I Was a Christian Camp Dropout

Jun 16, 2012

Monday I will send my youngest off to good ol’ Camp Roger for a week. Camp Roger is your classic Christian sleepover camp: cabins with Indian names, capture-the-flag, a waterfront with a slimy dock, lanyards, archery, devotions at night, “Kum Ba Yah” around the campfire—the whole bit. My son went last year and surprised himself by having a great time. He even reported that the devotional times were very good, which of course pleased his parents, who pay the fees and expect at least a little spiritual payoff.

Camp Roger is a well-run camp with terrific staff. Some families around here have sent their youngsters to Camp Roger for generations. My husband went there as a kid and later was a counselor, and I’m pleased to report that two out of three of my kids have had great experiences there. But apparently, camp is not for everybody. My second child did not like it. He didn’t like the dirt, or the “forced fun,” or the fact that he gouged his leg on a bunk bed and then got sick on the last day.

I was another case, I’m afraid, of camper failure. The summer after fourth grade, I went to Camp Geneva in Holland, Michigan—another very nice Christian camp—and hated it. I was among the youngest kids at the session, and I felt out of place. I wasn’t a great swimmer, I had never shot a bow or paddled a canoe, and lights-out readings of The Giving Tree didn’t impress me even at the innocent age of almost-ten. Meanwhile, it seemed as if everyone else had inherited camp-related skills from their ancestors—which they probably had. The whole week was an exercise in bewilderment. I was not interested in going back.

Then I discovered music camp. Now that was a different story. There was no time for silly, time-passing crafts in the leafy shade. We had work to do, music to learn. We were always marching off, instruments in hand, to sectionals or lessons or rehearsals. We still slept in cabins and swatted mosquitoes and washed stubborn, powdery dirt out of our socks in the sink, but there was very little leisure for pondering the wonders of creation. We had tricky passages to practice and chair challenges to worry about.

And I loved it. I loved the intensity, I adored the music, I marveled that there were kids like me from all over the state who were pouring themselves into music even at a young age. It’s true that we were awakened at an inhumanely early hour every morning by a student trumpet player who bleated pathetically through reveille—and that was twenty minutes after the manic crows commenced their obnoxious sunrise cawing right outside the cabin windows. It’s also true that the food was terrible and we had to wear truly awful uniforms—navy skirts and yellow socks. But what was all that compared to playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture or Faure’s Pavane or Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances?

Because of the ample compensations of music camp, I never regretted missing out on that key ingredient of middle-class evangelical kid-hood, Christian summer camp. But the summer before my senior year in high school, someone did talk me into going to the Young Calvinist Convention in Guelph, Ontario. That’s right, in those days, when youth groups from the Christian Reformed churches in the U.S. and Canada got together, the event was actually called the Young Calvinist Convention. I regretted going almost as soon as I boarded the bus. I couldn’t stand the constant enthusiasm from the leaders or the constant hugging from the other young Calvinists. I went to one good workshop on prayer, led by an older woman who offered some solid advice about prayer disciplines that I still use. The rest felt like spiritual pabulum and a total waste of time.

The day we got home, I turned right around and packed up for music camp, which began the next day. What a relief! No more awkward attempts to “bond” through “sharing.” Instead, bring on the auditions, the rehearsals, the practicing. Bring on the Bach. Bring on the stupid crows even.

I wonder now if I would have enjoyed regular camp under better circumstances, or whether I was just unsuited for it by temperament. Maybe from a tender age, I was surly and cynical and resistant to the programmed emotional contours of Christian camps and youth gatherings. I am still much more interested in completing tasks than in goofing off and sharing feelings, and at church I prefer the food pantry to the koffee klatsch or the Bible study. I realize these are indications of my shortcomings more than anything else.

Somewhere in all this there could be a critique of evangelical techniques for creating “meaningful spiritual experiences” for kids. But I wouldn’t really mean it. There is definitely a lot of patronizing and manipulative youth stuff out there, but good spiritual formation happens, too. So the energetic young counselors at Camp Roger should definitely go right ahead with their lights-out talks about seeking God’s purpose for your life and they should go right on singing “Shout to the Lord” around the campfire. Good for them, and good for all the kids—including my own—who are growing closer to God and building fond memories to feel nostalgic about later.

Meanwhile, the camp that meant so much to me—the two-week All-State program at Interlochen Fine Arts Camp—no longer exists. That was a tradition I would have liked to pass down to the next generation of my family. Alas. So here’s to the memory of those exuberant days. My nostalgia is more about Copland than capture-the-flag, but that suits me fine.

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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