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It's space for sacred summers, childlike faith

It's space for sacred summers, childlike faith

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The Florida Conference has designated Feb. 26 as Camping Sunday, and Tanner Smith would love to see local churches get a little rowdy.

“Camping ministry—it’s a fun ministry!” said Smith, who handles publicity for the FLUMC’s four camping and retreat facilities. “So many ministries in the church can be a little somber, a little reserved, but camping ministry is one where you get to be loud and crazy.”

The FLUMC's four camping facilities open year-round include: Warren Willis and the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park; Centenary Camp in Quincy, and Riverside Camp and Retreat, located on the Caloosahatchee River in LaBelle.

So whether it’s with in-person testimonies, crazy camp songs or video footage of all the fun, Smith hopes local congregations get creative on the annual Sunday set aside to lift up the long-held Methodist tradition of camp and retreat ministry. After all, it takes some out-of-the-box thinking to accurately convey the organized chaos, bone-deep exhaustion and unbridled joy that is summer camp.  

“And if we can bring that into the church for one weekend; if for one weekend people get to stand up and talk about their experiences on the zip line, then that’s amazing!” added Smith, also the program and hospitality coordinator at the Warren Willis Camp in Fruitland Park.

One of his favorite examples is the pastor who drove to Warren Willis the weekend before Camping Sunday one year and borrowed a bunch of equipment.

“He took them back to his church and just had a bunch of canoes and paddles and lifejackets up on the stage in the middle of worship!” Smith said. “And it was just a physical example of all the things happening at these camps.”

‘Intentional community’

Although it’s easy to think of the FLUMC’s four camping facilities—Warren Willis; Life Enrichment Center, also in Fruitland Park; Centenary Camp in Quincy and Riverside Camp and Retreat, on the banks of the Caloosahatchee River in LaBelle—as part-time efforts that peak during the summer, they are open year-round.

“We are hosting different groups, providing programs that we create and run for our churches and others call us they plan their own weekends,” said Mike Standifer, director of camps and retreats for the Florida Conference.

The Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park, offers lakeside settings for those seeking growth in their spiritual journeys.

In the fall of 2016, Warren Willis also launched a new retreat called “Connect: How to #Church” for youth pastors, exploring what it means to be a Christian in the digital age and how to use social media to make a positive impact on the world.

“It’s a deep pit right now, a place a lot of churches and youth ministries are afraid to get into, so we thought this could be a good place to have those conversations,” Smith said. “It was great!”

From Emmaus Walks and quilting retreats to traditional summer sleep-away camp, each of the properties provides a variety of unique opportunities for a wide range of ages. At the LEC, guests can enjoy intergenerational retreats and a popular prayer labyrinth, while Riverside offers endless ways to explore almost 150 acres of grassy fields and piney woods. At Warren Willis, children and adults can conquer all kinds of fears on a massive ropes course.

No matter the focus of the event, it’s the act of retreating and getting “intentional about slowing down” that matters most, Standifer said.

“The appeal is to be able to experience God’s creation in a place that’s been set aside where you can be away from your normal, everyday activities,” he said. “We have intentional community that is formed every time folks come away on a retreat.”

Sacred summers

Across the four facilities, summer camp remains the most popular and easily the most labor-intensive program. In the summer of 2016, a total of 4,166 young people—3,564 overnight campers and 602 day campers—passed through the four properties.

“That’s a good year,” Standifer said. “I certainly think (these camps) are just as relevant as they ever were. I felt my call to ministry at camp. I think a whole lot of other folks have felt their call, whether it be to ordained ministry or to laity, on these sacred grounds.”

Smith, a camper at Warren Willis before ever joining the staff, said camp is a powerful way to share the love of Christ with young people.

Camping Sunday is an annual event designated by the Florida Conference that helps all generations to experience the "wonderment of childhood" again. The boulder wall at Warren Willis.

“We have kids who come from all over Florida with all kinds of backgrounds, with all sorts of baggage and they can just leave that at the door,” he said. “They can spend a week here being a kid and meeting some college students and adults who are just going to love them unconditionally.”

The Rev. Mike Fordham, senior pastor at Killearn UMC in Tallahassee, agreed, noting that all four of his children regularly attended Warren Willis and formed lifelong relationships.

“Many of these kids find hope there when they might not find that at home,” said Fordham, the current chair of the FLUMC Board of Camps and Retreats Ministries. “It’s a really great bridge builder. They’re part of something bigger than themselves.”

Scott McQueen, youth pastor at Riviera UMC in St. Petersburg, said Warren Willis has had a huge impact on his ministry.

For Tyler, a 12th-grader in McQueen’s youth group, the summer camp taught him to find true joy in Bible study and worship.

“I went to church with my parents and enjoyed it, but didn't have a burning desire for Jesus,” he said. “That first week of camp changed all of that. For the next seven years of my life, camp helped to shape my faith by creating an environment that fostered self-discovery and handed me the tools to make my faith my own.”

That transformation is what Smith and Standifer want for anyone who visits one of the FLUMC’s camping facilities. 

“We’re creating spaces for adults to feel like children again, to find a place where they feel that same wonderment of childhood,” Smith said. “That’s what a childlike faith is, when it comes down to it.”

He believes the blessing of camping ministry is perfectly captured in this quote by Dr. Ira Barnett, for whom Barnett Lodge at Warren Willis Camp is named:

“For generations, these beautiful buildings and these lovely grounds on the shores of this gorgeous lake will be saying to all who pass this way that Florida Methodists believe that the gospel of Christ is exactly suited to mingle with the warm rush of youth’s healthy blood and to keep time with youth’s bounding heart.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance writer who lives in Pensacola.

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