenges and adversity I grew and matured at camp to become a better version of myself.

I returned as staff in 2003 and had a fun, if challenging summer. I needed to fully grow into the role of camp counselor. The next summer the camp moved to a property in West Virginia and I was off and running. I served on staff in the summers of 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2012. I’m beyond grateful for these experiences.

Camp was so much hard work and so much fun at the same time. I played games, led activities, taught Bible lessons, sang crazy and beautiful songs, mentored other staff, and on days off went to IHOP late at night. Some of my very best memories are associated with experiences at camp.

Camp was a safe place for me growing up and into adulthood. I could be wild and crazy at camp. I could make friends at camp in a way I never could at home. I felt free at camp to just have a blast and be myself. One memory of so many that sticks in my head is of singing Isaiah 40 as a teenager in the middle of the woods under the stars after bringing our mattresses out to a fire-pit for the night. So many moments like this will be with me for the rest of my life.

People spoke into me at camp. They taught me and encouraged me. I would never have been leadership staff at camp if one of the Directors had not floated the idea to me four summers earlier. He saw in me things I don’t think I ever would have. I will always be grateful for the opportunities and experiences I had at camp.

So again I’m sitting here just lost in thought, and feeling, and emotion. I am but one person over nearly 70 years that camp impacted. I hope people reading this will rekindle great memories of themselves at camp as well.

Cups up to CSC. It will be deeply missed.

Thoughts on Willow Creek

The news coming from Willow Creek Community Church in the last week is incredibly sad. Allegations against long time pastor Bill Hybels from multiple women have turned out to be far worse than originally stated. The blowback resulted in two pastors resigning and last night the entire board of elders announced they would be resigning. For those not in the evangelical world, Willow Creek is a huge megachurch near Chicago which has many different sites where their church meets. To have the entire leadership resign is truly tragic and shocking.

I must admit however that ten years ago I would have been even more shocked than I am today. Ten years ago I was on the periphery of a situation that, while not abuse or harassment, was no less damaging to a Christian organization. I wrote about this story on this blog a number of years ago but I feel like I should retell it today briefly. I’ll use even fewer identifying details than when I first wrote my blog. I admittedly only have one perspective on the matter and want to be kind to people who lived it out much more closely than I did.

Tens years ago after college I lived overseas for a year as an intern with a Christian ministry. The organization had been started by a couple who soon got married after founding it. During my year both the husband and wife taught classes and preached sermons that I enjoyed immensely. I can’t express how much I respected each of them.

We lived on a somewhat sprawling missions base. Basically it was a big, incredibly beautiful piece of land with some buildings in the middle. The husband had an office right in the middle of everything, surrounded by windows. We called it the fishbowl. During the year the husband and wife had to travel back to the US for a couple months and for various good reasons, the husband ended up coming back a couple months early.

The ministry had a number of North American mission staff. One worked closely with the husband as his assistant among other roles. Her desk was in the fishbowl with him. I had to fly back for my sister’s wedding midway through the year. When I got back the husband and assistant picked me up from airport, a 2-3 hour car trip each way. Today such an extended time alone would set off alarm bells for me. Ten years ago I suspected nothing. I think often evangelicals “suspect nothing” because sex is largely taboo and we do not discuss it very openly. We also put pastors and leaders on a pedestal where they surely can do no wrong. This should change.

At the end of my fantastic year I got an email the first week I was home. The husband wrote that he had fallen short in a number of ways. Basically an emotional affair but nothing physical. He and his wife were returning to the States for counseling. I believed the email because why wouldn’t I? This guy had been a tremendous leader who had spoken into my life repeatedly. I shouldn’t have.

Less than a year later we get another email from the wife. The husband had an affair and had decided to get divorced. The marriage was now over. Again it should not have shocked me at the time but it did. When the allegations against Willow Creek’s Pastor came out I had a feeling they were even worse than what had been released. This past week has confirmed my feelings.

I do not mean to say we should speak out or judge before all facts are in. But if the #Metoo movement has shown us anything it is that we need to consider allegations with eyes wide open and at the very least not summarily dismiss them. The man who ran my ministry did not abuse or harass anyone but what began as a significant personal failing became a full-blown affair that destroyed a marriage.

It is really hard to write this. Even now, ten years later I hate to come off as disparaging. It feels both very close to me because I was there when it happened but also very far away. I was just a lowly intern who had no idea what was going on. The Board at Willow Creek does not have my lack of accountability. The fact that the Board did multiple investigations and found that Hybels did essentially nothing wrong is incredibly damning to their credibility. The fact that further, credible accusations only just now led to their resignation means all churches need to look even more carefully at their policies regarding leadership.

I learned a lot in my year overseas. Once during a lesson on leadership, the husband told our class of interns, “The greater the sin and the higher in leadership, the greater the consequences.” This is playing out tragically today for the Willow Creek community. May this sad sequence of events lead to greater accountability for church leadership and greater care for all church staff and members.

What I’ve Done So Far on my Summer Vacation.

It is a well-known fact that most teachers get a summer break. For me, a public school teacher, that equates from about mid-June to Late August. Obviously having a huge summer break is different from most industries. I thought it would be nice to list (in extremely rough chronological order) what I have done in my first month of summer vacation.

  • Had friends over to catch up and meet our daughter.
  • Watched my 2 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 2 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 2 month old daughter.
  • Changed my two month old daughter.
  • Gone to a wedding of good friends.
  • Gone running a lot.
  • Completed a class to earn graduate credit to increase my salary in the fall (one more class to go!) Note: the only way for public school teachers to increase their salary is to show up for another year or take further education classes. If this sounds like a terrible system to you I applaud your motivation to attempt to make it better!
  • Taken my daughter to a friend’s July 4th party and watched fireworks (we have cute ear protecters.)
  • Watched my 3 month old daughter while my wife went to work.
  • Fed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Played with my 3 month old daughter.
  • Changed my 3 month old daughter.
  • Taken my family to two professional soccer games.
  • Napped
  • Read half a book.
  • Drove up to Maine last Wednesday and said goodbye to my 91-year old grandfather as he passed away in the hospital. My dad and I made it with two and a half hours to spare. The nurse noted that he was waiting for people to show up to be with him.

Many Americans for various socioeconomic reasons can’t take much time off from work. Many who can do not take what they are fully allowed. How much vacation one takes is a personal one between them and their family. I will say I am really grateful I was able to  hop in a car (my wife graciously watched our daughter the whole day so I could go immediately) midweek and get up to Maine to be with my grandfather. If it had been during the school year I would have likely already been at school and getting up there in time would have been impossible.

Summer vacation can be a difficult time for many kids and families. Many kids have zero of the supports they enjoy during the school year. Many parents (and various family members) work long hours, often leaving kids to (literally) their own devices. But I think the general principle of a longer break in the summer (maybe 4-6 weeks) would not just be good for teachers but for other workers too. More time to relax and reboot. Time to do activities one enjoys. Time with family. Last Wednesday was challenging but I am beyond grateful that I was able to see my grandfather one last time.

Thoughts on Fatherhood.

The moment had arrived. My wife was ready, after three location changes and over a day of waiting and hospital care, to deliver our first child. I look over at the first doctor on the scene and rather sheepishly ask, “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?” I did and I did. Less than 30 minutes later I was a father.

I’ll be frank about this entry. It is more for me than for others. My first child was born just under two weeks ago and I simply want to remember everything. The memories I write here may seem a bit all over the map and disjointed but they are glimpses of the monumental experience we had in four days at a hospital in Boston.

We went to the hospital Tuesday morning, a day I completely thought I would go to work.    Instead we spent the morning in sort of a holding room as we began the process of inducing a pregnancy. Within the first two hours of sitting there two women were wheeled out for C-sections and than wheeled back in, babies in their hands. There unseen cries made me impatient. I was ready to meet our little one!

A brief aside about my in-laws. They are fantastically intentional and supportive of their kids. They showed up at 8:30AM that first morning and were there until the moment of birth the following afternoon. They spent that first night in the hospital in incredibly awful chairs in our delivery room. In retrospect, they could have gone home that night, but my wife told me she needed them and so they stayed. I’m so grateful they were there but also grateful that they happened to have a vacation planned for a few days later!

I confess to having felt fairly sheepish in the hospital. I know I was the impending father and had an official visitors sticker and totally belonged there but I couldn’t walk through the Labor and Delivery unit without feeling completely in the way. I really didn’t want to bump into a doctor or nurse who were about to bring a life into the world as I was fetching more water for my wife. This is a good time to give a shoutout to our hospital and how good our experience was. Nurses are unsung heroes, full stop. They do so much, work 12-hour shifts and not once did I percieve that they were tired. I feel very fortunate that we live near Boston and were able to deliver at such a well-regarded hospital.

It’s hard to express how I felt those first moments as the delivery process began. I ran competitively in college and have run in countless road races, long and short. I’ve traveled overseas and got married four years ago. None of those experiences came close to the pure rush of adrenaline that flowed through me as I put my hand on my wife’s forehead and waited to meet our daughter.

I did not know the gender of our baby until birth. My wife did but was able to resist telling me for months. I know that this provokes a lot of questions and interest but I’ll just say this: From the start I was going to be ecstatic with either a boy or girl. It did not matter to me what they were as long as he/she was healthy. And so in the minutes after her birth I went over to where doctors were cleaning our baby off and had to identify the gender. With all the emotion and adrenaline of the moment it was a significantly more difficult task than I might of thought. I focused really hard, looked at our child and made the announcement: we had a baby girl. Her name was Eleanor Joy.

She was pink, and crying, and healthy. She was perfect. After two hectic days in the hospital we were able to go home as scheduled. I won’t go into all the details here but this was a miracle baby. I couldn’t have expected how perfect she is and yet knew it all the same. The amount of prayer and support that brought this little girl into the world is too numerous to mention but know that it mattered and know that we are so grateful for you all. It gave us so much comfort and even confidence as we prepared to welcome our little one.

There is so much left to say but I’ll finish with this. We are home, adjusting to life with our little one. She is eating, and growing, and crying, and that other thing babies do. It is tiring but awesome. It’s still hard to believe but I’m a dad now. I’m grateful for almost a month at home before returning to work and the many visitors and gifts that have graced our address. I’m mindful that many do not have the support or resources we have enjoyed. Thank you to everyone who have supported us so well. I’m just starting this journey but I can’t wait to continue.