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United Methodist camps offer s’more love


7:00 A.M. EST July 22, 2010 | LYLES, Tenn. (UMNS)

Will Penner leads a gospel song during worship at Cedar Crest Camp in Lyles, Tenn. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.
Will Penner leads a gospel song during worship at Cedar Crest Camp in Lyles, Tenn. UMNS photos by Ronny Perry.

Birds twitter in the trees as waves lap against the shore of Cedar Crest Camp Lake, gently rocking moored boats in the early morning hours.

In rustic cabins painted reddish brown, still-sleeping kids bunk eight or 10 to a room. Soggy beach towels and swimsuits hang on bedposts to dry. A fine coating of sand creeps from the soles of campers’ feet into sleeping bags.

At wakeup time, they jump into shorts and T-shirts and hurry across meandering wooded trails to the dining hall for little boxes of cereal and a big day of encountering God—sometimes in surprising ways.

A recent visit to several United Methodist Church camps showed that when it comes to eating s’mores under starry skies and singing songs around a campfire, little has changed over the years. There’s still no place like summer camp.

And there’s still a great commitment among United Methodists to camping.

The church offers one of the largest camp and retreat networks of any denomination, with 220 camp and retreat centers serving a million people a year, said the Rev. Kevin Witt. He directs camp and retreat ministries for the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

In natural settings far away from cell phones and iPods, summer camps strive to offer children opportunities to grow closer to God and to one another.

Does it work? Miriam, an 8-year-old who loves to play volleyball at Camp Wesley Woods in Williams Bay, Wis., seems to think so.

Anna digs into lunch.
Anna digs into lunch.

“What I like about camp is no matter what, there’s always a helping hand for you,” she said.  “Friends are always around, and there’s always something to do.”

‘An experience of acceptance’

Years ago, when Witt was a young counselor, he “inherited” a camper named George who was kicked out of swim camp. George “had a nice pair of cowboy boots, and he knew how to use them,” Witt recalled.

“We were doing small-group camping in the forest. George created havoc the first couple of days.” Witt suggested that “maybe it’s time for George to go home because I don’t think he understands what we’re trying to do.” The other campers responded, “No; you can’t send him home.”

“They understood that this was Christian community and you can’t banish somebody from that,” Witt said.

“George came to love those kids. For him, it was an experience of acceptance.”

Witt does not know what happened to George after camp. “But I do know that week he felt the love of God, and it transformed his life.”

Instilling a sense of love of God and love of neighbor is no accident.

“In everything we do, we plan special activities that work on relationships,” said Joshua Easton, Northern Illinois Annual (regional) Conference program manager for summer camps and off-season retreats. “A lot of Christianity is teaching children social skills so they can feel comfortable with each other.”

Christine Penner, program director at Cedar Crest Camp in the Tennessee Conference, says camping offers a different experience than Sunday school or a church service.

An improvised “slip and slide” cools campers.
An improvised “slip and slide” cools campers.

“What better place to discover God? Getting away from their normal day-to-day routine and being able to submerge themselves in God’s natural environment, whether it is snails, rocks, trees or plants, and to be able to see God in that.

“The biggest joy of camping,” Penner continued, “is being able to see kids’ lives transformed and knowing you had a part in that.”

Talking about God

Penner’s son Devin is a counselor this year. He noted that along with built-in times for Bible study and closing campfires, participants communicate with God as they hike and engage in other recreational activities.

“We have devotional time on the trails,” the college football player said.

And every night, before Cedar Crest campers go to bed, they have a “powwow.”

“A ‘pow,’” Devin explained, “is something bad that happened during the day, and a ‘wow’ is something good.” With older campers, he said, “a ‘pow’ is somewhere where you didn’t see God so much, and a ‘wow’ is somewhere where you did see God. We’ll do that and read a psalm or a proverb. Then we pray.”

For some people, camp can change one’s life forever.

“Church camp was my first overnight and religious event away from home,” said Bruce Nelson, executive director of outdoor and retreat ministries for the Northern Illinois Conference.

“It was a significant part of my personal journey, and it was on retreat where I heard the call to fulltime camp ministry.”

Loving one another

Larry Newman is the chef at Cedar Crest. Retired from cooking on Great Lakes ships, the big bearded fellow with the gentle brown eyes is used to pleasing a crowd.

Cedar Crest campers prepare to catch a “trust fall” participant.
Cedar Crest campers prepare to catch a “trust fall” participant.

“Tonight,” he said, “we’ll go through 160 hamburger buns. We went through five loaves of bread for lunch today. This morning I did 120 sausage patties and 120 biscuits. And tomorrow we’re having a pizza outing at the pool.”

Children laugh and talk as they pile Newman’s creations onto their plastic trays.

“I see camaraderie among the counselors and the children,” Newman added. “The children are well mannered. They come through the line and ask, ‘May I have this, please? Thank you. Yes, sir; no, sir.’ It’s a great atmosphere for the children. They’re a little rowdy, but why shouldn’t they be? They’re away from home. They can relax and do some things they like to do.”

Discovering new friends is one reason Kevin Witt’s daughter, Briana, now 24 and working in environmental law, loved going to camp as a youngster.

“Camp is absolutely amazing,” she said. “People come together who don’t know each other at all, who are w-a-a-a-y different from each other. And yet, somehow, they come to love each other and care for each other.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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