Church Camp: This isn’t “like church” it IS church

by Donald Schell

My wife Ellen and I just returned from a week at the Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal Diocese of California Conference and Camp Center in Healdsburg California. We were there as grandparent participants in the annual Family Camp that Bishop Bill Swing asked us to found twenty-five years ago.

It was the longest our grandson had been away from his parents and the longest time we’d been responsible for him. He is three years old. He experienced a the different kind of independence and interaction with many adults that the temporary village of Family Camp makes possible. He did arts projects alongside us (or vice versa). He began exploring water games in the swimming pool. We participated in daily Eucharist with us. We read him bedtime stories and talked about how he missed his mom and dad. At the end of camp he was eager to see them and then wondered if we could bring them back with us for “more camp.” The three of us had a rich and joyful time together.

For Ellen and me, it was also a return; we’d been away from this Family Camp for ten years. Starting when our youngest was fourteen months old and for fifteen years, we’d led and participated in this camp as parents-leaders, me as camp dean shaping staff, guiding chapel and collaborating on program development, and Ellen as camp nurse and collaborating on program development. We shared leadership over those ten years with other volunteer staff

– an energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer,

– a storyteller,

– an artist who could conceive and guide hands-on multi-generational arts projects,

– a musician gifted to inspire even “non-singers” to join our music making.

Together we grew this event until our team was leading an annual, multi-generational gathering of a hundred or so people, capacity for the Bishop’s Ranch. For a week each year new and returning parents and children, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teenagers and infants and a handful of close family friends lived, worked, prayed and played together.

This year, the twenty-sixth Family Camp in this ongoing tradition, we joined regulars and newcomers to welcome Kate Flexer’s new leadership. At a closing Family Camp Eucharist last year Elizabeth and the whole community had blessed Kate and Jim in the new role they were taking on. Kate is a parish priest from El Camino Real, our neighboring diocese. She and her husband Jim Hinch (a writer and editor with the voice and spirit to make people glad to hear daily announcements and a great gatherer and people-organizer) we were working with a team that our successor and Kate’s predecessor, Elizabeth DeRuff had gathered –

-musicians Fred Goff and Christopher Putnam, two skilled classically trained musicians who also love community singing and practice both with their congregations in the diocese of California,

– artist, Rene Billingslea, is a visual artist on the faculty of Santa Clara University with the imagination to create projects that will engage people of many levels of skill and the different attention span of differing ages,

– guitarist and youth encourager, Craig Benson, a water resources specialist from California’s far northern reaches who brought a strong ecological voice to our chapel and program.

Elizabeth DeRuff herself, the priest who’d led Family Camp for ten years after my wife and I moved on, was back for a couple of days with her husband Dave, who’d carried the role of energizing and inspiring convenor/gatherer for their ten years. They’d come back to spend a couple of days with the Family Camp community. Kate invited Elizabeth to preside at one of our six daily all-generational, Gospel-enacting, sung and danced Eucharists.

It was a joy to Ellen and me to be back and to sense the camp community’s deeply rooted continuity and lively development. I was pleased and startled to see the culture, customs, and ritual of family camp growing so recognizably from patterns of its earliest days. Undoubtedly part of the continuity we saw in the chapel was thanks to the ongoing participation of Rick Fabian, my longtime work partner in parish work founding St. Gregory’s, San Francisco.

As you’d expect in any community that had passed the quarter century mark (!) at lot had happened in the ten years we’d been away. Several families had moved on as their children had grown up. New families we’d never met before had made this camp a regular part of their summers, often finding their way into the extended leadership network Elizabeth and Dave DeRuff had fostered. Moms, dads, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were continuing to devote a week of their summer vacation to being together and with their children and continuing to do the work of Christian and human formation together. It was recognizably and undoubtedly…yes, church.

An old friend, a Family Camp regular since her now grown older daughters were toddlers, was at camp with her young teen.

Her husband, an attorney who’d developed a bad case of laryngitis, was reluctantly healing at home. He deeply understands and values community and loves Family Camp, and he thought keeping silent for the whole of camp would be harder than not speaking as he healed at home.

My friend offered the word “church” to describe what we were experiencing and what twenty-five years had built. She said, “You know, this isn’t just ‘like church,’ this IS church. It really is another parish of the diocese. Think about it – every day we’re sharing Eucharist and offering our prayers. We pray at each meal and eat together. We work together, caring for the children and giving them safe space to grow and find their freedom. We listen to each other and help people celebrate great things and make their way through hard things. There’s a lot of congregations where people don’t spend this much time praying and working with their fellow congregants in a whole year.”

I recognized the simple truth my friend was offering. This Family Camp (like other ongoing gatherings at Episcopal Camp and Conference Centers around the country) does what our best congregations do. Whether playing together or facing the flare-ups of conflict and working them through, we were practicing love and looking for the presence of the Spirit among us. We were becoming and experiencing ourselves as the Body of Christ. We were engaged in genuine human and Christian formation of the most powerful sort as Episcopal Camps do (and as ECCC and Forma, our network of Christian Education and Formation professionals are working to help the whole church understand)

In our first year of camp Ellen and I and our planners made a serious planning mistake. We sent word out in diocesan communication channels that Family Camp would be “more fun than Club Med.” Does our congregations sometimes make the same mistake. In that first year some campers were dismayed that we were counting on people to participate and to pitch in to help a build a community. The families who didn’t see what we were building together for taking their kids to movie matinees and an amusement park in the nearest town. We talked together a lot that year, staff and participants, about what we were doing and how to tell the story and invite people in. The next year our promotion line was “Come and help make it happen!” The talking together during camp that first year and the shift in how we invited participants made a huge difference to the shared experience of the second year of camp.

Like any congregation, Family Camp has a congregational culture, Family Camp ways of doing things. Part of that culture lies in the chapel, meal and activity practices we offered and which participants embraced. Part of the culture was shaped over time as leaders and participants together developed a shared story. Camp makes a tradition and continues to welcome change. It’s not just what camp does together – every year Camp has welcomed new participants (this year, it was about twenty out of a hundred participants, a typical proportion) and helped them join in making Camp happen, invited them to share practices, told the story, and invited them to make their own invitation to camp activities. My friend’s calling this “church” feels accurate. Family Camp is a yearly week-long practice in the Communion of Saints.

I told my wife what our friend had said about Camp being real church. Ellen added her thought that the gathering bell calling us to daily sung Eucharist, to gather to sing grace before every meal, and to find our way to the day’s work brought participants an undeclared, hidden taste of monastic community. Her observation also felt true to me.

We’d seen this happening in our fifteen years leading the camp –

– When Family Camp gathered around a lesbian couple that we prayed through the agonizing wait while domestic court considered their move to adopt their foster daughters,

– When we provided solace and five days of day care for parents coping with insurance claims and sifting through the ashes of the family home that burned down the first day of camp. We heard the horrifying news with them at dinner our first evening. We prayed with them, and then for the week folded their kids into the camp community as mom and dad commuted home daily and back to camp each evening for dinner and after dinner singing and storytelling as camp was the only shelter the family had that week.

– As we grieved and laughed and wept with a mom who was at camp between chemo sessions in stage four cancer and heard her wish that if she didn’t make it, her husband and daughter return to camp the following year to bury part of her ashes at Family Camp. Family Campers reached out through that year as she was dying, and the dad and daughter did return for the next year’s camp. We had her ashes with us in the chapel through our week of camp and prayed for her and her family, and at our concluding Eucharist we celebrated an all-generations-included Eucharist and committal service and said our good-byes.

– During the months away from camp, when campers were scattered to their home parishes, other campers, grandparents, parents, and at least one child in the ongoing Family Camp community died. And of course children grew and we all aged and welcomed young adults are children’s ages into leadership with us. The ongoing Family Camp community moved through a whole generation of time and more.

Loving stories of what we’ve been through and done together, of the friends who’d died and of those who’d moved away are part of Family Camp, the cultural work of remembering and shaping the narrative of a shared journey.

Coming back after a decade away, I was moved as moved seeing how completely the Family Camp community had embraced ways that we’d begun as I was delighted to experience how creatively and naturally the community had found ways to grow and expand its repertoire of practices and customs.

It was hugely evident Elizabeth and Dave, our successor leaders, had done a great job of steadily building on experience, recruiting more volunteer leaders, welcoming newcomers and building the culture. Talking with Kate, my younger colleague who has taken on this annual pastorate to share it with her husband and other lay and clergy volunteers, I realized how much I’d learned from all we tried together at camp, practices and experiences that I took home to congregational life and crucial growth in my skills as a collaborative pastoral leader.

When we started this Family Camp twenty-five years ago, our youngest son was fourteen months old. We returned this year as primary caregivers (for the week) of our three-year-old grandson. This year’s new leaders, Kate and Jim have their own small children. Whole-hearted participation (by all) and full-time leadership (for some) necessarily overlaps with full-time parenting. It can only happen with a leadership team of other parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents working together.

We were a couple of years into Family Camp when I first heard the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I thought immediately of Family Camp. Because we were leader-participants with a toddler and two other children at the beginning, we had to build shared leadership into this model of weeklong community. But what shared leadership helped create is a culturally resilient, vibrant community that is, as many adult campers say, “What church back home should be.” And stepping back into this continuing community ten years out, what I saw so clearly what my friend had said, this isn’t “like church,” it IS church.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.

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