Gary Lawson (from Tennessee) and I were in the same mindset as we prepared for the annual trek to meet with Conference Staff for United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries from across the country. As (our host) David Berkey had described, we were going to one of his camps “near San Diego.” Comfortable clothes and shoes made it into the suitcases. A light jacket for the chill that comes over the area after 73 degree days was a must…. We were ready.
On Tuesday, December 6th, this flatlander, east coast girl left her home where she resides comfortably at an elevation of 6 feet and traveled 2530 miles to the west coast where indeed she and the other 20 executives were met with San Diego 70 degree temps. After hugs and warm greetings, we all boarded a bus to drive the hour and a half to our final destination, Camp Cedar Glen. The drive was beautiful, and the bus was full of laughter and conversation with folks who have dedicated their lives to the sustenance and advancement of camp and retreat ministries.
The bus trip began to take on hills and curves – roads not familiar and terrain very different from the coastal plains of North Carolina. As we wound our way through the gates of Camp Cedar Glen near Julian, CA, we found ourselves at an elevation of over 4000 feet and temperatures that dipped into the 20’s during our stay. (Now, where’s that light jacket I packed?!)
We were in the beautiful mountains for a refreshing and invigorating experience, not only with terrain and temperatures, but also with professionals who help bring mountaintop experiences to hundreds of thousands of campers and guests each year at the UMC’s many and varied camp and retreat sites.
Worship was a highlight, kicked off the first evening by preacher James Kang who spoke passionately about the ways creative, relevant communication is itself a ministry, engaging new people and helping them participate in the body of Christ. We were inspired to communicate with our constituents in such a way that the essence of camp/retreat ministries is deemed as essential and indispensable to our UM Annual Conferences. The fire in the fireplace drew us in for meeting new friends, reacquainting ourselves with old friends, and facilitating compassionate small group conversation.
Increasing diversity is constantly on our minds within the ministry. We talk about it amongst ourselves, within our Conferences and with the communities we serve. A growing initiative within the Cal-Pac Conference is focused on serving with the Latino and Hispanic communities. They have created programming that not only introduces the camp experience to those who are unfamiliar with it, but builds trust and connection with ethnic communities that face challenges that are unfamiliar to us. “No Estan Solos” provides a safe space for unaccompanied refugee youth who live “between worlds” of Mexican and U.S. cultures. “Spanglish” is a retreat and leadership-training experience to build community among Hispanic/Latin youth. The presentations created a sense of wonder as we pondered how to reach out in partnership with ethnic communities in our own settings.
To add meaning to this concept of expanding our ethnic reach, we visited the border between Mexico and the U.S. We were greeted by Rev. John Fanestil of First UMC San Diego and Border Ministries, who spoke to us candidly about the plight of migrants, refugees, and those who live, work, and have families on either side of the border. We gained great insight and intensified empathy for a population that is often misrepresented and certainly misunderstood – even within what we consider to be our inclusive hearts and minds and camp/retreat programming. We observed the flow of humanity and the presence of border patrol agents at San Diego’s gateway into Mexico and were challenged to consider the impact of the border on the people who live there.
We were further moved by a visit to Christ United Methodist Ministry Center, a formerly-dwindling UMC church that transformed into a thriving ministry site. Rev. Bill Jenkins, in beginning to partner with a few community agencies, realized that “church” could be different, a new kind of sanctuary. With a complete change in direction and focus, this church is now a bustling haven for refugees; for those marginalized by society; for children of God who didn’t know they are His.
An awakening occurred among Summit participants as a result of these excursions. A newfound commitment to delving further into our place and responsibility for social justice was unearthed. And a renewed excitement emerged for what we can be for our communities; for our local churches; and for our Annual Conferences.
Reflecting on our time in the mountains at Camp Cedar Glen at this annual gathering of camp and retreat ministry execs delivered for me that “mountaintop” experience that each of us strives create for others. As I boarded the plane to return to my coastal community, I couldn’t help but hum “Go tell it on the Mountain” …or over the plains or in the valleys or on the coast. Share the good news of Camp and Retreat Ministries as we expand our own borders for inclusion of ALL of God’s children.
Dail Ballard is the Executive Director of the North Carolina United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries, Inc. She oversees three camps including Camps Chestnut Ridge, Don Lee and Rockfish.