The Bishop moved my family to Mars the summer I entered sixth grade. I had spent three years in Austin, where my father was a pastor at a university church. San Angelo was another planet.
My mother, who grew up in West Texas, recommends as introduction “Giant.” Rock Hudson drives Elizabeth Taylor to his family’s ranch. Look at Elizabeth’s face. Rock moved Elizabeth to Mars.
Around 1979, someone at my dad’s church recommended my first summer camp, in the Hill Country near Austin. This was the beginning of my love affair with camp.
I smell the wood of the gathering space. I smell Polo cologne, an early ’80s favorite of tween boys, mixed with sweat and bug spray. The culminating event each summer was a dance, so all smells are also linked to maudlin rock ballads and sweetly awkward french kisses.
And there were songs.
Kids from Plainview, Texas, called out song lyrics to own a song we were told to take seriously: “Can you see Jesus My Lord? He’s here in plain view.” We often sang from one book: “An eclectic lyric collection of more than 750 songs for most situations.” This included a corny song about Abilene, “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” “Oh For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (with a note the hymn “can be sung to the tune of Greenback Dollar”) John Denver’s “Annie’s Song,” and Elton John’s “Your Song.” If a song makes you shed a tear, it’s in the book.
One song explains what goes wrong at summer camp. When “One Tin Soldier” winds around my ear, it stays like a toothache.
Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend. Do it in the name of heaven. You can justify it in the end. There won’t be any trumpets blowing, come the judgment day. On the bloody morning after ... [insert heartbreaking harmonizing] one tin soldier rides away.
My closest aunt had a beloved killed in Vietnam. Both grandmothers lived with the horror of World War II – one working as a mathematician in New Mexico and one waiting for her husband to come home to her two children. One grandmother lost her father in World War I. Alcohol numbed him, and killed his pain. I knew “One Tin Soldier” was a call to engage. If I were to name one reason I joined the Communist Youth Brigade in college, this song would be it.
After two decades teaching Young Life leaders, I understand what is wrong with this song. First, you need to know that Young Life is officially a “Para-Church” organization. Para-Church means Young Life is an organization that works above actual congregations of real people. Young Life is a network of evangelicalism that works outside of actual congregations. They work above grandmothers and aunts and other people who have known a believer since the child was baptized. Journalist Lawrence Wright, who won a Pulitzer for his research on how religious language is used to warp brains and create compliance in cults, has named his time in Dallas, Texas, with Young Life, as formative for his research.
I recently backed into a thicket of Young Life through the United Methodist Church. I accepted a recommendation that my tween daughter attend a camp that is, on the website, about organic farming and “relationships.” My daughter was hesitant about going alone, so I sent the website information to her agnostic friend. Her parents agreed.
And then, months later, I learned the whole story.
The camp culminated in a promise to be confirmed, which is one way United Methodists in Texas and North Carolina tally faith. Every single cabin counselor was between 19 and 25, and could, even on a bad hair day, appear on the cover of a catalog of Banana Republic.
I am typing these words while washing clothes to attend a different camp. This is an interfaith camp with mostly older people (some of us use walkers). There is no secret recipe for good summer camp. But here are some recipes for bad summer camp. Pretend your camp is about organic farming, and then culminate the week with a promise to be confirmed. Make sure every counselor is beautiful in a way that the campers know is beautiful, and then encourage them subtly to promote the camp using their photos from the camp. Also, make sure that no parents or grandparents of actual, skeptical campers are there and paying attention.
Church camp can be a gift, including awkward french kisses and bad ballads and maudlin songs. Do not use adolescence to increase your numbers. Celebrate. Dance. And, always, bring grandparents.
Amy Laura Hall teaches ethics at Duke University.