Summer camp was not a norm for me when I was a kid. I was a competitive swimmer, and so my summer consisted of two to three practices per day and hours in the pool. I loved it, and I could not imagine that summer was about anything other than swimming. I was in the pool so much that my fingers did not even wrinkle.
I stumbled into my faith at the end of high school and spent the ensuing years wandering my way through the world of youth ministry. It wasn’t until years later when I answered a call to serve as a full-time youth minister that summer camp landed on my radar. I had been serving for a few months at St. John’s Episcopal in Columbia, SC when a parishioner asked me, “Is Jordan going to Camp Gravatt this summer?”
“I don’t know. What is Camp Gravatt?”
I don’t remember the conversation that followed exactly, but my son Jordan has been going to Gravatt ever since. I vividly remember dropping Jordan off the first time. He was nervous and excited. He seemed fine until we started driving away from his tent. My wife looked back, and Jordan was crying and running after us. But when we returned to pick him up, he was completely different: “I had the time of my life!” Jordan did not want to go home, and he cried a different type of tears as we left camp.
Located in the pines of Aiken, SC in the Diocese of Upper SC, we say that Camp Gravatt is a place in the woods that will find a place in your heart.
It is true, but I did not understand this fully myself until we moved back from seminary. Driving Jordan down the dirt road, we came to the entrance, and he lets out a sigh, “It feels good to be home.” We have had such transition in our lives that Gravatt has been a place of continuity, a community of stability.
Serving as a chaplain for camp sessions and for the staff the past four summers, I have had the opportunity to see first hand what is so formational about camp. Footprints is our formation program, and regardless of the theme for any particular summer, the whole week points to the Eucharist on our final full day of the session. The goal is binding the community together as one body, the Body of Christ, and everything is oriented with that purpose in mind.
Cultivating a sense of belonging, I believe, is key. I heard an interview with Brené Brown in which she said that belonging was defined as when others want you to be a part of the community. The counselors and program staff work hard to cultivate a sense of belonging amongst the campers. We believe in radical hospitality: all are welcomed, respected, loved, and accepted for who they are. This permeates every aspect of camp: high and low ropes, canoeing, art, games, morning activities, the talent show, and more. Nearly all the meals are family style, where kids pass baskets and bowls of food around the table, sharing and receiving from their friends.
I recently celebrated the staff commissioning Eucharist for this year’s camp staff. During the homily I asked the staff to share their stories of belonging they experienced or witnessed over the years. They shared countless stories of being drawn in by counselors and staff. One program staff member shared discovering an encouraging letter from her counselor in her camp box when she returned home. When a new staff member heard that story, she shared how important it was to receive a letter herself when she was a camper, from that particular program staff member. Belonging is contagious!
Another counselor remembered being an awkward and goofy middle school kid (weren’t we all?!), but her counselor did not bat an eye when she requested that she be referred to by a silly, self-appointed nickname. One of the assistant directors shared that Gravatt was a place that took him in when he was struggling in life and helped put him on a better path, a healing path. Another program staff who identifies as more introverted recalled her counselor always asking her input, giving her voice, inviting her to participate, and making sure she had opportunities.
When our family moved last summer, Gravatt was the anchor point for both of my kiddos, but for my daughter in particular. Brynn was really hurt by the move. Gravatt at first was a place of solace. But as she shared with fellow campers that she was moving, she discovered friends who would be at her new home. And then after camp, those friends connected her with even more new friends. Within days of returning home from camp, she had dozens of new friends and walked into a new school on the first day with a robust friend group.
Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, recently told the graduating class of Pepperdine University: “You leave this place to go fill the margins because that’s the only way the margins get erased.” At Gravatt, we attempt to cultivate belonging in such a way that margins are erased. And through our experiences at camp, we hope all become more equipped and confident at cultivating belonging and erasing the margins in our daily lives back home.
I truly believe that my kiddos have learned powerfully what it is to be the Body of Christ from their experience of community at Camp Gravatt. Their experience of God’s love and grace at Gravatt has had a profound impact on how they live in and interact with the world around them. I am ever grateful for the role Gravatt has played in shaping the faith and habits of my children.
Editor’s note: This is the final post in our series on diocesan summer camps. As with all Grow Christians posts, I’m grateful that the five authors shared such personal experiences with this community of ours. Most of the authors in this series wrote about camp providing them with a sense of belonging. I’m curious to know where you find your sense of community. Where do your children find it? I was reminded of so many of my own camp memories in these posts and could see my children in a few of them, too. Did any of the posts reflect your family’s camp experiences? What role does camp play in your children’s formation as a follower of Christ? What camps will your family visit this summer? ~ Faithfully, Allison