In my family, working at church camp in the summer meant falling in love with the outdoors – and inevitably another counselor.
I still remember my total crush on Brian Masters. He was on permanent staff. I was a CIT (code for counselor-in-training). The Alabama Gulf Coast was hot, and I’ll be blunt: he was too.
In the scorching midday sun, he would take off his shirt to ride the lawn mower at Camp Beckwith in Fairhope, Ala. After evening prayer one night, he gave me an innocent, fully-clothed shoulder rub after playing the guitar to accompany “Noah’s Arky Arky.”
I thought we’d make the perfect couple as we could sing every word to every verse – in harmony. (In those days, I actually liked the songs “One Tin Soldier” and “It Only Takes a Spark.”)
What can I say? As a teenager, I felt closer to God, God's creation, and God's people – surrounded by Christians in this natural community on the shores of Weeks Bay. (I wanted to get closer to Brian, but that never happened).
Church camp was in my blood, with an Episcopalian lineage that began when my grandfather helped to build and then direct Camp Bratton-Green in Mississippi. Every summer of her childhood, my mother was a camp brat, the outdoorsy, lanyard-loving equivalent of an army brat.
As a 16-year old, she met my father when he drove his family’s car from Hattiesburg, Miss., to pick up his sister Marcia from camp in Canton, Miss. And decades later, two of my siblings met their spouses at camp.
But let’s be clear: church camp in my family was more than an easy way to find a summer fling from the same denomination. While none of my crushes lasted beyond the summer, I gained a more enduring life-long commitment to God’s earth. Summer camp integrated me into a Christian community that sought to reconcile humans with creation.
This summer, as counselors rise and shine and give God the glory, it’s important for people of faith to support and expand the critical role of religious camps:
Use land owned by camp and conference centers to engage youth in the outdoors.
Making lanyards may be a quintessential camp activity, but religious institutions have a more powerful opportunity to use their land to create meaningful connections to the outdoors, in an age where many youth suffer from what Richard Louv calls “nature deficit disorder.” Camps and conference centers in natural settings offer space for experiential education to connect youth to ecological resources in a spiritual home.
Ensure that facilities decrease carbon emissions and reflect caring for creation.
Educational facilities that reflect sustainable design pay off as teaching tools and magnets for funding. At Kanuga Camp and Conference Center in North Carolina, environmental education staff complained to the director Stan Hubbard that the buildings were energy hogs disconnected from the environmental programming. These discussions ultimately led to the installation of a solar hot-water heating system, made possible by a power purchase agreement with a local solar energy company. As a result, Kanuga will now save a projected $700,000 over the 30-year life of the project.
Set a long-term vision for sustainability of natural resources and the Church.
With decreasing financial contributions and membership, many religious institutions, including my own diocese in western North Carolina, have considered the sale of land parcels as one strategy to sustain the institution. In Pennsylvania, four Jewish summer camps have signed leases to allow fracking, the controversial and often dangerous method of extracting natural gas. The camps received $400,000 just for signing the lease. Despite these financial gains, we must maintain a long-term vision of our resources that will attract and retain the very youth who may see “organized religion” as irrelevant to their lives.
Through our land, we can connect young people with natural and human communities, engaging them in the realities they will have to confront such as addressing climate change and creating sustainable communities. Then as adults, these same youth might remember that the church has something to teach their children about living in community and loving God’s earth.
That sounds like a love for a lifetime, not just a summer.
Mallory McDuff, Ph.D. teaches environmental education at Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Sacred Acts: How Churches are Working to Protect Earth’s Climate (NSP, 2012) and Natural Saints (OUP, 2010).