Lutheran summer camps are scattered across our denomination. In fact, in seminary we would joke that our introductions frequently included the Lutheran outdoor ministry sites where we went as kids, served as staff and hoped to return as pastors. The experiences one finds at church camp can drastically change whole trajectories—at least, they did for me.
When I was a freshman in high school, I was painfully awkward. I had glasses, was overweight and often wore a tutu to school. My first week at Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Ministries changed everything for me. What was first marketed to me as a weeklong summer camp for high school and college-age kids in my synod helped me survive adolescence. Pinecrest brought me back to myself and continues to do so to this day.
The first summer I spent at Pinecrest, I was struggling beyond belief. For seven days, I cried from the minute I got out of bed in the morning until my head hit the pillow at night. My tears came not from homesickness or anxiety but from raw sadness. I had been struggling to come to terms with my sexuality the previous school year, I had just lost a dear friend from childhood to illness, and I wasn’t doing well.
What I remember most about my first week at Pinecrest was that no one tried to tell me to “suck it up.” Instead, they just sat with me, held space for me while I cried and reminded me I wasn’t alone. They didn’t care if I did the activities or sang the songs; they just wanted me to be all right.
By the end of the week, despite the tears, I couldn’t imagine my life without these people who just let me feel my feelings. People who reminded me that, when God sent Jesus to earth in a body, in flesh, it was so the very heart of God could feel things too.
When the tears stopped and I got out of my own head, the fun began. Our Bible and leadership classes began to infiltrate my thinking, and I could see the wheels in my brain spinning. That week, I heard for perhaps the first time that God loved all of me, not just the façade I was putting on for the world. I was able to walk around in all of my identities and not be shamed for them but celebrated.
Most importantly, I met God face to face at Pinecrest. When the tears finally stopped, I could hear God calling, and I haven’t looked back since.
The magic of church camp, really all of Lutheran outdoor ministries, is that we can, even if just for a moment, be our full and complete selves. I danced hard, laughed till all hours of the morning and fell so completely head-over-heels in love with this community that I stuck around for 10 more years.
Later, while I was serving as a cabin leader for Pinecrest, it was my privilege to watch high school and college-age young people come together and see what God was unfolding before them on the soccer field, in the cabin during devotions or in leadership classes. I’ve watched kids learn how to speak truth to power, how to remind people of their beloved-ness and how to have a good time in the midst of it all.
One of my favorite activities takes place in the dining hall, and, no, I’m not talking about meals. That’s where we “dance it out” and sing at the top of our lungs. In fact, we sing many songs at camp that stay in your head for weeks or months afterward. Even 14 years later, Pinecrest songs and their lyrics remain etched on my heart, including, “The circle of love goes around, around. The circle of love goes around. Reach out, grab a hand—someone needs you as the circle of love goes around.”
In a world that would have us divided, what a blessing it is to be reassured that all you have to do is reach out a hand or call on a friend and you’re saved. I met my partner at Pinecrest. I met my best friends. I met future colleagues and a fair share of bishops. I met my vocation, my sense of purpose in the world. Most importantly, I met God face to face at Pinecrest. When the tears finally stopped, I could hear God calling, and I haven’t looked back since.
Today Pinecrest is still a place where people can be whoever they need to be. Lutheran Outdoor Ministries facilities are places where God kneels down and reminds us that we are never truly alone in our struggles. I’m confident that lives are changed for the better at church camp because I know mine was.
Pinecrest has been and remains an ever-expanding circle of love for all of God’s children—no matter what.
For more information on ELCA outdoor ministries, go to elca.org/camps.