The place was nothing but brown, dry, desolate, dust. There was little vegetation except for the silver-gray prickly spikes of sagebrush scattered in clumps across the area that stretched beyond the encampment in all directions. Even the native cactus was shriveled and thin, clutching the sand in desperation. There were several buildings, built low to the ground in the practical form of desert dwellers; sand-colored, flat-roofed. The windows were dark shadows, like hollowed, deep-set eyes shrinking away from the brightness of the relentless, white-hot sun. Looking around, I felt abject dismay.
I lived in the southwest and have generous appreciation for the desert and it’s enchanting, quiet beauty, but this place in southern New Mexico seemed to have been forgotten, merely existing…colorless, lifeless, god-forsaken. Church camps of my past had been green and verdant and teeming with wildlife and opportunities for nature exploration. This one appeared to be the opposite.
I was discouraged and depressed that my husband and I had used precious vacation time from our jobs, which could have been spent in fun and adventure with our two daughters, but instead had sent them off to be with grandparents so that we could serve as summer youth camp counselors for our church region, and arrived at camp to discover it was located in such dismal surroundings.
Camp directors and counselors were the first to arrive, giving us a head-start day to review plans for the coming week. We set up our own bunks and small-group spaces, spent time team-building with the other adults, then went to bed that night, heads full of prepared lesson plans and activities, anticipating the task of shepherding 10 and 11-year-olds for five days and nights of immersion in Christian camp.
If you’ve ever been to church camp, you will recall the commotion of activity that begins the moment campers arrive and keeps them occupied for every moment through morning, noon, and evening, so that their minds and bodies are completely involved with constructive, educational, and inspirational fun. Of course that is the diabolical plan of the adults… so that the children will fall spent into their bedrolls at night, never a peep to be heard, which allows the even more exhausted counselors their much needed rest to begin it all again the following day.
Not everything at camp goes perfectly, just as in daily life at home. Someone will get homesick, someone bitten by a scorpion. Someone will fall out of the canoe, someone will have a disagreement, someone will think the green jello is disgusting. And there will always be a caring person to attend to those who suffer such things.
There will also be laughter and cooperation and the storytelling of ancient parables from the gospel and silly prayers before dinner, and the sharing of sticky watermelon and cool drinks on hot afternoons, and the gazing at star-dazzled night skies and the companionship of softly singing ‘Alleluia’ around a bonfire.
But the reason children and adults continue to go to camp is this: In the midst of all the games and meals and songs and Bible studies and bunk stories and outdoor worship times…when two or three are gathered together with the intent to experience what is holy, miracles happen. The children build bonds of kinship with one another, and counselors guide and care for their young charges while forging friendships with the other adults….strangers become community.
On the final day, after sleeping bags have been rolled up and lost athletic shoes and spare rumpled socks have been collected and stuffed into backpacks, the children exchange addresses and promises to stay in contact, and counselors are the happy recipients of numerous hugs from tired, but smiling children.
After the last belongings were packed up, doors locked, and supplies loaded back into cars, after final goodbyes called across the parking lot, my gaze swept again over the campground.
There is the shady area beneath the olive trees, where together we tie-dyed our t-shirts (and our fingers); there is the picnic pavilion where our small groups read the daily scripture. Beyond the bunkhouse is the valley where canoes floated us down the slow, dark river, and beyond that, the hill we hiked, illuminated by moonbeams and flashlights to take in the vast night sky. Over there is the big circle of large stones, where we closed each day with prayer and praise together in worship.
Another miracle….The camp was still dusty, dry, and sun-baked brown. But I will always remember it as a place full of vibrant life.
From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.
Everything in between, is miraculous life.
May the days ahead of Lent be a time of transformation, when our eyes will be opened to see and our spirits renewed to experience the miracles all around us.
Amen and so be it.