After 28 years in camp ministry, Executive Director Randy Pasqua seems far from burned out. He's still wide-eyed as he watches his summer staff gear up for another season with first-aid training and Bible study.
Later in the evening, after a joyful session around the campfire, Pasqua stands to give the final prayer. The explanation for his unwavering passion for Holston Conference camping comes pouring out.
"You inspire me," he says, looking from face to face of the young adults gathered around him. "Your love for God, your love for each other -- you are the life of the church. And I am excited about the love you will share with the children this summer."
It was training week for 128 summer staff members of Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries. Gathered at Wesley Woods in Townsend, Tenn., the counselors learned how to perform CPR as well as how to sing a camp song at the top of their lungs. ("I've got my looonng jooooohns on ...")
They also shared this year's camp theme through Bible study, fellowship, and worship in ways that seemed anything but obligatory. When they sing songs of praise or speak about the summer to come, the theme "No Greater Love" (John 15:13) is exemplified.
"I love being outside, love kids, love God," said Zack Edwards, when asked why he wants to be a counselor at Camp Dickenson this summer. "That 'bout says it all."
"We're motivated by the idea of what we're doing," said Kevin Spurlock, returning to the Dickenson staff for a second year.
"I'm just ready to love on some kids," said Susanna Grove, a first-time Wesley Woods worker.
There will be plenty of kids to love. About 3,200 total campers are expected at Camps Buffalo Mountain, Dickenson, Lookout, and Wesley Woods this summer. A total of 215 staff will work a nine-week season beginning June 1. First-year counselors receive $170 pay per week, according to Development Officer Charles Maynard. An extra $10 per week is earned with each year of service.
Many counselors have strong Holston Conference connections. Edwards is a rising sophomore at Emory & Henry College and a member of Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church in Wytheville District. Grove is active in the ETSU Wesley Foundation and a member at Cokesbury UMC in Knoxville District.
Alex Shaffer, a member at Mafair UMC in Kingsport District, said he never attended camp as a child. But as a participant in the UTK Wesley Foundation, he was inspired by a recruitment presentation given by Dickenson Director Michael Snow. Shaffer decided to give camp counseling a try (albeit at Buffalo Mountain, which is closer to his home).
Others discovered Holston camping through other channels. Jestie Higgins of Easton, Pa., chose to work at Camp Lookout after meeting Director Don Washburn at a United Methodist camping certification class in California this past January.
Several other camps tried to recruit Higgins, who has ministry experience in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. "But I knew I could benefit from being here in a conference with such a strong camping ministry," said Higgins, age 24. "I just wanted to come and be with good people."
When the campfire session was over and Pasqua had prayed over the group, the counselors all joined hands and followed each other into the dark, to a nearby field. Maynard explained that many of the young campers they'll encounter don't live in places dark enough to see the stars in the sky, another part of God's creation.
He pointed out a few stars and cited Psalm 8, as the counselors gazed heavenward:
O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.