I felt like I was walking into a family reunion.

I arrived around 1 pm on a muggy Wednesday afternoon to Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church in Bloomfield Hills, MI. Bloomfield Hills is a city of about 4,000, but it appears to be growing quite rapidly. There was nothing significant about the outside of the church – it looked like a normal church, but I knew there was something going on inside. As I walked into the foyer, I saw a large group of children seated in a disorderly circle bouncing around as two young adults stood before them singing some silly, active songs with a guitar. One of the guitarists left the circle and approached me – Michelle – the site coordinator. She introduced herself and pulled me right into the action. As I set down my things and joined the circle, Michelle turned the kids’ attention towards me and introduced me. “Hi Rachael,” resounded through the foyer. I had been welcomed into their family. The rest of my time there was spent meeting members of the family and hearing from them what this week of day camp was like.

The first group I met were the adult volunteers. Mostly middle-aged and older women, these folks are there to make sure everyone stays safe and that the week runs smoothly logistically. Most of them have been at the church for a while now, and they know the ins and outs of how this family works. This week is a special week for them because it brings everyone together for an extended period of time – they get to be with each other and work alongside each other in a way that they don’t normally get to do throughout the normal flow of the year. They see their role as primarily supportive. I later learn that they fulfill a critical insurance requirement regarding youth to adult ratios, but that doesn’t come up in our time together. These folks love serving the mission of the day camp, flowing in an out throughout the week. Instead of having 3-4 for the whole week, they have 10-12 that take shifts. This allows more people to be involved, and they love that.

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When I arrive the next morning, there is coffee brewing; the pastor of the church mills about, and adult and youth volunteers share conversations and laughter. Around 8:30, they all gather in the sanctuary to go over any morning logistics and pray. It’s a short meeting, and the kids begin arriving around 8:50. Many of the kids (up to 70%, I’m told), are not part of this church formally, yet they are greeted by its members and treated as one of the family. There are about 50 kids ages K-5th grade enrolled in the camp, though not everyone comes every day. They also have 5-6 teenage junior counselors, many of whom are also not from Beautiful Savior. As an observer, I cannot tell which families dropping off kids are members of the church and which ones are visiting. Everyone seems to feel like they are a part of the family. During my time there I learned a bit about some recent changes in pastoral staff at Beautiful Savior. I don’t know all the details, but I know that the unity of the family was put to the test, and from what I experienced it stood strong through the test. The family bonds are strong, and they hold the church – and the camp – together. The staff from Living Waters Ministries, the area Bible camp, are sort of like distant cousins – they don’t belong to the immediate family but they have connections. The site coordinator knew two of the staff from previous years, and they shared common friends and collegiate experiences. These staff are welcomed in as part of the family.

The first thing they do with the kids is morning worship and devotionals. They sing some classic camp songs, a staff member introduces the theme, and there’s a time of prayer. The kids are engaged in various ways – holding song cards is a coveted role for these kids. I also notice a strong international focus. Each of the theme words is from a different language, and one of the staff members is from Tanzania. After this morning large group, they cycle through stations run by the camp staff. The adult volunteers and junior counselors shepherd them from station to station. At the end of each activity, the staff leaders try to connect the activity back to the theme – sometimes it works and we can see and hear the kids respond, but in other cases it’s hard to tell. Regardless of whether the debrief ‘works’ or not, kids are hearing the word in a way that, like one camper told me, is in a way that they can understand.

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There’s a short break for a snack midmorning and about 30 minutes for lunch. Afternoon activities vary by day – there’s a water day, a service day, a parachute day, etc. At the end of the day, they gather back together for ‘cool down’: they share popsicles and then gather in the sanctuary for worship and prayer. Parents are invited to join for this ending session, and a few show up each day.  The kids sit in the pews as the leaders ask them if they remember the themes of the day, the lessons they learned. They invite kids up to hold song cards for their songs, and there is energy, but not an excessive energy, in the room. The time they have for prayer during this cool down time is a highlight of my visit. The staff ask the kids for prayer, and no prayer is denied. They pray for the “earth to not be sick,” for “sharks to not be hunted,” for “safe travels,”  and for “grandmas and grandpas.” The prayers of the children are heard and responded to.  At about three o’clock, the parents show up, the kids head home, and the camp staff are gone by 3:30. The family has separated for the evening, but they all look forward to coming back the next day.

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As I flow through my time with the Beautiful Savior day camp family, I stumble upon an art project from the previous day. The theme that day was “one body, many parts,” and they had drawn a picture of a human body with many parts. Each child colored and designed a part. This is the perfect image for this day camp. The congregational community comes together and does their part to pull it off, and the kids, who are a distinct part of that community, learn that their part is valued and important within the larger whole. Those from other churches learn that they, too, are part of this family. I later learn that in fact, the theme for the whole week centers on unity which, as the staff leader of the Bible study station reiterates to the kids, is the root of community. Not all families have community. Community is a gift, and it is created by members within it. At Beautiful Savior Day Camp, they seek to teach kids how to create that community, so that as part of the family of God, they are themselves united.

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