Weaving through mounds of manure like a soldier trying to avoid landmines as they cross over no-man’s land into enemy territory, I followed after the program director and her dog out to the field where our students were doing their low ropes activities. From one pasture to another, through a gate, around a barbed wire fence, gently over some ground softened by recent rains and stamped with hoof prints of the nearby longhorns. Ah! That was a close one. Almost stepped in trace of Ranch’s more permanent residents. It would’ve smelled sure and certain doom for my Vans. Before they were in sight, we could hear the murmurings of strong-willed young men instructing one another on the best possible approach to remaining balanced. Little chance they were practicing yoga out here. As we brushed past prickly pear cacti and under wind-blown trees that I can only assume are cedar, we happened upon a scene with significantly more yang than ying. Thud. Creeaak. Thud. Back and forth. Teeter. Totter. I’ve got an idea! Well, how about… Or, what if we… The group’s task: move everyone from one side of the giant pivoted platform to the other with as few touches on the ground as possible. One…Two…Three…Four…Five… The smile on my face was one of both nostalgia—I’ve been in that moment before as a camper myself, and humored admiration—witnessing our youth grow through struggling together with what it means to be a team, communicating efficiently, and working cohesively towards accomplishing a goal.
As someone who pursued youth ministry in college (what at the time was consolatory substitution to a difficult call in ordained ministry—a whole other story), more than a few times my efforts to go and meet kids where they were felt like scanning the horizon and cautiously tiptoeing through a field full of bull—well you get the point. At any given moment, I was inches away from stepping in a hot mess. And I can attest to gettin’ my shoes dirty at least a couple times in such situations as both a seminary intern, and since then pastor. It’s no easy task engaging with youth—not because of the kids per se (although let’s not place the credit entirely elsewhere), but mostly on account of the atmosphere they daily find themselves trying to balance upon. Thud. Creeaak. Thud. With the countless demands divvied out by school, extracurriculars, and simply wrestling with what it means to be a kid nowadays—whose own bodies, relationships, and futures are changing minute by minute—it’s no wonder the balancing act can feel overwhelming if not impossible. My own adolescence was filled with much teetering and tottering, side to side—Bump. Scrape. Bang—sometimes with no solution in sight. To the ageist assumption that kids have it easy these days—HA!—it’s rough being a kid as much now as ever. The field is different, indeed; but no less trying. In this ever-changing age as much as ever before, the church is being called upon to look out into the world, see and hear the struggles of our youth, engaging them with compassion and care, and responding with an alternative model to the vain and empty ones promoted by the world around them.
I’m a huge proponent for camp. I wholeheartedly believe camping ministry impacts and transforms lives—because I’ve experienced it firsthand. My faith is what it is today, in part, because of my attending camp—not just as a kid, but also since then as an adult and leader. It is in that unique place—the outdoors of God’s beautiful creation—surrounded by fellow youth and accompanied by joyful leaders, where kids can find some of their greatest formation and growth along the journey of faith. As a child of this synod, my faith was nurtured most significantly by my time(s) spent at camp with others. Along the trails talking to others my age, playing games and singing songs that pointed to a deeper message, learning the language of faith through worship and Bible studies. Camp was, for me, fun, safe, encouraging, unassuming—a special (holy) place away from the demands and craziness of everything else. The feeling of the Holy Spirit working within me arises each time I return to camp (no matter where it may be, Carol Joy Holling in Nebraska, Chrysalis in Kerrville, Ebert by Harper, or others)—even now as a pastor. Camping ministry is one of the greatest gifts of the church. That being said, (I wrestle with it, but) camp is not beloved by all. Honestly, it can be difficult for those who have never been away from home before. It is in this unique space, however, where kids are able to encounter God in new ways and given tools to help them in the balancing act of life. I believe we owe it to our kids and the nurturing of their faith to take them to places like camp where they can be met by Christ in ways otherwise unexperienced. They will, if not already, have to one day maneuver their ways through the manure. Camp is not a one-size-fits-all fix for all of life. Yet, it is good soil through which faith grows. As we start looking into the summer programming, I would encourage you to talk with your kids, grandkids, and other young people about considering a trip to camp. It’ll change their lives—take it from me.
– Pastor Andrew