The SpringHill/Park Hills Church collaboration is longstanding, in no small part due to the fact that the senior pastor at Park Hills is the son of the founder of SpringHill. Park Hills Church comes out of the Evangelical Free religious tradition. It’s a partnership that benefits the entire community of Freeport in that 70 of the 109 children who attended the day camp were given scholarships by the congregation. These scholarships were specifically shared with at-risk, or poor children in the community. Given that Freeport, a city just west of Rockford in northern Illinois, is struggling from severely poor economic conditions, this community of 25,000 people really needs these scholarships in order for children to participate. One area pastor told me, “It’s bad here, really bad, and getting more violent too.” The scholarships also link the members (especially older ones) of the congregation to the day camp. They have invested in the program. Only the farmers surrounding the community are doing well economically.
The congregation is located on what one local leader said is the “right side” of the street. There is literally a street that divides the community economically and ethnically. The congregation itself is expansive and expanding. They have a full gymnasium, a large worship center, multiple classrooms, and offices. Low-income housing and senior living make up the surrounding neighborhood. The low-income housing is attractive to outsiders and I was told that people from Flint, Michigan and other poor areas were “buying one-way bus tickets” to move into this housing. This is creating some strong racial tensions in the community. The church administrator, Tammie, told me her husband is a physician at the local hospital. Most of their patients are over the age of 60. She also said, “there is no industry to bring young people into the community.”
Park Hills is a growing church. The reason given is that Park Hills focuses on children and youth. This brings in families. Martin Luther once said, “If we want to help Christendom, we most certainly must start with the children.” Park Hills bears out the truth of this statement. Park Hills worships 500-600 per week and is served by five pastors on two campuses. Only one pastor was around the week of this day camp.
The church staff is all white people. I was not able to determine if there is a city clergy group that meets regularly. In my short visit, I was not able to determine what is being done to address these huge economic and racial divides.
The congregational leader of the day camp program, Merri Lane, exhibits an incredible commitment to it. She is a self-confessed “hugger” and my observations bear this out. She brings warmth, acceptance, and hospitality to the whole enterprise.
Twenty-two staff from SpringHill provided primary leadership to the event with 12 counselors and the rest serving as support staff. It is very significant that the SpringHill staff was multi-cultural. In this setting, it was very important for the campers to see staff who looked like them. Danielle was accessible and informative as the team leader. Significantly, Danielle is only one of two full-time employees in SpringHill that is African-American. She does the multi-cultural sensitivity training for the organization. She sees herself as a pioneer within the organization. There is room for growth and development in this regard within SpringHill.
In addition, Park Hills provided 8 counselors in training (CITs). The staff and CITs bring what might be considered the SpringHill Franchise and implement the program well. As an ACCT certified high ropes instructor for 25 years, I can attest to the quality and safety of all the high adventure activities that included a “flying squirrel,” climbing wall, cargo net, rope ladder, and bungee element. In addition, the rest of the SpringHill circus of activities was on full display and very popular with the kids. Supervision and safety were of the highest quality. Safety was also well implemented in building security and locked doors. The one suggestion is that beach umbrellas be provided when the children are sitting on a hot parking lot waiting their turn on the climbing wall and bungee jump.
Programmatically, this day camp is driven by volume and ritual. The music for children coming into the church is loud and enthusiastic. However, I have a concern that the music is too loud for their hearing. I inquired about this with the DJ and she said she plays it just “below where it begins to hurt.” SpringHill should do some study on what are acceptable decibel limits for children. And the Type A approach of the program left me wondering where quiet and introverted children would fit in. One leader even told me, “Introverted kids don’t fit in well.” Yet introverted and quiet kids are signed up, thus they are trapped in this cacophony. Even the quiet room that was provided was not adequate to address this issue. I did not witness arts and crafts activities of any kind, or quiet music songs, contemplative prayer time, or quiet playtime. The one “quiet time” comes in small group processing and Bible study. However, the ratio of volume (screaming, dancing, chanting, cheering) to more sedate moments has to be around 5 to 1.
The many rituals of the SpringHill day camp hold the experience together. Counselor group “call and response” activities for just about every occasion serve as the glue to group cohesiveness and programmatic flow. The value of these rituals becomes increasingly manifest at the end of the week when big group gatherings take place, skits are performed, worship happens and the memory verse is repeated. This age group loves this kind of ritual, for it gives them a sense of planned security, team building, community, and energy outlet.
Story is used throughout the week with skits linking the camp to the theological thrust of the camp.
The theological goal of the day camp is to help people convert to a belief in Jesus Christ. The worship, skits, and songs all drive the camp to this well-focused goal. There was no ambiguity regarding where Park Hills and SpringHill want to take this theologically. Children were asked at the end of the week if they wanted to accept Jesus as their Savior. Not surprising, given the peer pressure and setting, most raised their hands. Whether this is a developmentally appropriate approach is a question worth exploring.
SpringHill goes out of its way to not touch upon divisive theological or social issues. Given the diversity of congregations they are serving, this can certainly be a challenge. Site leaders that I encountered emphasized their desire not to “go there” on certain items. The upside to this approach is that the SpringHill day camp franchise can work in many non-denominational settings. Significantly, SpringHill day camp also took place in more Mainline denominations we studied. What are the similarities and differences in approach? This is a question our research team will discuss in further detail and note.
It was a pleasure and joy to observe and engage the Park Hills Church day camp. The hospitality of staff, church staff, and smiles of the children made it a fun and meaningful place to visit.