An African choir, a South Carolina camp: Unexpected community during COVID-19

They were supposed to stay for two nights.

Now, because of COVID-19, it’s been more than 200.

Last spring, on March 17, the Imani Milele Choir, a children’s choir from Uganda, arrived to spend two nights night at Fellowship Camp and Conference Center, a Presbyterian-related camp in Waterloo, South Carolina. Each year since 2013, the Imani Milele Choir has come to the United States for a fundraising tour — crisscrossing the country by bus to sing at churches and schools, raising money money for eight education centers it operates for children in Uganda, and finding sponsors for children who attend those schools.

As the choir group settled in at the camp – a group of 21 children ages 10 to 15, plus 16 adults – so, gradually, did the reality that the COVID-19 pandemic was starting to shut down travel.

“It caught everyone off guard,” said Sam Straxy, the choir’s tour director. At first, he thought the choir might have to cancel performances for a week or two, so he asked if they could stay a bit longer at the camp. When they began to understand things would be shut down much longer, “we definitely wanted to go back to Uganda,” Straxy said. But on March 22, Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, closed Entebbe International Airport to all non-emergency passenger flights — so the choir was stuck.

That’s when Kevin Cartee, executive director of Camping Ministries of the Carolinas, offered to let the choir stay on at Camp Fellowship for as long as needed — the start of what he describes as “an amazing opportunity to provide some Christian hospitality. It’s also been amazing the impact the choir has had on us,” and the local community. “They have remained extremely positive and optimistic” during a stressful time, he said. “It’s incredible how the choir has ministered back to us.”

The first few months focused on practical concerns, as Fellowship Camp watched its spring schedule of retreats and workshops go blank with cancellations — “our schedule ended as abruptly as the choir’s,” Cartee said. In those first weeks, he tried to sort through the financial impact of losing that revenue and absorbing the cost of hosting the campers. Would the supply chain for groceries and cleaning supplies dry up? What needed to be done to keep the campers and the staff safe?

Choir members enjoy ice cream outside on a perfect summer evening. The camp’s food service staff have prepared and served 3 meals a day, 7 days a week since the choir arrived.

“I’ve got 37 more people that I’m watching out for now,” Cartee said. “The immensity of that was not lost to us, but the immensity of support from the community, from local churches and others, has been immense.”

Camp Fellowship applied for and was given a Presbyterian Disaster Assistance grant of $3,000; it also received a Paycheck Protection Program loan. The choir is contributing money as well, drawing from tour funds and money that otherwise would be used for the schools in Uganda. Financially “we have been greatly impacted,” Straxy said.  The choir has an online store, where it sells jewelry, crafts, and more, and accepts both donations and sponsorships of individual children who attend the program’s schools.

At camp, the children created a routine — the choir travels with a teacher, who continued with their daily lessons.  The choir – considered essentially one quarantine unit because they had been traveling together by bus – also continued practicing and rehearsing, doing occasional performances virtually.

The choir takes a break from filming a performance to pose for a group shot.

“In a sense it’s been a blessing,” Straxy said. “As their friends in Uganda weren’t having school because of the crisis, the global pandemic, here they have continued to have school. They haven’t missed out.”

When they’re not studying or rehearsing, the children play soccer by the lake, play board games, knit and do camp crafts and art in the fellowship area. The boys stay in one building, the girls in another. The children have chores. The choir has Bible study and prayer time every day, and its members use WhatsApp to communicate with their families back home.

“We’re not moving, we’re not traveling, everyone is safe,” Straxy said. “That brought a sense of relief” to the children’s relatives. “Outside the United States, the news is given that the crisis is really bad. In America, people are dying. They would be so scared for our lives. We have given them reassurance that we are blessed where we are.”

With 36 choir members, the calendar is filled with many birthdays! Here, the choir celebrates Rodney’s birthday. Nearly every choir member will have celebrated a birthday while sheltering at Fellowship.

With a 140-acre buffer, “we have maintained an extremely tight bubble,” Cartee said.

During a season of pandemic and racial unrest, some in the community were skeptical. “We’re in the deep South here,” Cartee said. “Having internationals on site was a point of tension for some in the community” — someone phoned to say “they’re probably going to bring in the virus. … We had a responsibility in witnessing to the fact that we are all God’s children and there is no place for that kind of racial discord.”

The Imani Miele Choir sings for First Presbyterian Church’s (Greenwood, South Carolina) socially-distanced church service on Lake Greenwood.

Over the summer, Fellowship Camp reconfigured its offerings — deciding because of the pandemic not to offer in-person camping, and shifting to a “Camp in a Box” offering as a way to keep connections with previous campers. So the camp delivered a box to every family that had sent a child or teenager to camp in the summer of 2019 — free of charge, and filled with the curriculum the camp had already purchased plus supplies needed to do the activities. Congregations also paid to send boxes to camp families from previous years. In the end, Fellowship Camp sent out about 500 boxes, to as far away as Texas and Florida.

Helping with that were six college students who quarantined for two weeks, then came to stay at the camp, joining the choir students. Each day, the children and camp staff joined together for worship — forming a sort of intentional community. In September, the choir sang for a congregation that held an outdoor worship service at the camp.

The children have been disappointed that their travels were changed, Straxy said – for some, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime to visit the United States, and they wanted to see more.

But the time at the camp has been life transforming, he said. “It’s brought many people to a place where they have drawn closer to God. … It’s as if the world just went to a stop,” and those at the camp became a sort of family together.

Puzzles are a great activity in-between choir practice and schoolwork.

“At some point, they’re going to get on their bus and leave, and we will miss them deeply,” Cartee said.  “No one imagined them being here this long. It’s just beautiful the way things have unfolded” – with the camp’s staff leaning into uncertainty and creativity, beginning to envision new forms of ministry going forth. When he starts to feel overwhelmed, Cartee watches the children. “I’m reminded that God indeed is sovereign, and there is room for hope and joy.”

Now, as the summer has turned to fall, word has come that the airport in Uganda is finally reopening. The plan now: The choir will stay at the camp until Nov. 23, then drive to Florida.

On Dec. 2, the Imani Milele Choir will fly home.