by Richard DuBose
Even almost 30 years later, I can retrieve the moment instantly.
Three companions had joined me on a short hike to the top of an overlook on the last evening of a five-day camping trip. Two were longtime friends; the third was a fellow named Steve, a young Canadian who had met us as a stranger on the first day.
It had been a trying week – a little foul weather, a little stomach flu. But here we were, sitting still, wordlessly enjoying a beautiful view at sunset. Steve broke the silence: “I feel like I’ve known you guys all my life.” We laughed and laughed.
Surf the websites of our church’s camps and conference centers and you’ll find endless descriptions of place. We offer “open spaces,” “beautiful settings” and “thin places,” evoking the Celtic belief that in places of natural beauty God’s presence seems especially knowable and accessible. And this is as it should be. Presbyterians today are indeed richly blessed with some of the most beautiful and spiritually nourishing settings in God’s creation. Our camps and conference centers are place-based ministries, and our mission to provide places set apart surely is accentuated by the beauty of nature. It seems easier somehow to feel the presence of God sitting on a mountain peak.
And yet, if you’ve spent a few days at one of our camps or conference centers, what do you most remember? I remember people and the close bonds that form with concentrated and intense time together – in worship and in prayer, but also in conversations, in close living quarters and in hikes up and down all manner of terrain.
In my youth, those close-knit groups nudged me toward fragile but important understandings about the complexities of faith. My youth group’s weeks at our presbytery’s Camp Monroe helped me understand not just that I belonged to God, but why I belonged to God. In worship at the Montreat Conference Center, the preaching of William Sloane Coffin Jr., James Forbes, Billy Graham and Joan SalmonCampbell (and so many others!) sparked vivid conversations with family and friends, revealing a bolder, provocative vision of what it meant to be the church. As an adult, the most rewarding aspect of conferences and retreats remains the energy and ideas of my co-participants who propel me toward growth and enrichment.
Of course, beyond these benefits, it turns out camps and conferences also strengthen the groups themselves. Have you noticed that the ranks of the youth group or Sunday school class or worship attendance always seem to swell just a bit after shared time away? You are not alone.
“Ask teenagers to tell about the moments when their faith came alive, and the vast majority will speak of an experience they had out of town,” says Mark DeVries, a 28-year veteran of youth ministry in a local church and president of Ministry Architects, a Nashville firm that has consulted with more than 500 churches (150 Presbyterian churches among them). “Ask youth pastors to tell you about times when their groups finally began to gel and taste the reality of community in Christ, and most will point to an extended experience away with their group.”
Of course, quiet meditative “alone time” also provides enormous restorative benefits for people of any age. Silent retreats are becoming increasingly both necessary and popular, and our Presbyterian camps and conference centers offer a wide range of settings and resources for stressed-out, technology-bombarded individuals seeking relaxation, rest and spiritual renewal. Even more importantly, our camps and conference centers, like our denomination, have much work to do if we are to gather and celebrate the full diversity of God’s people. Still, at their best, our camps and conference centers already do much to renew us for our daily lives and build connections to people and to communities of faith in unique and vitally effective ways.
So yes, let’s rejoice in gratitude for thin places of natural beauty. But let’s celebrate camps and conference centers also for thinning the spaces between us – by prompting us to share our thoughts, to listen deeply and to be truly present in ways that enrich us and those we are with, when even fleeting moments of togetherness can impact a lifetime and lift up the Body of Christ. Our challenge is to do that better, broader and deeper, because the world is desperate for the ministry we provide and Christ calls us to it.
A few years ago I found myself wondering what had happened to Steve, my friend-for-a-week from long ago. I Googled around, searched Facebook and quizzed people I thought might connect me. Finally, I found a face that looked like Steve’s – minus the scraggly beard – and reached out with a pointed email.
“If you took a camping trip with me for a week in 1985, send me a note.”
Two days later came the reply with a link to a collection of photos from that very trip. I clicked from one image to another. There were no sunsets or mountain panoramas, but lots of grimy and smiling faces, testimony to our shared experience. As the memories washed over me, I felt once again like I had known this guy all my life.
RICHARD DUBOSE was recently named the 15th president of the Montreat Conference Center, one of three national conference centers serving the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). A current resident of Atlanta, Richard is a member and ruling elder at Trinity Presbyterian Church.