I Survived Church Camp

Rare photo of me at church camp

At some point each summer I think back to past summers and there is hardly a thought about summer without thinking about camp. While most kids go to a summer camp, I attended church youth camp.

No it was fun. Really. Okay, parts of it was fun. Some parts not so much.

My first venture to church youth camp was in the summer of 1975. My dad had volunteered to work in camp a counselor and teacher during the week. My first youth camp was in a remote location called Pine Mountain near Columbus, Georgia. When we arrived, I was assigned to a cabin separate from my dad. When I walked into my cabin I was expecting other quiet and reserved kids like me but I witnessed another camper swinging from the rafters with his pants pulled down.

Yep, this was church camp.

The kid was being funny and in years that passed I learned this camper just was a crazy guy who wanted attention good or bad. It was a strange first experience for me. I had a girlfriend at that first camp – well sort of. The whole week she thought I was someone else even when I tried to set her straight. At the end of the week there was this thing called a banquet which was supposed to be this formal thing for the last night of camp. It was an unwritten rule that guys were supposed to have a date they could sit with at the banquet. This would be the first and only time I would ever have a date for this event.

Okay, I think you know I said this was a church camp. Let me further make things more interesting for you by telling you it was a Pentecostal church camp. That’s right. We were saving souls and speaking in tongues this week. Every night we had church. At this first camp church was held under a large outdoor structure with a tin roof. One funny memory I have is one night when the spirit was moving (that’s what we called it then) a group of boys were running around the building speaking in tongues. When me and another camper did the same thing, one of the boys in the other group stopped and looked at us and said “you are only doing this because we are doing it”. Then he continued with leading his group around the building and resumed speaking in tongues. After that first year of camp, I didn’t want to go back and I didn’t return the next summer. I didn’t think I would ever go back.

Then as the summer of 1978 approached, our church organization had built their own campground in a place that would be known as Camp Echeconnee near Roberta, Georgia. My dad was the pastor at a different church that had a larger youth group than past churches had. This influenced me to give youth camp another try. The first camp at the new campground was supposed to be the senior camp which was the age group ahead of me but a kitchen fire postponed their camp and my age group (juniors) were the first campers to attend. That first camp at the new campground changed it all for me as well as a counselor named Bubba Cardin. Bubba was a young state evangelist but was like no other I had known before. Bubba played the banjo and his rendition of Don Francisco’s “He’s Alive” was one I have never forgotten.

Camp turned out to be a positive experience for me that week even when several campers got chiggers from an impromptu hike in the woods.

I was never the popular one and was largely overshadowed by the cool kids at camp but I still made some good friends. I met a guy named Jay Thornton. Jay and I were both preachers kids and our lives had travelled similar paths. We also both liked basketball. With the NBA playoffs usually finishing up before camp, we would talk about the games and played many games of basketball ourselves at camp during free time. I think I even remember us imitating sports commentators while watching the staff-camper basketball game.

Basketball. Now back in the day, this was my game and I wanted to be good at it. I would practice weeks before camp hoping my skills would be impressive enough to get a spot on the staff-camper basketball game. The desire to play didn’t match my ability so it was an annual effort of frustration.

Remember me telling you that my first camp was my first and only time I would have a date for the banquet? It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Just as my basketball skills failed me, my attempts at dating were anything but smooth. Once I saw a girl I really liked and I wanted to meet her. I boldly went up to her and introduced myself. Pretty harmless right? To my horror, she laughed and turned away from me and walked away. Her and her friends pointed at me and laughed every time we would pass the rest of the week.

Fortunately for me and my fragile self-esteem, I had some great friends during this time. I had already told you about Jay. Jay has remained my friend over the years thanks to Facebook. Jay is now a pastor himself and probably the kindest person you could ever meet.

Gary Lewis was another person I would meet at camp and become friends with. Gary was also a preacher’s kid. We were often grouped into the same cabins at camp or next door. In those days at camp, each building housed four groups of about 10 kids plus their counselor. I was always one that got my shower done early and dressed for church each night. This caused me to be ready earlier than others. Gary found this comical once and made the comment “Look at Milton. He’s all dressed up with no place to go.” This has been our ongoing joke ever since then. (Yes Gary, I still get ready early with no place to go!). Gary went on to bigger and better things. The last I heard was that he was a Chaplain with Hospice. I can’t imagine those folks being in better care for their spiritual needs during those times.

There was no doubt that camp was about our spiritual needs and our relationship with God. Nobody ever forced God in us but there was some peer pressure to do so. The camp was structured.

Each day at camp would pretty much be the same schedule:

  • Morning Devotion
  • Breakfast
  • Class
  • Singing
  • Lunch
  • Class
  • Girls swimming/boys recreation time
  • Boys swimming/girls recreation time
  • Free time
  • Cabin devotion
  • Dinner
  • Church service

You might have noticed the swimming part of the schedule. Boys and girls were never allowed to swim together at the same time. This would be what they church called “mixed bathing” which was not allowed. So we had separate swim times.

In those old youth camp days, the common enemy we all had was the intense heat of the Georgia summers. The swim times was one of the things we could do to get relief. The only air conditioning was in the cafeteria. Anything happening at the cafeteria was a popular event. We also had something called the Snack Shack which was a place we could get refreshments. At the beginning of the week we would purchase a snack shack card. I would always stress out about it and try to budget myself to make my card last as long as I could.

I hate to admit it but the least favorite part of camp were the classes. Those were hours of my life that I thought would never end. To be fair, most teachers did a great job but when your life already revolves around church, you weren’t thrilled about more church. I will say that the elective classes were a bit more interesting such as the CPR class which was the first time I learned how to perform CPR.

When I got older and no longer a camper, I volunteered to work in camp. My pastor convinced me to join him to work in the kitchen during camp. That’s probably the hardest I ever worked in camp. Other times I volunteered to be a counselor. Counselor sounds like a nice job but it was more like a weeklong chappone/babysitter. It is a week where you shouldn’t expect to get much sleep. Boys can stay up for a long time and explore many ways to get a laugh including various forms of bodily sounds. A counselor has to keep one eye open or else you will find yourself being pranked. I was lucky that my bunk never ended up in the shower or short sheeted. (Yes, this was church camp) In spite of all the shenanigans, I always did my best to make my boys feel special. During one camp our theme was the Olympics and I had a vendor create replica gold medals that I gave to my boys at the end of the week. They thought that was so cool. Being a counselor was a lot of work but I always felt like it was a rewarding experience after it was over. I can only hope that somehow I was able to be a positive impact on the boys in my cabin.

Yes, it was a church camp and a Pentecostal so there were some strange quirks for a summer camp. I wouldn’t say there are a lot of fond memories but I survived.

Happy (and Holy) Campers

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Rare photo of me at church camp (1990s)

It’s summer time.  When this time of year rolls around I think back to the summers when I attended week-long church summer camps in Georgia.  We called it Youth Camp.  I have a lot of memories and formed a lot of friendships from those years.  It wasn’t your normal summer camp.

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I am just right of the kid holding the sign (1975)

My first year to attend was in the summer of 1975.  My Dad was working in the camp as a counselor for one of the cabins and he was also teaching a class.  The first camp I attended was in Pine Mountain just outside of Columbus.  It was quite a new experience for me as the only church I knew was our local congregation.  There weren’t many people my age in our local church and then I attend a camp where it is an overload of kids my age.  I didn’t my first church camp experience and didn’t return the next summer.

In the summer of 1977 our state headquarters started having camps at our own campground in a place called Camp Echeconnee located west of Macon.   Due to a fire in the kitchen, the first week of camp was postponed and my camp ended up being the first camp held there.  It wasn’t anything like it is today.  In camp standards – we roughed it.  ?During that week, someone thought it would be a good idea for us to go on a hike and when we returned several campers had chiggers.  I’m itching again just thinking about that.

I continued attending camp until I left for the United States Air Force in 1982.  When I returned to Georgia in 1985, I tried my effort at being a cabin counselor.  I can tell you that was a whole different experience.  It was a lot of work but it was also very rewarding too.

If you look back through photos or old camp annuals you probably will find little evidence prove that I attended since I wasn’t one of the popular ones at camp.  The popular ones got the most of the attention of the photographers.   I was always an introvert so it really didn’t matter to me.  I just wanted to keep from looking stupid most of the time.

camp2As you would think with a church camp, it was about church obviously.  We had church services every night.  During my days, we knew a lot about revivals and having church every night.  That was nothing new.  We were also a Pentecostal group so you know we had some wild times and there are some stories I could tell you.  One thing I look back and laugh about was during that first camp, we had our church service under a picnic pavilion.  A group of guys were “in the spirit” and running around the outside of the pavilion.  When me and another kid decided to join them the guy in front stopped and looked at us and said, “You guys are only running around because we are.”   He seemed to be put off that we were joining them.  I laugh about that now.

Some other unique things about youth camp in those days were that they would not allow us to wear shorts or anything “worldly”.  Girls were allowed to wear pants but encouraged to wear dresses to church services every night.   We also had separate times for swimming at the camp swimming pool.  Boys and Girls could not swim together.  It was considered “mixed bathing” and a no-no in our church rules.

Yes, there was a lot of church but we had fun too.  Aside from the chigger incident, we got to have lots of recreation time.  Honestly, that was probably my favorite time.  I loved playing basketball although I wasn’t any good at it.  Another favorite was what they called “Killer Ball” (Yes, at a church camp no less) but it was just a variation of Dodgeball.

We had a schedule that included devotions, singing, Bible classes and other classes like learning how to do CPR.  Church camp was the first place I learned how to do CPR.  We also had fun time which would be anything fun for the campers like water gun fights, group games, field day type activities.

On the Friday night of camp it was a tradition to have a camp banquet where it was a non-spoken thing that guys would ask a girl to the banquet and sit together although any signs of affection were totally prohibited.   I attended many, many camps where guys were just thinking they were all that and, of course, had their pick of who to ask.  Me?  Yeah, right.  Mr. Introverted, All-Dressed-Up-And-No-Place-To-Go guy?  Oh I tried but I crashed and burned in my attempts to secure a “date” to the banquet during the entirety of my camp career.  Now I look back and see how overrated all that was.  We were just going to the same cafeteria to sit together and eat a fancied up meal and see who were going to get various awards that the camp gave out.

Speaking of the meals…..let me tell you the meals were always good.  I can’t remember ever complaining about the meals at camp.  The cooks there were awesome.

Camp was probably one of the first places I learned about how to budget.  In those days we bought a “snack shack” card which we used throughout the week for sodas, candy and other snacks.  Workers would punch the card for what you would purchase.  I had to manage my card so that I wouldn’t run out before the end of the week.  Somehow I seemed to manage okay in those ancient days before debit/credit cards.

Let me say that most of the time, kids were WILD.  I guess from all the Pentecostalism at home in their local churches they cut loose at camp.  Forget about getting much sleep because there were all kinds of activities after lights out.  You learned to sleep with one eye open.  If not,  your bunk would end up in the shower or shaving cream would mysteriously appear on your face.

A successful camp for camp directors would be how many kids got saved, sanctified and filled with the Holy Ghost.   It was a good camp if everyone got some or all of those check marks.  Counselors in the early days would brag about how many kids in their cabin were saved.

I have to say that I will never forget some of the amazing people that I got to know at church camp.  Yes we had some of that strange Pentecostal thing going but aside from that craziness, there were some good people and experiences mixed in the madness.  No, I never attempted to run about the building again and I never got the hang of speaking in tongues but I did get some good foundation in spite of those things.   When you get older you just sort through all of that and find the good from it.

Camp is a lot different now.  There are no rules against wearing shorts.  There is air conditioning.  The chapel has carpet and padded seats.   The gym doesn’t double as the chapel now with metal chairs.   I wonder how they handle the whole issue of social media and kids having their smart phones now.  I am sure it is a challenge for workers now.  It was always a unique experience to disconnect from the real world for a week.

Several of my camp friends have become pastors, teachers and careers in the church.  I keep in touch with many of them through social media.  We always think back to those days when the summer arrives each year.

Yes, we got a lot of God during that week but there is nothing wrong with that.