Teens at Lutheran Lakeside Camp, Spirit Lake, Iowa, pose outside their cabin in 1964. A UMNS photo by Barbara Dunlap-Berg.
1:00 P.M. EST July 21, 2010
I went to church camp for the first time when I was 10 years old. Melinda, one of my church friends, was my bunkmate. We were in the youngest group of fourth- to sixth-graders.
At lights out the first night, 16 little girls, alone in their rustic cabin, waited for their counselor. All around us, the camp was still as counselors hushed their young charges. Suddenly “motherless,” we were frantic. Unsure what to do, we braved the moonlit grounds, found someone at the camp office and shared our dilemma.
At midnight, a very elderly saint dropped everything, packed a bag and drove over to meet her campers. Mrs. Johnson was her name. Relieved, we slept soundly until the morning camp bell stirred us.
I discovered then that camp counselors and other staff didn’t just talk about following Jesus. They modeled God’s love in everything they did.
Recently, as I prepared to write a series about United Methodist Church camps, I reflected on my own experiences starting 50 years ago. After visiting several church camps this summer, I realized the spirit of camping hasn’t changed. That—to me—is good news.
‘Memories are made of this’
I went to church camp for five years straight. The schedule was always the same: breakfast, Bible study, arts and crafts, lunch, music, rest time (flat on our backs) to write newsy postcards home (ever notice how the ink won’t flow from an upside-down pen?), recreation, supper and an evening program.
The dining hall offered a lot of food, none of it gourmet. The best part about mealtime was cutting up with new friends, receiving mail and singing camp songs like “Let There Be Peace on Earth” (the line about “let me walk with my brother” always made me a teeny bit homesick for my pesky older brother) and “We Are Table Number 1.” Mrs. Bloom, an ample woman who always wore shirtwaist dresses, played the piano with finesse.
Barbara Berg in 1964.
Camp counselors ranged from my parents’ friend Mrs. Bowman, a sweet, middle-aged woman, to the beautiful, 20-something, raven-haired Cheri. We all wanted to grow up to look like Cheri. We hung around her, played with her makeup, and wished she could be our big sister.
Unlike some people who abhor the requisite camp arts and crafts, I thought it was great making purses for our moms out of Popsicle sticks. We decorated our creations with artificial flowers. My mom joined her contemporaries at Augustana Lutheran Church in sporting the Popsicle purse as her summer fashion statement.
The sunburn kid
Not being a very outdoorsy kid and a klutz to boot, I got pretty good at dogpaddling in Iowa’s Lake Okoboji and excellent at acquiring sunburn. Squishing toes in the mud and playing tag in the water offered relief from the blazing sun.
A yearly highlight was the bus ride to Arnold’s Park and a cruise on “The Queen.” Today you can relive that experience for $14. (We probably got on for a quarter apiece.)
One week it rained buckets from Sunday until Friday. We couldn’t swim, so we took a field trip to a nearby aquarium where we saw fish that could. Not terribly exciting, but I’m sure we were getting on everyone’s nerves.
That year, my cousin Susie (my favorite campmate) and I were 14 and discovering boys.
Somehow our cats-eye glasses, frizzy hair and skinny bodies didn’t appeal to the opposite sex, so Susie, a similarly “endowed” girl named Diane and I decided to pick on a cabin mate who talked constantly about boys. One night, we sneaked out of our cabin and unfurled the top of Jill’s bikini swimsuit at the top of the flagpole. It remained there undetected until the sun finally peeked out Friday afternoon.
With my $10 canteen card, I bought treats for myself and souvenirs for my siblings. The merchandise included “finely crafted” jewelry boxes and useful things like bathroom door knockers (One knock—just to say hello, two knocks—I really gotta go, three knocks—hurry up or it’ll be too late for the show).
We lived for the Friday night talent show. Everyone participated, playing instruments and singing, performing in skits and telling stories. In 1961—the year of “The Parent Trap,” starring Hayley Mills—Susie and I sang, danced and played a fake guitar to “Let’s Get Together.”
Learning what it means to be a child of God
I don’t recall much about Bible study except the year we read the book of Esther—10 chapters long. Up to that point, our exposure to Bible women was limited to the various Marys. Our Bible workbooks were quite boring, but we muddled through that part of the day knowing the afternoon held greater promise.
Often the evening program consisted of visits from missionaries and chalk talks. One evening, someone shared a book about a white woman who adopted twin African-American girls. I thought it was the coolest story.
A few years ago, I found a stash of camp postcards I sent to my parents. I could have recycled them year after year because they invariably said, “Dear Mom and Dad, Camp is fun. We went swimming today. The water is freezing. Love, Barbara”
Sure, the food was not Mom’s home cooking. The weather didn’t always cooperate. Kids got homesick and didn’t always treat each other perfectly (just like real life).
But I learned from caring adults what it means to be a child of God. I had the time of my life.
And if I could be a kid again, I’d head right back to Lake Okoboji and a week of camp.
Tomorrow: United Methodist camps continue to transform lives.
*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5489 or firstname.lastname@example.org.