Beyond the Self: Camps Fostering Spiritual Growth

Camps in Maine serve a vast range of purposes: building skills and community, creating lifelong friendships, plunging into nature and unplugging from technology. While each of those purposes can touch a child’s spiritual side, there are camps in Maine that purposefully seek to help kids look beyond themselves and into a world where God or a greater power plays a role. Here’s a look at three such camps.

Pilgrim Lodge
Take Pilgrim Lodge, located on the shores of Lake Cobbosseecontee in West Gardiner.  Started in 1925, the camp has stood in its current location since 1956, and is operated by the Maine Conference of the United Church of Christ. Its philosophy is one of inclusion, and states in part that “Inspiration is infused into lives through the power of love, nature and God.”

“We set the table for the feast God offers, without the arrogance of assuming we have all the answers, or that everyone’s experience of God is identical,” the philosophy concludes.

Bryan Breault took the position of camp director in 1997. He echoes the message of that philosophy. “We want children and adults to take their spiritual journey seriously, but we recognize it’s their journey. We don’t claim to know what is by definition unknowable,” he says. “We support the educational and spiritual growth efforts, but we do not teach indoctrination.”

Week-long sessions at the camp serve different age groups and have varied themes, Breault says. Volunteer “deans” from United Church of Christ parishes work alongside paid staff to carry out 10 weeks of programming each summer.

“Our hope is that people will have their own experience through community, being outdoors, being in touch with the natural world, and through creative worship,” Breault says. “It’s an opportunity to explore in a very immersive, open way the questions everybody asks.”

“I’d much rather have kids walk out asking good questions rather than reciting canned answers,” he says.

Along with traditional camp activities – swimming and boating, crafts and nature – Breault says campers also participate in group-building “challenges” led by trained program staff. Campers also take part in twice-daily worship in the camp’s chapel. As the week of camp progresses, campers are given a greater role in worship preparation.

Each week at camp has a curricular theme, with a thematic bible passage each day, Breault says. The majority of campers come from UCC churches, but “everyone is welcome.” The camp also seeks to enroll a broad range of campers through its three-tiered pricing system, aimed to reach families with differing abilities to pay.

Pilgrim Lodge’s mission of inclusion will serve as a cornerstone of its “Camp Pride,” geared toward LGBTQ+  teens and allies,  which will be held for the first time in August.

Breault says that messages to teens can be confusing with respect to both church and religion in general. And while the United Church of Christ as an organization has presented itself as “open and affirming,” Breault says that the Orlando, FL nightclub shooting in June, 2016 prompted them to do more.

“We need to do something active, not just say ‘we affirm you’ – actually do something proactive that makes the case that the church welcomes everyone as they are,” Breault says.

Camp Pride will include “regular old camp” activities, Breault says, but will also “have some intense programming around what it means to be a queer adolescent in 2017. We will talk about spiritual matters, what people’s concept and experience of God has been, and how those interface. What does being a queer person in relationship with God mean?”

“We’re not promoting any particular answer,” Breault says. “Our goal is to have young people walk away feeling affirmed, connected to a larger community that celebrates who they are in every way as human beings.”

Campers will not be asked to self-identify, he says. “We don’t want to put them in a box.”

“We are being very clear that people have the right to keep their identity to themselves, try things on, if you will. It affirms them as children of God just the way they are.”

Camp Bishopswood

In Hope, the Episcopal Diocese of Maine sponsors Camp Bishopswood, a co-ed camp for kids aged 6 through 16.

“The great thing is, even though we are an arm of the Episcopal Church, not all campers are Episcopalian,” says Executive Director Mike Douglass.

“Camp is where we can grow,” he says, and as a place of spiritual growth, the camp gives kids a chance to acknowledge that there may be more than just themselves.

“Many in our relationship with God, church, and others are trying to figure out what that is,” Douglass says.

“Our bishop, Stephen Lane, said it really great,” Douglass says. “Religion in America is on a major decline, but people seeking spirituality is on the incline.”

“We provide that opportunity here at Bishopswood.”

“A lot of it is by being a good person,” he says. “Our counselors are modeling that, and talking about it when it doesn’t happen.”

Campers give thanks for each meal, Douglass says, and each morning the camp gathers for “Morning Devotions,” a short period of contemplation modeled after Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac.”

“We have a different theme for it, and we talk about it,” including conversations about how it connects to a “bigger picture,” Douglass says. The camp also holds “Evening Devotion,” which is not biblically based but may include poetry or song. Each Friday night, an Episcopal priest from the diocese holds traditional Eucharist service. “The kids love it,” Douglass says.

“We’re a very accepting kind of place,” Douglass says. “In general, Episcopalians are very open, and Bishopwood is a welcoming community. We’re a safe place, and we value that.”

Like Pilgrim Lodge, Bishopwood offers tiered pricing. “We literally say price will never stop a kid from coming to Bishopswood,” Douglass says. “We gave out over $50,000 in scholarships last summer.

Blueberry Mountain Bible Camp

In Weld, the Child Evangelism Fellowship® of Maine offers Blueberry Mountain Bible Camp, where, as Program Director Eliza Bean puts it, “Our goal is to teach kids about the Lord, and do it through Christian camping.”

“Our goal is to obviously share the word of God, and teach kids about God. What He means to us as a staff, and means to them as children and young adults,” Bean says.

Part of that is teaching morality, Bean says. “A lot of people who come to camp may not be someone who believes in the Lord the way I do, but they bring their kids to camp to learn morals.”

That includes respecting elders, and “loving people who may not be so loveable.”

“Our camp does it through nature,” Bean says. “We teach through creation. God made us and loves us and wants us to be with Him.”

“We teach right from the bible. We teach God’s love.”

Prayer time takes place throughout the day, Bean says, and includes morning prayers, chapel at night, as well as devotional time in cabins. “It helps [campers] put things together,” and helps them understand how lessons apply to their own lives, she says.

The camp also offers ample traditional camp activities, including outdoor living skills like orienteering, shelter construction and first aid, plus, archery, riflery with BB’s, and swimming.

The camp is staffed virtually entirely by volunteers, Bean says (she is the only paid staff.) This makes the camp accessible to many income levels. This summer’s programming includes a week of “Teen Wilderness Adventure,” for campers aged 14 to 18, and three “Junior Wilderness Skills” weeks for kids aged eight to 13.

Bean says that each week brings together a “good blend” of kids. “A lot of kids consider themselves Christians and followers of the Lord,” she says. “Those that aren’t, we hope leave knowing Christ or learning really good life lessons.”

Being in nature and in community, with camp leaders dedicated to their organizations’ missions, touches kids’ bodies and minds. And for many, regardless of what camps they attend, their experiences touch the spirit.  Pilgrim Lodge, Bishopswood, and Blueberry Mountain Bible Camp, all nestled in Maine’s natural beauty, have their own philosophies and goals. But through conversation and contemplation each seeks to open campers’ hearts and minds to possibilities beyond themselves. They are lessons taught at camp, but may foster an education for a lifetime.