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A return to democracy at camp

Jan 4, 2022 | Camp and Culture, The Logic of Camp

Democracy is in peril.

Not everyone agrees with this, of course. That, in itself, is part of the problem. Pope Francis had something to say about this in a December 4 speech. He called it “a retreat from democracy.” He reflected, “Democracy requires participation and involvement on the part of all…It is complex, whereas authoritarianism is peremptory and populism’s easy answers appear attractive.”

It has been a full year since the storming of the United States Capitol on the Day of Epiphany, the day Congress was meeting to certify the 2020 presidential election. Now is a time for more than reflection. Community leaders and civic organizations must take action on behalf of democracy itself. It is time to reemphasize democracy at camp.

It is easy to identify the problems: hyper-partisanism, demonization of those who think differently, trusted public leaders distorting facts (or outright lying), oversimplified populist outrage. But those are big words and big problems. Democracy, it turns out, is hard.

But we can do hard things.

Doing hard things is a hallmark of the camp experience, and it helps point to camp’s role in strengthening democracy. This has been part of camp’s role since its humble beginnings in the 1880s. The first camps prioritized democratic decision-making. In fact, one of the first camps (Asquam in New Hampshire) regularly convened a group that made decisions on behalf of the community. Those who sat on this council were known as “councilors,” the genesis of what we now call camp counselors.

Too often, Christian camps are seen as places of indoctrination or manipulation, but we do not want Boot Camps for Jesus. We want summer camps, places where it is safe to express beliefs or opinions without fear of ridicule or condemnation. We want places of acceptance and welcome, where participation is encouraged. This is difficult and even dangerous in such a polarized society that is seeing dramatic increases in such behaviors as bullying, which we have noted elsewhere.

As we prepare for summer 2022, let us turn our attention to contemporary needs by returning to some of the fundamentals of summer camp. There are two basic programmatic priorities that every camp should focus on this summer: meaningful participation and valuing different perspectives.

Meaningful Participation

Democracy depends on participation. We need citizens to volunteer for causes they believe in, apply their skills to careers that benefit society, and, most fundamentally, to vote. Democracy does not work when people opt out. Authoritarianism depends on silencing dissenting voices and convincing people that their participation does not matter. It requires quiescence and passivity.

Camp has always been a place of empowerment, where young people develop self-confidence, discover their God-given talents, and find their voice. Camp is participatory. We need to emphasize this more than ever. In every camp program, leadership should ask the question, “Can a camper do this?” Christian camps too often turn to the experts. This might ensure that you have sound theological doctrine and well-organized activities, but it is counter-productive if campers are implicitly taught that their voices and actions do not matter. Let the campers plan and lead the worship service. Center the Bible study on small group discussion rather than a presentation or sermon. Give campers a meaningful role in determining their daily schedule and activities. Involve the campers in food preparation and clean-up. In every program, make the camper more a participant than a recipient. 

Valuing Different Perspectives

Democracy depends on education and dialogue. We need citizens who know that every issue has multiple perspectives and who seek to understand them. Our society is being reduced to dualities: right v. wrong, us v. them, Progressive v. Conservative. This leads to insidious movements like “cancel culture,” which judges someone a non-person based on a single action or ideological position. This is profoundly un-Christian in its tendency to cancel someone’s very personhood rather than seek the Christian values of repentance, forgiveness, grace, and reconciliation. Populism depends on simplistic answers and half-truths. It stokes and then harnesses the passions of large groups of people for political gain. This is what we witnessed on January 6, 2021.

Camp is a place where people come together. It is relational. At camp, we cannot simply unfriend another person or post a mean comment on their social media page without consequence. We live together, in one another’s presence. This forces us to come up against the personhood of another. When there is conflict, we work through it. When there is no conflict, we present group challenges (like low ropes courses and outdoor adventure activities) to provide space for group decision making. These inevitably lead to disagreements and interpersonal challenges that are central to the learning process at camp. Establish a system of conflict resolution, and teach staff and campers how to implement it.

This summer, emphasize the importance of diverse voices and service to the other. This means suspending our own judgments to listen to the other and working to see their perspective in the best possible light. This is not always easy, especially when we vehemently disagree. Camp can and must be a safe space to discuss difficult topics. This means we must provide a space where it is safe to express a very progressive viewpoint and a very conservative viewpoint. This is sometimes hard to do, but remember that we can do hard things. We have days to build trust, encounter challenges, address difficult topics, and then learn that we can still be community in spite of our differences.

Empower your campers this summer with meaningful participation. At the same time, work towards respect for the other and self-sacrifice for the good of the community. Let’s nurture strong disciples who are also faithful citizens. It is time to reemphasize democracy at camp. Happy camping!

For more on this, check out our recent podcast episode on this topic!


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