Who are your favorite theologians?
Aquinas? Augustine? Karl Barth? Richard Hooker? Gustavo Gutierrez?
They’re all great, but I have to say, after spending twelve days serving as chaplain to senior high school students and their counselors at Music and Drama camp, I’d nominate Evelyn and Hannah and Eugene and LJ and Keyondrè, among others.
No, they haven’t gone to seminary. They haven’t published articles in scholarly journals. They most likely wouldn’t identify themselves as theologians.
But they are theologians, without a doubt.
The third session of MAD Camp did something a little different this year. They did a show and they took it on the road, as usual. But rather than using a stock musical production with a religious theme, they wrote their own show. They took it to different venues, with a different purpose than in the past.
To put it briefly, they wrote something that reflected their deeply held belief that they are each beloved sons and daughters of God – “I am enough” – and that they were capable, through their own gifts, of changing the world in a particular way.
How did they get there? To be sure, the director of the camp, Ashley Isenhower, the program director, Cullen Dolsen, and the creative team who worked with them were a large part of the project. But the young people rapidly made this project their own, in their enthusiastic embrace of the underlying notion that each of us is given gifts by God that can be used to make this a better world and in their writing of the spoken-language parts of the script.
But to help find the language for what this was all about, we conducted a variety of theological reflections in Chaplain’s Time, in evening reflection, in meditation time.
And here’s where it got fun.
Take it as a given that each of us finds our way to an understanding of God and our relationship with the Divine in a unique and personal journey. For some of us it is in seeing the models of others around us whom we admire. For others, it is in music that breaks our hearts and touches our souls. For others still, it is in visual arts or in nature, in poetry and in literature, in God’s word in the Bible and in the powerful and prophetic words of great souls. Still others respond to the wonders of the created universe.
So if we wanted to facilitate conversations about what it means to be beloved, to be gifted by God, to be capable of prophetic witness, to be agents of comfort and change, and if we only had a few days to be able to write and live into that reality, we had to use all the ways that human beings make that journey to help these young people.
So one morning was spent doing something that many middle school science classes do: an egg drop, where a team has to devise a construction that will allow a raw egg to be dropped from a height without breaking the shell.
What does that have to do with God? On the face of it, not much. But when we started talking about how each team had people with different skills and approaches. One was driven by a playful esthetic – their effort was entitled “Toby-Wan-Ken-Eggy” and greatly resembled the Jedi knight, complete with light saber. Another was architectural: the team came up with a cage superstructure made of straws, with the egg wrapped and suspended in the middle. Another was all about the physics, with shock absorbing space and inflated Ziploc bags to protect the cargo. As we reflected upon what the design process was like, it became obvious that the different gifts of the team members played out in unique ways – all were appreciated, all were useful, all necessary to counterbalance the other members of each team. And each team’s egg successfully survived a drop from the second floor balcony of Virginia House.
This led to a session in which we took a “spiritual gifts assessment.” There were some surprises as the kids discovered things they didn’t know about themselves , but which were affirmed by their fellow campers. Of course Joe was full of compassion. Of course LJ was a preacher.
One evening we did an exercise called “Box Fort.” The campers were divided into three teams. Each team was to create a home out of their given resources that could house the entire team. Team 1 was given huge amounts of resources, the second a modest amount of resources, the third hardly any.
There was the possibility that this could devolve into whining and complaining by those who had less, maybe even some pilfering, or the richer group lording it over the others.
But something odd and wonderful happened. One member of Team 1 (who comes from the most challenging and modest backgrounds) asked one of the counselors early on if he could just give some of their resources to Teams 2 and 3. He was given permission to do so. He gave some away and did very modest trades, where what was offered in trade was much less in value that what he gave. The least resourced group was willing to make personal sacrifices – a pair of shoes, for example – to get a couple of needed resources. All three groups were playful and focused on their own task, not in comparing their situation with others. When the “houses” were evaluated, they were applauded by the other teams.
Something was going on here: the work at hand was more important than comparing with each other.
And again, there was recognition that the variety of gifts in the team made it possible to come up with creative solutions that any one individual might not have discovered.
Later we did exercises that talked about how these young people were situated in their world, by taking a “privilege walk.” All began standing in a single line across the Ladies’ Parlor in Virginia House. Then a series of statements were made which would identify privileges that some of us had (take a step forward) and that some of us did not have (take a step back.) It became evident that even in a seemingly relatively homogeneous group like Shrine Mont campers, there were differences. Some of us had more privileges than others. The notion of essential fairness – that some of us cannot succeed as we might wish simply because of where we were born, what our parents had, how we were educated – led to a rich conversation and reflection of Jesus and the many passages in the Gospel that talk about Jesus’ desire to care for those who do not have privileges. The campers recognized how Jesus transfers that desire into our hearts, so that we might want to help as well.
Other exercises focused on teamwork – how would the walk on the road to Emmaus differed if Cleopas had gone alone? – and on the power of prayer to sustain us when doing the hard work of faith-based social justice. We lived into the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Chimborazo Park in Richmond, near neighbors who do not have enough to eat.
These young people lived theology in a thousand different ways. In reflection, in projects, in song and dance, in working with little children at Peter Paul Development Center’s “Clara’s Camp” at Roslyn. They preached it. They grew deeper in it. They celebrated it.
Theologians. They don’t just write about it. They live it. The nineteen campers and nine staff of MAD Camp III will forever be my favorite theologians, and I believe they will change the world, one song, one hug, one word at a time.