Over the past few months I have had the privilege of seeing a whole new side of camps, and this experience has only confirmed and strengthened my belief in the importance of a camp ministry for the broader church.
Having been a camper, counsellor, Bible leader and kitchen volunteer, I thought there wasn’t much more I could learn about camp, but taking on the Shekinah Retreat Centre’s executive director role for an interim period has opened my eyes to the impact of camp even more.
Camp is transformational. There’s no other way to say it. Camp challenges you, camp builds you up, camp pushes you out of your comfort zone and camp offers you a place where it’s okay to be yourself. And all of this in a natural environment that puts you in the heart of the relationship between creation and Creator. And these statements don’t just apply to campers and camp staff. I’m willing to admit my own ignorance when I say that I had no idea how busy camps are all year round, and how much they can be a place of transformation outside of the summer camp season.
A quick look at some numbers—based on an equal amount of research and guessing—would suggest that outside of seasonal camp staff, there are more than 400 people who work or serve at Mennonite camps in Canada year-round. That’s 400 staff, board members and community volunteers who are providing a ministry and doing the work of the church on a regular basis, which is a pretty incredible number when you consider that Mennonite Church Canada currently lists 225 congregations that are members through their regional bodies.
I think we could all say that we know camps have an impact on the broader Mennonite church through providing physical spaces/places for people to come to encounter God, and through what those people walk away with and can then share with others. And if you’re anything like me, when you think about that impact, it’s usually limited to what takes place in July and August. But it’s funny how a change in perspective can lead to seeing something in a whole new light.
At Shekinah staff and board meetings, I have been struck by the sense of call that people have, and how that call can impact even the smallest thing. Recently, a staff member expressed anxiety about preparing meals for an upcoming rental group, but when I offered help with the grocery order, she said, “Oh no, that part I’m fine with. I just want to make sure they have a great Shekinah experience and want to come back.” She cared just as much about this group’s experience as a summer camper’s, and knew that food was an important part of that experience. And this is just one of many examples I could list, to say nothing of the countless volunteer hours board members put in to make sure staff are supported and have the help they need.
And this has been my favourite part of my time at Shekinah: to bear witness to the good work that people are doing for camps, and to play my very small part. While summer camping programs are at the heart of the ministry camps provide, that heart beats all year round in this group of staff, board members and community volunteers. It beats in the church, where even the grocery orders are prepared with love!
Kirsten Hamm-Epp is serving as the executive director of the Shekinah Retreat Centre until the end of March, when she will return to her work as one of Mennonite Church Saskatchewan’s regional church ministers.
Mennonite camps and the Canada Summer Jobs Program
Recently, Mennonite camps faced a challenge as they applied for government funding through the Canada Summer Jobs Program. A change in the process now requires applicants to attest that the organizations’ core mandate respects reproductive rights, which includes access to abortion, among other rights.
CM has been in touch with camps that relate to Mennonite Church Canada, to see how this requirement affects their ministries. Some have applied for the funding, without the attestation, and have included a written statement expressing concern that this requirement threatens freedom of religion and conscience. Their staffs and boards are having conversations, and are getting advice from the Canadian Council of Christian Charities. Loss of this funding could affect the hiring of staff for the upcoming season.
As this issue goes to press, we have no information on the status of these applications. —Executive Editor