We woke before the sun Monday morning to load up the camp Jimmy and drive into Portland, so the camp staff could catch a plan to Dallas, Texas. I was taking the staff to the Lone Star State for a Camp Leaders Gathering. I’d been going to these biannual events since 2001. Through them I got to travel to lots of exciting places. I first went to Muir Woods, where I would later get married, on one of these trips. I met some life-long friends and established myself as a leader among other camp professionals in the process. I’ve also come to realize it is about as close as I get these days of being a permanent camp staff member to feeling like a camper again. It is something I’ve been longing for for some time now.
We landed at Love Field right around sunset and picked a white rental mini-van that Rikki and Melia quickly named “the Mommie Missile.” All loaded into our stylish ride, we made our way under the lights of downtown Dallas. I felt a deep feeling of satisfaction listening to the conversations behind me, hearing the ooooohhs and aaaaahhs at the city lights. I remembered so many times that I had been taken on trips like these and how it expanded me. Now I was getting to take my own staff on these experiences. We found a Mexican Restaurant downtown called Meso Maya. As we unloaded in the restaurant parking lot, the tall buildings towered over us. I could sense the thicker Southern air. The moon shined over the Reunion Tower. Even these experiences eating on our way to the event are important times, times we may go back to years from now tied to deeper memories of moments we shared together.
We finally pulled into Lakeview Conference Center at about 10pm as many people how had traveled long distances from later time zones were turning in for the night. Just after pulling in, the first person I saw was Vickie Lawson who I had worked with for 12 years at Lakeshore, the camp where I grew up and began professional camp work. Though I had never been to this place in my life, it felt like a homecoming. After checking in and getting people settled, I went to the dining hall where anyone still awake was gathered. At every turn, it felt like I was saying hello to someone I knew from work somewhere. It is those kind of hellos you find returning to summer camp, when you are reunited with your friends. You cannot get your hellos out fast enough before there is someone else. In a moment of greetings you travel to many times in your history you have shared with these people. Connections begin to fire in your memory that had been asleep. You feel alive as if you are truly your whole self. You would be content to stay awake making time with these friends all night, all day.
I was asked if our camp staff would do Morning Watch for each day of the event, so Hope and I tag-teamed, she taking the first morning and I taking the last two. It is a pleasure for me to plan devotions for people–it is something I do not get to do as much as I used to. But, it does require getting up about an hour earlier. Still, these are the kinds of pressures I am well-versed in, so I take joy in them. They are not stressful like newer tasks where I have less self-confidence right now. These are things I know I can do. These are things that bring me comfort. We opened each devotion at the Lakeview’s Peace Chapel, which turned out to be my favorite place at the site. Each morning, I rolled out of my bed and walked through the brisk air as the world woke up to this beautiful chapel. It was a good way to start the day. On several evenings, I ended my night there as well, planning for the next day or telling stories with friends.
During the days we ran this marathon of speakers and workshops, meals in a large dining hall, conversations while walking with different camp people, recreation, and few moments to step back and process all the ideas, information, connections, long overdue conversations. After a lunch-time cookout with some fantastic brisket, Allyson and I walked down to the lake and sat on the dock in the sunshine. With our free time we looked out over the big muddy lake. We talked about each other’s faith, where we were finding God and where we were having difficulty connecting. We both have found many connections to God through our work in camp. But, we also both find ourselves disconnected through the language Christianity uses these days, through the narrowness it sometimes defines itself. I find God so much more living into an intentional life with people than I do in the theologies that often take center stage, pushing out so much else. Out there on the dock with my partner, many friends just steps away sharing food, playing, conversating, I felt like we were safe to think these thoughts, to find our way to God the way we would. It felt natural, almost ancient.
Of my many camp friends at this event, I was deeply impacted by the presence of my friend Russell who directs Cedar Crest Camp in Middle Tennessee now. We’ve been in the business about the same amount of time, started attending events like these about the same time. We connected through camp certification classes when we became regional carpool partners. We share a lot of eerie doppelganger-like similarities, but a big part of it is that we are both about a lot of the same things. We both have this strong urge to make the church better, we both have high standards and don’t easily accept poor efforts in our work. We both believe firmly in building up young leaders and sending them out into the world to do good. We pride ourselves on seeing staff members we trained and supervised grow up to find full-time work at other camps or other important world-changing professions. During this week, we brought our respective kids together and watched them build friendships. I didn’t really spend very much time with Russell during the week. We both had lots of people to catch up with, lots of conversations that needed to be had. Still, it felt like I was with my friend all week, seeing these generations of people we’ve shared experiences with now sharing experiences of their own.
The last night of the event, I went out with Russell, Laura, and Patrick all friends who had taken classes together. We sat around an outdoor firepit at Pint and Barrell Drafthouse, passing around appetizers and stories of our good ole days to some of Russell’s former summer staffers, some of whom are now his full-time staffers, others full-time at other camps. It was a chilly night, but the fire was just warm enough. It felt very much like a camp fire. I felt this renewed vigor as we discussed the great things about our work and the things that are in desperate need of something new. I felt like it was up to us, that we are the ones who will ultimately affect and lead the next newness of our work, of our faith. I was proud of these people. I felt solidarity. I felt family.
Most people had to leave early the next day, some waking at 3am and 4am. Our staff enjoyed the perks of living in the Pacific timezone and slept in, taking our time getting out, traveling to Dallas, eating lunch, and getting to our flight. We touched down at PDX about 7:30pm. It was, of course, raining. It felt like a long drive home, the way two hour drives feel when you just went from Texas to Oregon in a day. We dropped off our crew person by person and then parked the camp Jimmy in its place where we had left from on Monday. It was a refreshing feeling to open the doors, hear the ocean, and feel the sea air in our nostrils. We were back at our camp.
On Saturday, Allyson and I tried to relax and settle back into regular life. We went up to Rockaway for lunch at the Offshore Grill. As we warmed ourselves with some good local food, discussing our week, the rain began to come down stronger. The wind picked up and flags and signs flapped around all over. We decided there was no reason to rush the meal. The lady at the table next to us commented on how it was indeed a good day to be inside eating. Watching the wind wreak havoc, I thought of how many vacationers looking at this site might feel like they had picked the wrong time and place to come. I just thought it was a great time to be where we were, when we were. It was not quite as scary. It is home, and I have the feeling I will look back and see more and more how we were continuing to build it, how it came to feel cozy and warm, even in the driving storm with the right company and the right spirit.