A telemarketer called a home one day and Little Johnny answered. In a small voice Johnny whispered, “Hello?” The telemarketer said, “Hello! What’s your name?” Still whispering, the voice said, “Johnny.” “How old are you, Johnny?” “I’m four.” “Good. Is your mother home?” “Yes, but she’s busy.” “Okay, is your daddy home?” “He’s busy too.” “I see, who else is there?” “The police.” “The police? May I speak with one of them?” “They’re busy.” “Any other grown-ups there?” “The firemen.” “May I speak with a fireman, please?” “They’re all busy.” “Johnny, all those people in your house, and I can’t talk with any of them? What are they doing?” With a little snicker and a bit too gleefully Johnny whispered, “Looking for me.”
I have shared with you in the past that I have been the chaplain for Grace Camp at Camp Marshall since it began. All the camps are special, but in my opinion this one is the best. It is a camp for third through eighth graders who have a parent incarcerated. The kids are generally between the ages of nine and thirteen and come in all shapes and sizes. As I think about them I recall some of the things we say about kids: there is always, “the children are our future,” but other thoughts include, “a child is someone who can wash their hands without getting the soap wet;” “the trouble with children is that when they are not being a lump in your throat they are being a pain in your neck;” “a child is someone who can’t understand why anyone would give away a perfectly good kitten;” and “every child would learn to write sooner if allowed to do their homework in wet cement.”
While at Grace Camp, I’ve learned a few other things about children. I’ve learned that a big white fuzzy dog can start a lot of conversations. I’ve learned twice as much gravy as you have potatoes on your plate makes playing with your food a lot more interesting. Heaven just might be a pocket full of perfect skipping stones that you have searched out all day, the only problem being that the weight of them makes it difficult to keep your pants up. Afternoon naps are only intermissions between opportunities to go swimming in the lake, which reminds me, 54 degree water is not cold to young children, but can possibly give an adult a heart attack. These are some things I’ve learned in my days of camp.
These kids have also learned a great deal in their short lives. One of the thirteen year old girls learned that you can be repeatedly raped between the ages of ten and thirteen by your stepfather and still like boys. One of the boys was able to learn firsthand the results of having your one year old baby brother thrown against a wall by one of mom’s many boyfriends. There was one girl who was ten, but at age four learned that if you can hold your breath long enough and have some really good luck, then you can survive while your father is trying to drown you in the bath tub. She also learned that you can still enjoy swimming in that cold water. There was another girl – nine years old – she never would tell her story, but while at camp she learned that she loved the song Amazing Grace, and every time she requested it, we would sing it with her.
Many of these children have also learned that if you need something, maybe just a bit of love, screaming and crying does not work, that would be for amateurs. Violence to others is often the most preferred method, but there is also running away and threats and not all of those threats are idle. One nine year-old child became so angry with one of his counselors that he swore he was going to cut his throat with a pair of scissors, but do it only hard enough so that he would be barely alive when the police arrived, so that he could tell the police that the counselor did it to him. I’m not going to go into the list of medicines that these children take: some to wake you up, some to keep you calm, anti-depressants might as well be M&M’s, and another pill at night to make you sleep. Some of the time those were obviously necessary, but at other times it seems they should be called “your getting on mommy’s nerves pills so take this and shut up.” On and on it goes.
All that, yet, we had one little boy – I think he was around ten showed up to camp. Very depressed. Failing in school. Spent a week at Grace Camp and his grandmother informed us that after he got home he couldn’t stop talking about it and how he was planning on going again the next summer. He spent that school year working hard and participating in track. Before the year was out, the walls in his room were filled with all the ribbons and trophies he had won. One boy started Grace Camp when he was in the third grade. That year he picked up a guitar for the first time. Each year he came and learned how to play a bit more. Got his own guitar. When he reached ninth grade he was ineligible to come back to Grace Camp as a camper, so we made it possible for him to come as an associate counselor. What did he do? He taught the younger children how to play guitar. Not every story is a success, but as I tell the staff each year, if we can make a difference for just one child, then we have done our jobs.
There is a piece lakefront property on Flathead Lake consisting of twenty-nine acres. On the property is a lodge, an arts and crafts building, some staff accommodations, and many small cabins with bunk beds. The sign as you enter the camp grounds reads, “Camp Marshall,” but this twenty-nine acres is not Camp Marshall. Camp Marshall is not a place, buildings, or even the amazing staff. Camp Marshall is an experience. An experience where young children and older youth encounter God.
In our Gospel reading today we heard of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. From the reading we understand that they are disappointed. They had been with Jesus, but now they believe he is dead. They encounter a stranger on the road and they begin to tell him of all the troubles that have taken place in Jerusalem. The death of the Messiah. The death of Jesus. The death of hope, and now… now it is all gone. Yet, as evening drew near, they and the stranger stopped for the night. Before turning in they had their evening meal. “When he – the stranger – was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him – they recognized Jesus – and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?’ That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’ Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.”
Today we celebrate the ministry of Camp Marshall. When we support it financially, we give so that salaries to staff can be paid. We give for the upkeep of the grounds. We give so that old mattresses can be replaced. We give so that many children – from all walks of life – can experience God in community and have the joy of being at camp. We give for many reasons, but ultimately, we give so that all of these children on their on road to Emmaus might encounter the Risen Lord and know Him. We give so that for just a few days each one of them might experience another way. The Way and the Love of God.
St. Luke’s, our church, needs your pledges and your gifts, so I’m not asking you to take from one in order to give to another; however, during the offertory, Janie is going to pass-the-hat for Camp Marshall and I’m asking that you consider giving a little more today. I’m not asking you to give to a place or the support of that place. I’m asking that you give to the one. The one child who, at Camp Marshall, will be given the opportunity – perhaps for the first time – to encounter God. To encounter Jesus.