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!