By Norman Thombs, staff 32 years, Director 27 years at the United Methodist Church Camp of Maine- Camp Mechuwana.
Many of us have followed what has been happening in Missouri and their United Methodist camps. I have read almost every post, including the plans for a new program. I write this in support of the people from Missouri who understand the importance of “place,” who understand the gift that was given to them in the form of “sacred ground,” and the power within that gift to transform lives.
First things first: I find it almost insulting that people would suggest that people in outdoor and retreat ministries fail to acknowledge that “Christ can be found anywhere,” that places other than camps can hold meaningful , life-changing programs. We all know this to be true, and in fact we live that. After all we are the people who can create a worship space in a tent on a cold rainy day or hold a Bible study in a van full of youth on their way to a ball game. We know that you can lease a college campus or rent a convention center and have a life-changing event. When we say camp is “sacred ground,” it does not imply that Christ is only found there, but what we are saying is “place” is important and should not be over looked.
For 32 years I have asked and listened to people explain or try to explain why camp the “place” is so important. For many this sense of holy ground is hard to put into words; it is a unique connection with earth, spirit, and soul that is ancient on one hand and transforming our future on the other.
For thousands of people, our camps represent a place where people who loved them, even though they did not know them, came before and created a “place.” We acknowledge that they loved us so much they were willing to sacrifice and come together as the body of Christ to purchase and create a space for us—a space we call camp. That space for them was sacred and they passed it down generation by generation until it rests today in our hands. When we walk the grounds we feel their presence and are connected to those who have made our camp possible. But we also feel connected to each other as we strive to take care of this tremendous gift knowing that it can only be done so if we do it collectively.
It is ironic to hear the stories across the Annual Conferences as to why these camps were purchased in the first place. They were tired of leasing others people’s properties. They felt the need to get off college campuses and into a more rustic natural setting. They wanted to create a place where people would take ownership. They wanted a place where people would feel at home. They knew that a place held collectively, cared for collectively, by individuals and congregations would only make our denomination stronger. Ironic because in some Annual Conferences you now hear, in regards to camping, we can lease property for a week, or use a college, so do we really need to be in the wilderness? If we don’t own it then we don’t need to take care of it.
Many people tell me as soon as they drive down the camp road they feel different. Memories come flooding back. Many times those memories are of volunteering, working on a project, raising funds for a new building, and of course the people they have met. And for thousands it was the place they first heard the calling to follow God or were able to make a personal connection to God. The “place” sets it apart from other spaces, because its creation, its upkeep, its reason for existence, is to create a space for people to be able to discover God over and over again.
Over the years I have witnessed very young campers coming to camp for the first time. They understand instinctively that this place is different. Even campers who families have never set foot in a door of a church are connected. How many times have we heard “it was like I was home” or “ this was the first place I could be myself”? Sometimes we underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit. And sometimes we underestimate the power of the love and the insight of those who made or camps possible.
Camping people are about creating opportunities for spiritual growth. “Place” plays a vital role in how we can create those opportunities. If one has a deep connection to “place” then they feel more comfortable letting go to experience God’s love in a more profound way. How many times do we hear “I feel closer to God at camp than anywhere on earth”? I believe the emotional, personal experiences felt by so many at camp happens in part because thousands of people have created a “place” for each of us to experience God’s love and acceptance. The fact that that our sites are owned by us, taken care of by us, loved by us, and hold our collective memories, make “place” important. These facts are unique to our sites and I believe cannot be replicated on college campuses or convention centers. I am not saying you can’t have a wonderful profound experience, but I am saying it is different and that “place” matters.
There is something to be said about calling a place “home.” The word “home” conjures up a lot of images and emotions: safety, feeling comfortable, feelings of ownership, being cared for—all wonderful things. For some, however, images of home are not so wonderful. For a large number of campers I am afraid that is their reality. It is with those campers young and old that “place” becomes even more important and for many, our camps have become the place where they have experienced love of others for the first time. For them, driving down the dirt road, seeing the same trees, sitting in outdoor chapels, finding their name on a wall, walking the same paths and dozens more examples take on a different meaning. I was once told by a now-grown woman as we walked along our waterfront trail, “You don’t know how much these trees meant to me when I was 12. Those trees are the first ones I told my story about my family to. When they did not run away I decided to tell my counselor. Took me three years of walking under these trees before I could tell them.” How much did “place” mean to her? How much does it mean to countless others?
Is “place” still important today? I would argue that in a society that is based on sound bites, and technology that increasingly isolates us into our own little world, we need sacred place more than ever. I find young people today cherish their time away from the stress of life as much or more than previous generations. They are attracted to the camp community and its acceptance but they also want ownership. They want to make a difference. Our congregations should be using our sites and programs to tap into that desire.
How do we tell the next generation we are not passing down the gift of these sites to them? As I stated before, these sites of unbelievable natural beauty were given to us and passed down through the generations to our hands. Are they also not the gift to the generations after us? The new generation will, I believe if given the chance, accept the gift that was passed down to us. They will be ready to take on the challenges because this generation of youth understands these sites can change the world—something they believe they were called to do. I believe if we do not allow them this opportunity they will simply go somewhere else, and the somewhere else will be increasingly not to our churches.
I understand that we live in complicated times and face complicated issues. I also understand that the only way our sites survive as UMC sites in the long run is if they are supported collectively. If we cannot do it collectively, then sites will be closed. But I would hope that if that is the reality, then it would be done so in a way that honored and gave voice to those who gave so much to create a space for people to experience God’s love.