The drive to Camp St. Christopher is as beautiful as it gets. Curving pavement shaded by centuries old trees, branches arching overhead. Even in the midsummer heat of coastal South Carolina, the air in this tree-tunnel is degrees cooler, shades darker.
Turning onto the main road that runs the length of the island, the teenager beside me grows restless, unsettled. It is now a straight shot to our destination. The car slows to a crawl just past the guard’s gate as we meander through the community of vacation houses. This part of the journey is the longest slowed by anticipation, nervousness and speed limit. A deep sigh in the next seat then laughter. I don’t know why I get so nervous every time. I smile and nod my head.
She has been coming to this camp in the summer for eight years. As a family we have been here countless times. She knows most of the staff personally, will be sharing a cabin with two of her best friends and knows the majority of campers. Yet now the nerves–part excitement, part fear. Will it be as great as I remember? Will my cabin coalesce? Will my friendships grow stronger? Will I feel God’s presence there?
Turning into the camp the familiar sign greets us like an old friend. We both breath out slowly. Gravel crunches and dirt whirls around the car before we reach the vast field to park. Someone calls out a greeting to her–calls her by name. Head whipping around to see, a smile breaks across her face. Once parked she bounds out of the car and runs to hug the friend from summers past. Over the next thirty minutes familiar faces appear again and again and are met with squeals and smiles and embraces. She is home.
This camp is a special place. It is home for so many–and for so long. Seventy-five years of summer camps. Seventy-five years of providing a uniquely beautiful place in which to meet Jesus and experience His presence.
I look around remembering as we follow the boardwalk to her cabin. I didn’t know this place as a child nor anything like it. But for the last sixteen years it has been a place of rest and reconciliation and transformation for me and my family. We have come to this place for personal retreats,conferences, holidays, parish weekends, Cursillio, family camps,…it truly is home to us.
She has almost forgotten that I am with her as she claims her bunk, meets her cabin mates and begins to settle into the routine of camp. With a quick hug we say goodbye and I head back to my car feeling just a little envious of her for the week that lies ahead.
Five days later we return to bring her home. We are as anxious as she on the way down. Was it a good week? What about the cabin, the friends, the boys,….
We hurry into the building for the closing program and are greeted by a wall of music. Teenagers are on their feet singing and dancing, arms raised worshiping the Lord. It is powerful. A chill runs up my spine. He is here. With us right now. You can see it in their faces, in their laughter, in their abandon.
The goodbyes are bittersweet. Embraces long. Some longer than others. Faces buried in necks. With hands finally on cell phones, last-minute photos are taken, numbers exchanged. Goodbyes and waves across the sand. Slow walk to the car dragging bags full of dirty, wet, sandy clothes. The week-worn, sun darkened teenager climbs into the front seat turning on the air conditioner full blast.
We drive to the pre-arranged lunch spot for one last meal with the best friend and her mother. Stories and laughter spill out over pizza, the two so close they finish one another’s sentences. A call comes through and the girls are out of the door in a flash. We walk to our car in the parking lot and spot them. An impromptu group of teenagers from camp has formed for one last farewell–Carolina style. With cars and trucks parked and music blaring, they claim partners and dance one last Shag dance before heading home to their “normal” lives.
We parents smile watching a memory form. Their lives will never be the same again. Camp has now become embedded in their hearts and minds forever. This place is in their blood. Praise be to God.
Some photos provided with permission of Ana Olbrych.