I witness God in community, specifically in connections and relationships. I serve as the Director of Camp and Youth Ministry at Procter Camp and Conference Center, and so, have the lucky job of spending my summers at camp, managing staff, welcoming campers, and facilitating the program.
Procter Summer camp offers programs for 3-12 graders, and inter-generational Family Camps. However, I believe the most important week of the summer is staff training. This summer we trained on the basics, of course: water safety, music leadership, cabin management and child development, for starters. We also held workshops addressing power dynamics, relationships, diversity, gender and privilege. People from all backgrounds show up at summer camp. We as a camp staff have to be prepared to welcome them, and be their advocates in the community. As camp counselors and leadership staff, we also have to recognize our own power and privilege, both to be safe leaders at camp, and to successfully live together for nine weeks in intentional community.
Procter Summer Camp is a place apart from daily life, an intentional Christian community. We sing songs, play goofy games, go canoeing, create arts and crafts, and bid the day good night around a campfire. As an Episcopalian program we also joyfully celebrate Eucharist daily and have morning formation workshops where campers explore the summer’s theme and stories guided by a visiting Chaplain.
Procter, and Episcopal camps in general, is a place we can practice being Christians in a space where that is encouraged and supported.
Our church services at camp are loud, interactive and camper led. One evening at Eucharist a camper volunteered to read the Gospel. This camper walks slowly, some difficulty, and has a speech impediment. That evening we were gathering outdoors, on a place called “the slab,” a concrete pad with a basketball court on top of a sloping grade, with a fabulous view of the camp lake and the farmland beyond. While the camper moved to the front of the group I relaxed, took some deep breaths, somewhat curious about what was going to happen next, and observed the beautiful sunset already being painted in the sky above us. They read from Matthew, about whoever welcomes the stranger welcome Jesus. The group of fifty middle schoolers grew completely, reverently silent (a rare event, if you know middle schoolers!), each one listening intently. I couldn’t register every word, but the respect and love the group showed to the camper was palpable; and when they were finished the group bellowed “thanks be to God!” as a tear rolled down my cheek.
Parents email every year thanking the staff; that the program is life-giving or life changing for their child, as it should be. Every year there are campers who fear the last day of a session, because camp is their safe space when adolescence is hard, life at home is unsafe, or school is unwelcoming. Procter has a generous campership fund and we try intentionally to invite campers from all walks of life. For some, the abundance of food in our dining hall is a shock. There are campers from a multitude of family constellations, socio economic strata, campers with varying gender identities and orientations, campers who are adopted, campers who are immigrants, and for whom English is a second or third language. This is the Kingdom of God on Earth. And, as the summer ends I wonder who might their allies be as the school year starts? Who might their parents’ allies be?
Work and school and life aren’t, and can’t be, like summer camp, but camp is a place we can practice what the world would look like if we approached daily life with intention.
To be allies, and radically supportive community, we have to show up when we might rather not. We have to work to learn about privilege, and acknowledge how we might have benefited from the oppression of others.
To be allies, we have to get out of our comfort zones, and disrupt customs based in politeness. This might look like defending someone from a bully at school, or inviting someone to join your group project who you don’t know very well. This might look like not letting a racist or sexist comment slide, regardless of the setting, respecting preferred pronouns, or engaging a homeless person with care and dignity.
Being a true ally isn’t easy, it should be challenging every day. White Americans are conditioned to be polite, to “fit in,” to not ruffle feathers. But if we are called to follow Jesus, to be Christians in our own neighborhoods, we have to protest, persist, and shine a light to show others the way.
Andrea Foote is a camp professional, a wife, sister and friend. She enjoys black coffee, being outside, playing rugby, and practicing yoga.