Made in the Image of Summer Camp

I spent the better part of 16 years at Camp McDowell, a camp and conference center about an hour north of my hometown in Alabama. Until the spread of COVID-19, I couldn’t imagine a world without summer camp, but here we are. To ensure the safety and wellbeing of the community, the leadership of Camp McDowell decided to cancel the summer camp season. I mourn for the children who are losing the chance to spend a week away from home, to see the stars and hear the birds, to sing at the top of their lungs and figure out who they are on their own terms. I offer this reflection as an ode to summer camp, for summers past and summers lost, for gratitude and hope.

“You know how God appears in lots of different ways? Like He takes on different shapes and forms, but they all add up to mean God. Is there a word for that?” my fifth grade self asked a counselor during a small group activity on how we think of God. He responded, “You mean, ‘multifaceted?'” Such conversations are the norm at Camp McDowell, in which young adults facilitate faith-based programs for children of all ages during the summer. As a camper and counselor, I have experienced programs about relationships, stewardship of God’s creation, the history of the Bible, and how to bring social and political issues from the lunch table to the altar. Free from the typical pressures of school and home life, Camp McDowell invites children of all ages to explore their values and faith in an intentional community focused on unconditional love and inclusion. The community functions on the belief that children are capable of making choices for themselves, of doing the right thing, of being a loyal friend to all, and of having meaningful conversations about their faith. 

Acting as parental figures, best friends, older siblings, and spiritual guides, the staff played a critical part in the development of my sense of self during my 12 summers as a camper. I think about the conversation with the counselor who taught me the word “multifaceted” regularly because I recognize it as the moment when I began to define my faith for myself, independently of my parents. Camp McDowell deemphasizes spiritual formation as an obligation and instead reframes worship as an integral part of the Camp day. After hiking, swimming, singing, and dancing all day, I found respite in our evening worship, typically Compline, in which counselors assisted campers with leading the service and singing hymns before bed. As a camper, and later as a staff member, I delighted in evening worship because our active days infused our prayers with meaning as we asked God to “guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.” Each day, we prayed these words into action, feeling God’s presence through all of our activities and into the night as we rested our tired bodies for the next day’s fun. Through the repetition and familiarity of these words each night and every summer, Compline helped me take ownership of my own worship, particularly when a staff member invited me to lead the entire community through the service. 

Sometimes messy, sometimes stressful, Camp McDowell fosters an environment that celebrates camper leadership, decision making, and creativity. As a camper, I loved when our counselors gave our brother/sister cabins free reign to choreograph our performance for the lip sync. The summer before 8th grade, my counselor, Sally, eased our middle school fears of dancing on stage in front of our peers by equipping us with silly costumes and the freedom to create something uniquely our own. Sally banished the anxiety of performing for other people by reassuring us that bonding as a cabin mattered more than winning the lip sync. After working through the turmoil of trying to incorporate everyone’s ideas in a fixed amount of time, the girls of St. Mike’s and the boys of Carpenter won “Most Creative” for our rendition of “Best Friend” by Toy-Box. Long before I experienced the trials of group projects and event planning in college, Camp McDowell challenged me to wrestle with the task of trying to include everyone while dealing with inevitable hurt feelings in a safe and fun environment. 

When the Avett Brothers’ lyrics “Decide what to be and go be it” rang through the rec hall at my last session as a camper in 2013, I knew that I wanted to continue the legacy of all of the role models who helped me decide who I wanted to be and how I wanted to carry myself through the world. After one summer as a counselor in training and three summers as a full time staff member, I have experienced the magic of a camper jumping off of the high dive for the first time, or singing in front of the entire camp at the talent show, or opening up to their small group about their relationship with God. All of this magic happens in a matter of a week, away from the pressures of school and the influence of parents, in a space that allows each camper to blossom and become their own person. Camp McDowell has taught me how to be a good steward not only of God’s physical creation but also of the relationships that I cultivated during my summers at Camp and beyond. For that blessing, I say amen and pray for the day that we can return to a world filled with summer camps.

by mblackerby95

Margaret Blackerby is an avid reader, former Irish dancer, and ongoing advocate for education. She received her B.A. in English and women's and gender studies from the University of the South (Sewanee) and is pursuing her M.A. in Communication Management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

If she's not taking walks around the neighborhood with Cowboy, her two year old rescue Siamese, she's probably binge watching The Vampire Diaries or posting book reviews on her Instagram.

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