IT’S A NATURE HIKE HERE at Buffalo Mountain Camp, much like the nature hikes that go on each day of the summer.
Unlike the typical Holston camper, however, these participants are not children, and they are not healthy. They’re all afflicted with a chronic, incurable disease, which draws them together for this September retreat in the mountains.
And yet, their appreciation for the everyday sights and activities of camp seems to belie age and prognosis. They joyfully snap pictures of the plant life and big bell. They tease each other about the bears and snakes they might encounter on the trail. When they actually see a snake on a rock, they feign great fear – and then laugh even louder as the snake beats a retreat.
For 10 years now, people have been coming from all over the Southeast for Holston’s twice-yearly camp for HIV/AIDS victims, known as Strength for the Journey.
The faces of the counselors who return year after year are familar in Holston: Ginny West Case, Rev. Sherrell Boles, Chris Bowles, Rev. Al Shaver, and many more.
The faces of the campers are probably not familiar in Holston, because few are Holston church members. But they are recognized, welcomed, and cherished here.
“I see those commercials that say, ‘open doors, open people, open minds,’’’ says Wayne, a tall man with a kerchief on his head and sports sandals that seem out of place on a nature hike. “And I know that’s true. Because they don’t care about your race or sexuality or anything else at this camp. They just accept you like you are.”
Wayne, a chef at a retirement home in Richmond, Va., says he rode a bus for six hours to get to Buffalo Mountain. He could only get four days of vacation from his job, so he has to leave before camp is over. He’ll ride the bus all night, arriving back in Richmond on Friday at 5 a.m.
At 6 a.m., he’ll be back at his job, standing on his feet until 7:30 p.m.
“Lord, I couldn’t live here. It’s too quiet,” says Wayne, leaving the nature hike early because he doesn’t want to miss the prayer bead class. “I like city life. But this is my second year here, and I couldn’t wait to come back. It’s like coming back to friends.”
Strength for the Journey can accommodate 30 campers on a first-come, first-serve basis for each spring and fall session, says Director Ginny West Case. The fee is $250 per camper, but most attend on scholarships.
This fall, Case received 75 applications and numerous phone calls from would-be campers. “It’s hard to turn so many away,” says Case.
Volunteers send out 700 brochures annually to supportive churches and to AIDS-related agencies. “But a lot of it is just word of mouth. The campers go back home and tell other people about it.”
That’s why Case and others dream of offering a third week of camp each year, or offering specialized camps for the varied needs of today’s participants.
Since Dot Avers started Strength for Journey at Buffalo Mountain Camp in 1997, there are more women, more African-Americans, and more Hispanics attending the United Methodist camp near Jonesborough, Tenn.
Deborah, for example, has asked for a special camp including caretakers or family members. She has a close relationship with her granddaughter and wants to share the crisp mountain mornings and laughter around the campfire before the virus interferes.
At age 46, Deborah seems too young to be a grandmother. She’s got the acronym “SFTJ” (Strength for the Journey) shaved into the back of her close-cut hair. She says that after her diagnosis, she changed her life, lost a lot of weight, and began speaking about AIDS prevention in the schools of her native Nashville.
But like the other campers, she’s trying to dodge the disabling effects of the virus, medication, and related health problems such as diabetes and infection.
"It’s kind of like cancer. You might not die from the disease but from other things that come with it,” says Case.
A positive change in these last 10 years is that medication allows AIDS victims to live much longer, which ironically presents challenges as sick workers try to maintain jobs or navigate disability issues. Some of the campers seem healthy and strong; others seem more fragile. Some seem to think about death more than others, but it’s hard to tell.
For example, on the nature hike, Wayne recounted his last few hours with his mother, who died in 2005 of “full-blown AIDS.” Wayne said that he asked the Rev. Troy Forrester to please address death in his next small group. (“I get a calm and a peace around him, like he’s called to help people like me, to help me on my journey,” said Wayne. He was referring to Forrester, but he sounded much like a preacher himself.)
There does seem to be more hope among campers these days, Case said. In the early years, campers might return to Buffalo Mountain to learn that five campers from the previous year had died. At more recent gatherings, there might be only one camper to mourn.
"I’ve also noticed that Tuesday night – our 'Cloud of Witnesses' campfire – used to be a real downer for people. A lot people didn’t want to come,” said Case. “The campers used to get up and talk about person after person who had died in the last year. Now, Tuesday night is more like a celebration – of the people who have stood by them.”
Among campers and counselors, the nightly campfire is almost legendary. Campers devotedly save ashes from the previous year’s fires and cart them back to Buffalo Mountain for a ceremonial re-lighting. Huddled around the blaze, they howl with laughter over Ginny Case’s Hee Haw-style stories and the Rev. Dennis Loy’s Elvis guitar licks and spontaneous songs.
The campers get into the act, too, delivering a stream of G-rated jokes that seem a lot funnier, for some reason, at night around a fire.
Afterwards, ministers such as the Rev. Charles Maynard or the Rev. Lauri Jo Cranford step up to weave the laughter and small-group topics into vespers – the last worship service of the day before the campers turn in.
“A lot of campers come here for the first time and say, ‘I don’t know if I’ll fit in. I don’t know what to expect,’” says Jeri, a 51-year-old former teacher from Goldsboro, N.C. “A lot of them are like me. I grew up in a Christian home. I did have a relationship with God. But after I was diagnosed, I started seeking to strengthen my relationship with God. I realized there was a difference between religion and spirituality.”
Some campers speak of how they believe in God, but their faith was damaged by churchgoers who rejected them because of the disease, Jeri said. Other campers had little exposure to church before coming to Buffalo Mountain.
Veteran campers like Jeri, who has been retreating to Buffalo for seven years, often take the newcomers under their wings – helping them pack their lunches before the hikes, listening to their life stories, assuring them of God’s love.
"I tell the new people, ‘All of the leaders who come here love God and know God and show God’s love by their example. That’s what makes this a safe place,’” said Jeri.
In 2000, Jeri wrote a poem about Strength for the Journey, called “A Safe Place.” Her words were later read at the Holston Annual Conference:
We came wounded
And found a safe place
We came from the north
We came from the south
We came from east and west
Running, walking, crawling
We came wounded
Full of emptiness
Full of fullness
We came tired and wounded
Tired of being tired
Sick of being tired
Tired of being sick
We came hopeful and hopeless
We, God’s Children
And found a safe place
Want to help the campers at Strength for the Journey?
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.