June 21, 2016

Building Community -- at a Campground -- and Church

Summer camping is one of the joys of summer.Richelle Thompson is vacationing with her family. While she’s away, ECF Vital Practices is offering ‘reruns’ of some of her more popular posts, this one from May 31, 2011.

Campers could share a lot with parishioners when it comes to building community.

We travel frequently with our children – my son was seven weeks old when I flew to New York City for a business trip. I wasn’t ready to leave him yet, so we packed the Baby Bjorn and gave him an early taste of Times Square. The kids have been to Disney (World and Land), San Francisco, Niagara Falls, and lots of places in between.

But invariably, when we ask their favorite vacation, the reply is instant and unanimous: camping.

I thought about this over the Memorial Day weekend, as we rented our small slice of the outdoors for a three-day retreat.

Campers build community quickly. After all, they’re only around for a couple of nights – there’s no time to put out tentative feelers. It’s jump-in and take-a-risk community-building. The folks at the next campsite run out of dishwashing soap and instead of making a run to Wal-Mart, they cross five feet into the next site and ask if they can borrow some. When another driver is struggling to back into a site, fellow campers hop up and start guiding him. During the outdoor movie, people sit together and laugh; they share popcorn and mosquito spray.

The artificial barriers that keep us from making connections in our daily lives are left at home. Here, in this enclave, we build a makeshift community that’s open and friendly. 

The kids know how to do this best. From the moment we turn into the campground, their noses are pressed like puppy dogs against the windows, scouting signs of comrades at play. A bike is strewn on the ground, abandoned quickly in favor of Hide-n-Seek. Finding Nemo and Wizards of Waverly Place beach towels hang over the backs of lawn chairs to dry. 

My dear Watson, I believe there are kids here. Our children jump out of the camper with the wheels still rolling, shouting a quick farewell over their shoulders. There’s no class structure at a campground, no cool kids and nerds, just a group of kids of all ages thrilled to let imagination transform a fallen log into a bridge and the high grass into a moat full of alligators. They want to run and play and enjoy being together. 

I wish we were more like that in our congregations. So often we let fear of the unknown build walls around us, making us isolated and unable to reach out. We’re afraid of being let down, turned down, put down. 

I know camping’s not for everyone, but I think it’s we time we let our hair down. 

Maybe we could try for a Sunday – or for a month – to be more dependent upon each other, to ask for help when we need it and to offer help when we see someone struggling. Maybe we could try to be like these campers, to engage in conversation because it’s a beautiful day, with the wind just right, and to build relationships without conditions or judgment but because it's the right -- and fun -- thing to do. 

S’mores anyone? 

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