Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Many Emotions of Summer Camp

I’ve just returned from two weeks of directing Saint Stephen’s Summer Camp for the Holy Metropolis of Atlanta at the Diakonia Retreat Center in Salem, SC. This very special summer camp ministry has given me the blessing of participating in the core of the Metropolis Youth Ministries. I currently serve as Co-Director with three dedicated and loving priests. We each share a portion of the summer schedule after months of planning and conference calls. As I write this blog, there are still two more sessions of camp to bring to completion. I must say, exhaustion aside, I miss being there with such loving staff and campers.

Summer camp brings out every emotion from sadness to joy, from frustration to comfort, and from doubt to trust. In the past two weeks I have witnessed all these and more, but what really touches my heart isn’t the emotion but the transition from negative emotions to positive. The first night of camp brings hesitation and homesickness as campers meet new people and experience, many for the first time EVER, their first night away from family. Shyness often turns to tears as these first year campers come to us begging, “Can I call home?” I’ve been down that road before and I “haven’t lost one yet.” It normally goes like this…
Camper: “Can I call home?”
Me: “Why?”
Camper: “I’m not feeling so good.”
Me: “What would you say to your mom right now?” (Keep in mind it is normally almost MIDNIGHT at this point)
Camper: “I want to go home.”
Me: “Since you can’t go home tonight anyway, why not go back to your room and sleep with your cabin. Then, come and talk to me in the morning.”
Camper: “Ok.”
Off to bed they go…almost never to return the next morning. Tears have turned to smiles in the morning.

By day two and three, camp has become a comfortable routine and deep friendships have already been established. Then comes day four….the day we offer the Mystery (Sacrament) of Holy Confession. Each camper is invited and encouraged, but never forced, to confess to a priest. I always make it a point to remind the campers of the grace of God that is present in every sacrament of the Church, but especially the healing power of God’s grace in Holy Confession. This is the day each priest cherishes when it’s over but dreads before it begins. After just a few days of summer camp, the love and trust between campers and clergy has reached a pinnacle and together in the grace of God, our souls meet for a brief moment and real healing begins. I’ve witnessed many tears turned to joy in Holy Confession. But Holy Confession is only a beginning….

The last full day of camp is the reason we all gather each summer. The Divine Liturgy is the center of our Orthodox Christian life, and brings the healing ministry of summer camp to a climax. Campers and staff join clergy in the Mystery of Holy Eucharist in the presence of the Holy Spirit. One by one, we each receive Holy Communion, the manifestation that God has become man so that we might, by God’s grace, participate in His divinity. Following Divine Liturgy we each experience the freedom of Christ’s love and our hearts are again restored to their purity in His love.

But every camp must end and Saturday is a return to tears, but they’re different. Sunday’s tears were filled with fear and longing to be at home. Now on Saturday, our tears are altogether different. We feel the warmth and trust and love and joy of camp. We know the world is filled with more pain, so our hearts are drawn to remain in Christ’s love, so strong at camp, rather than depart for the “real world” of bullies, judgment, and self-image issues.

This is where MY emotions are the strongest. I know the pain of the world awaits the campers. Will they remember the tools we taught them to remain pure? Will they take full advantage of the Church’s healing ministry and guidance to fight temptation? This is when I REALLY feel like the “father” they call me. I know I must send them out into the world, but wish I could protect them forever! Only one thing comforts my soul as I bid the campers farewell….the Holy Spirit is greater than all the protection I can offer. Go in peace my dear campers….we will meet again.

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