I’ve worked at summer camps 7 of the last 10 summers. I’m pretty biased when it comes to how awesome they are for kids and as simply great places that exist in the world. However as anything that provides short-term care and ministry it also opens itself to criticism. People ask (in both well-meaning and mean spirited ways) “What about the other 51 weeks of the year?”, “What about follow-up?”, “What about the cost involved? Is it worth it?”
I only spent a week at a summer camp this year but it crystalized in my mind why summer camp ministries are in fact, “worth it.”
Summer camp is for a large group of kids the only spiritual experience they get growing up.
These kids will never set foot in a church during their adolescence. Their parents are at best dysfunctional and at worst abusive. But for whatever reason, grandparents or scholarships or parents just wanting to get rid rid of them for a week they end up at camp every summer.
And they have a blast.
They have fun and make friends and learn about God but most importantly they feel loved and cared for in a way that for a million different reasons they do not get at home.
I have volunteered with middle schoolers the last two years at my church. I’ve enjoyed it and I think most of the kids I hang out with enjoy it a ton too. I would love to see every broken kid I have seen in the past end up in a safe place like a church youth group. But the reality is they won’t. These are kids who every day is a struggle. They may become Christians at camp, they may not but whatever happens when they go home it is hard to maintain even a semblance of a spiritual life. But still, camp is all they’ve got. And I’ve seen too many kids grasp for that rope with all their might.
If one’s goal is to see as many kids as possible loved and cared for and given an opportunity to see Jesus as that ultimate reality that provides that than I cannot see another way. Supporting summer camp and other parachurch organizations is a must.
I have had a long and fruitful experience at my camp. I have never fully explained my camp story to people. It has not been a secret; at times I have told people openly bits and pieces. Having returned to camp this summer in a leadership position I thought now would be an appropriate time to write out what my journey looked like to this point. I’m telling this story, my story, because I think it is unique and it ultimately served as a vital shaper of who I am today as a person, a leader and a Christian.
I started at camp at the age of 8 or 9. Not the youngest possible age but still pretty early. I started with one week a summer but enjoyed it so much that when I was 13 I went three weeks and four weeks when I was 14. At this point I was ready to move on from being a camper and pursue what I thought was the ultimate job: camp counselor or “chief” as we call them at my camp. My camp has a two year process before you become a chief. First you do a three week Leadership in training (LIT) program when you are 15. This involves a week of backpacking, a week of canoeing and a week rock climbing and on a ropes course. It’s an intense experience but as I prepared to go I felt pretty confident. I knew camp, I knew this was what I wanted and I knew this was the next step. I was ready.
LIT was hell.
There is no nicer was to put it. Aside from certain moments being overseas, doing the LIT was the most difficult thing I have ever done. The funny thing is the physical part wasn’t the hard part. I could out hike anyone and my canoeing and climbing skills were tenacious if not precocious. The difficult thing was getting along with the other boys on my trip; I did that terribly. My leaders responded by failing to understand what I was going through and interpreting my sometimes exasperating behavior as unacceptable. I do not claim to be perfect but at a root level I think I was treated unfairly. This next part probably won’t mean much to people outside of camp but it was ultimately a significant and low point of my life.
I failed LIT.
To move onto the next year, the Counselor in Training (CIT) program, I needed to pass. I had a long conversation with my LIT leader that last night. I think I remember almost pleading with him. But ultimately he thought I needed more time to grow and mature. The clearest memory I have of that night is just bawling in the tent in front of the others. I was convinced I was never going to return to camp.