Our first week of teen camp was for youth ages 15-20+, which turned out to be a much smaller group than usual, with only 62 campers and a team of 34 staff. The atmosphere was unique, with a large number of returning campers. Some were faithful youth leaders who have been growing up in the bastion church communities, others came with a history of faithful floating in and out of the youth ministries, others included some of our favorite ‘park guys’ who have come to camp for years on end, and only a few handfuls were first-timers with varying experiences of faith and Jesus.
On the Thursday evening, while the entire camp was crouched around the bonfire, I wandered away to talk in the quiet with a camper with whom I have developed a closer friendship over the last few years. Listening to her share her feelings that night, I was delighted to hear evidences that God was convicting her about some bad choices that she was making, as a child of His, and challenging her about her lifestyle. One part of our conversation that evening struck me, and I confess that I couldn’t stop reflecting on it throughout the rest of the winter holiday months, as people came and went from camp. And it was simply this. She shared with me a cell-phone text message she had received from her boyfriend, Jorge, a 25 year old campamento alumnus from years past, but who now had out-grown the requisites for camp attendance, and he wrote to her this: “enjoy camp, say hi to God for me.”
I thought long and hard about Jorge’s words that night, and I continue to ponder them. Like hundreds of others, Jorge had experienced God at camp. And though it was perhaps 4-6 years into the past, he had not forgotten.
But Jorge was so wrong; God is not ONLY at camp. He can’t really believe that, can he? So why is that his perception? My mind streamed with thoughts that evening. And what is it about camp anyway? Why does God so unmistakably show up there? Why does He choose camp to speak so clearly, to reveal His heart and touch lives so deeply? What is it about camp?
“Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and His love is made complete in us.” 1 John 4:11-12
We interviewed a few campers that week, asked them why camp was significant; I was especially curious as to their responses. Some youth, like Diego for example, were challenged and changed by their experience of Jesus during the week at camp, broken and humbled by His unconditional forgiveness and love for them, and able to understand the eternal significance of what they experienced. “The truth is that before coming to camp, I felt a heavy weight of guilt…but on Wednesday this week, I realized that with Jesus and by His side, everything is possible and with Him everything will be ok. The Lord put words in the speakers mouth that hit home, in the lives of my friends and in my life too, and on Wednesday all my past life died, and I was born with a new life in Christ.” – Diego
Others, expectedly, came and went from camp (seemingly the same way that they came) and we are left to keep wondering about the work of God in their lives. One special case, Galo, a favourite block 6 park representative (of Jorge’s vintage), came this year for his 7th camp experience, having only missed two years since he first attended in 2001. “I love it, I come every year and I just know that for one week
What is it about camp?
In the weeks that followed, I was amazed to watch hearts softened and filled with hope. During junior high camp, with 107 wildly energetic teens, and 53 staff-team members, the changes in demeanour and attitude among the volunteer staff had God’s fingerprints all over them. Somehow youth who would normally crawl out of bed begrudgingly at 9am at home, were setting up the chairs for staff devotions at 6:15am –albeit with serious bed-head - but with a smile. Others, who typically would not stoop so low as to clean their own toilet, scurried off with a song to disinfect the washrooms of 160. One maintenance crew volunteer, (Armando will eat me alive when he finds out I’ve named him in this article) after being stuck meal after meal washing the gigantic rice pots, was filled with even more enthusiasm and joy when somebody passed him the microphone and invited him to help lead the evening worship sessions.
Something was being poured into these youth, something that was moving them, motivating them and transforming them. What is it about camp?
“And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out His love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom He has given us.” Rom 5:5
Again this year we were blessed to be able to offer a week of camp to the children of the surrounding communities of Arenal and Playas, as well as bring 120 kids on the bus from Bastion for a full five days of fun. These two weeks of kids camp reflected more of the same; counsellors alongside campers, like big-brothers and big-sisters, eating, sleeping, singing, dancing, reading, praying, playing…for five 24 –hour days, non-stop. And lives were changed. One counsellor commented that his camper, Kevin, formally a distant rebellious pre-adolescent from the streets of block 10, had been transformed into a compliant, friendly even affectionate kid in the context of camp. Another boy, Jorge, a favorite student of mine from Hope of Bastion school, added to his craft the words “I love you God”…his own expression, and fruit, at least in part, of his experience that week. Perhaps because he watched the enthusiasm of his counsellors as they washed the breakfast dishes together, or as they jumped without tiring during yet another crazy song. Or perhaps he was inspired by the hug he received after he scored a goal for his team, or by the prayers of his junior counsellor as he observed quietly (uninvited) near the circle of staff devos early one morning.
THAT is what it is, about camp. Can you put your finger on it?
It’s why first time campers stifle back the tears when the buses load on the last day, and why the first words out of the arenal kids mouths now when I see them are “is there going to be camp next year?!?” It’s why the Galos choose our smoke/substance –free beachfront for their one week of winter holiday, and its why the Jorges believe there is a God. It’s why the Diegos now live with freedom, trusting in Christ’s forgiveness, and why the Armandos and other tired and bruised youth leaders continue to march-on with courage in their congregations.
It’s profound and SO significant. And God pours it out from on high as we love one another in close-knit community, in play, in feasting, and resting, and as we worship together. God “has set eternity in the hearts of men” (Eccl. 3:11), and He is unmistakably manifest when we share life together, loving one another and serving one another as His body - each part especially equipped and designed - for the sole purpose of worship, giving to Him the glory that is His.
Camp is a Kingdom combination that was God’s idea from the beginning, and it only leaves us wanting more. A tease, if you will. A taste of what we were created for. A glimpse of glory that is equal perhaps to no other experience in our daily, weekly and yearly routines. Hope of another world to which we belong, where we will enjoy a perfect relationship with our Creator and perfect relationship with one another.
Heaven on earth. I am convinced that that is the magic of what happens at camp.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matt 6: 10
To God be the Glory, and may that same Hope of Eternity infest our church communities all over the globe.