If you have spent any time at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, AL, you have heard this phrase: The way the world could be. What started as a typical Episcopal summer camp has evolved into a lot more over time. It became the diocesan conference center, and then emerged as the place where the Alabama Folk School resides. A sustainable, organic farm came into being, along with an environmental learning center, a preschool for the children from Winston County that live close by. This is an impoverished county at the very end of the Appalachian Mountains, in coal country, so that program was a true gift to the area.
And then, there’s Bethany Village. A complex of lodges that can sleep up to 22 people each, along with summer-camp style cabins, an enormous gathering space called “Doug Carpenter Hall,” and other charming gathering spaces. “The Doug” is like an extraordinarily beautiful barn. None of that is so different or remarkable for any diocesan camp and conference center except for the fact that Bethany Village was built to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible for people with all different abilities and needs. Whether it’s about canoeing, or swimming, or getting in and out of the shower with no fuss, there’s a place for you, full stop.
For the past two weeks, Bethany Village has hosted a set of summer camp sessions that open space for fragile people with varying abilities to experience the joys and mosquito bites (🤪) of a summer camp program. Under the direction of McDowell staff, I was the co-lead member of a program team that served a combination of regularly and differently abled children in the 4-8th grade. We had 21 one young ‘uns, 11 of them, what you’d call ‘mainstream.’ There were a number of Downs Syndrome children, a couple with autism and a few others with additional vulnerabilities. We also had 26 “Camper Buddies,”10th-12th graders who are asked to wrap themselves around the campers to provide the care, assistance, and support our campers need to thrive at camp. I watched the camper buddies grow in love and devotion for their younger buddies, and it was beautiful.
On the last night of the session, we did what almost every session at Camp McDowell does: we had a talent show. It began with F., who had been rehearsing with her mom before camp to sing “Amazing Grace” at the talent show. She decided that was far too tame and ended up belting out “Hello” by Adele instead. She brought the house down. The raucous cheering and standing ovation were so loud it made my ears hurt. Another act brought the camp staff person in charge and a petite, peppy young camper buddy together for a burp throw-down. The duration and strength of burping that young woman was capable of left us all slack-jawed and then on the floor laughing. Only at camp.
But it was the most fragile and indomitable of the campers whose act was transcendent. This young person walks within inches of the line between life and death all the time. Her needs are so significant we ask a parent to be along for the session in case A has a medical emergency. There is so much our culture would describe as “wrong” with her, including Downs Syndrome and several other health issues. She is nonverbal and requires help walking. And she is a scrappy, determined survivor of the worst health issues can throw at us.
Before her performance, the MC of the talent show asked the audience that was growing noisier and rowdier by the moment, to quiet down. He announced A. would be performing and showed us how to raise our arms and wave our hands to demonstrate our appreciation for her performance, rather than hoot and holler and whistle. Everyone understood. All the campers, all the buddies, all the adults. The space went so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Then, A’s two camper buddies brought her out and “Let it Go” from Frozen began to play. One of the camper buddies held the microphone up for A and we were gifted with a series of grunts and groans and yowls—no other way to describe her vocalizations—and there wasn’t a dry eye among the older camper buddies and adults.
Her mom got to see her daughter do her own version of belting out a song with glee. Her mom got to see a crowd of young people (the very ones who are of an age where it is so easy to be callous and indifferent) spellbound by this one young girl who, every day, defies the odds stacked against her, who was now transcending and transforming those odds, by getting to be nothing more than a kid at camp.
For a number of us, there was an almost unbearable tension and paradox as we watched the talent show continue to unfold in all its glory. The words, “the way the world could be” were made flesh in the most beautiful way imaginable. And right before the show started, word had started trickling in about the shooting at St. Stephen’s in Birmingham, we heard at least one person was dead. Some of our campers and camper buddies are members there. Every single one of us knew at least one person at St. Stephen’s. After the talent show and late into the night, my fellow clergy person, a couple of other adults, and I, were up listening to, praying with, trying to remind our camper buddies of God’s unending efforts to heal all that is broken and battered in our world.
Then, for most of the rest of the night, I lay in bed asking myself over and over again, “What kind of world are we sending these amazing and beautiful young people back into? What have we done to our children’s world…”