Friday, August 14, 2015

Thoughts from Camp: A Religious Experience

I spent last week serving at Royal Family Kids Camp, a camp expressly for kids in the foster care system. My last post shared a few of my initial reactions after my week, but I've continued to reflect on the experiences of the week, and now a whole week has passed since returning home from my six days at camp. I think I'm ready to share this now...

I am still processing the experience. On Monday of last week when I returned to the office, several people asked me, "Did you have a good week at camp?" That was a challenging question to answer, honestly. There were times of fun and great joy, for sure. There were also moments where I felt real sorrow, and even anger. Honestly, it's hard to encapsulate what I feel about it, because it's all so mixed up. It was an emotional blender of a week.

Each member of the camp staff and each camper wears a name tag all week, and mine said "Dave - Music," indicating that part of my role. I was a member of the music/chapel/drama team. My wife--one of our team leaders--later said that my name tag should have read "Dave - Director of Silliness." I'll just let a couple of pictures illustrate why she might have said that...

Western Night. ("Am I doing it right?")

Teachers aren't supposed to play favorites, of course. But this is (honestly)
one of my favorite former students. I was glad I recruited her for our team.
After emceeing the talent show our campers put on...

We had a color run. Yep. A rainbow afro seems like the right thing to do, right?

And we were silly, our team. We had a lot of fun preparing for camp, and we had an awful lot of fun working together the week of camp. We put on the "Breakfast Club" for the campers for an hour every morning after breakfast so their counselors could have a break and a little downtime. We did whole-body warm-ups, put on puppet shows, taught the kids to juggle with scarves, made slime, sang crazy songs, and generally got them moving and active. We also led chapel each day--singing, skits, Bible lessons--and enjoyed our time together.

This pic might give just a glimmer of the crazy fun we had as we collaborated...

Our amazing music/drama/chapel team. Keeping it silly...

But amidst all that fun, we had hard times too. We weren't exactly heckled by the campers, but...some of them were unimpressed by our efforts. There was one day that our puppet show seemed to fall flat during breakfast club, and it seemed like nothing we were doing was connecting with the kids; they seemed distracted, restless, and disconnected from what we were aiming to do.

Sometimes our chapel skits just didn't work. Sometimes the kids talked to their counselors right through the Bible lesson. Sometimes it felt like all of our planning and preparation was for nothing.

And it wasn't just our team. I can't imagine how the counselors got through the week. They spend 22 hours a day with the campers in a 1-on-1 relationship. If I had moments of joy and sorrow, elation and exhaustion, I can only imagine how they felt! And the rest of the staff had their ups and downs too. One afternoon, I passed a fellow staffer in the hall who muttered under her breath to me, "I could really use a beer..."

Camp was a blender of emotions.


One of the best things about camp is the mail system. Our camp director got a HUGE amount of stationary, pens, stickers, and markers, and encouraged us to write cards and notes to each other and to the campers. We joked that there was no way we could use up that pile of stationary; and while I'm sure there was a bit left over at the end of camp, we definitely put a dent into her stock of materials.

Those cards were buoying in the tough times. A message from the camp director came at just the right moment. A card from one of my students, an Education major whom I had recruited, expressing his gratitude that I had encouraged him to serve came at just the right moment. A note from the camp pastor thanking me for being silly and joyful and spending time with the kids and "planting seeds" came at just the right moment.

That one stopped me: planting seeds.

Our camp pastor was right.

We were about the business of planting seeds.

We were not called to be successful.

We were called to be faithful in our work.

And what was our work? To be present. To give. To love.


As I've been reflecting this week on my experiences, I keep having a particular verse of scripture pop into my mind. James 1:27 says,

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

I'm thinking about "pure and faultless" religion. So often it seems like we think religion is the set of rules and laws and norms and traditions that we have to follow to somehow make us righteous. But what if all the rules get in the way of relationships? Because that's what it seems like James is getting at here: taking care of people is the heart of "pure and faultless" religion. The kids we served at camp were in that "orphans and widows" category, in my mind at least.

I think my camp experience was a profoundly religious experience.

My week at camp sums up what I think it means to follow Jesus: there is joy, there is sorrow. Being present with people and hurting for their hurts. Showing love with no expectation of being loved in return...but rejoicing when you see that smile and spark in someone else's eye.


On the Wednesday night of my week at camp, if you had asked me if I would come back next year, I think my honest answer at that moment would have been, "Nope!" It was hard. It was exhausting. I was feeling overwhelmed and a little frustrated.

But to have the chance to work with this team again?

No shortage of drama from the drama team...
Yep. It's a great team.

And even better? The chance to meet up with some amazing kids with way more heart than I could have imagined. Oh, don't get me wrong: many had tough shells around their hearts. But it was amazing how many of those shells were showing cracks by the end of the week.

Maybe even enough of a crack to let a little seed in and start to take root?

That time we thought the kids weren't listening to the puppet show? Get this...later that afternoon, a group of kids who had looked like they weren't even paying attention were basically recreating the story to show their counselors.

Maybe a seed was planted, even when we thought they weren't paying attention.

In the end, my prayer becomes this: that I might listen for His call, that I might follow where He is leading, and that I might love as He loves.