Changing lives

Early in our marriage, we spent two summers as managers and cooks at Camp Mimanagish, the summer camp of the Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ. The camp is in an isolated location deep in the Boulder Valley in south central Montana. When we were managers it was more than 20 miles on rough, rocky roads to get to the nearest telephone. We had a modern shower house, but none of the cabins had bathrooms and there were two areas of camp that still had pit toilets. Our time as managers and cooks were the last two summers with an old “temporary” dining hall that had been constructed in the 1930’s out of sawmill offcuts. You could see daylight through the walls and the floors had gaps like an outdoor deck. It was remote, primitive camping at its best. We could provide campers with a true wilderness experience. Because of the remote location, we had a nurse on staff at all times and had equipment to stabilize and transport in the case that a camper would become ill or injured. Fortunately, in our time, we did not have any major illnesses or injuries.

I had grown up at the camp, having spent part of every summer of my life there. My mother was camp nurse the summer I was born and our whole family was at camp for a week when I was around two months old. We went back every summer. I have many lifelong friendships that began at camp, including my marriage. We met at camp. A popular slogan over the years has been “Church Camp Changes Lives.” It is certainly true for me.

I remember a lot of the campers from our years as managers. John was easy to remember because of his wild curly red hair. He had a personality to match. He was enthusiastic about almost everything. He was especially enthusiastic about songs and skits. Unlike some of the campers with whom we’ve lost contact, we have run into John from time to time over the years. He attended the same college as us, though he showed up after we had graduated. His wife became a UCC minister and he shows up, from time to time, at UCC functions and events, usually with his guitar and a song to match his red hair.

John has been very active at N-Sid-Sen Camp and Retreat Center, operated by the Pacific Northwest Conference. It is one of two camp facilities that are a part of that conference. Pilgrim Firs, located in the lush temperate rainforest of the Olympic peninsula, is closest to Seattle. N-Sid-Sen is located on the shores of Lake Coeur D;Alene in North Idaho. In addition to providing leadership for camps, John is the designer of the camp web site.

Like all Conferences with camps, he Washington-North Idaho Conference has been challenged by the novel coronavirus pandemic. All of the the in-person summer camps had to be cancelled for the 2020 season. The lack of income from the camps threatened the ability of the conference to continue to operate them. An emergency fund-raising campaign has produced $182,000 towards the $200,000 goal to help keep the camps afloat. N-Sid-Sen is making individual cabins available for family clusters on a limited basis. Pilgrim Firs is operating as an emergency shelter for families displaced by virus-related closures and layoffs. The conference is working hard to keep its camps serving the community.

Last week we tuned in for Camp Sunday with First Congregational United Church of Christ in Bellingham. Part of the service were video clips from “Camp No Camp” a summer video program reaching out to those who would have attended camp in person. The videos provide a reminder of camp programs and the comments section provides opportunities for campers to connect with one another. There in the midst of several of the videos was John, the camper from the days long ago, with his guitar and with the red hair that makes him so easy to identify.

I wrote a comment about the memories of John stirred by seeing him being a camp leader and received a reply from him expressing gratitude for having been a part of his life and the formation of his dedication to camp programs.

One of the joys of this phase of my life is that I have a little time to reflect on the past. I’ve gotten to know a lot of young people through my participation in a variety of church camps: Mimanagish, Pilgrim Park, Pilgrim Cove, Camp Adams, Placerville and others. I’ve watched young people as they experiment in a safe environment with what kind of adults they want to become. I’ve witnessed profound discoveries of faith and powerful experiences of the closeness of God. I’ve watched community form quickly and last for a lifetime. Through all of the years there have been a lot of young people who grew up and became adults and leaders in their communities and in their churches.

Sometimes I feel like it all has gone by so quickly that it will soon be forgotten. I wonder if I have made any impact at all. There are a lot of people who met me and knew me for a week and then went on with the rest of their lives.

Then I run into someone like John, who is clearly continuing the camp tradition, singing the camp songs and touching the lives of others in meaningful ways four decades after we spend a week together at camp. And I’m not the only one who remembers that week. It reminds me that camp changes lives. All of those dishes washed, firewood split, bathrooms scrubbed, repairs made, groceries hauled, meals prepared, campfires tended, chapel services planned, programs imagined, and youth supervised seem to be worth it.

We never know what a difference we have made in another’s life. The power of community, however, continues to be critical to so many. Changing lives continues to be a camp tradition in changing times.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!