I’m sure when Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick inspired the title of this blog – a hit record in 1966 – they weren’t thinking about Shrine Mont Camps. However, what they did have in mind is love. And love is all I could breathe, touch and feel while serving as chaplain for Session I of St. Sebastian’s Sports Camp earlier this summer, a camp that promotes teamwork and sportsmanship as ways to re-emphasize God’s grace and love among God’s people on Earth.
This year’s first session consisted of 30 kids between the ages of 9 and 11. Growing up in New York City (Newburgh by way of the Bronx), I had never participated in an overnight camp. Thus, I must confess, I was extremely anxious. On my drive from Charlottesville to Orkney Springs, I asked myself these questions: What happens if one of our campers becomes homesick? Would the children understand my chaplain sessions – also known as "happy chappy time" – or would they dismiss them as boring? And lastly, would I fit in or would I come off as awkward, particularly to those veteran campers? Well, after two days of being with these wonderful youngsters, outstanding camp counselors and the terrific Shrine Mont Camps staff, I learned very quickly that my fears were unfounded. The first night of camp, several campers got homesick, and because I was also new to camp, in my own predicament, I could not only empathize with these campers, but also calm them. I too was new to camp, but my excitement about how God might reveal God’s self throughout the week translated very well to them, as they too were curious about seeing this themselves.
As the days passed by, I watched and witnessed amazing things from our young people, things that often today we only read about in fiction or exceptional stories. I watched young people literally pinch themselves when they forgot to pass their teammates the ball in games like soccer, hockey and basketball. Or when someone got hurt or just didn’t feel like playing, without being asked, I saw someone sit out with them so they wouldn’t be alone. I observed children, several in fact, who came to camp dealing with anxieties regarding significant family members with serious, even grave, illness. However, leaning on their fellow campers for support really helped them throughout the week. Though they were frightened for their loved ones, camp reminded them that life is not all death, but also beauty, fun, caring and excitement. Before my very eyes, these campers, with no leadership from me, created a community, a community of Christ.
After several days of watching our campers become a community, it came to me that one of our chaplain sessions should take place at the labyrinth. Conventional wisdom regarding labyrinths is this: The person walking the labyrinth pauses in silence before entering the labyrinth, holding a thought or memory in his mind that needs to be released. Upon reaching the center of the labyrinth, he looks up to the sky or ceiling and lets go the thing they’ve carried into the labyrinth. In the case of our sports campers, I deviated from this model. Instead of having them walk alone, I asked them to find a camper they had gotten to know throughout the week with whom to walk it together. Whoever led going into the labyrinth would follow their partner upon the exiting of the labyrinth. Once reaching the center of the labyrinth together, they were then asked to reflect on how their partner had helped them see God at camp.
As I coached many of our campers about labyrinth etiquette, I couldn’t help but notice four separate groups of girls, holding one another’s hands while maintaining the other’s pace. It felt like the Old Testament story of Ruth and Naomi happening before my eyes. And what would happen next is a memory I will never forget. Once these eight girls were finished with their walk, they asked one of the camp counselors, who was meditating by herself near the labyrinth, if they could join her. I was amazed with how they needed to remain connected to the spirit of God that they experienced in the labyrinth, but for them it hadn’t concluded there. I learned later that their meditation placed them in an open field with two chests sitting in the center of the field. One chest held their positive thoughts and the other chest their negative thoughts. During this meditation, they placed their bad thoughts in the second chest and closed it. Then they opened the first chest and reflect for the rest of the meditation on the good things that have happened to them. Even today, I am at a loss for words. These children embarked on a spiritual journey that takes many of us adults years to do. I think I finally know why Jesus says in Matthew, “Let the little children come to me, for they shall inherit the Kingdom of God.”
In a world that can’t seem to stay away from war, oppression, greed, hatred and all other things that keep us from being our best selves and leave us deaf to God’s voice, how is it that at camp, none of these things exist? How is it at camp that the Holy Spirit’s presence is crystal clear and is embodied? Well, brothers and sisters, I think it is clear: God needs us to enter places where cell phones, corporations, bank accounts, republicans, democrats, Jews, Gentiles, blacks, whites and all things that divide us don’t exist. It’s clearer to me now then it was before my experiences at Shrine Mont that God is calling us to places like this camp.
If I had to describe Shrine Mont in one word, that word is simply, “Love.” Love which passeth all understanding and which makes all things equal, simple and calm. And so the world needs that which Shrine Mont Camps offers us, because it is a small glimpse of what the Kingdom of God can and will look like on Earth. So let us petition all those who hate, dislike or are lacking an authentic example of what true love looks like to spend a week at Shrine Mont and experience God like never before.
By Jordan Casson
Jordan Casson is the youth minister at St. Paul's, Ivy. This was Jordan's first year as part of the Shrine Mont family and community. He looks forward to building a strong youth group at St. Paul’s and getting more of them to come to Shrine Mont Camps.
A recent transplant to Virginia, Jordan’s calling began at Morehouse College. After joining the Chapel Assistants Program, which develops leaders by emulating the work of Martin Luther King, Jr., Jordan felt called to religious life and attended Candler School of Theology at Emory University. At Candler, Jordan’s path led towards the Episcopal Church. After meeting Bishop Rob Wright (then the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta) and discovering the scope of social work in the Episcopal Church, Jordan decided to continue his discernment in the Episcopal Church and was received in 2011.
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.