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Fast forward one year and we find a girl that looked remarkably similar, but had been replaced by someone who dressed like a teenager, who talked like a teenager, who acted like a teenager.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.