What a wonderful spirit-filled week with some amazing, mature young Disciples in West Virginia! The West Virginia CYF Conference is held on the historic Bethany College campus. This beautiful, holy place provides campers and counselors with a chance to have deep spiritual reflection, singing and fellowship. The high-schoolers lead nightly candlelit vespers services that were thought-provoking and inspiring. Unlike most of the campers and counselors, it was my first time visiting not only the Bethany campus but also the Campbell mansion and gravestones. This experience allowed me to reflect deeply on the roots that have grown into what we now call the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). What does it mean to be a part of a denomination that really never was intended to be, but rather more of a side effect out of a vision to unify all Christendom? The theme this week was “Can I get a word?” Campers were challenged to think and define words such as hospitality, mercy and peace and the ways in which these concepts are a part of their faith lives. As a lifelong Disciple, I have been raised with questions about the state of our denomination and of the universal church in the back of my mind, but this week really challenged me to think and define what it means for me to be a Christian in today’s context.
Perhaps this is why in these times more than ever I feel that camp is so crucial for young people – a safe place for people to be loved, vulnerable, honest and authentic about their faith struggles, their joys, their concerns and their hopes. One candlelit vespers service was especially illuminating to me. On wednesday, our group was asked to sit in a circle on the floor of the breezeway of Old Main, the oldest, most historic building on campus. As the old bell tower echoed in our ears and throughout that beautiful place, we sang songs of unity and peace. Campers shared their experiences in their church communities as places that loved them, helped them through hard times and held them to a higher standard both as citizens of the world and people of faith. Those who lead the group had the clearest sense of what ecumenism looks like and what it could be in the future that I have seen in a very long time. This generation has a very important prophetic message to tell the church. They see a divided body of Christ, they see people being rejected and forced to self-hate in the name of God, a society in which “Christian” either means crazy right-wing radical, or crazy left-wing radical. They see their own voices in the mix. They have the right (in my opinion) to know why our church is still so divided, despite our preaching of unity and vision for that “polar star.” And to be honest, I’d like to know why too. As a young adult myself, I often encounter people my age asking me why I choose to put myself in a community that is so polarizing. I hear this and similar questions from campers time and time again. “Why are we even talking about whether or not war is just? Why is it that I have to defend being a Christian while also standing up for those who are oppressed in our country? Why does the church need to vote on allowing people of different sexual orientations to be fully included in our community? Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing, right now?” Their voice is important because for them, camp is church. Camp is a place where people are loving and intentional, where it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from. That all are welcome to the table and that all deserve dignity and care.
After leading an interest group on environmental issues earlier that day, campers asked me to lead a group discussion the next day about prayer in school. So, with information about Christian privilege and an honest conversation about the persecution that people of other faiths must face in our public schools and other places in the community, it was truly amazing to see lightbulbs turn on as the group began recognizing the ways in which people are marginalized in our society. From Muslims to the LGBTQ community to African Americans to sexism to agism – you name it, these divisions were named and lifted up in prayer. Prayer. Prayer for love of all, prayer for grace and peace in our communities, for a better understanding of those whose lives are different than our own.
So, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), whether you’re ready or not, here they come. Here come our leaders of not only tomorrow, but of today. These people are strong, patient, compassionate leaders. Their vision is of a united church. They want to come home to communities of faith that affirm the values of love and self-care that they got to live out at camp. They’re coming home ready to share their story and to call us to be people of faith who radically love all with no strings attached. Supporting, feeding, crying, singing, stumbling and loving together. They’re drawing the circle wide and there’s always more room than before.