Why I never graduated from church camp
Last weekend, about 60 of our church members made a weekend getaway to Tower Hill, a UCC camp facility in Michigan. After living in the Chicago area for two years, I finally got to see the dunes on Lake Michigan. Why did I wait two years?
People had told me about the "beaches" out here, but to be frank, coming from the East Coast, I was highly skeptical. How can you have a beach without an ocean? Yet last weekend, walking in that soft sand and watching a sunset of exotic pinks and grays, I became a believer. All this beauty without salt water or the smell of fish. Call me a convert and mark July 9 as my conversion date, when I was struck down on the road to Tower Hill.
Later this summer, I will visit another church family camp, on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire. We have attended the Northern New England School of Religious Education for six years. The campers, once drawn mostly from UCC congregations in New England, now make the pilgrimage to UCC-related Geneva Point Center from all over the country.
What is it about staying in rustic cabins with showers of varying dependability that draws us? What is it that makes normally discriminating adults eat cold grilled cheese sandwiches in hot dining halls at chipped Formica tables stained with that mysterious camp beverage, "bug juice?" Why is it so much fun to journey for hours in a cramped van with church members you see every week to go stay in a tent and roast marshmallows together? I don't know why we do it, but every year I'm along for the ride, as people are from so many of our churches, venturing out with bug spray, sandals and perhaps some Pepto Bismol.
These church camps are treasures. Even as they may fall victim to deferred maintenance and financial woes, they remain holy places. While the old cabins may not meet the standards that most Americans would expect on a vacation, church people know that they've been patched up with love, the bunk beds blanketed in the conversations of children who from generation to generation have refused to go to bed in a natural setting that allows the stars to shine so brightly.
My own children continue the tradition, having been nurtured in their faith amidst the 'Smore fires of the UCC's Silver Lake in Connecticut, and now UCC-related Pilgrim Park in Illinois. As I write, I can imagine that somewhere a child is preparing to attend a church camp for the very first time, packing up her fl ash light and Bible; wondering if she will be homesick, make a new best friend, or both.
I imagine an adult driving down a dirt road to the September committee retreat at a Conference camp, wondering if getting away from the church building and into nature will allow God's creativity to infuse the congregation. Both of these characters are journeying, as others have before them, to a place that may appear modest, but where souls have been shaped.
Our Christian forebears started these camps for the spiritual formation of God's people. Now we are stewards of this gift, even as we receive.
So, if you can name one of those holy places of your own, say a prayer of blessing for the trees, the picnic tables, the swimming holes and the ropes courses, that somehow God continues to use for shaping our people. Personally, I give thanks that it was at one of these holy places that I finally got to see those Michigan dunes, and a sunset that reminded me that, even as an adult, I still have a lot to learn at church camp.
The Rev. Lillian Daniel is senior minister of First Congregational UCC in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and author of "Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony" (Alban Institute, 2006).