How would I have raised my daughters without Quaker camp? Although Anna and Margaret were born into our meeting, I don’t know how they would ever have acquired the idea of Quaker community from the small group of irregular attendees at our First-day school. The adults may have some sense of building and sharing a community, but Williamsburg (Va.) Meeting recognized many years ago that the best way to introduce our children to the idea of Friends community was to send them away from us to attend one of the Baltimore Yearly Meeting camps. Largely because of the support and urging of my meeting, my husband and I began sending our daughters there in 1994.
We had a rough beginning. Anna, at 11, proved to be the most homesick camper ever—a total surprise to me. Somewhere beneath rational thought, we expect our children generally to resemble us, and I was never homesick, even when I was six and off by myself for a week with cousins I’d never met. So my daughter’s insistent and passionate homesickness caught me off-guard. What surprised me even more was the seemingly infinite patience of the camp staff—her counselors, the nurse, the director—who continually encouraged her.
Something worked, because she wanted to go back. And when her younger sister, Margaret, joined her, the chance to work off one week of tuition brought me to camp as a cook. Thus the camp that has been central to my children’s development also became a centering point for our whole life as a family.
At age 11, I thought a Quaker summer camp sounded like a good idea. I liked being outside, and three or four other children, our meeting’s camp veterans, told marvelous stories of friends made, mountains climbed, and bugs conquered. I don’t remember when a fear of indefinable bad things happening to me while my parents weren’t nearby—a feeling I have come to recognize as homesickness—started to seep into my subconscious. By the time my parents left me in the cabin, with my counselors doing their best to cheer me up, I was committed to being miserable. After three unhappy days, my father (who should never have listened to me crying on the phone) relented and drove three hours to pick me up.
But I told my parents that I was ready to try again. I’m not sure if it was natural pig-headedness or a premonition that camp would always be part of my life, but on my second try, I stayed the whole time. I hiked with 13-year-olds and canoed on a trip with children of all ages. I discovered that I liked the single-minded and purposeful existence of being "on the trail." I even stopped crying in time to make some friends (who had been there all along, if only I hadn’t been so focused on myself). The next year, I returned to camp, cried for a slightly shorter period of time (numbered in days rather than weeks), and among other excitements made a movie that featured big fake dinosaurs. After that experience, how could I not love camp?
When I was 15 and 16, I went on Teen Adventure, a three-week trip of hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, and service. At the end of the first trip, I wrote myself a letter that I still have on my desk at home. I reminded myself that I, like anyone else, could find the inner strength to be happy regardless of where I was. In this Quaker community I was surrounded by people who were able to show their support and love for me. I grew beyond my homesickness and grew into leadership, as our counselors facilitated discussions about Quaker process, community dynamics, and the role of consensus in group building.
Now in our 14th year as a camp family, I can reflect on what it has meant to us. The clearest testimony to what camp meant to Anna was documented in the collage that her ninth-grade English teacher had her students create each September. In Anna’s collage, images of canoes and clarinet are overlaid with quotations from Quaker writers and peace advocates. Her Quaker identity was emblazoned in bold colors as a primary element of her self-concept. Her sister Margaret’s most impressive testimony about camp was that during her last year she wanted to stay for four weeks rather than the normal two, and she earned and saved the entire additional fees herself. Margaret says that at camp she overcame her natural desire to be competitive in every arena and realized that being kind is more important than being first or best. As an eight-year-old she had a mean streak; as an 18-year-old counselor, kindness was her first principle.
Barry Morley, whose leadership shaped many of our camp practices, used to talk about the idea that camp is for the campers. Of course it is, he’d acknowledge, but "really it is for the counselors." Over the years I’ve come to see the truth of his view. In a society that defines adulthood as an age to acquire a new vice, camp instead offers counselors the chance to assume responsibility and act with maturity. To be encouraged and empowered to do important work in the company of your peers, and then to have your peers acknowledge your strengths and support you as you face your weaknesses is a situation many 40-year-olds are still seeking. And for 17- and 18-year-olds it is very powerful.
Counselors are as much teachers as they are surrogate parents, and a good Quaker camp counselor knows how to lead a group of young people gradually through the components of Quaker community until the pieces fall into place and the campers can recognize their positions (or their future positions) within an adult community. Counselors respect campers, and campers naturally respect counselors in return. As a counselor at Shiloh, I strove to be both a role model and a friend to my campers. During my four years of counseling (which were followed by two years as in-camp staff), I worked with 13- and 14-year-olds.
When I was their age, I wasn’t sure who I was or who I wanted to be, and camp let me live as more genuine, forgiving, and loving than I often am. I think any success I had as a counselor was because I remembered this time of my life.
One of the rewards of being at camp for so many summers is watching the smallest campers grow up and be the seniors, the leaders. When some of them return several years later as counselors, the circle is complete. I have watched this in my own daughters’ lives, and then again in the lives of a dozen or more others.
The campers come to camp and understand it to be a place of magic. As they mature they are given chances to help the magic happen, and as counselors they learn how to create the magic for the campers. Those who stay on as staff learn how to support the counselors in this daily creation of magic. I see an analogy here to the spiritual life of a meeting. A newcomer may find silent worship breathtaking, nourishing, and life giving. Only after some time and experience does one learn that the meeting on First Day is supported and strengthened by many Friends in many roles—the committee members, those gifted in vocal ministry, those gifted in pastoral care, and those gifted in maintenance or bookkeeping.
Before campers arrive at Shiloh, the counselors and staff spend a week doing chores, getting to know each other, and meeting about camp-related issues ranging from the spiritual (how we foster the Light within each member of our community) to the pragmatic (how to deliver epinephrine to someone in anaphylactic shock). Staff meetings begin with silence, and the week is punctuated with meeting for worship. Although many staff members come from outside the larger Quaker community, the sense of Quaker presence remains strong. Decisions are made by Quaker process, the formation of community is discussed explicitly, and everyone lives simply, in cabins without electricity in the woods. During this week of pre-camp, we create the tenacious bonds of a community that works.
One of the ways the campers experience community is on their work crews. Each crew includes campers of all ages and has several tasks each day. An early work crew task is to name itself and present a skit announcing its name. Work crew skits provide a night of rowdy amusement, outrageous amateur theatrics, and always a dose of corny humor. The happiest work crews carry over the spirit of the skits into their daily work, singing as they wash dishes or scrub pots and pans. The simple truths are that there’s a lot of work to be done in any community, it’s more fun to do it together, and singing gets the dishes clean faster.
If campers learn about community while they’re in camp, they learn a lot about themselves when they go out on their trips. Counselors plan carefully so that trips will provide an attainable challenge. For the youngest campers, this is just a couple of nights on the trail and a few miles of hiking. For the oldest campers on a Long Trip, it’s nine days and close to 100 miles on the Appalachian Trail. For all of them, it’s a chance to experience the natural world as a physical presence—the tug of the uphill trail on their calf muscles, the sweetness of water quenching real thirst, the sweaty work of propelling body and pack through the woods, and the reality that the ground is your bed and a tarp is your roof. As tale after tale in the Thank-You Circle confirms, youngsters welcome a challenge and are rightly proud of themselves when they have met it. They learn to encourage and support each other through the rough parts, and they are rightly proud of that, too.
Throughout my homesick episodes at camp, the trail was a welcome refuge. My family had always gone camping, but roughing it with kids my age was a new experience. Camp introduced me to the joy of hiking. I love the intricately entwined solitude and communion of walking through the mountains with a small group, on whom I rely for all my human companionship. I love knowing that I carry all of my food on my back, that the same food fuels my steps, and that my physical exertion is the only available source of locomotion. I love breaking through the denser thickets of lower altitudes and finding myself on a ridge where the wind sweeps away my perspiration and my darker thoughts. I love singing with my friends as I walk. I discover God through nature. In Quaker terms, hiking is a discernment process.
After 11 years of sitting in nightly fire and Thank-You Circles that bring campers back together after wilderness trips, I know to expect a few things. Some enthusiastic child will tell a story at the appropriate time, while the director is standing near her/his part of the circle—and then this child will remember a second story a few minutes later, and then perhaps a third one later still. I know, too, that a child who is new to camp, who has never heard the messages at Fire Circle, will say that camp has been amazing because "Here I can just be exactly who I am, and people will love me." This central experience, the realization that we can be loved just exactly as we are, is an experience we long for even as adults.
Camp is a place of amazing, chest-pounding, heart-thumping energy. So when the dining hall’s raucous, exuberant din quiets in a few seconds for a moment of silence before eating, the silence is breathtaking. Eighty or a hundred voices suddenly mute, and the quiet pulses. Likewise, morning worship with campers ranging around the rough wooden benches has a power all its own. Some of the campers have been going to meeting since they were babies; for others, this is their first encounter with silent worship. The breeze shakes the leaves in the woods around us, the woodpeckers hammer at the hollow tree trunks, the wood thrushes finish their liquid morning songs, the worms and caterpillars wiggle across the dirt, and the flying bugs cruise and land repeatedly. In the midst of this unquiet silence, we consider a query: "How do you quiet your mind in meeting?" Or "What reminds you of God?" And out of the mouths of 10- and 14-year-olds come some of the most amazing spiritual messages I ever hear. Children this age have a lot to say, but not many openings to say it.
Shiloh is my spiritual home. I am most centered during meeting for worship there, sitting on a wooden bench in the fire circle, surrounded by arching trees and wild creatures (the majority of which are, admittedly, insectoid). During the summer, Shiloh meets for worship every morning when the sun hasn’t yet crested the treetops around the fire circle. Weekday meetings are short, since for many youngsters camp is their first experience with silent worship. But from hearing campers’ responses to queries, I know that many of them find meaning in the silence. Every summer I leave camp with a renewed desire to spend more time in meditative silence—and some years I even succeed.
As campers my daughters spent only a couple of weeks a year at Shiloh. Yet
the camp had an influence on their lives far out of proportion to the time they spent there. It established their spiritual lives on the firm foundation of experience. Camp made the Quaker world real to them.