Seven high school boys and three high school girls are gathered on a porch outside “The Dorms,” a dormitory-style bunk house here at Shrine Mont. They’ve joined a conversation I’ve been having with their counselors – Penelope Davenport, Olivia Bambara, and Philip “Danger” Queen.
The dorm where they’ve spent the night is rustic. There are rows of bunk beds with thin mattresses, shared bathrooms, and no air conditioning. But compared to where they’ve been and where they’re going, it’s the Ritz-Carlton.
As “Explorers the Great” campers, these high school-aged kids have just returned from a four-day wilderness hike. While other Shrine Mont campers stay “on the mountain” and in the same bed almost the entire time they are here, Explorer campers…well…explore.
And it starts right away: the very first day they were dropped off at Shrine Mont, immediately after registration, they packed their gear, got on a bus, and were driven to Ramsey’s Draft, a designated wilderness area of the George Washington National Forest.
Because Ramsey’s Draft is about a two hour drive from Orkney Springs, the campers got there around 7:00 p.m. – which meant there were about two hours of daylight left. So the campers found a camp put up tarps (no tents allowed) and built a fire.
What about dinner? The counselors split the campers into two co-ed groups: one to cook, the other to clean. The counselors then handed the cooking group a recipe – that night, spaghetti with Thai peanut sauce – and then, other than providing some supervision for safety reasons, turned it completely over to them. The kids were on their own. And did it all.
“Doing it all” while camping means sending someone to find a stream for water, building a fire, boiling the germs out of the water, cooking the noodles, heating the sauce, serving each other, eating, and cleaning up afterwards.
The next two days, Explorers campers would wake up, break camp, pack up, and start hiking. They hiked from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. each day, covering about 10 miles a day. The hike is a relatively difficult one, ascending 3,100 feet, with four summits.
Why would high schoolers choose to leave behind the convenience of microwaves, drive-up Starbucks, and comfortable beds in air-conditioned homes in order to spend a week hiking difficult terrain, finding and disinfecting their own water, cooking their own food, and sleeping on hard ground beneath tarps?
“It’s nice to be away from stuff…well, except from the World Cup,” camper Joey of Chesterfield said, “and it’s nice to be around people who feel the same way spiritually as you do – back home, you never know what kind of reaction you’ll get.”
“I don’t have the opportunity to canoe much at home,” camper Sarah of Alexandria said, “so I come to Shrine Mont to experience things I might not otherwise. We carry everything we need on our backs.”
Joey’s experiences at Shrine Mont have helped him explore the place where his love of mountains and his love of God meet. Sarah’s experiences each summer at Shrine Mont prompted her to help her explore year-round involvement with Venturing, a youth development program of the Boy Scouts of America for young men and women, and more recently, to explore volunteer work with the Civil Air Patrol.
The most wonderful thing, then, that Explorers Camp does is it helps countless Joey’s and Sarah’s to explore not only the beautiful wilderness of Virginia, but the beautiful wilderness of their hearts and futures.
By John Ohmer
John is the rector of The Falls Church Episcopal and a long-time supporter of Shrine Mont.
He authored a weekly spiritual advice column titled “Faithfully Yours,” and covered the past four General Conventions as an issues writer for the Diocese of Virginia’s “Center Aisle.” John blogs at Unapologetic Theology.
Photo Journal: Before Ramsey's Draft
The gang's all here: Explorers the Great 2014!
Connor Gwin sends Explorers the Great out on their four-day hike with a prayer.
Who's ready? Explorers the Great is, Philip Queen is.
Take us on an adventure, magic school bus.
Every once in a while, my wife and I will pull out and watch old family videos, ones taken when our children, who are now in late high school and college, were young. One of our favorite videos is of our daughter Elizabeth, around the age of three, spontaneously dancing with a small branch she’d found in the back yard. She’s spinning and swirling and singing along to imaginary music.
Part of the reason I love that video is that it captures a moment of total un-self-consciousness and pure, unrestrained joy.
The video of our daughter dancing came back to me as I joined the camp dance at the pavilion the other night.
Dances are one of the more popular Shrine Mont customs, and part of what makes them even more popular is the custom of wearing goofy clothes to the dance. The goofier, the better.
Shrine Mont summer camp counselors are capable of great seriousness when it is called for during the day. In fact, safety and respect for other’s opinions and feelings are dead serious issues here.
But part of the genius of the counselor hiring process here is that while those counselors take their responsibilities very seriously, none of them take themselves too seriously.
What a gift that is for the children who attend summer camps here. Our society is fond of measuring performance – school performance, athletic performance, even theatrical or musical performance. Our children get sucked into that, even at very early ages.
And too often, the performance bar our society sets is the impossibly high measure of perfection, whatever that means. But “measuring” and perfectionism is the enemy of creativity and spontaneity, not to mention fun and a robust spirituality.
One of the gifts that campers are given here is an escape from constant measurement. One of the spiritual lessons campers learn at Shrine Mont Camps is how to escape perfectionism.
Back home, there are people who are “in” and “out,” “cool” or “not cool.” Back home, there are kids who are accepted into the inner circles of sports, theater and academics. But at Shrine Mont, a different way of living – a truer way of being Christian – is modeled by counselors and campers alike, until it becomes a new normal.
No one is trying to be cool. No one is out. There’s a sense that you are accepted. You are accepted. Yes, you, the real you, the behind-the-mask, drop-all-pretensions, mix-of-emotions you.
And that “new normal” of acceptance, and inviting, and including, and of dropping pretenses plays itself out at Shrine Mont dances more than perhaps any other time.
About half way through the hour-long dance, I noticed a young camper sitting off by herself, knees pulled up to her chest, slightly sullen look on her face, watching the dance, but not engaged in it. She’d only been sitting like that a minute, but MAD camp counselor Tori Lindsey also noticed her, and slowly danced nearby, and then directly in front of, the camper.
With an irresistible smile on her face, dancing with both arms out in front of her, both palms up, Tori issued a wordless but clear invitation to “come join me.” Tori just danced. And kept dancing until the camper popped up with a smile, took Tori's hands, and joined in.
The dance that little girl joined was one she’ll bring back home with her: the un-self-consciousness dance of pure, unrestrained joy - the dance of God’s acceptance and love.
By John Ohmer
John is the rector of The Falls Church Episcopal and a long-time supporter of Shrine Mont.
John authored a weekly spiritual advice column titled “Faithfully Yours,” and covered the past four General Conventions as an issues writer for the Diocese of Virginia’s “Center Aisle.” He blogs at Unapologetic Theology.
Prior to his call to The Falls Chuch, John was rector of St. James', Leesburg for 13 years. During his years of ordained ministry, John has served on the Board of Directors of Samaritan Ministry for the Homeless in Washington D.C., and on the Diocese of Virginia’s Commission on Ministry and Resolutions Committee.
Before entering Virginia Theological Seminary in 1994, John had a career in government and politics, having worked as a Capitol Hill and presidential campaign staff member as well as a press secretary and speech writer in his home state of Indiana.
John and his wife Mary have three children: a son who has recently graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, another son who is a senior at James Madison University, and a daughter who is a senior in high school and a counselor at St. Elizabeth's Camp.
Camps, since the dawn of time (read: the sixties), have started their announcements with a song. The song lets camp know that its time for announcements, where the program director shares the schedule and pertinent information until camp's next meal and then opens the floor up for more announcements from counselors - some informative, some funny. Let's be honest: most of them funny.
During staff week each year, Paris Ball, director of Shrine Mont Camps, writes her own program director's song to be sung at each meal. This year the song was a parody of "My Girl" by The Temptations, complete with coordinated shouts and counselors meowing in place of the musical interlude.
Here's the video. It really gets good at the 30 second mark. What they initially lack in harmony, they make up for with enthusiasm and finish strong. After all, it's "make a joyful noise" not "make a pitch-perfect noise."
Like many traditions at camp, there is both a formula for how announcements are done - connecting the announcements of now with the many camps and program directors that came before - as well as room for originality. Each summer brings parodies of new songs, ranging from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song to The Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way" to the Jungle Book's "Bare Necessities" to The Muppet Show theme song (the link is a great version by OK Go).
But parodying a popular song and refitting it with lyrics about butt buns and not raising the ire of the Moomaws wasn't always how Shrine Mont Camps did announcements.
From the sixties to mid-eighties, the announcement song was always the same. You've probably heard it: "Announcements, announcements, annoooouncements." Usually with a goofy stanza sandwiched between two of those refrains. E.g., "Kat's got another one, another one, another one. Kat's got another one; she has them all the time."
In 1987, Henry Burt, former secretary and chief of staff of the Diocese of Virginia, then in his second year as St. George's program director, continued the long camp tradition of destroying camp traditions by changing the St. George's announcement tune from "the announcements song" to Johnny Carson's Tonight Show theme song, with camp singing "ba-das" in place of the big band. "There was an open rebellion in third session," said Burt. "The counselors refused to sing my song and sang the original instead. Then I followed up immediately with the Carson song and that was the end of 'the announcements song.'"
"The announcements song is dead! Long live the announcements song!"
The irony is that today camps know the parodies as "the announcements song," which was once the name of a specific song with its own traditions and room for [smaller] variations. Today there are very few counselors who were alive when one tradition replaced the other. The parodies are what camp knows now. They're more original and inventive than the proto-announcements ditty, which was ripped off wholesale from the Boy Scouts, whereas the tradition that started in 1987 is something Shrine Mont Camps can claim as their own.
At St. George's, on the last day of each session, to varying degrees of success, the camp flexes its institutional-memory muscles and sings that year's program director's song followed by every announcements song dating back to 1987, including the original "announcements song." And through this, today's campers and counselors connect themselves to every year and every session of camp at Shrine Mont since camp began in 1962, an Apostolic Succession of joy and goofiness.
By Ed Keithly
P.S. Not that it's a competition, but I would submit that the 2014 staff week announcements song is the best composed and most dynamic announcements song of all time. Just kidding: It is a competition. Feel free to discuss in the comments section below.
The following is a reflection by Lorne Field, former St. George's camper, St. Andrew's counselor, and a member of the Diocese of Virginia's Committee on the Stewardship of Creation. Lorne works as the environmental outreach coordinator for Chesterfield County. Lorne was featured last summer on the View from the Mountain for his work with Explorers Camp. The reflection was first posted on Lorne's personal blog.
I originally wrote this to be posted on RichmondOutside.com. I almost let it go up but I pulled it at the last minute. It’s too personal for that so I put it on Facebook - for two hours. I didn’t like that either. It’s been filed away for months. Anyway, I’ve been wondering what to do with this piece so I just decided to put it on my own site.
Chubby kids do not look good in stretchy, synthetic fabrics, especially the brightly colored kinds. This was a reality I had to face during my formative years in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I am one of four children and our parents did our best to stretch the specie by buying gender-neutral clothes and reusing them as we grew. Being the youngest, that meant I got to wear hand-me-downs that had been washed and worn many times before. They were not shabby: we took care of our clothes. They had just shrunk a little. At least that is what I was told (but I didn’t really believe it) as I tried to pull the clingy polyester away from the corpulent contours of my mid-section.
Off to school I went, painfully aware that I was different from most kids. That difference was noted by many of my classmates and they took pains to point it out. I was teased, as probably every kid was, but I was one of their favorite targets. Kids were not coddled in those years like they are today. I had to find ways to cope. I sort of withdrew during the school day. I just tried to keep my head down and not draw any more attention to myself while I waited for the dismissal bell.
When I got home it was a lot better. Like I said, in those days kids were not coddled. We were allowed to stay out unsupervised way after sunset. One of my favorite pastimes was riding my bike in the woods at the end our street. There were lots of trails to explore and a deep creek to play in and I would spend hours there - often alone. Other times I would hang out with friends who were just as awkward as I was. But in the woods it didn't matter. There was freedom and acceptance outside.
So that was life during the school year, days of embarrassment in the classroom followed by afternoons of fantasy play and dirt-ramp building in the woods. As therapeutic as time in the woods was, it was not quite enough to make me feel just right. I missed the feeling of confidence I got outdoors when I went back to school. It wasn't healthy. I needed something more.
Summer came. Thank God. Days of classroom anguish gave way to full-time outdoor rambling. My heavy-set friends and I were free from the caviling of our perceived betters and we were the rulers of the wooded kingdom at the end of the cul-de-sac. I did not have to deal with the politicking and judging that happen when large groups of kids are herded together. Then came summer camp. I was nervous.
All of my brothers and sisters and most my cousins went to camp at Shrine Mont on the edge of the George Washington National Forest. Shrine Mont is a conference and retreat center run by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. There are a number of camps there. My brother went to St. George’s Camp. My sisters went to Choir Camp (now called Music and Drama or, simply, MAD Camp). They loved it. Of course, my brother and sisters were not afflicted with childhood chunkiness and did not have to weather the storm of fat jokes as I did. That is what I expected when I went to camp.
It did not happen.
Imagine summer camp in the Allegheny Mountains in the early 1980s: the cabins with only screens on the windows so you could hear every animal in the forest at night and feel every breeze at rest time, the creaky old metal bunks (I think they were army surplus), and the long-haired, impossibly happy counselors who carried acoustic guitars and banjos wherever they strolled. I was not teased – not even by the cool kids. It was a community. It might sound like an idealized vision of Haight-Ashbury but that is my memory of St. George’s. Here we were told (and we all believed it) that we are part of the Body of Christ and that all of us are crucial pieces of the spiritual machine that keeps the world moving - even chubby, eight-year-old me (my girth was never even mentioned). It was heaven.
So that was life during the summer. Every year for more than a decade I returned. When I was too old to be a camper, I went back as a counselor. My formative years were spent just “getting through” school so I could go back to the Mountain. That is where I developed my sense of community and my love of nature, and that is where I found my purpose.
I never took a job just for the money (okay, I did in college). I could have studied law or medicine or engineering (okay, my grades were not good enough for that) but I followed the path that was set for me when I was a kid. I made a few wrong turns along the way - the path is not clearly marked. I will never be rich, at least not in the monetary sense, but I have no hesitation getting out of bed every morning to serve God by protecting his creation. I am deeply grateful for the experience I had at Shrine Mont and my career is my way of paying it forward. Lord knows I don’t go to church on Sundays.
Side note: I might be successful in my modest-paying field and I might run trail races now, but if I come across as socially clumsy it's because inside me there is a pudgy kid in a Dukes of Hazard t-shirt still trying to come out.
So, with all that in mind, here are some of my favorite places where I can still hear the Voice in the Wilderness. Don’t try to build a shopping center on them - not while I’m on the job.
By Lorne Field
You can see the pictures Lorne mentions, including North Mountain, on his blog.
The Shrine Mont Camps staff is commissioned and ready to start forming young lives.
Each year camp begins with staff training week. Counselors learn how to best support and care for campers, play together, and begin to build the community that makes camp, well, camp.
Below are pictures of the staff on a "walk and talk." Counselors trekked across the campus, stopping at various places along the way to discuss details about the camp experience.
Before the rest of the staff got on the mountain, the directors had their own mini training session. Here they are before compline at the end of a long day.
An All-American Chaplain
Connor Gwin, chaplain to the staff.
Bishop Gulick commissioned the staff by renewing their baptismal covenant, calling them into new relationship with God as they "seek and serve Christ in all persons" and "strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being."
This summer they will, with God's help.
By Ed Keithly
Photo credit: Sara Keithly and Ed Keithly
Camp is almost here. As we start heading towards Shrine Mont, if just in our minds for now, enjoy this reflection on the Shouting Prayer from the Rev. Daniel "Padre" Robayo, long-time chaplain at Shrine Mont Camps and chaplain to the Shout It from the Mountain Campaign.
It is easy to love Shrine Mont because of its beauty. This stunning treasure tucked below the mountain makes the heart glad just by being there. From the Cathedral Shrine of the Transfiguration to the Virginia Hotel, from St. George's to the Happy Pullman Pavilion, from the trail to the Cross, to its luminous lawns and green porches, to everything in-between, Shrine Mont is beautiful beyond belief. But that is not why I love Shrine Mont.
It is easy to love Shrine Mont because of its programs. Our amazing summer camps teeming with children and youth having a fabulous time are reason enough to prize this place. Parish retreats, the bishop's conferences, concerts, picnics and reunions - so many cherished memories are lived and created here! But that is not why I love Shrine Mont.
It is easy to love Shrine Mont because of its people. The year-around folks, from Kevin and Mary to the newest member of the staff, make Shrine Mont so warm and welcoming that you do not want ever to leave. The joy and enthusiasm of Paris Ball and the fabulous young adults who come (many of them year after year) to spend time with the children and youth are so contagious that you wish you could be a child again just to be in their company in summer camp. But that is not why I love Shrine Mont.
From "God loves to the world" to "I love me" and its resounding "Thanks be to God," the Shouting Prayer tells us what we need to know to love Shrine Mont. You should see the children, teenagers and young adults of Shrine Mont, eyes shining brightly as with every ounce of strength and with profound joy they deeply breathe in and out the words:
Consider for a moment the paltry perspective of the so-called Real World: Our worth depends on our successes and relationships are utilitarian to the core; what have you done for me lately? Love, if it comes at all, has strings attached, conditions that must be met. Whether we want to or not, this is how right many of us live, and it is this nefarious narrative that children quickly grasp and internalize as defining their reality.
Church, I am sorry to say, all too often is part of the problem instead of the solution. "God loves you!" we proclaim. BUT YOU BETTER LOVE GOD BACK - or else! Scaring the hell out of people has become big business. The loving God we proclaim is morphed into a narcissistic, vindictive God who only loves those who love God back. A counterfeit gospel of conditional love has replaced the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Scratch the surface of many a faith community that claims the word Christian for its name (could it be true in some ways in our own churches?), and you will find the false yet fierce gospel of conditional love.
At Shrine Mont our children and we become free to trust a God who unconditionally loves each and every one whom God has made. No exceptions. No conditions.
This is why I love Shrine Mont. This place set apart is so infinitely invaluable to us because it teaches us all, from the youngest camper at St. Sebastian's Sports Camp to the oldest pensioner rocking on the porch of the Virginia Hotel, that God does indeed love us. Unconditionally. Full Stop. God doesn't love us if; God loves us. Period. Our children learn this because they are shown God's love every day. The joy of the Lord is their strength. Their radiant faces look to the four directions while reciting the Shouting Prayer because love has been poured in their hearts, because they have been fed with the riches of Christ's grace, and because this exuberant grace and love cannot possibly be confined inside them. It has to come out in thanksgiving, praise, and worship. With a loud shout.
By the Rev. Daniel Robayo, Chaplain to the Shout It from the Mountain Campaign
Sooner than you think.
The Jubilee is more fun with more friends. Calling all former camp staff, camper alumni, parents and the tangentially related to Shrine Mont. Come one. Come all. Come get awesome.
Reserve your spot for the Bishop's Jubilee, July 4-6 at Shrine Mont! Spend time with friends and hear from bands Many Nights Ahead and Bourbon Barrel Congress.
Make your reservations today by contacting Shrine Mont: 540-856-2141 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more at ShrineMont.com.
Spreading the good news of Shrine Mont Camps into the Valley of the World.
The View from the Mountain is written by a rotating cast of staff writers and contributors.