Stories from Day Camp

June 21, 2020
Rev. Dr. Meghan Gage-Finn

Matthew 22:34-40

Ordinarily, in non-pandemic times, this Sunday in June brings a certain wonderful mix of exhaustion and elation, marking the completion of Westminster’s annual, weeklong Day Camp program. “Typically” Pre-K through high school students gather here, in Westminster Hall, each morning for opening devotions and songs before heading upstairs and all throughout the building and outdoor spaces for cabin time. “Normally” they would spend the next several hours rotating around the church, and into downtown Minneapolis, singing, listening to God’s Word, making crafts, playing games, and learning and interacting with the neighborhood. Afternoons would be song-filled bus rides and trips to local parks, playgrounds, and lakes. The week culminates with a sleepover at Westminster on Thursday evening and a closing sharing time on Friday with families.

For likely obvious reasons, in early April we began to pivot from the cherished Day Camp plan, but the Families, Youth, and Children staff was determined to hold onto the values and traditions of this early summer ministry: the connections and intergenerational faith development that happen when you bring together children of all ages, from all over, for an intensive camp experience. So over the past week, nearly 60 children and youth in three time zones gathered each morning, not here, but in their own homes, for Westminster Stay Camp, all centered around the theme of Building Beloved Community. They received care packages ahead of time, which were full of crafts and activities, a devotional booklet, their camp t-shirt, snacks for each day, and even a bundle of chalk for writing positive messages in their neighborhood.

Instead of sitting on the floor in here on carpet squares to start the day, we all met on Zoom for energizers, our opening devotions, and songs led by Brad Ollmann, Children’s Choir Director, before campers and their high school leaders split up into cabin Zoom times with their age mates.

In cabin time, they played “Simon Says,” Rock-Paper-Scissors, and charades, had show-and-tell and dance parties, and reflected on discussion questions for each day. And if you are wondering if the youngest campers figured out the virtual background, chat, and screen share features of the Zoom platform, yes, yes they did! And they used them enthusiastically! But it was all part of the fluid, fun, and flexible Stay Camp experience.

During this past week, they made friendship bracelets with video tutorials from their counselors, colored pages with messages tying into the daily theme, wrote notes for essential workers in their neighborhood, like their mail carriers, and covered lawns, windows, sidewalks, and driveways throughout the community with art and messages.

Campers created art and notes for seniors in our community, both those in the congregation and those from the Magnet Senior Center at Booth Manor, right here in the church’s neighborhood. The Senior Center’s Director, Angelique Kingsbury, brought greetings one morning. Pastors David Tsai Shinn and Tim Hart-Andersen paid a visit and offered Bible reflections.

They played “Minute to Win It” games, to see how many candies they could move with a straw in one minute, or how many Oreos they could get from their forehead to their mouth without using their hands, only their face muscles. This is all actually even funnier to watch than you are imagining, even more so because their little faces were covered with Oreo dust at the end.

In talking about caring for God’s creation as part of Building Beloved Community, they learned about pollinators from Master Gardener Jessica Willson, tested science principles with Skittles, and heard about Westminster’s commitment to water reuse and conservation from Master Water Steward Laura Lee Moffett.

Via video, Laura Lee showed them the water cisterns that collect hundreds of gallons of rainwater that is recycled on-site and sent back to the fountain on Nicollet Mall, to the irrigation system for the landscaping, and into the building to help flush the toilets!

They learned about the importance of art in the community and the history of PRIDE and the symbolism and significance of the rainbow flag. We talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and how art expresses truth and can inspire change. As a church, we know that love of God and love of neighbor means that we are called to stand in solidarity and to work for change.

On our last day we heard a book about God makes each one of us unique, to help the children explore the truth that there are immense gifts and value in every person, but especially we are called to care for those most vulnerable or likely to be marginalized in our society. They had a virtual puppet show that led them into a conversation about children who have autism, and campers and leaders shared their own stories with one another of how they learn in unique ways because of ADHD, dyslexia, or hearing or vision loss.

Members Annie Maley-Hapip and John Greenwald shared with the campers their experiences growing up and how they make their way in their world as adults who are differently abled. Captain Kindness made an appearance each day, encouraging campers to reach out beyond themselves to offer help, hope, and love to their neighbors.

If you are thinking that pulling this off must have been an incredible amount of work, you would not be wrong, but it was an amazing team effort, led by our Children’s Ministries Director Sonja Dziekciowski, our Director of Youth Ministries Matt Lewellyn-Otten, our College-Age Head Counselor Helen Strom, and music by Brad Ollmann. We had ongoing support from the rest of the Families, Youth, and Children Staff- Marie Kruskop and Mahin Hamilton.

After months at home, finishing school outside of their classrooms and away from friends and family members, being embraced by and discussing how we contribute to Building Beloved Community felt like exactly where we needed to go with Stay Camp this summer. Our sense was that our young ones have experienced community, and what has been happening in their communities, in new and acute ways in recent weeks and months, and that this theme could lead us all into new conversations and learning together. They know that things are shifting and they are paying attention to the grownups around them with more focus.

19th century American religious philosopher Josiah Royce first coined the term “Beloved Community.” He believed we should all strive for the goal of the highest good and the common good, for all, and that the more who join in the initiative, greater is the possibility of Beloved Community coming into being. Building the Beloved Community was central to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, ministry and work toward racial justice and remains so as part of his legacy. This advocates for community that is fair, just, and built on love. The love that is part of Building Beloved Community is not just any kind of love, but, as Dr. King framed it, “it is the love of God operating in the human heart.”

Coretta Scott King describes the “Beloved Community” as a society where “caring and compassion drive political policies that support the worldwide elimination of poverty and hunger and all forms of bigotry and violence. At its core” she continues, “the Beloved Community is an engine of reconciliation.”[1]

I just gave you a nearly exhaustive summary of what we tried to create in five, half-day sessions with our children and youth, and we never thought we could cover it all. In the midst of our intentional and justice-oriented efforts, it does feel like we came really close to some challenging topics, but as I turned my attention at the end of the week to what I might share with you this morning, I found myself asking: did we really go there? Did we lay a solid foundation for our campers for ongoing engagement around Building Beloved Community, or did we miss a chance to go deeper?

Some young ones wrote Black Lives Matter messages in chalk, but we did not explicitly say the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or Rayshard Brooks, the African American man who was shot in the back by a white police officer in Atlanta, just before Stay Camp launched on Monday.

We certainly did not give the message this week that because we are all created in God’s image we just don’t see color, or that all lives matter and leave it at that.

We talked honestly as a staff leadership team as camp progressed about ways to keep before us issues of systemic racism and inequality with a range of campers, from preschoolers on up, all in different places, in three different states, and all through screens. We weren’t privy to any sense of the conversations that may or may not be underway already in their homes. As we celebrated a wonderfully full week of Stay Camp, I was left with wondering- did I miss an opportunity to push us further?

To be clear, we could not have asked for more from our staff team, and our middle and high school leaders were incredible in guiding meaningful conversation with their campers each day. This is my individual reflection on my own role in what we just shared in the name of Building Beloved Community. As a white person, pastor, and parent who moves freely through white space all the time, and who has long-benefited from unjust systems, policies, and practices, my own concerns about “doing enough” have gotten wrapped up in my view in looking back at Stay Camp.

As Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, the authors of Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, write, adults “who don’t proactively talk about racial issues with their children are inadvertently teaching [them] that race is a taboo topic. [Adults] who want to raise children to accept individuals from diverse cultures need to counter negative attitudes that children develop from exposure to the negative racial stereotypes that persist in our society.”[2] The something that happened in the town in the book is the shooting of a Black man by a white police officer. It may be the narrative of this story, but it is far from fiction for children or communities. Children younger than those who joined us for Stay Camp can understand race and prejudice.

I signed off my pastoral note for the Friday All-Church email, promising that this worship service would be a joyful and hope-filled morning! I think we may have started there, but you’re likely wondering right now if I am going to deliver on that promise!

As I wrote that message in the midst of a week spent with enthusiastic and curious children and youth, who were playing games, hearing stories, and wiggling around together on Zoom, I thought about the world outside of Stay Camp. Was it right to be planning for a service today that promised to be full of joy, levity, and big delight from our smallest friends? These stories from Stay Camp are coming from children interacting with neighbors, who, overall, are likely doing pretty well.  There are too many neighborhoods where the disparities are great and the resources are few.

Joyful and hope-filled?

Could I even use those words in a time of a global health and economic crisis? How do we talk in worship about children laughing, playing, and interacting with one another, when in the same week as Stay Camp we marked the 5th anniversary of the Mother Emmanuel killings in Charleston, SC? The week was also the 100th anniversary of the very public lynching of Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie, three African American men who were accused of assaulting a white woman in Duluth. The week also held the rising controversy over Juneteenth celebrations in the midst of political rallies in Tulsa, OK.

One of our college students, a former Day Camp counselor of many years, texted me early in the week to see how “Stay Away Camp” was going, as she called it. It made me laugh aloud, and I don’t actually know if she was joking or not with a little play on words. After I stopped laughing, I thought about the significance of this nuance between a week of camp that had us staying away from the church versus a week that offered ways to stay present at home in our neighborhoods, caring for community, loving others as yourself, living out the Greatest Commandment. As I processed even more, did I stay away from those opportunities for us to really push, teach and lead?

On the eve of my graduation from seminary, the graduates, their families, and the seminary community gathered for a baccalaureate worship service. I remember where I sat in the sanctuary of Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ and how both exhausted and ebullient I felt with four years of graduate school behind me and the call of decades of ministry ahead. I do not remember the hymns we sang or the prayers offered, but I do remember the charge New Testament Professor Rev. Dr. Brian Blount gave us in his sermon that day. I found myself coming back to his invitation as I have wrestled with how we talked with our Stay Campers and leaders about who our neighbors are, what it means to engage in our neighborhood as part of building Beloved Community, and how to include everyone.

Dr. Blount, now President of Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA, told us, essentially, that Jesus is calling us to go out and shake up the neighborhood. His words then were certainly more eloquent than my paraphrasing now a decade and a half later, but he was calling us to go out and build relationships with our neighbors, to challenge the status quo and to serve those most in need, not those who most affirmed our idea of ourselves. Our just-beginning lives of ministry should make us, and those around us, appropriately uncomfortable, and they should root us where God plants us, which may not always be where we expect to plant ourselves. He did not frame this message in the context of Building the Beloved Community, but he certainly could have.

Did we just practice a version of Building a Beloved Community that tends toward complacency, where those who hold the power get to keep it? Or did we create a way forward for shaking up that complacency, in the context of our children’s neighborhoods and communities?

I know why Dr. Blount’s baccalaureate service message found its way back to me this week. Dr. Blount, an African American, wrote in a statement on May 31 to his seminary community and to all who would have wisdom to listen: “I am afraid because I fear that my voice is too insignificant to matter. I am afraid because I fear that while what I say bears insufficient weight to make a difference, it carries just enough potency to get me in trouble. I am afraid because I fear bringing trouble on myself when my people are writhing in a perpetual abyss of systemic injustice. I am afraid because I fear that when I am called to my own final reckoning the record will show that I didn’t do my part. I didn’t witness. Not enough,” he says.

He goes on to observe, “White Christians are not witnessing. Not enough.”[3]

Did we do enough this week? Am I doing enough as an individual, a faith leader, a parent? These are difficult things to ask oneself, but for me, at least, the answer is simple: absolutely not.

We won’t know the impact the conversations, examples, and stories of Stay Camp had on any one camper or leader, or even this generation growing up in the church, but we can rest our hope in the Holy Spirit to continue to guide, advocate, and agitate. And we can each continue to look at the hard work we need to do within ourselves and our own neighborhoods to love and serve God and one another.

If I missed an opportunity to say more to our campers and leaders this week, that is on me and part of the work I need to keep doing. But let me take this moment now to say:

To our youngest campers: continue to ask why and ask other good questions of the grownups in your world when you notice differences. The more you know, the more likely you are to celebrate those differences and to be a good friend and neighbor. When someone is being treated unfairly, especially because of the color of their skin, use your voice to speak up.

To our older campers and leaders: what I just said applies to you, too, but also this- challenge your own assumptions about race and stereotypes, and stand up when you see racism or prejudice happening.

Love kindness, do justice, and walk humbly with God.

And to parents and caregivers: all of the above applies to you, too, and also this- be honest about what you need to work on and model for your children what Building Beloved Community looks like, even when it feels messy. Find others who will walk and pray alongside you. Keep talking, keep listening, and seek out good resources.[4] A good one is this morning’s Adult Education with Margaret Aymer. I encourage you to go back to the livestream and listen if you missed it.

So, where does this leave us? Just joyful and hope-filled, or aware of a call to action…or perhaps both? Hope and joy are tricky things and some have it in abundance, and others have lost it long ago. Those who have access to some measure of hope and joy, must invest that in the work, witnessing to the gospel imperative to follow Jesus and to love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength, and to love God and love neighbor. So maybe the joy and the hope is that there is good, hard work before us that we are called to join. Building Beloved Community means actively participating alongside others: listening and learning, making mistakes and admitting your failures, and trying again.

It means getting caught up in the motivating energy and buoyant expectation of young ones who both teach us and need us to model for them how we use our voices and actions. May that be one part of the engine of reconciliation Coretta Scott King refers to as we shake up the neighborhood, loving God and one another.

Amen.

[1] The King Center, Mrs. Coretta Scott King, https://thekingcenter.org/about-mrs-king/

[2] Celano, Marianne, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice, (Kindle, Loc 18).

[3] https://www.upsem.edu/newsroom/statement-from-president-blount-on-the-death-of-george-floyd/

[4] The above is taken from language from Beyond The Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice, by Dana Williams, https://www.tolerance.org/sites/default/files/general/beyond_golden_rule.pdf

Latest Sermons