by: Rev. Shernell Edney Stilley
This year, from Feb 16 to Feb 18, I did a thing for the very first time in my life. I went to camp. Now, yes, I had been to “a camp” before. But not like this. This was a Conference-led Camp called “Feb Camp” that our high school youth have been attending for years. However, by virtue of me not growing up in the UCC, this was not an opportunity afforded to me. We had this one camp, I now recall as I type, called “Eagle Eyrie” and it was an annual ritual for both our middle school and high school church kids as well. It was in Lynchburg, Virginia (and yes… “Lynch” means exactly what you would think it means…) and was a COMPLETELY different experience than I was afforded during my time at Monte Toyon.
My attendance didn’t start off as this thing that was occurring for certain. I wasn’t approached until about two weeks prior and asked to be the Chaplain for the soon approaching weekend. I said yes quite eagerly! I then asked myself, “What did you just agree to, Shernell?!” just as quickly. I don’t think I thought about what it might all entail. I just jumped at the chance to do something I love (Pastoring) in an unknown setting (camping). It seemed exciting and I went with my gut. For better or for worse.
As the days approached, I saw the daily downpour of rain as a sign. I thought to myself, “Is this the way I should know that I have made a mistake? Is God going to let it rain so hard that camp gets cancelled because God feels sorry for what I’ve gotten myself into?” (Yes, Pastors can be self-absorbed, and everything CAN be construed as being about them! Even the weather. Smile.) This was not to be the case as I received a reply to my email inquiry stating that camp would be happening without a doubt. The day came and I felt I had no other option but to “smile it up, buttercup!” and make the choice to take my fears of the unknown and parlay them into excitement of what “could be”.
Some of you reading this may wonder, “Why on earth would you have anxiety about camp?!” Well, I suppose it’s just like any other thing we have never experienced before. It has the potential to be life-changing in a multitude of ways. And it’s that uncertainty that makes it tummy-churning. What if the kids don’t like me? What if the staff and I don’t get along? I mean, I’ve often heard that camp is like a secret society. You are inducted and, if accepted, you are in for life. What if I wasn’t cool enough to fit in?
I made the drive up and two miles from the camp site, my cellphone displayed the fear inducing “NO SERVICE” message. This did not bode well for me. I arrived at the camp and saw other staff already unpacking their cars. I did the same and went to the registration table and was greeted by this perky bubbly person who turned out to be one of the Directors. I felt eased by her nature and thought, “Ok, I’ve got at least one person here that I know will be a good match.”. She then took me to meet the other Director and again my stomach felt uneasy. This could be where the shoe dropped, and the battle lines were drawn. But, to my surprise, she immediately hugged me and smiled this huge smile thanking me so much for agreeing to being on staff. I felt so much relief and immediately began to feel more at ease. Within an hour of my arrival, the bulk of the youth started to arrive, and I walked the pathways as if I belonged there. I spoke to just about everybody I saw and introduced myself to those who stared at me because they knew I was someone they’d never met before.
The weekend ensued, and to my shock, by the end of the first night, I knew exactly what “they” meant when they said camp was like a secret society. But, not in the way I interpreted the comments prior to this moment. It was a secret society in that unless your eyes are wide and your heart is open, you will never understand the power of the family that is made in such a place. After less than six hours, I was singing camp songs, eating food in a “chow hall”, and dreading having to go to bed. My fears about the kids not accepting me were allayed when they took to the nickname “Rev.” and asked to sit with me after the first worship service. The anxiety about not being welcomed among the veteran staff was dispelled as they all talked and joked with me like we had been friends for years. Any joke they made that they knew I didn’t know, they took time to explain so that I didn’t feel left out.
Over the course of the weekend, I saw kids being more of themselves than I had ever seen prior in public. All of their concerns about not fitting in were far away as they were surrounded by people just like them. Me included. We all soon realized that we were the same. People who felt like rejects sent to the Island of Misfit Toys. Except here, we were more. We were the cool ones. Anything that was seen as weird or unacceptable in mainstream society was your ticket through the door into this magical land of belonging. We were family. And I’ve never experienced something so real and so fast with such a number of strangers in my life. Those kids became my kids. Those staff became my siblings. At the end of the weekend, hugs occurred over and over. Sometimes with the same person because few cared that you had already said goodbye. There was no such as thing as being shy about letting others know that they had touched your life, your spirit, in this very real way in such a short amount of time.
I get it now. Going to camp. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel a bit of jealousy about the fact that those in attendance had either done this all their life, or, had a lifetime left to enjoy it longer. I eventually dismissed this feeling by reminding myself that this was my first time, but certainly didn’t have to be my last. I still counter that with the fact I’m in my mid-thirties and am probably too old to be excited about camp. After all, I am considered “long in the tooth” to be attending. But, that part of me. That part of me that…still could be reminded that it matters to be accepted and loved just for who you are yearns for more time. There were some people that I talked to who let me know that they were not religious and really only went to church so they could have access to camp. They openly shared that their church experience was everything they hated, but continued to attend just for the opportunity to have access to the world of camp. That says a lot. And sadly, I immediately understood it. I wish that for us. As a church. That our community could be a place where people went through the muck and mire of their lives with the excitement of getting to be a part of our family as one of the things that helps give them life.
I know it’s possible. I just don’t have the answers as to how to get us there. But I know it’s possible. To be the place where people come with their fears and anxiety of not belonging because they have only horrible experiences with which to compare; but then find themselves transported to a place of “being” that they never knew existed. A place where they see folks just like them. That take the time to catch them up on what they missed and never stop showing them that they are already a part of the community simply because of their presence in the sacred space. A place where the more they show us exactly who they are the more they are loved and encouraged to be just who God made them to be. A place to be free. I wish that for us. I wish that for our Church (Universal). I wish for us to be relevant through relationship. I wish folks didn’t have to drive to a place where you are geographically isolated to do so. As I said… it’s possible. Can we please work together to figure out how?