John 13:35. “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
Three Crook County school buses slow to a stop at a campground on Suttle Lake. A stream of sixth graders flow out on the lake shore nervously anticipating the week away from home. Who will be their counselor? Will they be funny or strict? Who will be their cabin mates? From their list of classroom friends, which one will make the cabin roster? What will this week away from home be like? The counselors greet the campers with song and dance, introduce themselves, and call out their cabin groups. Camp has begun.
Their first camp challenge is the hike to Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp. Posted along the way, students are introduced to the vocabulary that will shape their week. The words and the definitions are read aloud and discussed for clarity. Simplified here, they read: 1. Love is actively caring. Take care of one another. 2 Trust a person to be themselves. 3. Justice is doing the right thing for the right reason. 4. Boundaries are physical and geographical. Know your boundaries. 5. Do your Best! Be your Best! You are responsible for your week. These five agreements are the framework for creating community while Crook County sixth graders are at camp.
During the week there are difficult lessons to be learned. The Challenge Course simulates problems to be solved through communication and cooperation. Sitting near Jack Creek on forestry plot, students quietly reflect on the splendor surrounding them while listening to the creek’s song. Campers build flint sparked fires and bark survival shelters on plant plot. Wildlife plot takes campers around the four miles of Suttle Lake Trail identifying and classifying animals. Gathering around the evening campfires, students give voice to verse and teachers tell tall tales. On skit night, every camper becomes an actor. Everyone has a thought to share to recap our camp week at the “Candlelight Closing Campfire.” There is a sense of belonging. There is a sense that each person contributed something. There is a sense of appreciation. That is community.
The term “Community” can be more inclusive than the sum of dictionary definitions below:
1. People in a certain location. (yes, that is a given since we are in camp.)
2. A group having fellowship and a sense of belonging. (yes, communication, belonging, and participation are primary goals.)
3. A group of interdependent organisms of different species living together. (yes, there are times this third definition is most applicable for sixth graders).
The camp community can be a place where everyone is accepted, appreciated, nurtured, and cared for. Each person is a contributor to the community experience. Community is at its best when grace becomes a community characteristic. We accept you as you are, for who you are, with whatever strengths and weaknesses you bring.
Outdoor School is a secular camp experience. We don’t get to talk about God or Jesus, yet we are surrounded by his presence. Student differences of color, creed, sexuality, religion, economic status, political affiliation, medical condition (unless it is contagious), athletic ability, mobility, weight, and presumptive appearance are not conditions of participation. When the secular school focus shifts to church camps, words morph into biblical teachings. Love the Lord. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Do Justice. Be Merciful. Walk Humbly with our God. We are bound together in Christ, with God, and in the world around us.
Dancing in the shadow of a giant Douglas fir, or listening to the song of a flowing stream, or soaking up earth’s beauty under countless stars, we are in a divine dance. This is a Holy dance where God is visible. Jesus is alive. The Holy Spirit has voice. By caring for others, serving others, and sharing ourselves we become a community of grace. Grace is God acting in our lives through the people around us, helping us to accomplish what we could not do on our own.
One of the great joys of being on the site team for Suttle Lake United Methodist Camp is realizing the broader spectrum of community we touch. We have age specific youth camps, quilting groups, church retreats, Creation Vacations, outdoor schools, annual Strength for the Journey gatherings, Adventure Camps, Oregon Mycological Society annual gatherings, Roundup work weekends… the list goes on. Suttle Lake Methodist Camp and our associated camping facilities provide sanctuaries for us to take care of each other, to establish trust relationships, to strengthen the bonds of our shared faith, and to celebrate how much God loves each one of us. In doing so, we bring God’s Grace to the many diverse communities we serve.
For sixty years Crook County has had Outdoor School, fifty-four at Suttle Lake. The big yellow buses still depart full of exhausted sixth graders. Each camper takes with them a most important gift, memories. Camp is creating memories which encourage our children to care of themselves and others in community. Within the United Methodist Camp Association, we are always working to be people of grace, accepting all who come. We collectively become communities of grace, accomplishing great things we could not have done on our own.
-Casey Callan retired Crook County Outdoor School Director, Suttle Lake Site Team, and Madras United Methodist Church member.