One Old Camper’s Take on Camp Sumatanga
(The following relatively long reading—is an adaptation of a letter I shared with the devoted Trustees of Camp Sumatanga—the much-loved Conference Assembly Ground that has, since the 1950’s, served The North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. This is my limited perspective, as I did not grow-up going to Camp—I’ve just been involved since 1980. But once I got a taste of Camp, I honestly grieved the fact that I did not have the experience as a youth.)
As I understand it, the vision of Camp Sumatanga’s founding fathers and mothers was to provide a place set-apart for children and youth—for all who came—to experience God’s Creation and be introduced to God’s kingdom possibility for their lives. It has been driven by the best of Methodism—devoted laypersons and clergy, lovingly volunteering weeks and/or weekends of their time in hopes of creating life-changing experiences of Christ and Christian community. One of the first things Nina Reeves—long-time Conference Youth Coordinator—would make clear at the beginning of every camp was, “This week we are going to be living in Christian community….” And we did. And it changed us.
The camping program—whether held at the Lodge or at Pool Camp—has carried that mantle faithfully through the decades. Lives have been, and continue to be changed through Elementary, Jr. High, Sr. High, Special Needs, Day Camps, and others.
All Youth events–Mid and Sr. High Camps, Leadership Camps, International Peace Camps, and now dormant weekend events such as Spiritual Life Advance, Church-Related Vocations, Rec Lab, Social Justice weekends–have been conceived, planned and executed by a Youth-elected Youth Council under the guidance of highly committed, adult volunteer leadership. When we had a Conference Youth Coordinator, that person and a single summer assistant were the only paid staff. The “Youth Team” gave their summers out of love for God, one another, and Sumatanga.
Thinking back, trying to reconstruct a typical day at Camp, I was reminded of the immense value, not only of what we do, but of how we do it.
A typical day in Pool Camp would begin with the playing of a wake-up song—sometimes thoughtful, sometimes playful (“Why do you build me up (build me up) Buttercup, baby just to let me down…”)–which led to a mad dash for the showers. Soon, there was the “first bell” which let us know the Dining Hall doors would be opening for breakfast in a few minutes–that is, with the ringing of the “second bell.” We were out the cabin door and down the hill to get in line. A lot of new friends were made in that line. Some folks would get to the door only to be sent back to their cabins to get their name tags!… “Wear your name tags!… and don’t forget to bring your Bible for Morning Watch!”
Now, we’re in the high-energy, low-ceiling, Dining Hall, enjoying (some of us more than others) a noisy, but substantial breakfast. After everyone made it through the line, a team member would stand on a metal chair (by those heavy wood doors…and the plaques detailing who had won Folk Festival in past years). The leader raised a hand—a silent signal that meant, “Everybody raise your hand and close your mouth.” And we did. Then the ”chairperson” would speak into the little P.A. microphone with a not-quite-long-enough goose-neck. “This morning, for the blessing we will sing, “Johnny Appleseed”— “Oh, the Lord’s been good to me….” Everybody sings.
After everyone finishes eating and takes their trays back, the leader climbs on their chair again and proceeds to explain the logistics of “Morning Watch”—about it being “your time alone with God”…a new concept for many first-time campers. “When you go out, find a place and settle in for the duration, out of respect for those around you…” (a “Christian community” thing) “…Now, stand and slide your chairs under the table… (loud metal on concrete scraping!)…. Today, for our morning watch hymn, we will sing, “Spirit of the Living God.”… And we’d file out singing—being handed a Morning Watch sheet as we went to find our quiet spot away from anyone else.
The scene?… a hundred or more campers and counselors scattered all around the Chigger Bowl–that large grassy field surrounded by a circular dirt drive. Once people settled in, the only sounds were nature sounds… a hawk… a breeze…. It was amazingly quiet. Holy quiet. Everyone is reading the carefully penned Morning Watch sheets with scripture and poetry and quote-worthy quotes from great thinkers and theologians–and sometimes, little line drawings to complement the writing. Often, there would be a bothersome question or two that made us think about God and faith and who God might be calling us to be in this world. Then there was always a little prayer at the bottom….partly there to jumpstart our own personal prayers.
Fifteen minutes… then a carefully selected song washes over the camp—“Create in me…a clean heart, O God, let me be like you in all my ways….” We’d been instructed, “Stay in your place till the song is over!” And we did, out of respect for those who still might be finishing up. For some campers, there was no more meaningful element of Camp than Morning Watch. Some have those sheets from twenty or more years back.
P.A. Announcer: “O.K., Campers, it’s time for cabin clean-up… Cabin 1-left cleans up the breezeway…7-right has Assembly Hall…” We all picked up any incidental trash we might see along the way. It was “our” camp, you know–and like the sign said as you pulled in the gate, “Let no one say, and say to your shame, that this was a place of beauty, till you came.” So much life-teaching at Camp….
After cabin clean-up time, we were called down to the Assembly Hall where high-energy songs drew us in for Morning Program. “Grab a neighbor’s hand, grab a hand next to ya…” “Now, take your Sumatanga Songbooks and turn to page….” Kelly on the piano (with sticking keys)… Team members up front singing enthusiastically and adding motions to songs for greater involvement….
Great, sometimes hilarious skits promoted Free Time options such as a staff-camper softball game in the Chigger Bowl, or listening to music in the Book Store, or creating something in Craft Hut. There would always be a plug for Youth Service Fund—an avenue through which youth could make a difference in the world. Youth brought their nickels, dimes and dollars (from their own limited “spending money”) and gave toward weekly goals…which we always reached via various cabin challenges. Hundreds of dollars were raised at every camp—and every penny went toward changing the world.
After announcements, we were singing songs like “My God Tears Down Walls!” and “It’s a Long Road to Freedom,” and “You are the Salt of the Earth”–songs that went beyond a personal “Kum ba ya” moment, to a call–a call to be the hands and feet of Jesus out there in the real world. (p.s., nothing against “Kum ba ya.”)
There was always a theme song for the summer,… and a theme hymn. Now, being raised in church, I thought I knew every hymn in The UM Hymnal—but at camp, I heard and sang, for the first time, “I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light,” and “Hymn of Promise,” and one that I’ve quoted a hundred times since in sermons and messages: “I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew… He moved my soul to seek Him…seeking me. It was not I that found, O Savior True. No,… I was found of Thee.” Wesleyan theology in a nutshell. A long-time songwriter, I have had the joy of being invited to write many of the theme songs for Youth summers and Peace Camps. “I Run to Christ” and “One” and “Rising on the wings of faith…over life’s storm-troubled seas. Carried along by a spirit of grace. Rising… we’re rising.” Those songs would not exist were it not for Camp.
The special speaker of the week brought the Word each morning. Speakers were dynamic and engaging–“provoking” in the best sense of the word. Jordan Grooms and James King and Tex Samples and Leonard Sweet and Bishop Leontine Kelly and “Bro. Bert” Goodwin–just to name a few. It has been my great honor to be invited into that role a few times—and I will never speak to a more engaged audience. The hearts were primed…the clay was moist.
A word about theme. The Youth Council “Theme Committee,” consisting of youth, lay adults and clergy representatives, would gather annually for a time of study, prayer, and discussion about what was going on in the church and world. “What do we need to focus on this year?… What’s on kids’ hearts and minds?…Where is God moving?” Then, and only then–after careful, prayerful deliberation–would the summer theme be selected. As a result, the theme was owned by the entire group and unique to that moment in history. Each team’s gifts made their camp a work of art—organic…unfolding naturally as we journeyed together through the week.
Being one of the go-to songwriters, I would receive the “theme sheet” at least six months–sometimes, a year in advance. This simple sheet (’tis a gift to be simple,” you know) would include the overall theme, theme scripture, and theme hymn. Underneath the heading, there would be a neat list of the daily themes and scriptures. It was perfect.
The deliberative planning process was a snapshot of what we Methodists call “holy conferencing” at it’s best. Over time, it produced an ocean of loving, responsible, serious-minded, Big-picture-aware, disciples of Jesus Christ—people unafraid to speak their conscience but, at the same time, able to “listen to understand” and respect the perspectives of another. These camp and team alumni have become “salt of the earth, light of the world”—so many going on to full-time Christian service or positions out in the secular world that honor God and reflect the Kingdom values. They won’t hesitate to tell you that Camp made an enormous difference. Through the speakers and programs and small groups, they heard the call of God in Micah 6:8—“What does the Lord require of you but to seek justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.” No way they would think of putting a lid on the Christian mandate to address social issues. Jesus’ inaugural address (Luke 4) provided a short list of what we, as followers of Christ have to do: “…to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
If we are going to be faithful to Jesus, we cannot NOT talk about social issues—particularly in these days in which we live.
Following Morning Program and Canteen (a snack hut), we made our way to small groups, which were held in the open-air classrooms lining both sides of the breezeway. Each group had 8-10 campers and 1-2 counselors. The counselors would facilitate discussions centered around the morning message and theme of the day. Spend several days with the same group, grappling with the issues, playing together and praying together, and before you know it, you’ve made new friends. It wasn’t unusual for a youth to stay after class to talk with an attentive counselor about something that was on their mind or heart. Because there were many adult counselors, there were many different personalities and life stories for the youth to relate to.
Then it was Free Time—playing softball in the Chigger Bowl, hanging out in the Book Store, playing ping pong or four-square—maybe just sitting on the breezeway ledge watching all the action.
In no time, the bell was clanging, announcing lunch. Lunch led into fun singing, sometimes using those little blue “Let Us Sing Together” songbooks… “Dewey was an admiral at Manilla Bay…” “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!…” Over the week, we sang all of the Camp “greatest hits”—and we sounded good… in that low-ceiling, concrete-floored room!
All filled-up and sung-out, we’d file out to strains of “Go rest, go rest….” sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”—heading to our cabins for ”flat time”
“Flat time” is an hour of nap time, or at least quiet time. We needed it with the full schedule we kept. We grew to love “flat time.”
Then a song plays… and a voice echoes across the camp, “Time for Interest Groups!” Story-telling, games, songwriting, crafts, journaling, creative movement, wood-carving, poetry, choir, social issues—the list was as varied as the talented, volunteer leadership team on site for the week.
After Interest Groups, it was afternoon Free Time options—a group hike up the mountain to the open-air Chapel and the panoramic view; an ultimate Frisbee game on the Chigger Bowl; swimming at the pool; hanging out with new friends; or maybe helping prepare for the Evening Program.
Campers were enlisted to help with any number of tasks and programs throughout the week, 1) as we learned of their interests and talents, and 2) as they ventured out of their shells. The gifts and graces were drawn out as Christian community was lived out. And, it wasn’t just the kids that came out of hiding.
I remember one night, I was so inspired by the evening program–describing the darkness so evident in the world, and the desperate need for the light of Christ. When we broke for Recreation, I slipped over to Bessemer Lodge where there was a piano and wrote the song, “Candle in the Night.” I almost ran back to the Assembly Hall, pulled that week’s program director (Reggie Holder) aside. He looked at it and without hesitation said, “It’s perfect! Let’s use it during closing tonight!” And we did, and it was magic. That’s Camp!
I digress—where were we?… Oh, “afternoon Free Time.” Now, the dinner bell’s ringing… then dinner…then more fun singing. Then, “Stand up and slide your chairs under the table….” and we are heading out to Vespers.
Vespers really started with the walk—the wordless walk out of the Dining Hall…past the little Prayer Chapel… negotiating the roots and rocks… up…down…maybe getting a helping hand or two from the person in front of you. After three or four minutes, we emerged at “Vespers Point”—every person filing-in and finding a hard seat on the rock-tiered amphitheater. Thoughtful program… maybe a meditative song… always a scripture. Maybe it’s read antiphonally—that is, with people chiming in on-cue from all across the crowd. So striking—the changing voices. Why can’t we do something like that back home in “Big Church”? Maybe we will, now. (There were so many things we learned at Camp that we could take back to our local churches and youth groups.)
Vespers was reverent—respectful of God, of Creation, of the speakers and actors and musicians. It was important–and we treated it like it was important.
After the speaking, there was always a moment of silence. No sound except a breeze in the high branches…. Then, a voice from above–that is, from the big rocks behind us, at the top of the amphitheater…“May the Lord bless you and keep you….” We stood and turned and followed the person in front of us, up the hill and out of the sacred space.
Evening Program was the culmination of the day. The creativity and integrity of those programs was unsurpassed–something I had never experienced anywhere else. An all-volunteer team, working with the theme of the day—bringing their A-game, using every available talent and technology at their disposal. Involving scores of campers as readers and singers and dancers and actors; transforming that rough-hewn Assembly Hall nightly into yet another unforgettable, multi-sensory, experiential, holy ground, encounter with God. There were forever-memorable visuals and backdrops that evolved over the course of the week (many by design of artist-friend, Danny Rountree).
The content was drawn from every conceivable source. If it was “truth,” it was fair game. Like John Wesley, the program directors and youth “plundered the Egyptians” and used whatever they had to in order to communicate the message. It was glorious, really. These lovers of God and life and the Church and, yes, Camp Sumatanga, would, and often did, pay their own way and expenses just to be a part of such excellence. It was all filtered—consciously or unconsciously—through Philippians 4:8… “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” All of camp—but especially, Evening Program–was excellent.
Of course, following Evening Program, there was Recreation! “Everybody stack your chairs against the walls….” Folk dancing!…so fun…beginning with Nina or Danny or Heath up front, “Right, together, right together, left together, left together…” and “Amos Moses,”… and “King Tut”… and the big circle dances where you constantly changed partners. The best part of Recreation?… EVERYBODY was included—red and yellow, black and white,… tall, short, large, lean, young, old, jock, nerd.… It was such a beautiful snapshot of the Kingdom. God had to love it.
Then it was time for everybody to move toward the stage and sit on the floor, facing the makeshift screen for song slides. As flashy and polished as modern graphics and media may be, they don’t hold a candle to what was experienced through these hand-drawn, colored song slides. (I actually took a workshop to learn how to make them–at Camp, of course.)
We sang along with John Denver and Kermit the Frog and other then-contemporary artists. “Love is everywhere!… and I feel it! You are all that you can be!… go out and be it! Life is perfect!… I believe it! Come and play the game with me!” and “We are a Rainbow…together we are a sign!…” and “Someday we’ll find it, The Rainbow Connection—the lovers, the dreamers, and me….doh-di-oh-doh-di-oh-doh….” And, in those moments, we found it.
Then it’s Story Time with Nina and her storytelling stool. (Sometimes, there were guest storytellers, but usually, it was Nina—I mean, she was a world-renowned storyteller and Conference Youth Coordinator for nearly fifty years). It was an anchoring moment for us. If Nina was telling stories, “God was in God’s heaven and all was right with the world.”
An animated reading of “Whobody There” or “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-good, Very Bad Day”…or “Split Dog” or the whistling of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Or “Two Brothers”–you know, the one about the two brothers who were so close until a silly disagreement over a calf born on their adjoining property lines…and the Carpenter who came along and built a bridge instead of the high fence one brother had hired him to build. In my mind, I can still see those brothers, in tears–running to embrace each other at the center of that bridge. “I’m sorry!” “No, I’m sorry–you can have the calf….”
The stories entertained—but, more, they taught Kingdom lessons.
Story Time over, the lights come up a little and baskets are passed for Youth Service Fund donations. Someone starts an a cappella singing of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Everyone joins-in… in spontaneous, natural-as-breathing 3-part harmony. We learned to sing in harmony at Camp…literally and figuratively.
Baskets collected, the room goes dark. From the back of the Assembly Hall—someone begins reading a poem or a scripture… or someone sings a verse of an old hymn that now jumps off of the page for us because of what we have experienced throughout the day and evening. It’s the perfect word for the moment…
“Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore… May the search for Thy salvation…be our watchword every more. Grant us wisdom! Grant us courage! for the facing of this hour! For the facing of this hour!…”
After a holy moment or two–out of the darkness, something begins to glow at the front of the room … a simple cross over center stage… faintly at first… then brighter,… and brighter,… till the light of Christ lights every face…and heart.
A pregnant pause… then a voice begins…
“May the Lord bless you and keep you…” And all join in….
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
Then it’s Canteen… and a Team Meeting up in Suther Lodge with good snacks—freshly-popped popcorn or slices of ice-cold watermelon or ice-cream sandwiches—or, maybe, a birthday cake for that team member spending their birthday at their home away from home. Then, Nina…“OK, everybody gather in…”
“Everybody”—that is, all these volunteers who have poured their heart and soul into the day and the campers and the program All are leaning against door facings or piled onto the worn couches and chairs, or seated on the dusty floor of that old den, propped against the knees of a friend….
“Just just checking-in,… Is everyone alright?… Any problems with any of your kids?…” One of the female counsellors says, “I did have one I had to take to the Nurse’s cabin…chigger bites….”
Someone “glows” on the speaker’s message from the morning…and someone else says, “Could you believe that Evening Program!” Everybody nods or claps or, maybe, just smiles, “Yes!” Those team meetings were like Heb.10:24, in the flesh: “…let us consider how to encourage one another to love and good deeds….” Nan Jones, chimes in, “Why, I believe this is THE BEST TEAM we’ve ever had.” (She said that about every team for thirty years or so—and, you know, she was right every time!)
Time’s up…. Gotta go round up the campers… “W.G.,” (or whoever happened to be in Nina’s line of vision…anyone in the room could and would gladly) “…pray us out…” Sometimes we even prayed with our eyes wide open—looking around that room for the face of Christ in each other.
“Amen!”…and we’re outta there—headed down, or up to our cabins—Suther’s spring-loaded screen door banging behind us.
Counselors lead cabin prayer time on their respective sides of the cabin… teeth are brushed… “Lights Out” at 11:00….
Then, as we’re laying on our bunks—maybe thinking back over the day,… maybe beginning to doze off—a slightly scratchy recording of “The Lord’s Prayer” (The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, as I recall) comes wafting through the trees….
“Our Father… which art in Heaven… hal-low-ed be… Thy name…”
Our minds are a blur of all that has happened over the course of one day. Our hearts, a mixed bag of happiness and gratitude and nostalgia and hope… and shalom.
“…for Thine is the Kingdom!…and the power!… and the glo—ry!… FOREV- – ER!!!…Ah – – – – – men….”
The lighted cross at the top of Chandler Mountain watches over us as we sleep…and somewhere up in Heaven, a great cloud of witnesses—most wearing handcrafted “Deacon Jones” name tags—looks on and smiles.
Some might argue that the “Camp” in the above narrative is obsolete, outdated, a relic!—that it’s outlived its usefulness. I would beg to differ.
I think we need Camp more now than ever. There’s nothing like it.
“May the Lord bless you and keep you;
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”