By Sue Sprang
SYNOD – Church camp. For many of us it means a summer of children and youth going away for a week or two to enjoy God’s creation, be nurtured in their faith – or maybe even find it, be uplifted and encouraged by the staff, make new friends, and find themselves busy with a myriad of activities that inspire spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being. For some young people, it is a life and faith-altering experience. And for some it is the only place they feel included or where they feel they can express their doubts and beliefs without judgment.
Beyond summer camp, there are retreats and events spanned across the other three seasons. These are times for folks to connect; to learn, study, or plan; to experience personal or spiritual growth; or to just enjoy spending time with other people of faith. These times can bring refreshment and renewal to God’s people.
So what happens when these experiences are suddenly not possible? Who would have thought that a pandemic virus would make it an abrupt reality?
C. J. Clark, executive director of Living Water Ministries of the North/West Lower and Southeast Michigan Synods, knows what happens.
When it was acknowledged that COVID-19 had hit the United States and many governors, including Michigan’s, put public health safety requirements and guidelines in place, Clark immediately knew that changes were going to have to be made. Not last-minute tweaks or adjustments, but major changes that would impact LWM now and into the future.
When the LWM board sadly, but prudently, agreed that the March 2020 Jr. High Youth CHARGE event and summer camp should be cancelled, Clark, along with LWM’s program innovator Nicole McCarthy, buckled down to map out future opportunities for summer campers and off-season events.
“How do you bring children together ‘to experience intentional community centered in Christ,’ which is our mission?” he said. “How do we engage people when they can’t come together?”
Creativity and not knowing how long the pandemic and its affects will stretch out have to be blended when planning for the present and the future.
“This summer we were able to do some virtual campfires,” Clark said. “We also invited past anti-racism camp alumni to be part of a virtual event. We had ten people from across the country, including Michigan, take part. It wasn’t a huge number but it was a good experience. I was humbled by the participants connecting with us.” The Bridge Builders team continues to meet monthly via virtual meetings.
This year’s fall events have been cancelled, as has the annual Youth Gathering for the N/WLM and SE Michigan synods, which was to be held this January. Mostly likely any off-season events beyond that will also be cancelled. Then who knows what summer 2021 will bring. Clark and McCarthy are brainstorming resources campers can use in their home settings, especially things that get them away from the computer.
Meanwhile, LWM’s finances are stable.
“I’ve talked to other camp directors across the country and some of them are being hit really hard, especially if they rely heavily on [off-season] retreats,” Clark said. “So far, our fundraising has been going very well. May, June, and July were positive and August is looking to be on track.
“Right before COVID hit, we were raising funds for a new cabin. We have some verbal commitments, but have paused it [the project] for now. It was hoped to have the cabin built by August of next year, but pausing [rather than cancelling] indicates there is a day beyond [Aug. 2021] we are looking toward.”
Clark has been grateful to the board and the synod for their support.
“Bishop Satterlee sent me a message during a board Zoom meeting that said LWM doesn’t have to justify its existence,” he said. “That was encouraging.”
On Aug. 13, the following message was posted on LWM’s Facebook page:
“As the sun sets on what would have been the 2020 summer season, we remember all the summers that have come before. It is our hope and prayer that you have found ways to safely and meaningfully connect with God and other people this summer, and we look forward to again being a place that brings together all of God’s children on the shores of Stony Lake in the future.”
Shortly thereafter, Clark wrote a letter that was also posted on Facebook. One paragraph says:
“As the sun sets on summer 2020 we move into the next phase of pandemic life. Living Water Ministries now turns its attention to the east to celebrate and witness the dawning of a new day in which we can continue to confidently trust that Jesus reigns.”
And God’s people say: “Amen.”