Campfire Faith

by The Reverend Liz Costello

Spiritual formation at summer camp — how does real, significant Christian formation take place at a diocesan summer camp? We were a bit skeptical. Neither of us had grown up attending camp. We had heard stories of transformation, and even of conversion, from friends who enthusiastically recounted how seeds of faith planted at summer camp grew over a lifetime. We know deacons, priests, and lay leaders who say they found their voices and vocations at diocesan camps growing up. But we had never seen it firsthand.

This summer we became witnesses at Cathedral Ridge. The transformations are quiet, often happening in what I call the “in between” spaces.

At supper every night, for example, the children were prompted to share what they most enjoyed about their day. Their eyes lighting up, they described fun physical challenges: a high-ropes course or water balloons and gaga ball. The communal singing of the “Buffalo Song” was also a favorite (“Across the windswept desert, where cactus knows no man, sat a buffalo and his brother, lying in the sand…”). Kids are kids. Camp can be silly and fun.

Yet throughout the course of the summer, as we watched groups of campers arriving, settling in, relaxing, and then departing — hundreds of kids — we also witnessed profound stirrings of the Spirit. The relationships built between counselors, chaplains, and the children and youth — over long hikes through the forest or while rehearsing zealously for silly skits — created trust among us. Soon, searching questions were shared, and authentic conversation unfolded. Some of their queries dumbfounded us: “What does it really mean,” one camper asked, “for Jesus to be ‘begotten and not made’”? Another demanded, “Is there anything or anyone that God cannot love?” Then this: “Would God ever ask of us,” one young person inquired, “something we could not give?”

We were staggered by the insights of these Christians — expressed and experienced over the course of their time at Cathedral Ridge.

So, yes, summer camp can be a place of genuine spiritual formation. I sensed God being present in astounding ways. Yes, God was present during chapel, which we planned with care and had each night. But God was also present during our starlit walks, as we shuffled quietly back to our cabins, tired after a day packed with activities.

We witnessed a “campfire” faith flickering to life, perhaps after a remark during worship one evening. Perhaps during a silent hike, listening for birdcalls. I saw these tentative, flickering flames light up the young campers — children and young people who would soon be returning to their families and friends in Denver or Steamboat or Silverton, in Cortez or Cañon City. Once home, they would share, I knew, the warmth and light of the faith ignited within them at camp.

Yes, Cathedral Ridge is a fun place to spend a week — in our case, a summer. But it was formative as well: for the kids at Explore and Cosmos camps, for the Colorado Youth Leadership Initiative, and for us.

The Reverend Liz Costello served as Chaplain in Residence at Cathedral Ridge this summer, where she was joined by her husband — The Reverend Joseph Wolyniak — and their learning-to-crawl daughter, Evelyn. They send warm greetings from New Jersey, where Joe is taking up new duties as Episcopal chaplain at Princeton University.