Last summer, Melissa Gómez-Yepes saw the Milky Way for the first time.
Gómez-Yepes is from Medellín, Colombia, where she works as an evangelism coordinator in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Colombia (IELCO). As a camp counselor at Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills of South Dakota, she encountered new constellations of people and relationships every day.
A ministry of Lutherans Outdoors in South Dakota, Outlaw Ranch offers camp experiences for people of all ages. Including international youth such as Gómez-Yepes on the counseling team “allows people here in rural South Dakota to experience the world,” said Matt Rusch, director of Outlaw Ranch.
Young people from Colombia have been a backbone of the program, thanks to the long relationship between Outlaw Ranch and the Emmaus Road Foundation of IELCO. For eight weeks, Gómez-Yepes, Juliana Jimenez and Helena Margarita Muñoz-Armella were part of a group of counselors who trained for 15 days to lead weeklong family summer camps.
Whether they come from Colombia, Cameroon or New Zealand, international staff have plunged into a variety of North American camp traditions.
Gómez-Yepes appreciated the mix of activities with “solitude and meditation, time for God and Bible study,” she said. “The hills, the green, the stars, the whole place helped my mental health a lot.”
So did the gift of rural South Dakota hospitality. One profound takeaway came when she was washing dishes and Larry Peterson, a rostered minister and longtime Outlaw participant, joined her at the sink. For Gómez-Yepes doing the dishes together embodied Lutheran theology. “It’s not like the pastor is up here and the people are down here,” she said. “We are equal.”
“When I think about Lutheran theology in that beautiful place with those beautiful people, I could see the welcome, the love, the gathering, the forgiveness.”
Inclusion at the core
Colombian counselors are a key part of Outlaw’s Bilingual Family Camp, which unites English- and Spanish-speaking families for a week of intentional community. ELCA communities Cristo Obrero in Eden Prairie, Minn., and Pueblo de Dios in Sioux Falls, S.D., are regular participants.
“I felt the love a lot that week,” Gómez-Yepes said. “All the counselors tried to understand the culture, to try to break down the walls. That was very special.”
Even more fun was giving Latin dance lessons with Jimenez and Muñoz-Armella to some enthusiastic campers.
“Lutherans in South Dakota are not just white Norwegians,” Rusch said. “This week of family camp is one expression of our varied and vibrant faith.”
Gómez-Yepes appreciated how Outlaw Ranch included people with autism, people with diabetes, and LGBTQ+ youth. She found campers “more open-minded” about topics such as sexuality that are more difficult to talk about openly in Colombia.
Inclusion is at the core of Outlaw Ranch’s mission to welcome all to explore and experience Christ’s love in community and creation. The camp serves between 2,500 and 3,500 youth and families every year through its on-site and off-site programs.
Sharing life experiences with counselors and campers deepened that sense of inclusion for Gómez-Yepes. The kitchen staff made her feel like a member of the camp family on Day One.
“When I think about Lutheran theology in that beautiful place with those beautiful people, I could see the welcome, the love, the gathering, the forgiveness,” she said. “I felt every point there in every day of the camp.”
Back in Medellín, Gómez-Yepes is focusing on building up a shared sense of Lutheran identity in the Colombian church. Her summer in South Dakota showed her another way to be church. Now she is “connecting that vision for faith with my country.”
On her desk is a little painted rock, a gift from a camper. “Forever an Outlaw,” it reads.
“It is a memory of what I carry in my heart,” she said.
Learn more at elca.org/camps.