Attending religious camp is often a steppingstone to seminary.
CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR
As the morning light seeps through the trees, kids pour out of the woods onto a semicircle of benches and begin the Rah-Rah-Ray chapel service with an enthusiastic song, "Open the Eyes of My Heart."
At Calumet Lutheran Camp in northern New Hampshire, this summer's theme is "Pray!" Every day brings a new way to ponder and live that theme, and this morning the campers consider "forgiving." What does it mean to forgive? Who is it hard to forgive? How do you get the yuckiness in your heart to go away after you've been wronged?
Boys and girls have something to say about that, about bullies, and about forgiving oneself, too. After more singing, it's off to a day full of activities, guided by counselors' practical reminders of the day's message.
Religious summer camp is a treasured tradition in many Christian and Jewish traditions. But in today's complex, fast-paced world, where sports regularly compete with the Sabbath, and children may shuttle from one divorced parent to another on alternate weekends, the camping experience promises benefits beyond the joys of good times and new friends.
It offers youngsters a more intense faith experience than sporadic Sunday school, church, or synagogue attendance may provide. Denominations themselves, many of which face serious clergy shortages, are finding that camp develops commitment and leadership skills that are spurring some young people to enter seminaries.
In seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), some 65 percent to 70 percent of new students say their church camp experience was a key factor leading them to sense a call from God to be an ordained pastor. "That's a compelling statistic," says Don Johnson, Calumet's former director. "Seminaries are saying, 'Wow, what would happen if we were intentional about cultivating a relationship between camps and seminaries?'" Mr. Johnson has recently been hired by the three Lutheran seminaries in the Eastern United States to do just that.
In the Jewish community, camping stands out as one of the most promising means for building identity and sustaining religious commitment. Jewish population surveys have stirred deep concerns about rates of intermarriage and assimilation, but they also revealed that camps engender a strong sense of identity.
"We have a tremendous problem of losing people between the ages of 13 and 21, after their bar or bat mitzvah," says Rabbi Niles Goldstein, founder of the New Shul in Greenwich Village. "But the camping experience has been powerful, not just in terms of identity formation but also in cultivating lay and clerical leadership."
As a result, the Foundation for Jewish Camping was formed to increase the number of Jewish children who can have that opportunity.
"The secret is this powerful 24/7 experience that creates what I call 'wow' memories," says Jerry Silverman, foundation director. "From a faith standpoint, it doesn't matter what Jewish denomination you are, the right environment and culture of the camp create a celebration of religion in an informal way. It slowly oozes into the pores."
About 40 percent of U.S. teens age 13 to 17 have attended a religious camp at least once, according to the recent National Study of Youth and Religion. Mormon teens are most likely to attend (78 percent), followed by conservative Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Jews (53, 48, and 43 percent, respectively).
Other world religions use the camp experience to teach American children of immigrants more about their faith. Camps for Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs are developing across the United States. About 24 percent of non-Christian, non-Jewish youths have attended a religious summer camp.
Calumet's counselors are trained in leadership skills and in bringing biblical values to bear throughout the daily activities. An annual theme and curriculum are put together by the ELCA for all Lutheran camps.
"The whole point of Calumet is proving God is everywhere around us and should be in your everyday life," says Haley Andreozzi of Warwick, R.I., who has come here since 1998, first as a camper and now as a counselor.
A change of perspective
This summer, Calumet's leadership training program includes regular sessions with Carl Sharon, Lutheran pastor at Yale University, in which the young people are exploring questions they most want to pose to God.
It was in such sessions a few years ago that Sara Wilson first considered becoming a pastor. She was so shy when she arrived at Calumet at age 13, she says, that she looked at the ground and didn't talk to people. But that changed quickly, and three years later, during counselor training, she delved deeply into the Bible and talked with visiting chaplains. After hearing her first woman pastor preach at camp, she decided to study religion in college.
"Calumet is completely responsible for my going into ministry and seminary," she says in a phone interview from Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford, Conn. After two years at Gettysburg Seminary, she's now an intern. "I'm doing everything -- preaching, teaching, doing home and hospital visits."
Thriving summer camps serve as the core of broader outdoor ministry programs in several denominations. Calumet operates a family camp and retreats year-round.
"It's a retreat center, not just a camp. It helps fulfill our goals of faith formation and leadership development," explains Bishop Margaret Payne of the ELCA's New England Synod.