Live Through This

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Church Camp

When I tell people I willingly went to a Christian all-girls camp, their first question is usually WHY???

Illustration by Minna

For five summers in a row, starting when I was nine years old and ending at 13, I was driven by my parents to a camp secluded in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and left there for two weeks. It looked like any other American summer camp: there were hiking trails, s’mores cooked over a bonfire, and casual Native American appropriation. But if you looked a little closer, you’d notice some oddities. While regular camp (at least as far as I’ve learned from the many camp-centric movies I’ve seen) is a place where you can take crazy risks in a safe environment, like having your first kiss by the campfire, or skinny-dipping after curfew (like Vegas for awkward teens—WHAT HAPPENS AT CAMP STAYS AT CAMP), our camp was all girls, and required us to wear one-piece bathing suits any time we went swimming in the name of “modesty.” The most badass skills we picked up there were those commonly referred to as “handicrafts”—besides constructing your run-of-the-mill “God’s eyes,” I mastered important life lessons like cutting and staining leather, shooting archery, throwing pottery, and composing a three-course meal over a campfire. No one really defied the rules at my camp; I think the worst act of rebellion I witnessed was when a cabin of girls snuck a crimping iron into the bathroom (no electric appliances allowed!).

What made my camp different is that it was a Christian camp—and I loved it. When I confess this to people their number-one question is usually WHY??? Was I caught shoplifting a graphic tee from Limited Too? Did my parents think that my Bratz dolls were turning me into a sexually deviant preteen? Why would I ever willingly want to spend my vacation in a place devoid of boys and full of neon WWJD bracelets? Although I did have a brief rebellious period during which I practiced such delinquency as purchasing a skateboard from Kmart and raiding my dad’s closet for Avril Lavigne–style ties, I wasn’t sent to church camp by force. My parents, who also sent me to a Christian elementary school, thought it would be a wholesome way to get me out of their hair for a few weeks, and I looked forward to and relished those two weeks every summer when I could at last get in touch with my spiritual side through intense scavenger hunting and Shrinky Dinks crucifix making.

Every morning each cabin had a short Bible study. We prayed before every meal. Then at night we had campfires, where someone, usually a counselor, would give a quick sermon—the subject matter was never too serious, usually just really positive stuff like trusting God to help you achieve your goals, or the value of helping others. Some weeks had religious themes—e.g., “Under the Sea” week, when we learned about the story of Jonah and the whale. I found these activities pretty boring, to be honest, but they were small price to pay for all the other parts of camp.

At school, I was always picked last in gym class. Other kids mocked my inability to climb the monkey bars. But at church camp, no one ever made fun of my physical ineptitude—or of anything else, because it criticizing others wasn’t a “Christian thing to do.” My camp had a tradition of playing this game called broomball, which is like hockey except with a ball instead of a puck and broomsticks instead of hockey sticks. During a game one afternoon, someone had the brilliant idea to appoint me their team’s goalie. Have you ever played Whac-A-Mole at an arcade? At first it was like I was the mallet and the ball was the moles—the shots flew past me at lightning speed, and there was no way I could keep up. Then it felt more like I was all of the moles and a room of pre-pubescent girls, who had just consumed gallons of sugary juice from the camp kitchen, were the giant rubber mallet. I was being pelted from all angles, and I felt totally helpless. I thought my team hated me. But no! My team started chanting my name. “GABBY! GABBY! GAAAAABBBYY!” I’m not going to lie and say that in a moment of divine intervention I was suddenly blessed with the skills of a broomball champion—we still lost, but the fact that no one resented me for it felt like just as big a miracle.

There is a good chance if you’re reading this article that you are teen girl or were once a teen girl or that you do now or have at some point identified as a teen girl, so you know that girls aren’t general conditioned to be able to express our anger in a healthy, straightforward way, which can lead to lot of really stealthy and insidious bullying (we’ve all seen Mean Girls, so I trust I don’t have to explain this any further). But Christian girls’ camp was like a crazy upside-down world where no one noticed (or at least no one mentioned) the frizziness of my hair or the tininess or my training bra, because they were way too busy hiking a mountain or embroidering Bible verses onto decorative pillows to care. We were taught the golden rule of loving your neighbor as yourself, which was especially easy when my neighbor lived in the bunk below mine. At the risk of sounding sappy, church camp was the first place I experienced that glorious feeling of unconditional love that you can have with a group of girls you’re not related to—I believe it’s called ~sisterhood~.

These days, I’m not very religious, though I still believe in God. I’ve lost touch with most of the friends I made at camp. And when I reveal to my current friends my not-so-dirty little secret that I was a church camp devotee, most of them react with shock, confusion, and alarm. I think they imagine that I spent my summers at a convent hidden in the woods. But actually, camp was just a place where I was encouraged to have fun, without pitting myself against other girls. Christian camp taught me this very basic feminist idea before I even knew what feminism was. I’ve held on to that part of camp, and it still feels like a miracle. ♦

23 Comments

  • GlitterKitty December 24th, 2012 7:49 PM

    The camp I went to wasn’t Christian but had a lot of the same ~sisterhood~ loving each other stuff. There were boys but there were pretty strict rules that no one really bothered to break too much. I think everyone was just too lazy to go to the trouble of finding a way around them. Obviously there are some people who aren’t the nicest but most of it is just pure love. Camp is awesome.

  • secondtolastunicorn December 24th, 2012 8:24 PM

    I was never religious, but my grandparents wanted me to be, and my sister as well, so they send us to church camp one summer. We didn’t believe any of the songs we sang or verses acted-out, but gladly pretended, and made so many two-week-long friendships and bible-themed snacks. It was the only camp I ever attended, and a sort of awkward experience, but a fun one.

  • AliceinWonderland December 24th, 2012 8:45 PM

    Gabby, you are one of my favorite Rookie writers. I started following your blog, and you are so funny and cool! Not to mention FREAKING BEAUTIFUL GURRL!!!!

  • atticus December 24th, 2012 10:36 PM

    Even as a reform Jew, it is incredibly refreshing to hear an honest, true account of Christianity’s advantages and blessings.

  • SamanthaL.Jackson December 24th, 2012 10:40 PM

    I had the exact same experience, now I am not quite sure of my beliefs but it was a great time to learn how to relate to girls and have fun in a loving and safe environment. It was super cool.

  • EveyMarrie December 24th, 2012 10:45 PM

    Haha, I live up in the Poconos XD There’s a possibility I could know what camp you went too, but I’m like, dead middle of nowhere in the Poconos. There is a boy scout camp near me though.

    My only camp experience was when I was in Girl Scouts at a place called Camp Archibald. It wasn’t much of a camp experience really. I mean, did make smores, swam in a lake, and have breakfast for dinner, but other than that, it was random activities or sitting around the cabin. Pretty boring.

  • dumbpling December 24th, 2012 11:00 PM

    Sadly, my experience with church camp wasn’t nearly as fun. My mom basically forced me to go, even after I told her I didn’t really believe. The people seemed nice enough, but when we listened to sermons condemning certain groups of people or certain practices, I just couldn’t take it anymore. Especially when we were told that as young women, any sexual activity was like “spoiling a batch of brownies with a tiny bit of dog poop.” Yeah…..

    • Lacenailsmermaidtails December 25th, 2012 8:35 PM

      It’s only true

  • thespiella December 24th, 2012 11:41 PM

    I go to an Catholic all girls school and go to a Christian co-ed camp in the summer so I totally related to this! At my school it feels like we’re a bunch of sisters, there’s a lot of love. Same idea with Christian camp, not as many jerks haha

    • CeciliaCecilia December 25th, 2012 12:02 AM

      i go to an all girls school as well and totally identify with the sisterhood feel. lots of girl power. i have seen a lot of girls blossom and really feel confident with themselves thanks to that girl power.

  • Maddy December 25th, 2012 12:51 AM

    It’s accounts like this that make me really envious of sleep-away campers. Not only because I want to have that “risk-taking in a safe place where no one has to know” experience (kissing, wearing makeup), but also because I’d like to able to be totally honest with people and be close to them without having it burden me back home.

  • thebrownette December 25th, 2012 1:13 AM

    YES i went to a Christian camp fora few summers. It was really nice despite my homesickness!

  • cherrycola27 December 25th, 2012 1:52 AM

    I never went to camp, and never really wanted to (I was too scared!) but this sounds awesome. It sounds like a perfect place to hang out for a few weeks. I love this article :)

  • Sarah P December 25th, 2012 11:00 AM

    I can totally relate to people’s stares and questions when they hear about church camp. I have gone to church camp for years and years and it’s one of my favorite places on earth for some of the same reasons you mentioned- specifically that everyone tries to live the golden rule and all of the catty drama of high school/middle school is left out of it :)

  • pez-darling December 25th, 2012 1:40 PM

    My Mum tells a very different story about a church camp she and her friends attended when she was about fifteen. Her friends were all very religious and she was not, but she went along anyway because she wanted to be with them. The camp leaders separated her from her friends because she asked questions, deeming her a “bad influence” on the others. She was also told that she was (Quote on quote) “The spawn of satan” and that she was going to “burn in hell for an eternity.

    Clearly christian camp has changed considerably since the seventies!

  • Kennedy December 25th, 2012 6:20 PM

    This summer will be my 10th of going to church camp, my 2nd of being a junior counselor. Though my religious beliefs have wavered throughout the years and I’m still trying to figure out what I believe, I plan on being a counselor at camp every year as I get older. Camp has helped me realize the aspects of religion and Christianity that I like and those that I’m not so fond of. It has also given me a family. My church camp family means more to me than my biological family does (sad but true.) They’ve given me support through everything I’ve dealt with, and are my support system. Camp is also a great place because no one cares what you look like. When you have a camp romance, you know it’s true because you look horrible, so they must like your personality. Overall, I truly love church camp.

  • Lacenailsmermaidtails December 25th, 2012 8:33 PM

    I love church camp too❤

  • OneOpinonatedPrincess December 26th, 2012 8:42 PM

    I went to an all girls Christian girls camp too. I am now staff there in the summers and I love it so much. I spent all of July there this past summer and I think everyone including my parents thought I was crazy but I love it so much. My belief in god and religion has never been very strong but my love of camp and the people I’ve met there is.

  • dottie December 26th, 2012 10:25 PM

    I’m not religious, but in this article you make church camp sound very fun and a very welcoming place to be in. I kinda want to go there. :)

  • stellar December 27th, 2012 10:24 PM

    neither of my parents embraced religion, but when i was tranferred to a parochial elementary school, whatever instruction i got seemed pretty cool. jesus was sort of a peace-loving hippie, down-to-earth and the new testament relatable. of course we did the usual stuff w going to confession and confirmation but the overall atmosphere was positive from what i recall. if there was bullying, we were told the story of tarssisius and discussed it in the classroom. u just felt like nothing was taken for granted for the sake of getting along w each other,etc. we also played “jesus christ superstar” as well. later we adored a teacher named mrs. howard and when we called ourselves “the howardites” the monsignor wasn’t too thrilled (we put that on a cake for her) and called it ‘heresy’. but looking back, it was an amazing experience and helped me to understand it’s how a religion is approached and practiced in everyday life that makes the difference. (p.s. later on, my older sister was a counselor in a CYO camp and she had some nice experiences).

  • senoritajen December 27th, 2012 10:55 PM

    I was pleasantly surprised by the direction of this article. Christianity (even if it’s just in the context of church camp) is rarely presented in a positive light. For some reason it’s become popular to be intolerant and judgmental of Christians, even though it’s not P.C. to speak that way about any other world religions. Thank you for sharing with everyone how it’s possible to have meaningful and positive experiences interacting with Christians, without subscribing to the faith yourself.

  • Chloe December 29th, 2012 8:40 PM

    I can totally relate to this story, when i tell my friends that I went to christian camp they laugh and say they feel sorry i was forced to go. Sorry? Why be sorry? I was BEGGING my parents to let me go to that camp. Some people are so consumed with atheism (not everyone but SOME), they thought the fact that it was christian ruined the experience.

  • Ari May 31st, 2013 2:10 AM

    Ok. Limited Too, skateboard/Avril Lavigne ties, church camp. We’re living the same life! It’s so nice to hear someone talk about Christianity in a positive way. People talk about acceptance and not judging others but do it to Christians everyday. The bottom line of Christianity is love. So the ones who are doing it right, are genuinely good people. And that sense of sisterhood you were talking about is exactly what I feel at church camp. Its a break from a society that tells us that other girls are competition.