I will never forget the summer of my 18th year of life. I remember graduating from Chisholm Trail Academy in Keene TX, loading up the car, and zooming away to Camp Yorktown Bay in Arkansas. I had no idea what to expect. I had always considered myself an “indoor-boy,” and honestly wasn’t looking forward to 24 hours of sunshine, bugs, sleeping in a cabin with people I had just met, and braving the unknown. They called me to be program’s director. I wasn’t exactly sure what this meant. I knew it was comprised of making some sort of play for campers of all ages, being in charge of people way older than me, and dedicating 11 weeks of my very special summer to grueling work.
Obviously, my first inclination with all of this was to say no. But for some reason, the day after graduation, I found myself heading to CYB.
Little did I know I would meet someone very special there.
His name is Jesus.
Looking back twelve years later, I must say I made the right decision. That first summer as program’s director led to over a decade of work in summer camp ministry. From Camp Yorktown Bay to precious Nameless Valley Ranch to Lake Whitney Ranch, summer camp became infused in my life.
There is something very unique and special about what summer camp can do to you physically, mentally, and socially. Never have I encountered such a “pressure cooking” environment. It takes you from your natural habitat and sticks you outside of your comfort level. It stretches you. It makes you grow. You find out what kind of person you are there. Sometimes it’s not the best look; and other times it allows you to see exactly what you’re made of. The most beautiful thing I would say working at summer camp does for you is it perpetuates your need for Jesus.
Never in my life have I found myself in tougher situations and challenges than in my 11 summers working at camp. I have seen God working methodically and intentionally in the hearts of the hundreds upon hundreds of campers I was lucky enough to encounter year after year. I have seen him change hearts and personalities, move mountains, and shine lights upon the tiniest, darkest crevices. I have seen him change the hearts of leaders I’ve worked with, of ornery staff members, disgruntled parents, and even my own shortcomings.
The beauty of summer camp is that from the day camp begins to the day it ends, a little community of believers exists somewhere out in nature that will never be replicated again. The family of prayerful, dedicated young adults will collaborate in order to establish a place, an incredibly safe place where kids from all ages are allowed to come and be themselves, are allowed to struggle, are allowed to grieve their lives and rejoice in their victories, and are allowed celebrate the love of Jesus. I’ve seen it there. I’ve felt it there. 11 times I have witnessed something different. 11 times I have witnessed something special.
I would say the most precious moments have been found late at night, after the intentionally planned programs are finished, and I’m moving from cabin to cabin. The lights have been turned out. The kids are supposed to be asleep. But this is the time when the Spirit is the hardest at work. It’s in these moments as a young adult counselor you are not prepared for. You don’t have to words to say. At times you feel like the short life you’ve lived has not prepared you to encounter the conversations that are presented to you. Its in these moments the precious hearts of the kids in the cabin pour open and you witness their open pain, hurt, and desire for something better. What do you say to the kid that reveals he lost both parents last year when he was 9 years old? What do you say to the kid who found out his parents were divorcing right before he showed up to camp? To the kid who is terribly addicted to substances or pornography, what words of freedom can you provide to him? To the kid who feels invisible, lonely, and isolated, how can you show him he matters? Every kid has something. And here is the greatest opportunity to showcase Jesus.
You see, it’s more than the words you provide to them. Words can only do so much. When you don’t have the words to say, God provides them. When you don’t have the strength to show love to that one kid who seems so capable of getting under your skin, God’s love permeates your unwilling spirit. When you know your sliver of love for the kid who fills unlovable just isn’t enough, God showers down his everlasting devotion upon them. Then, he will pursue them relentlessly. It’s a beautiful thing. God becomes summer camp director. They leave experiencing something they long for- those close encounters with the Maker of the universe.
Stepping away from summer camp ministry and moving now into my fifth year of teaching, I look back fondly at my time at camp. I still dream about it. I can still smell that old NVR café, I can feel the breeze from the Rim, and I can still hear those little voices singing their praises to the Creator. I believe those songs will never end. And those campers I’ve encountered, I know I will see them again in Heaven. Heaven will just be a big summer camp in the sky, right? Better sign up soon. I know I have.
Devin Anavitarte is one of the founders of Enspire Productions. He is currently a teacher at Burton Adventist Academy.