Experiencing the 'Fire at the Center'

Baltimore Yearly Meeting has a large youth population, and for many within the yearly meeting, its camping program has been an instrumental support for children becoming Quaker adults, and adults strengthening their experience as Quakers. As a parent, I see that the camping program has provided our children with experiences in living Quaker testimonies, which has strengthened our family as well.

My three children are now 12, 14, and 17 years old. Our family started attending Maury River Meeting in Lexington, Va., when my youngest daughter was three. My husband and I had increasingly crossed paths with Quakers and discovered a growing resonance with Quaker ideals and beliefs. Our curiosity grew when we realized a large number of our friends attended meeting. We finally made the trip out to the meetinghouse one First Day, and curiosity became conviction when, sitting in silence in the back of the room, it dawned on us that meeting was a natural place for us to connect and nurture the spiritual side of our family life. Our desire, at the time, was to find a place where we grownups could feel spiritually at home, as well as a place that would help us raise our children with the increased awareness, depth, and connection to life that we so value.

Our lifestyle is similar to many Friends families. My husband and I both work outside the home. Our children go to public school. We’ve arranged our schedules so that one of us can be home when the kids get out of school. We go to peace rallies, encourage volunteerism, and participate in community service activities as a family while striving to live simply in our consumer-driven society.

When our kids were young, they attended First-day school and enjoyed the stories, sharing, and activities. As they grew they complained about meeting for worship being "boring" and sometimes voiced feeling different from some of their friends at school. We labored to help them understand the idea of listening to that voice within. We taught them mindfulness exercises, hoping they would experience the peace that worship brings and at the very least be quiet for 20 minutes. We struggled in helping our children understand what it means to be Quaker. Since we came to meeting as adults, we had no experience or memory of what it means to be a Quaker child. We did not have a foundation from which to communicate what Friends believe in a way appropriate to the understanding and thought processes of young children.

It wasn’t until our oldest son, Dylan, turned ten and went to camp that we found the missing piece. He was at Camp Shiloh, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, for two weeks and returned a different kid—a Quaker kid. Since then he has gone back every year, and our younger two each started going at the age of nine. The BYM Camping Program has become the centerpiece of our children’s spiritual development. It has taught them Quakerism, as George Fox said, "experimentally."

Camps for young people have been a part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting since 1922. Over the years, the Camping Program has attracted a growing number of youths. BYM responded to the increase in demand by expanding its programs. Today, the BYM Camping Program includes camps for youth ages 9 to 14 at three locations in Maryland and Virginia, and a Teen Adventure camp for 15- and 16-year-olds.

Quaker testimonies aren’t just taught at camp, they are lived on a young person’s level. Camp is a simple place. There is running water (bathhouses, showers, full kitchens, etc.), but there are no computers or electronic entertainment. The counselors model and the campers experience the pure fun of simple play. They challenge themselves as they experience connection with nature on off-site backpacking and canoeing trips. They learn to live lightly on the Earth. They sing the "George Fox Song" along with many other songs. They experience worship and explore their connection to the God Within. And, like George Fox, they learn that they can go through the darkness and come to the Light.

In the 1960s, Barry Morley became the camp director and helped fan the flame that extended the light out from the Camping Program. In the pamphlet "Fire at the Center," which he wrote for BYM, he described what happened when centering around the campfire: "People sitting in a circle around a flame form a powerful living metaphor for an individual looking inward toward the Light. People can hardly resist sitting around fire. . . . Children will come to look forward to a circle around fire the way adults look forward to meeting for worship. In fact, for the young people, it will become a form of meeting for worship."

One of the members of Camping Program Committee and longtime volunteer at the camps, Tom Horne, describes camp as "outdoor religious education. . . . Some of the things the kids say at the fire circles blow me away. It’s as if they’re not overshadowed by a sea of fearsome adults."

One of my kids’ favorite activities at camp is "Thank-you Circle." This is a special campfire where everyone has the opportunity to express gratitude about something that happened on their off-site trips. These can be specific thanks to another person, or a general expression of gratefulness. It’s an opportunity for kids to learn to appreciate the simple things. My son Bryan’s favorite memory (of his life, he says) comes from one of these trips and was expressed at Thank-you Circle. His group had been on a rainy three-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. They were hiking to a parking lot where the bus was going to meet them to bring them back to camp. As Bryan describes it, "We came out of the forest, and there in front of us we saw sunlight for the first time in days. It was a beam of sunlight shining through the trees, and below it was a wonderful sight: a port-a-potty."

My daughter, Brenna, once said about camp, "My favorite thing is all the friendly people there who accept you for who you are. You can totally be yourself and you are accepted." This loving support and respect is evident to others as well. A maintenance volunteer, Devan Malore, observed that "for kids who may feel alienated in their communities, the camp experience is a place for them to meet each other with the possibility of becoming part of the continuation of the Quaker experience in whatever new form it grows into." He described his impression of camp as "a simple camp, offering an opportunity for kids to develop more complex emotional and spiritual connections."

Three years ago I spent my first week at Camp Shiloh as a volunteer cook. I was able to experience the magic of camp for myself. As a mental health professional, I’m accustomed to maintaining a certain sense of detachment, and was prepared to take this attitude to camp. In fact, my boys were at first a bit shocked and dismayed that I was going to enter their special world. I reassured them that I was just going to cook, I would pretend they were just any of the other kids and I would not embarrass them. While there, I couldn’t help but be pulled into the circle. I was honored to witness the interactions of the staff, counselors, and campers and the community that was created. Conflict was handled peacefully with respect for all involved. Equality was demonstrated as counselors and campers from all age groups worked together to get chores done with joy. A deep sense of acceptance for each other was evident. And the community created there allowed room for my children and me to share a different type of interaction.

I see the benefits of camp every summer when I drop my kids off and pick them up weeks later. They have each matured in their own way while at camp and return home a bit deeper, a little more aware of who they are and how to express themselves. We started out wanting to find a way to help our kids learn to be Quakers. We thought that’s what camp was providing, but what we got was a way to be a family. We saw how important it was to create a space, light the fire, and give permission to be oneself. We saw how the heart of community extended from this, and we experience it increasing in our family.

A family hearth provides a similar image as the campfire, and to us a well-tended hearth is a symbol of a strong family. In simpler times, the hearth was the heart of the home. When there is light in the hearth, there is warmth, nourishment, and opportunities for heartfelt sharing and quietly being together. A space is created for an experience of being part of something greater than oneself.

At our family hearth, the camp practices flow over in subtle and not so subtle ways. Our kids get mad at each other like all siblings, but they generally treat each other with respect. When things get really tough, we have conversations about how they’ve seen things handled at camp, or we’ll sit in silence and allow them time to listen to that inner voice. I’ve watched all three of my children work through intense emotional struggles with a level of integrity that we have tried to model at home, but I know it has been reinforced by their experiences at camp.

Another way camp has lighted our family hearth is by giving the kids a common experience and culture that is special to them. It has given them an identity as a sibling group that I wish I’d had with my siblings. They will often refer to some game or phrase totally foreign to my husband and me, but they immediately know what the others are talking about. One of the funniest examples of something they’ve brought home is the Nose Game. This is played when something needs to be done by one or two people. Anyone can call "nose game" and then the last one or two people to touch their noses are the ones to do the job. Now at our house, when I ask if someone can take out the trash, I hear "nose game" and one of my kids comes in laughing to do the task.

The metaphor of fire and hearth resonates strongly with me as a Quaker. Indeed, some of the first meetings for worship took place around the hearth of Margaret Fell’s household, as she held the space for the growing Religious Society of Friends. As a parent, part of my role is to tend to the light in the hearth of our family, and to teach my children to tend it as well. As Quakers, raising our children involves setting the stage to allow them to grow and experience that of God in themselves and in others, giving them room to practice the Quaker testimonies, and permitting them to learn experimentally how to live in their world. The majority of our work as parents is to create and hold that space, allowing for breakthroughs to happen while supporting our children as they make these discoveries for themselves. Camp has transformed our family by tending that fire at the center that helps us all recognize the "Light that is the Light of the world" in ourselves and in each other.

Tasha Walsh

Tasha Walsh is a member of Maury River Meeting in Lexington, Va. A practitioner in the human services field, she is the president of Point Forward, Inc., which "exists to help individuals and organizations reach a place of balance and sustainable success."