Summer camp is so cool, but Christian summer camp is utterly amazing. I should know, I was in the business during the late eighties and early nineties.
In those days, the Presbyterians in the central and southern parts of Western Washington had joined forces to produce a very dynamic camp and conference program. We had Buck Creek Camp and Conference Center (the Creek) in the old growth timber country of the Cascade Mountains, and Sound View Camp on the Puget Sound with an enormous waterfront and dock. My job title was “Program Assistant” and I joked that my job description was “to do whatever my boss didn’t want to do”. I wasn’t really in charge of anything, but I laid a lot of ground work to make things work well. For a period of a few years I was part of an exceptional staff, and we were blessed to make our program a leading light of Presbyterian camping for a while.
It’s all gone now, the Creek is in other hands, and Sound View is on its own. But there are stories from that time that are worth telling. This is one of them.
We took training our summer staff very seriously. I wasn’t technically in charge of staff week, but I worked with the other summer program directors to design and implement it. This particular year I had attended a very intense training event in the spring. The instructor was the genius behind a powerful program concept called the Twenty-four Hour Experience. For twenty-four hours the participants work together through a carefully choreographed series of activities while moving from one destination to another – group problem solving exercises, trust building initiatives, environmental education, orienteering (navigating from point to point with a compass) and a slew of sensory heightening activities through the dark of night. Yeah. Twenty-four hours, right? Oh sure, there was some sleep, but the theory was to keep sleep to two or three ninety minute cycles between night activities. Did I mention the blindfolds? Even during daylight I think we spent half our time without sight. By the time it was over I was one whipped little puppy, but I couldn’t wait to afflict a similar experience on our summer staff during staff training.
Which I did. But by the time we all stumbled back into camp I was feeling as paranoid as a whaler at a Green Peace convention. During breakfast all the hostile looks made me flinch every time someone picked up a fork. Yet, I had inspired at least one counselor.
Weeks later I came downstairs for morning staff devotions, and saw Jim, one of the counselors, sitting on a couch wide-eyed, shaking, and disheveled. He waited until we were all there before he explained what had happened.
Counselors taking their cabins on night hikes wasn’t an unusual activity. But Jim had been impressed with the night activities we had done on the staff twenty-four hour experience, and thought an intense adventure in the dark would have a big impact on his cabin of boys. So after it got dark, he had led his cabin out their door, down the steps, and down the bank into the woods. But within moments he became disoriented, and was horrified to realize that he had no flashlight.
Remember that this was old growth forest and in that neck of the woods night-time is very, very dark especially when it is overcast. The trees grow to be in excess of 200 feet high, and create a thick canopy that hides the sky almost completely. This forest is only a step away from being an authentic rain forest, so the understory can be thick and tangled, and where Jim had taken his boys was very steep. They were in big trouble, and Jim realized it.
How would he keep the campers together? How would they avoid injury? How could they retrace their steps? Jim’s panic grew as they crashed their way further and further down the steep hill and away from camp. While he kept his panic to himself, the campers were oblivious to the danger, and were having a ball. Eventually they got down to bottom of the hill without any injuries. Jim was despairingly trying to lead his boys when he slipped and suddenly found himself knee-deep in the White river.
At that moment, with visions of campers swept away in the river, as his panic surged, Jim said that he physically felt some one grab his hand. That hand pulled him out of the river, and led him back up the hill, and onto a trail. As far as I know, he never saw who it was, but I have always thought it must have been Jesus himself, while others have assumed it was an angel.
Finding the trail was a huge relief to Jim. They followed it upstream until he could see the silhouette of the suspension bridge over the river, and finally knew exactly where they were. He had the boys huddle together beneath some low hanging branches until it was light enough to see. They returned to camp just minutes before staff devotions.
I don’t think the campers ever realized that anything was wrong. I don’t remember that as a staff we ever talked about it much after that morning. But I am still astounded when I think about it. Sometimes I think that the Lord’s direct intervention was an affirmation that our program was pleasing to Him. I’m sure that a worst case scenario would have torn the heart out of our program.
Yet, it’s never about being worthy enough to earn God’s intervention in our lives. God’s love and compassion was so great that night that He just had to take a hand and prevent disaster. Why should that cause amazement? Perhaps I don’t expect enough from God.