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As summer approaches, a Presbyterian camp and conference program director describes the faith formation that can occur during a week away

The Rev. Colleen Earp of Massanetta Springs Camp & Conference Center is the guest on ‘A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Colleen Earp

LOUISVILLE — When children and those who are young at heart have the chance to step outside their regular experiences to enjoy a week or so at a Presbyterian camp or conference center or a sister organization, “it can open us up to so many possibilities for our faith and our spirituality, for connecting with God and one another in Creation around us.”

That’s how the Rev. Colleen Earp, program director at Massanetta Springs Camp & Conference Center in Harrisonburg, Virginia, described her work during the most recent episode of “A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast,” to hosts Simon Doong and the Rev. Lee Catoe. Listen to their conversation here. Earp enters at the 21:40 mark.

“People really do dig deep quickly” in a retreat, camp or conference setting, Earp said. “I’ve served on four different [camp and conference center] staffs now and I’ve seen campers who come for a week and just open up and tell you their whole world in ways they aren’t usually doing at home … There’s something about shedding your normal schedules and normal habits that I think frees us.

“Maybe there’s also some safety in, ‘I’m only going to be here for awhile so yeah, I’ll take a chance and see what happens,’” Earp said. “What happens is people open up and build these wonderful relationships. I’m still in touch with some of the people I went to camp with because these are some of the closest friendships I would develop in middle and high school. I hear that story over and over.”

Massanetta Springs and many other PC(USA)-related sites are part of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association and Campfire Collective, which includes ecumenical partners. “It’s a different story everywhere. Some have lots of funding and support and some are having a harder time getting by. I think it’s more important than ever to be supporting these places to send kids, so they have these opportunities to connect with one another and with Creation,” Earp said. “Every time I hear an adult or older person lament, ‘Oh, we don’t see any young people in the church anymore’ — they’re hanging out at camp, and well they should be.”

Many camps have counselor-in-training programs “and other ways to lift up new leaders,” Earp said. “They’re going to take those skills back to church and back to their communities and back to their lives. I still lean on those skills I learned at age 16 [at the Johnsonburg Camp & Retreat Center in New Jersey].”

“I learned to cook. I did everything at camp,” said Catoe, who grew up in South Carolina. “These are practical skills young folks learn in the setting.”

“Even if we set aside all of the beautiful faith and spiritual development that happens in these settings, kids are learning how to do dishes and clean spaces up. It’s way more fun to do that in community with your cohort of friends and fellow leaders than it is to do that back home, learning these life skills and a little bit of independence,” Earp said. “Your grownups aren’t going to be helping you with these things when you’re away at a retreat of conference or summer camp.”

Earp recalled experiencing her first middle school conference as a leader at Massanetta Springs, “watching everyone pour in with all the energy in the universe. That really moved me, to think all of these youth are going to interact with other teenagers this week and know there is a whole world of church out there to explore.”

After being out in Creation all day, campers “are hot, sweaty and tired. We are not our best selves,” Earp said, “and yet we can still find grace, practice communication and love one another. If we can do that when we’re hot, sweaty and tired, we can certainly try that elsewhere in the world.”

Earp had some thought about one of the campiest of camp practices: energizers.

“I did not grow up doing energizers. It was not a thing I learned until well into adulthood,” Earp said. “Dancing is not my spiritual gift, and they are kind of goofy and there’s a million moves to learn.

“Coming to Massanetta, I am now responsible for programs that have energizers. It’s a powerful thing to move together. Watching people make adaptations so they’re accessible for lots of different bodies and abilities, I don’t hate them so much anymore,” she said. “It’s a special thing when you have a whole roomful of awkward teenagers trying to figure out how to be cool or what cool even is for them and they’re all doing this dance together, some more enthusiastically than others. But they’re taking the chance to go through the motions and see how that feels.”

“Something I love about being involved in the PCCCA is I get to know a lot of colleagues around the U.S. and Canada who are doing the same work,” Earp said. “I think Presbyterian camps are centered on this idea of welcome in beautiful and powerful ways for people of different genders and experiences and races and making it a safe space to talk about these things in honest and vulnerable ways, but respectful ways. I have seen colleagues all over North America doing great work with having policies of inclusion.”

Even though Earp grew up playing in the outdoors, “I had no idea how much that environment meant to me until I was a camp counselor and was asked to lead a nature program for a week. Watching kids get excited about a rock group or a bug or what was that bird we heard? I really started thinking about how these things are connected … I love thinking about the interconnectedness of Creation and how we are connected to it.”

“A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast” with the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong drops each Thursday.

Doong recalled counselors during the final day of his middle school camp “breaking it down to ‘Larger Than Life’ by Backstreet Boys. “When you see that as a middle schooler, that memory sticks with you far longer than the camp experience.”

“On the flip side, think of the adults who are breaking it down at that moment,” Earp said. “They knew they had a roomful of middle school students they had to motivate and model for and encourage. It’s a beautiful intergenerational experience and it gives us grownup types and opportunity to try silly and different things.”

“I will do anything for a middle school student,” Earp said. “I will make an absolute fool of myself in front of middle school students because I want to model that it’s OK to take those chances.”

“Camps and conferences and retreats are for people of every age,” Doong said.

Learn more about finding a church camp or conference center near you on the PCCCA website. Click here.

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