“What do you think it means to live in community?” I ask the staff. No one answers me. It’s just the first day of summer staff orientation so everyone hasn’t come out of their shell yet. I know this won’t last. Give them a week, I think, and you’ll have to rush to squeeze in questions and announcements between their socializing and laughter. I know that they know. Or at least, they have an idea. I know because I have the delight of interviewing the staff when we’re hiring them. I hear them talk about their hopes for the summer. I hear them talk about why they want to work at camp, what draws them to this work. Nine times out of ten, most candidates reflect on how meaningful community is at camp. “That’s what keeps bringing me back,” they’ll say.
I’m from Tennessee; I moved out here shortly after college in Arkansas. Being so far from “home,” people often ask me what brought me here. It’d take a lot of time to really explain, so I usually recount the logistical side, the series of events that led me here. Other times I wave out to Sitka spruces and the ocean and don’t offer any more explanation, because that’s also true.
The truth is I got here for the same reason the summer staffers return year after year. Community. I think that’s really why a lot of us do what we do, or it’s what we’re missing when life doesn’t seem to be fulfilling us in a deeper way. I often hear about people referencing social media for the lack of community. It’s true, in some ways, that social media and technology offer some hollow substitutes for the real thing, especially if that’s what you are expecting to find there. But to me, it feels more like our whole culture has misplaced our priorities. I see a lot of problems caused by the absence of deep community in our lives. I see my peers prioritizing their careers and their status and still coming up empty. I guess that’s an age-old tale.
People also will often ask me what I will do when I have to go back to the “real world” after camp. I know what they mean. They’re asking the same thing that we try to help campers navigate as they go back home after a week of camp. It’s a way to point out the difference between the “real world” and camp, something we don’t have to name to understand.
There are many things about camp that grow more countercultural over time. If you ask lots of guests (I’m looking at you, too, adults!) the first thing they notice is the lack of wifi (especially high speed wi-fi).The centralization of community in our daily lives is what I think offers the largest contrast from camp to the real world. I mean, hello, bunk beds?? Camp asking us to share such close space with each other cracks open a layer of vulnerability. The camp experience is all about introducing risk and challenge into campers’ routine, and the primary reason for that is so they, at some moment, will feel just enough vulnerability to connect with their fellow peers.
So, when I answer people about what it will be like if I leave camp, I often reference my hope for building this community out there, too. I see intentional community building as a counter-cultural act that is a form of resistance. I see community as a way to change the world we live in. To live in community, we may have to opt for something less convenient, or at the very least less conventional, but the payoff of experiencing deeper and significantly fulfilling relationships is much more rewarding.
Oftentimes, I’ll eavesdrop when I notice a summer staffer encouraging a volunteer counselor to apply to staff the next summer. It’ll be one of the same staff members that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) answer my question the first day of staff orientation. “It’ll be worth it!” they say. They’ll wave out over the campers splashing in Smith Lake and to their fellow staff members loading campers into boats.
I know what they’re saying.
- Hope Montgomery