Rev. Joel Weir, Rector, St. Stephen the First Martyr Orthodox Church, Crawfordsville, IN, Camp Priest, St. John’s Camp Programs.
When I was asked to write a reflection on the importance of camp programs, I immediately recalled a conversation my wife and I had with Bishop Paul on his first visit to our parish. We asked what he thought were the most important things for our kids to ‘get’ out of things like Church school, youth group, camps, etc. He thought for a minute and answered, “Friendship—that they become real friends with one another.” His Grace shared how the friends he made as a kid serving in the altar were the ones that ultimately drew him back to life in the Church after drifting away during college. Education and formation in the life of the Church were, of course, extremely important, but without those friendships, relationships and experiences to anchor them, the best program in the world is not likely to bear long lasting results.
I’ve been involved with Saint John’s Camp in Indiana for eleven years. I began as a counselor-in-training during my internship with the Orthodox Church in America’s Deparatment of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry while I was at seminary. Since then, I have served two years as a counselor and eight years as camp priest, and I have served as a member of the camp’s board. I can point to the camp’s many strong aspects, including the board’s constant work to find the right balance of prayer and play, teaching and listening. I can point to increased, pan-Orthodox, participation over the years. Campers represent multiple jurisdictions and points of origin — Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and occasionally from as far away as Alaska!. I can point to the development of young leaders as campers become counselors and counselors become board members. These are all examples of why I think camp is important and evidence why it ‘works.’
However, the most important thing really is friendship. For my own kids, Camp is where they say they get to see their closest friends. It’s like a ‘reset’. One strength of Camp is that it is a break from technology. For a week kids have to be with one another face to face. There is a connection discovered that is deeper than just interests or ‘likes’. I like to believe it is the Faith—the Holy Spirit that actually makes those close bonds in such a short time, which hold strong throughout the year. These are the friends to call when you are having problems. These are the friends to make road trips to see. These are the friends that will have your back at the end of the day.
In my own parish, four marriages began as camp friendships. I can point to several friendships developed at camp that have been instrumental in bringing someone back to the faith after college. I am encouraged when I see kids coming to camp from difficult backgrounds, who experience chaos in their home lives but find a safe place at camp to make friends and discover the love of Christ. As camp priest, I have stayed in contact with many camp “graduates” during their years at college. They often write to me, sharing struggles they face or posing questions they have about the faith. I think the reason these things happen is that the space is made at camp not just for teaching, but likewise for conversations and play that show young people that one is genuinely invested in their lives.
I have one more memory to share that I think demonstrates the importance of camp. I was on a prayer walk with the junior high boys’ group, which included my son. I didn’t want to make my presence felt too much because I didn’t want my son to feel ‘weird’ about dad being around — you know middle school boys! I stayed back a few paces and just observed as the boys went from station to station. I was aware of some of the issues these boys were dealing with, and I also knew my son’s tendency to try to be ‘cool’ in front of his friends at home. But I saw these boys walking arm in arm as a group. I know they had shared with each other and with their counselors some of what they were going through. They had also had great fun that week. I looked at the counselors, all good, faithful men whom I would want my son to see as examples. These counselors were all former campers, now well into adulthood, some with kids of their own. I thought to myself, “this is a good thing, this is why I serve at camp.”
Here is a list of OCA Church camps happening this summer in or near the Midwest:
Saint John’s Camp, Mitchell, IN
July 16-22, ages 12-18
Saint Vladimir’s Camp, Farmdale, OH
July 2-8, ages 7-11
July 9-15, Sports Week for 5th grade through HS
July 16-22, ages 11-16
Eastern Orthodox Youth Camp, Lindwood, KS
July 29-Aug 4, ages 7-17
Saint Mary’s Pan-Orthodox Camp, Amery, WI
June 30-July 6, ages 9-17
Chicago Deanery Summer Youth Camp, East Troy, WI
June 30-July 3, ages 12-18
Contact: Fr. Thomas Mueller
Camp Vatra, Grass Lake, MI
July 1-14, ages 14-17
July 22-Aug 4, ages 11-13
Thanks for this thoughtful piece on camp life, and also including camp listings for the Midwest Diocese this summer. God bless, +Paul