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Christian camps and a French contemplative community draw the faithful for similar reasons

Presbyterian church camp and conference staff are ‘gathering as one’ online this week

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos

LOUISVILLE — During his Wednesday keynote for the “Gathering as One” online conference of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association, the Rev. Dr. Jason Brian Santos managed to compare two experiences that seem very different: a week-long immersion into the contemplative Taizé community and a week at one’s favorite Presbyterian church camp or conference center.

Santos, who formerly led the Christian Formation team in the Presbyterian Mission Agency, is now pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Lake City, Colorado. He called his hour-long talk “Sabbath Communities and the Formation of Christian Identity.”

For years Santos has been interviewing pilgrims after they’d spent a week in Taizé, France. “There’s something happening there,” he said. “They call it their spiritual home.” The same is true, he said, for people returning from a week at a camp or conference center.

It’s the central practices the brothers of the Taizé community require of all pilgrims that draws about 100,000 young adults every year, Santos said. They are:

  • Daily prayer, held three times per day
  • Scripture study, twice per day
  • Communal work, in which “young adults experience the biggest sense of belonging and connection,” he said. “It’s why we take youth on mission trips.”
  • Silence, especially during meals, which “personifies Taizé. It doesn’t sound like an exciting camp environment, but I would call them Sabbath practices,” he said. “Young people go there because they are drawn to the idea and the experience of the Sabbath.”

Santos said Taizé pilgrims have told him they use this language to describe their week among the brothers and their new-found community of believers: “my spiritual home,” “euphoria,” “paradise” and “the kingdom of God on Earth.”

The same thing, he said, happens at camp, he said, because both Taizé and church camps are Sabbath communities. Theologian Karl Barth called the Sabbath the place where we “make a glad descent back into the world,” Santos noted.

For 51 weeks each year, children deal with school and other pressures. It’s an up-and-down existence. But at camp they experience holy rhythms. “We need to identify which practices are transformative and central to the community,” he said. “The problem is that ‘glad descent’ doesn’t last. Why can’t we extend that to our home environments?”

The memory of such experiences can transcend time and space, Santos said. When Taizé pilgrims return home and sing, for example, “Jesus, Remember Me,” they “go right back to the space where they were in Taizé,” Santos said. “All that they encountered is transported and imbues their singing and chanting with meaning and transformation.”

Similarly, “we can take what happens at camp and have it realized in home contexts,” he said. The trick, he said, is to transport those memories in the context of “commemorative rituals,” such as the Lord’s Supper.

Santos said many camp and conference centers work some or all of the four Taizé practices into what they’re doing, “and there may be some crisscross,” he said. “We know they are formative [experiences] because we are taking a Sabbath community and experiencing God. What you do,” he told camp and conference leaders and staff, “is among the most formative things we do. We need to put those experiences into our church communities.”

If his own picturesque Colorado community of about 400 people is any indication, “people come here not just for Christian restoration, but for life restoration,” he said. During the pandemic he’s heard camp and conference leaders say that people of all sorts — Christians and others — are showing up in their RV asking to park it on their property for a few days “just to get away.”

“People, and not only Christians, are looking for that,” he said.

Sponsored by the Office of Christian Formation, the “Gathering as One” conference concludes Thursday with worship by the Rev. Dr. Rodger Nishioka, director of Adult Educational Ministries and the senior associate pastor at Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kansas.

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