Theme: Stories From Church Camp
By Mr. William Kopcha
By Mrs. Tatianna Lapchuk Hoff
By Ms. Kimberly Metz
by Subdeacon Luke Beecham
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
Theme: Stories From Church Camp
By Mr. William Kopcha
By Mrs. Tatianna Lapchuk Hoff
By Ms. Kimberly Metz
by Subdeacon Luke Beecham
More information on our authors and contributors can be found here.
By Mr. William Kopcha
Every time I see my dear 91-year-old grandmother, she tells me, “Oh! How much you’ve grown since the last time I saw you!” Literally. Every time.
I’m 25, and I’m pretty sure that I have not grown since high school. But hey – from her vantage point, which rests a solid foot below mine, maybe she sees something that I don’t. You never know.
I can’t help but wonder if maybe it’s the same for the kids at the church camp where, for one week every year, I put on the “camp counselor” hat. Every day, they get up, look at themselves in the mirror as they brush their teeth, and see the same person that they saw the day before. From my vantage point, though – which rests a solid year behind theirs by the time that they show up for camp – the differences are striking.
Take, for example, the 11-year-old girl who discovered quite early in the week that she was not only very good at quietly disappearing from the nature walks that I, the camp’s Boy Scout emeritus, would take groups of kids on, but that this also caused me a certain degree of panic. And, naturally, the more I panicked, the more this became a game. The rules were very simple – the more time spent in hiding, the greater the effect when she would pop out of nowhere and insist that she had been right there the whole time, the more profound my cardiac arrest, the more success.
Fast forward one year and we find a girl that looked remarkably similar, but had been replaced by someone who dressed like a teenager, who talked like a teenager, who acted like a teenager. Her smooth sail through the carefree waters of youth had hit the moody shoals of adolescence. Suddenly, my nature walks were boring (and thus to be avoided) and I was at fault (and thus alternately given the silent treatment and scolded) for not saying “hi” in a timely enough manner or in the right way. I just shrugged and sighed.
Not all transformations are so drastic – though a surprisingly large number are, and not always for the worse. One pleasantly surprising case was the young man who, by the end of his tenure at camp, was a very polite, charming individual with a beautiful baritone voice, a knack for acting that got his theatrical debut on YouTube, and a self-assuredness that was well-received by his female contemporaries. Had anyone told me, years before, that this would be the fate of the hyperactive, 11-year-old whose fanatical preoccupation with bacon was odd enough even for a middle-school boy that it became his sole identifying feature among the counselors, I would have stared at them in disbelief.
Some are fairly normal. There was the undersized first-year with a very endearing speech impediment who asked, on one of my nature walks, not to be left behind “because [he was] the weakest one here,” who came back taller than me, plunged in the same unsteady adolescence as all the rest – trailing a little brother in tow. Who knew that “the weakest one here” was really the big man on the totem pole back home? And then there was the priest’s son, whose development we could track all the way back from his elementary school days as “the camp mascot.” Yes, you could tell that one year or the other he was subjected to some new pressure, some new, uncharted phase of life – but through it all, you could still see the same, lovable kid, just in a new pair of shoes.
The point is that in the midst of all of this transformation, there is not just the opportunity, but, if we really care about these kids, the duty to try and plant a seed. We see them once year. We can’t go home with them and make sure it grows, but, in a week of eating, praying, living, and laughing together, of learning the all-encompassing nature of their faith, in a week of experiencing the faith outside of their homes and home parishes, in a week of helping them to meet and establish lasting relationships with their peers and with everything that goes with that and under the purview of the Church, we can plant a seed.
Not all of the things we remember most about church camp are church-related. There was a time when I was a camper when the boys inexplicably found themselves in possession of a Quebec flag. Now, what do you do when you’re a teenage boy and you find yourself in possession of a Quebec flag at church camp? Naturally, you run with it through the girls’ cabin in the middle of the night screaming “Free Quebec!” Duh. Next question.
Maybe “church-related” things register on a conscious level – maybe they don’t. Maybe you’ll never be able to tell from your external vantage point. Maybe it doesn’t matter. In addition to all of the “Free Quebec!”s of my days as a camper, I remember what I would consider to be my first “real” confession. At that time, it was mandatory – though in retrospect, how a handful of rather pre-occupied priests who weren’t talking to each other would have kept tabs on every one of the kids in that packed, dark chapel is beyond me. That alone would have taken an Act of God, but these details tend to escape a 13-year-old. What I remember most is not wanting to go. And naturally, not wanting to go, I put it off until I was the very last one in that chapel – and somehow, as I was waiting nervously and debating how I could spin whatever I didn’t want to tell whatever priest I would end up with, something “clicked.” Suddenly, I knew that it would be okay. I felt all of the warmth and comfort and safety of that softly candle-lit chapel, I knew that I was in good hands – the best of all Hands, really – and I went up and let everything out without reservation. Then I went out to the campfire and made s’mores and talked with my friends like nothing happened – but something did happen. I don’t know if any of them realized it, I don’t know if the priest realized it, but I realized it, and that was enough. On top of that, maybe for some of those friends that I was talking to, who’s to say that it wasn’t precisely those s’mores and that campfire that they needed? Or more accurately, the love and camaraderie for which those s’mores and that campfire served as a vehicle?
We don’t know. We never will. All we can hope is that, nature-walk-ninjas, Quebec flags, confessions, s’mores, campfires, and all, that somehow we plant a seed, that it is good, and that, someday, somehow, it flourishes.
By Mrs. Tatianna Lapchuk Hoff
For each summer since the age of seven, I’ve visited Saint Andrew’s Camp in Jewell, New York. That’s a total of nearly twenty years that I’ve been involved with Saint Andrew’s. My experiences each year have varied because of the different roles I’ve been in (first camper, then teen, then counselor, now volunteer/visitor). But each is memorable in its own way, and I continue to love the Orthodox camping experience more, and differently, each year.
As a child, my summers were jam-packed with activity. For me, it was though there wasn’t a break from the school year, really. I participated in various summer enrichment programs, visiting Vassar and Bryn Mawr colleges in my younger elementary school years. There, I took rudimentary chemistry and biology courses, creative writing and fiction literature, kept up with music studies, and had daily instruction in sports (swimming and tennis were my choices).
Later, during high school, I’d trek up to Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire for six-week academic enrichment programs. It was the same deal there — academics and sports with some social fun — but I was older, and the program was longer. Also during high school, I even hopped over the pond for a couple summers to work on my French while living with a kind, sweet family in Provence. These were rewarding experiences that allowed me to grow intellectually and make friends with youngsters from different walks of life, and to keep me occupied in what would otherwise be a lazy summer.
But, my experiences at summer enrichment programs have always paled in comparison to the fun and growth I experienced at “camp.” And by “camp,” I mean the Orthodox camping experience, which – for me – took place at Saint Andrew’s Camp in Jewell, New York. Despite any other summer commitment or activity that I may have had, I was sure to visit Saint Andrew’s for at least one week each summer – and, without fail, it would always be the best week of my summer!
What makes the Saint Andrew’s Camp experience special and different from these other summer programs? It’s not really the camp – Saint Andrew’s – itself, but rather the fact that it has a program centered on Christ through Orthodox worship and religious education; this, I imagine, is true of most Orthodox Christian camps. To explain some of my experiences at camp, and the real value of an Orthodox camping experience, I will elaborate upon the framework of the four major components that make up life at Saint Andrew’s:
Chapel and Worship
The chapel services are certainly the center of daily life at Saint Andrew’s. Matins is celebrated each morning, and Vespers each evening, with Divine Liturgy served once per week (often with the Diocesan Hierarch Bishop Michael serving), with Great Vespers the evening before.
For many children, coming to Saint Andrew’s is the first time that they experience daily Church worship, and one might expect that the campers would either grow tired of the services or complain about always needing to attend Chapel services and everything that goes along with it (washing up and changing into dress clothes, needing to remain quiet and still, etc.) This is not the case at all, however! In fact, various informal polls that I’ve conducted over the years to campers asking “What’s your favorite part of camp?” have pointed to one answer: Church. And this is something that any observer can see for himself. Each time I visit the camp and observe campers during the services, I see joy and reverence emanating from each of them – in their posture, in their attention, and in their singing, chanting and reading. They eventually learn the prayers and tones from memory, and worship becomes seamlessly part of them. The importance of prayer is also instilled in other ways: through regular prayer before and after meals, at bedtime, and before and after religious education.
No Orthodox camp would be complete without religious education, which at Saint Andrew’s is held on a daily basis by the member of the clergy visiting for the week, or by His Grace, Bishop Michael, and sometimes by seminarians. Over the years, religious education has varied from Bible study sessions to lessons in stewardship and caring for the earth that our Lord has created and gifted to us (which is a huge theme at Saint Andrew’s Camp, and appropriately so because of where the camp is situated in a beautiful natural setting), to lives of the saints. For me, the religious education component of camp was of paramount importance, since it supplemented the religious education I received in church school on Sundays during the year, which was not the most rigorous program and did not meet regularly.
At Saint Andrew’s Camp, Orthodox youth are given the environment to grow spiritually in Christ in the fellowship of like-minded (Orthodox) peers, Hierarchs and clergy, and adult role models in the form of counselors and visiting volunteers. As a pan-Orthodox camp, Saint Andrew’s brings together children from different geographies, dioceses, jurisdictions and ethnicities. Lasting friendships are formed not only through spending time in religious education and worship together, but also in the simple things that are done as a community. This includes “General Environmental Care,” the cleaning of the community spaces in different teams on a daily basis, family-style meals in the dining hall, cookouts and bonfires. During some years, campers would also camp out in the woods – preparing a camp site, including the fire, in the week leading up to the Friday night camp-out. This, in fact, was one of my favorite memories from my days as a camper, since I loved preparing the campsite and subsequently sitting around the fire. (I would, however, get a horrible night of sleep giggling with the other girls in the tent and sleeping on the hard ground. But that’s camp for you!)
Activities and Sports
While maintaining an Orthodox ethos as the backdrop for everything done at camp, various other fun, exciting activities have provided fun for all. Historically and currently, these activities range from archery and horseback riding, to skits enacting scenes from the Bible, to nature and ecological studies, aerobics and calisthenics, soccer, volleyball, softball, relay races, arts and crafts, swimming in Lake Oneida and many more.
These days, my favorite moments at Saint Andrew’s Camp almost always involve a member of the clergy. Last summer, the campers and I had a great laugh seeing Fr Vasily Lickwar swing on the swing set in his cassock. It was similarly gratifying to see His Grace , Bishop Michael relax on the dock on Lake Oneida as he watched the children play in the water. In years past, Fr Ken Stavrevsky always made things interesting – from blessing the lake and a procession around the church with fruit on Transfiguration, to a country western dance with live music that he arranged. The clergy are exemplary role models for demonstrating to youth the reverence that we must show in Church, in prayer, but remind us that we can have ‘ordinary fun’ within the context of an Orthodox Christian ethos.
Orthodox summer camps build our youth and the future of our faith. They instill a foundation of worship and service all while building relationships with other Orthodox, which are lasting and lifelong. At Saint Andrew’s, the camp program reinforces what children learn in their home parishes, and teaches them things about Christ and the Church that they can bring home with them and share with others.
But camp is not only good for children, and that is what I’ve been learning and continue to experience as I participate in camp in my adult years. Saint Andrew’s Camp grows leaders of the Church to work with youth and parishes, provides an opportunity for clergy to minister in different ways, allows parents and other volunteers to become involved, prepares young adults to become parents, and creates an environment where everyone can learn from each other. While grown-ups offer their time, skills and patience in growing Orthodox youth, they learn just as much from the day-to-day experiences with campers, within group settings, and amid some trials and sundry daily struggles. Orthodox camping cultivates a love for our Lord in working with, learning from, and loving our neighbors – and this is what no other summer experience is able to provide, and has made my Saint Andrew’s Camp memories unparalleled.
by Ms. Kimberly Metz
When I became a camper at age 11 in 1995, it was the first time I found myself surrounded by other Orthodox children my age. At home, in beautiful Allentown, PA, I was the only Orthodox student in my class throughout my primary and secondary education. But at camp, things were different. Everyone had something in common with me. We all had a common background, a set of shared experiences that meant we no longer had to do any explaining about who we were or where we’d come from. As a child (and even as an adult), there is a comfort in knowing that the person next to you already knows how to respond to ‘Christ is Risen’, and doesn’t confuse our Lord’s Pascha with an Italian dish.
This solidarity fostered an instant bond from which friendships blossomed. And in fact, friendship is really too light of a word to describe what happened at camp. My fellow campers and counselors became instant cousins, aunts, uncles, and adoptive moms and dads. It was a giant family reunion every year. Summer after summer, we sang together at morning and evening prayers, spent time boating on the lake, ventured into the monastery woods to follow the Beatitude Trail, sat at the foot of a giant bonfire, gazed at the icons of the monastery church, and made daisy chains in the field. The religious education aspect of camp was also valuable, but in retrospect, the most important memories I have as a camper were the ones that involved spending time with my friends. I am still in touch with many of those people today.
At age 18, too old to be a camper, I volunteered my time as a counselor despite my parents’ warnings that nobody would hire me for the summer if I was away for a whole week in July for camp (not true!). During my years as a college student, I served as the camp lifeguard, ensuring the little ones’ safety in the pool.
It was during these college years that some of my camp friends began to lose interest in the church. I watched many of them dwindle away. Their parents and priests couldn’t or didn’t know how to inspire them to return, and with that, a large handful of youth from my generation were lost from Orthodoxy. They still are. I thank God every day that when I went through my own spiritual rough patch as a junior in college, it was Saint Tikhon’s Summer Camp and the good example of my fellow counselors – now lifelong friends – that swiftly brought me back to the faith.
When I was 21, the camp decided it could no longer accommodate the 14-17 age range, and thought about dropping them from the program altogether. Knowing that this could have precipitated the loss of even more youth from the church, my friends and I volunteered to develop and implement a specialized program so that the teens could continue to attend camp and grow in their faith in a way that made sense for them, separately from the younger campers. We offered workshops appropriate to their educational needs, organized competitions for prizes, and made sure they had plenty of free time to bond with each other. The program has been a great success. The rate of return for our teen campers is over 95%, and those who graduate typically continue to attend as counselors.
For six years, I co-directed the Teen Program, and it taught me a thing or two about leadership, organization, responsibility, and event planning. I was able to apply those lessons to my own life as I graduated from college, entered the workforce, and moved out on my own. Coordinating the Teen Program gave me the confidence I needed as a young independent woman.
Now, at age 27, I am one of the Camp Directors. And just last week, July 3-9, the camp entered its 40th Anniversary year with 115 campers and 53 counselors on board. It was my first year as a co-director along with Tatiana Bohush of Endicott, NY and Nicholas Macura of Pottstown, PA.
I can say without hesitation that directing summer camp was the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. The experience taught me more lessons than I can count in humility, patience, discipline, resilience, and trust. But as difficult as it was, I know we accomplished our goal because of the sea of smiling campers’ faces greeting us every day – at morning and evening prayers, in the pool, on the lake, at the bonfire, and making daisy chains on the field just as I had done so many years ago.
Over the past 16 years, I can say that because of camp, I have a network of Orthodox friends to rely on in good times and bad, wherever I may land. Because of camp, I’ve learned life skills and gained leadership experience I never would have had otherwise. And most importantly, because of camp, I am still an Orthodox Christian today. If camp could do all of that for me, it can certainly do it for you. Please make plans to attend an Orthodox summer camp next year and join the family that’s waiting for you.
by Subdeacon Luke Beecham
Ahh, Summer Camp! I’m writing this article as I’m about to head out to the Summer Camp that I direct this Saturday, and I’m already excited! In a few short days I will be with 100 youth and staff at what I consider to be heaven on earth. I was reminiscing with some of my camp staff recently about how long I’ve been involved in working with youth and camps, and I started counting. To my surprise, this will be my 12th year as the Camp Director at St. John’s Camp, my 15th year on camp staff, and my 21st straight year at camp. It also marks 15 years of working with youth groups both as a volunteer and as a paid youth director. A lot has happened during that time, and I’ve watched many people come and go in my life, in and out of church, and I have lived through good times and bad times, just like anyone else. Throughout much of the chaos and hard times, one specific anchor in my own life has been Summer Camp and youth group. Regardless of what else was going in my life I could always count on those things – fights with parents, troubles at school, relationships, friendships, falling in and out of love, church troubles, jobs, emotional crises – whatever it was, youth group and camp were always there.
Fr. Thomas Hopko said something at the 2004 Orthodox Camp Directors Conference that has stuck with me for years now. He said: “Camps are CRITICAL in the life of the Church; especially right now. You can do more with the kids in 5 days of camp than you can accomplish in an entire year of Church school.” I know this to be absolutely true. This is not to say that Church School is not important – it is very important. The two go hand-in-hand. I can honestly say that I would not have met my wife of 10 years, have had the opportunity to foster 3 kids for a time, nor would I likely be writing this article right now had I not gone to my first Church Camp 21 years ago. I did not grow up in Indiana, where I currently live, and would most likely be living a very different life, had the opportunity to travel 2 ½ hours to meet new people and learn about my faith at a Christian summer camp not been available. My very best friends and life-long companions, the incredible Friday night Bible study and men’s group that I’ve attended for 13 years, and 90% of the current staff for the camps that I direct are all there because of the relationships, faith, hope, and love that they found at camp, and in the reinforcement that they received in small groups and other events after camp was over. These things have changed my life forever, and they continue to do so, and I want the opportunity to share that with as many people as I can possibly reach in my lifetime. I can’t put into words how critical our camp programs are in the life of our youth.
Why camp? Why youth group? Why anything at all? It’s quite simple really – the youth are a vibrant part of the Church NOW – they are not the Church of the future, as many often innocently refer to them. If our parishes are to thrive, the youth must be involved and listened to. Our youth groups and camps, while they should serve to minister to the kids in our local parishes first, should also strive to be open to others as well. The last thing the world needs is more ingrown, guarded, unwelcoming, small youth groups and camp programs. When we focus only on “our” kids, or only “Orthodox” kids, we have missed the point of the scriptures entirely. All the world’s kids are OUR kids. Many folks wonder why our youth aren’t interested in their parishes and vanish after they leave for college…it’s quite simple really – the youth can smell “fake” a mile away. When we work hard to develop glitzy, “culturally relevant”, or base, triumphalistic Orthodox youth and camp programs, we will ultimately fail. Yes, we must teach the Faith, and yes, we are indeed Orthodox, but these cannot be the only elements focused on at our camps and youth programs.
Ministry of any kind always comes down to personal relationships. Unless the person running the camp or youth ministry cares deeply for the youth, and works hard to foster a real relationship with them, the youth know that this is nothing more than another trap, set to lure them in, and a cheap attempt to keep them around, with no regard to them as an individual and a unique being created in the image and after the likeness of God. What they desire more than anything else is a healthy relationship with an adult who cares for them as a person – not just the choices and mistakes they make, or whether or not they come to youth group or camp, or even whether or not they stay at the parish while in college, but for them, personally, in all of their adolescent craziness and young glory. Nothing else will do. If you question anyone today who is a Christian why they still believe in Christ and His Church, they will almost always, tell you that it was because SOMEONE took the time to get to know them and cared for them personally, and maintained that relationship with them. In other words, someone was Christ to them. In 15 years I’ve not yet heard someone say that they were changed just from the camp program or youth groups that I’ve directed – it was always because they had met a leader at camp or youth group who cared for them, and whose life they wanted to emulate. Our youth learn far more by what is “caught” than what is “taught.”
I’m a firm believer that patience and time are the two greatest warriors in any battle, and that includes the battle for our youth. Regular camps and youth group are an absolutely necessary part of that battle, and with patience, dedication, and a well-executed plan these programs give our camp staff and youth workers the time they need to develop relationships and foster growth in our youth. All of the youth are Christ’s beloved children and little sheep, and all of those that work with them are to some extent shepherds, under the One True Shepherd, and we are responsible for His sheep. I believe all of our camps must be inter-Orthodox, and above ALL other things, Christian first and foremost – open and welcoming to anyone who wants to attend, be they Orthodox or not. It would be a sad day if we ever found ourselves having turned out somber little Pharisees having no impact on their peers, distilled of all salt and light, and most likely leaving the church as soon as they hit college, or worse yet continuing on in some narrow minded, pietistic illusion of moral excellence. We need the youth and they need us. I have seen the fruit borne from camping programs first hand, and I am honored to be a part of the growth of so many of our youth. There is an unspeakable joy in seeing a camper come on day one to summer camp with all of their walls up and all of their reservations, and to watch that break down during the week, and ultimately see them leave a changed person. This can only be accomplished in a welcoming Christian camp, where youth and adults alike are loved, accepted, filled with joy, and get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God along with their brothers and sisters there with them. I could give you report after report after report of all the folks that have come to “investigate” our camps and leave in astonishment at what they have witnessed in their time with us. It is nothing short of miraculous seeing 75-100 youth and staff worshipping together, singing together, and being the Church, and witnessing lives changed forever.
Summer Camps are evangelism, they are discipleship, they are catechesis, they are community, and brothers and sisters, this is the Church – this is Orthodox Christianity at its heart, and I love it with all of mine, but our camps need you – they need your support and your prayers. The love and the passion for these programs from those of us who run them are not enough –this is the work of the Church together as one, as well as the ministry of those who put their hearts and lives into it. It is the willingness of you and I to use our own unique gifts and talents to the glory of God to, as our mission statement reads, reach young people, connect them with other believers, and help them to grow in the Orthodox Christian faith, so that they might discover the depth of God’s Love, the gifts He has given them, and honor Him with their whole lives.
Through the prayers of the Theotokos and all the saints, may God continue to watch over and protect all those who work at, volunteer at, have the courage to attend, and to grow Summer Camps all over North America this summer and always, and give us all a glimpse of the heavenly Kingdom through them. Happy Camping!
William Kopcha is a graduate student at the University of Connecticut in Chemistry and Materials Science. He grew up in Connecticut and Vermont. He attends Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Willimantic, Connecticut. He is an active member and former president of the University of Connecticut Orthodox Christian Fellowship. He is a frequent contributor to this blog.
Tatiana grew up in central New Jersey in the Diocese of New York and New Jersey. She attended Boston College where she met her husband, Jeff. They were married in October 2008 at Sts. Peter and Paul in South River, NJ. Tatiana currently works as a consultant in the Human Capital practice at Deloitte and is working toward her masters in Organizational Psychology at Columbia University on a part-time basis. In addition to her work with Saint Andrew’s Camp, she is on the board of directors of Project Lipstick, a non-profit based in New York City dedicated to helping women in shelters.
Kimberly Metz is a parishioner at Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Bethlehem, PA. A member of the Office of Young Adult Activities of the Diocese of Eastern PA, Kimberly is committed to guiding upcoming generations of youth by organizing church-related events and activities tailored to meet their educational needs. More information about Saint Tikhon’s Summer Camp is available at www.sttikhonscamp.org.
Luke Beecham is the Director of the Department of Youth, Young Adult, and Campus Ministries of the Orthodox Church in America. He runs St. John Camp in Indiana. He is a member and subdeacon at Stephen the First Martyr Church in Crawfordsville, IN. He has been married to his wife, Janna, for nine years.