Behavioral scientists have learned that the sense of smell is a sense particularly and potently tied to memory. You’ve probably experienced this in your own life—catching a whiff of perfume or coffee or a particular brand of soap or washing detergent, and being transported back to your grandmother’s kitchen, a conversation with your best friend, the way your high school boy-or-girlfriend’s jacket smelled. I had one of those moments during Cous-isn’ts Camp two weeks ago.
We were on my front porch, spraying down small people with bug repellant and sunblock. The mix of those smells threw me right back to the front porch of my old camp cabin, and I vividly remembered being doused with OFF and SPF 20 by my counselors before morning activities. I realized in that micro-memory how very much being a camper has shaped my life, and I was quite frankly gobsmacked.
Later that night, while I was saying my prayers, I realized that the relationships I formed and strengthened with Jesus and other campers and staff radically informed the rest of my life. I can’t say enough good things about summer sleep away camp.
Both my parents had grown up going to camp—my mom went to a camp in the Disciples of Christ tradition and my dad was an enthusiastic Boy Scout. Both of them had made such important friendships and life experiences, they wanted my brother and me to be campers, too. The parish I grew up attending felt the same way—camping was important—so, they offered half scholarships to any acolyte who wanted to attend our diocesan camp. I am so grateful for the investments made by my family and my faith community in making sure I had a camping experience.
And boy, did I have a camp experience… from the very first session I ever attended, to the summer I was staff director as an adult. Camp was a place I could call my very own and have truly sacred time with Jesus and an entire community of people I only saw once or twice a year.
Some of the staff at my summer camp attended the college and Episcopal Student Center at the college I ended up attending. They told stories about the ways they prayed and played together, and I decided I wanted that when I went to college, too.
My chaplain at that same college encouraged me to apply for a volunteer corps program in Washington, DC. And after that, I took a job as a youth minister and began taking my own youth to camp.
The summer I was staff director at my old summer camp was, besides the summer I fell in love with my husband, the best and most important summer of my entire life. My camp friends have collaborated on work projects with me, talked and walked with me through adulthood, and are some of the best friends I’ve ever made. In fact, my best-best friend is one of my camp friends.
I’m still good, close friends with cabin mates I had as an 11-year-old. Camp life taught me songs, reinforced lessons my parents taught me about Jesus, encouraged my love of The Book of Common Prayer, and taught me how to pull off incredible pranks involving gelatin and toilet bowls. It was just a week each summer, but the time I spent in that holy place marked me in a way I can’t quite name. It helped to make me who and how I am, even in this present moment.
If you have a kiddo going to camp this summer—or if they’ve already been to camp, or are afraid of going, or you just found out about a camp they can go to last week (sign them up NOW!! DO IT!)—talk to them about your own camping experiences. Find out their favorite camp things and people, let them sing grace at dinner time, don’t freak out when they come home having only worn one pair of underpants for the entire week, and go ahead and (as you are able) put down a deposit for next year.
Concentrated time with Jesus and a faithful, beloved community such as the ones formed at camp are important for all of us. That time is particularly important for our young people, helping them to grow as Christians and companions summer by summer, retreat by retreat, day by day.
Did you go to church camp? Did it change you?