I started out my adult years with some definite ideas of places I would not go. Headed to the USA to college, with the hope and dream of staying in this country, I said I would absolutely, positively, never, ever live in Alabama. After I graduated from seminary, I added another “not never, ever, ever”: “I shall not, no will not, no cannot, not ever be a priest.” We all know how that one turned out. When I moved to Huntsville, when Sherod and I got married in ’88, I added a new “heck no”: Camp McDowell signified something I neither understood, nor valued. It felt like the meeting place of the Diocese of Alabama Episcopal clique, and I wanted nothing to do with cliques, especially not Episcopal Church cliques when I could not see a place for myself in that place with those people. I was adamant that I had neither the desire nor need to go anywhere near McDowell.
What’s more, I had heard my mother tell the story of the year her father was really struggling with alcoholism, and her mother, trying to shield her from some of that, sent her to some posh summer camp in Maine. I watched my mom shudder describing the icy lake water, the mosquitos, the strenuousness of it all. For my own self with my bum hip, a summer camp program, with hiking and canoeing, and swimming and all those other outdoor activities that define summer camp was so removed from the realm of my being, desire or imagination. Between the mamacita’s story and my own limitations, all I could really say was, “isn’t going to happen.”
Then, not only did I get married in Alabama, to an Alabama boy, but when we actually had the freedom to choose where we would live as Sherod retired, I was as enthusiastic as Sherod about coming back to Alabama. After thinking I’d never get to be parish priest again after I left Ft Lauderdale, I went to work at Ascension and our vestry vestry retreats where held at McDowell the last two years as was the Diocesan Convention in 2016. It was no longer a matter of whether I’d find my way to Camp McDowell. I was going. Full stop.
What I found shattered every single one of my preconceptions. Since I left Alabama with the Mallowman in 1990, Camp McDowell has launched a folk school program. An organic farm is up and running here too. There’s a program of environmental stewardship that just knocks the socks off me. And under the leadership of our current bishop, a whole new section that’s totally accessible and hospitable to people with all kinds of “exceptionalities” and “disabilities” has been built. Earlier this summer, my girl got to attend a McDowell camp session for adults with the kinds of life challenges she faces; though she gave everyone here a run for their money during the first days, she was welcomed, she was made to feel that she belonged and she wants to come back.
About 10 weeks ago, I got a call from one of the members of McDowell’s leadership team. Along with offering camp sessions for persons with significant challenges, McDowell also offers a camp inclusion program—4th-6th graders with typical abilities and special needs attend camp together for a week. Each session is led by a priest of the diocese who sets the theme, helps develop the program and serves as chaplain and worship leader. The priest who’d committed to take the first session of “Bethany’s Kids” had backed out unexpectedly and the call was a plea for help: would I take his place? Yes. Yes of course I would. I’d be honored.
I’m at Camp McDowell, today working with the college-aged staff who work through the summer as counselors, life guards, activity directors and musicians. On Wednesday, “camper buddies,” high school students who will be assigned to work 1-1 with the children who need a little extra help, will arrive for training; close behind will be the campers themselves. We will have time together to explore, and I hope, experience the wonder of one of God’s most wonderful gifts: the gift of being “refreshed in living waters.”
I am so glad all those rigid “I won’ts” of my younger years are not as strong as curiosity, and a capacity to eat humble pie when necessary. Me and about 75 other people, young and old, fragile and strong, all of us rich in grace, will be here this week.