Church Camps: Building Christian Community
For five summers, I worked at St. Andrew's Orthodox camp in Jewell, NY. I served as a counselor, and this involved a great number of jobs, everything from doing dishes and washing floors to teaching swimming and leading prayers. Since the camp was understaffed, the work load on each counselor was a heavy one, and the days were long (a reality in most church camps). It is out of this experience that I have formed my observations on the goals and objectives of Orthodox camps, which I share with you in this article.
The purpose of an Orthodox camp, very simply stated, is to provide children with a camping experience in the context of a Christian life. Our program was typical of that of any other summer camp - swimming, sports, horseback riding, arts and crafts, campfires, cookouts, special events, skits ... the list is endless. But with this variety of activity was combined a very full liturgical life: Matins and Vespers every day, Liturgy twice a week, regular participation in the sacraments. In addition, there was daily religious instruction led by the resident priest, as well as by a number of discussion leaders for each of the age groups. Finally, but certainly not least importantly, the attempt was made to relate every single activity to the Christian life, not in a superficial way, but through the very life experience of the child. The attempt was made to integrate the whole life of the child to a Christian context, whether in the dorm, the chapel, or the softball field.
Thus the goals which were set for such a camp were very high ones, especially when one looks at the situation of our church life today. The children in our camp came from the entire spectrum of parishes in America: Orthodox Church in America, Antiochian Archdiocese, Greek Archdiocese, Serbian Diocese and some others. Some had never been to communion in their lives, while others had never heard an English service. Some did not know how to cross themselves, while others had been altar boys from the age of three. In addition, the children were of all ages, from seven to seventeen. All these factors had to be considered as we tried to integrate the campers into the life of the camp and the life of the Church.Benefits for Children
What did the camp provide for all of these various people with their variety of needs? First of all, the camp provided the children with an exposure to other Orthodox children their own age. Some learned for the first time that the Church is not limited to their small parish in their home town. They saw that children of other national backgrounds were also Orthodox. Thus, even if most did not realize this consciously, they did experience the Church as truly Catholic and universal. They saw that the Church, that religion, is not just something they do in their own family or closed community. For the older campers, in particular, the camp experience made them realize that theywere not isolated in their church life. In many parishes, teens feel lost or out of place, and to experience solidarity with other teens in similar conditions is very valuable.
Second, the camp provided the children with a unique liturgical experience, one which cannot be found in most parishes in the United States. At first, many reacted strongly against having to go to church twice a day; with a few exceptions, they soon began to enjoy it. The services were all in English, of course, which was a novelty to some. Moreover, all the children were expected to participate in some way, whether as altar boys, readers, or singers. Everyone, campers and counselors alike, participated fully in the sacraments. The feasts were celebrated fully and explained, and this gave many the opportunity to celebrate the summer feasts of Transfiguration and Dormition, which some had not done before. All this served to give the children a sort of ideal standard. Clearly, it is unrealistic to expect that every parish will someday have daily Matins and Vespers, but the camp experience showed the children that such an ideal exists, that the liturgical life of the Church isextremely rich, and most importantly, that each and every one of them should participate in, rather than simply attend, the liturgy. Finally, this emphasis on the liturgical life showed the children that going to church is a normal part of life which, like work and play, is part of what it means to be a Christian. I n short, the aim of this aspect of camp life was to make the liturgical experience of the Church internal for each child, a real factor in their lives, not abstractly but experientially.
In addition to this liturgical experience, the children were given almost daily religious instruction. The entire camp would meet together at ten each morning and the priest would give a brief presentation. He would choose a particular theme for each week- such as the prophets, or the Theotokos. Each day, he would approach the theme from a different perspective: biblical, liturgical, musical, iconographical, etc. After the presentation, the children split up into smaller discussion groups, each age group having its own leader, where the theme would be further elaborated. This approach differed purposely from that of the normal classroom situation in church school, to which many of the children were exposed throughout the year at home. At times, these discussions were very successful, especially with the older children, though sometimes the sessions were not really atthe level that was appropriate to the youngest group.
Personally, I think that formal religious instruction at camp is not essential, although it certainly does no harm and might very well do a lot of good. It is, however, the entire camp experience of going to church, participating in the sacraments, and trying to live as Christians in every activity that is the key to what the camp really has to offer, and no weekly church school class can possibly do this.
Further, what the camp offers to children is a personal relationship with a priest. Our camp had a resident priest forthe entire summer; he conducted the services, administered the sacraments, led the religious discussions, and communicated directly with the children throughout the day in all their other activities. Many children who come to camp have only experienced the priest as a distant and often scary figure, and this often results in making religion scary and distant for them. Sometimes this is because the priest is busy and has no time to pay much attention to children, or else he simply does not know how to deal with them. Camp thus offers a unique opportunity for the priest to work solely with the children. If the priest takes advantage of this situation, he can do much to bring the church closer to the life of each child.
All this, then, is the obvious imput into the child. He is exposed to other Orthodox children. He goes to church and participates in the sacraments. He is taught about the Church and has the opportunity to personally relate to the priest. All this is important, but it is not yet the chief purpose of the camp. The real value of the camp is that it can serve to integrate the child into the life of the Church; it can show him that being a Christian is not simply the fulfilling of certain requirements or the learning of certain facts, but is a way of life! The camp succeeds when it makes the child realize that he should be a Christian in all things, even on the softball field. The camp ideally provides a controlled situation where the wholeness of Christian life, its real, existential meaning, can be realized. The children are at camp for twenty-four hours a day for a week or more, and not simply for an hour on Sunday. Camp is not a school, but a home!
For a week or more during the summer, camp provides a new home for children. The priest and the counselors take the place of parents for the duration of the child's stay, and are thus in a good position to help the child experience life in a real Christian community. They teach not so much through direct instruction as through example, through love. If the counselors are committed, active Christians; they will impart this to the child. This kind of learning is the most essential and no amount of formal teaching can possibly replace it. Everything else the camp offers, whether in religious instruction or simply enjoyable activities, must stem from this fundamental aspect.
Finally, camp is the place where children come during the summer to have fun. Thus the camp offers the whole range of normal camp activities. Every minute of the day is taken up by some activity, but these activities are hopefully conducted in a Christian perspective. Thus, if a fight breaks out on the softball field, the counselor is expected not only to stop it, but to do so by helping the children to understand whythis is not Christian. In teaching nature study, the counselor can bring out the teaching that God is the Creator of everything. Everything must be done with the Christian perspective in mind - that is what gives direction and purpose to the Christian camp.
Children come to camp to have a good time, but camp is not all play. The children are all expected to help, whether by cleaning their own rooms (personal K.P.), straightening up a certain area of camp (general K.P.), helping to set and clear the tables at meals, etc. The idea of sharing and helping others is thus taught not by words but by deeds. This is one of the ways in which the Christian community is built up. This concept of the community is greatly stressed in all camp activities: sports, swimming, church, work, etc. All the children are expected to participate in all the activities, not just because of the concept of "fairness," but because as Christians we are called to share all things, even if this may not always be the most pleasant thing for any individual.
If we look at these goals or requirements, we see that camp is ideally a Christian community, no more and no less. Perhaps the best description of a Christian community is found in St. Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, particularly in his use of the image of the Church as the Body of Christ. Camp exists to help children to enter this Body, to be themselves the Body of Christ, the Church. The success of the camp can only be measured by the extent to which this is realized.Staff Responsibility
It is evident, therefore, that the quality of the staff is all-important. Because the counselors are there in place of the parents, and because they have such a great influence on the children, staff members should be chosen not only for their ability to perform any given task, whether cooking, teaching, swimming, or directing the choir, but more importantly for their dedication to and participation in the Church. If we remember that the counselor is there to instill a wholistic Christian vision of life in the child, then it becomes clear that the counselor must himself be a good Christian. It is not even very important if he can teach the children theology- what he must be able to do is to give himself to the child, to be himself a model of the Christian life. This is true not only on the individual, but also on the communal level. The staff itself must be a model of the Christian community, for only then can it impart this to the children. Thus the camp can succeed only insofar as the staff itself succeeds. This does not mean, however, that in order to be a Christian community, everyone has to behave in a saccharine fashion: there are always frustrations, tensions, disagreements. What is necessary is that there is an overriding sense of unity of purpose, an agreement on the essentials of what the camp is all about.
Sometimes compromises are reached and persons are engaged as staff members who do not have this common vision - they see the Church as one compartment in their lives, unrelated to their behavior when not in church. This is simply the mark of the immature Christian, but it raises an important problem. We all understand Christianity as growth into life "in Christ." We cannot therefore condemn those who are at different levels of growth. But the problem is that in camp, counselors need to be at a certain level before they can really contribute something to the growth of the entire camp community. Everyone, camper and counselor alike, is there both to give and to receive.
However, it is evident that the counselor is there more to give than to receive, and he or she must therefore be chosen on the basis of their ability to give. Thus, the careful screening and selection of camp staff should be a high priority in any camp program.
This leads us then to a related problem: that of authority. Clearly, the Christian community and a camp in particular, needs a hierarchical structure. In a camp, however, this authority cannot be legalistic or authoritarian, but must be pastoral in its exercise. Authority comes in part from the position held, but mostly from example, from what could be called "innate" authority, stemming from the fact that one is simply being a good Christian. Openness is required, as well as the ability to accept criticism and to have a great deal of love and patience. Authoritarianism inspires no confidence or trust in those who follow. A person who is insecure, or who uses authority as an ego boost is not a very good leader. This is a very important issue, especially in a community as small and close as that of a camping community.
But authority is a two-way street. Just as the personal problems of one whose leads can have an adverse effect on the community, so the weaknesses of those who must follow can also damage it. Very often what happens is that those in authority became scapegoats- the failure of the Christian community is blamed on them by those who are blind to their own failings. In a Christian community, everyone should strive to overcome his own problems and not judge others. Everyone, leader and follower alike, must be patient and not succumb to the temptation to be overly critical. Everyone, therefore, must share the blame when a Christian community fails to fulfill its ideals.
An Orthodox camp can provide leaders and children with a unique learning experience, the experience of a truly Christian community. If the camp program is well planned, if its staff is carefully selected and given adequate preparation and guidance, and if all the participants really make the effort to live as brothers and sisters in Christ, then the camp experience can be a truly joyful one which campers and staff alike will want to repeat year after year. For then, just as the disciples said to the Lord on Mt. Tabor, they will say to one another: "it is good for us to be here!"