The fire is crackling, the songs are flowing. It’s the spiritual highlight of the day -- campfire time at Strength for the Journey.
Here, 30 adult campers with little in common except for a virus are laughing, hugging, singing, praying. Joining in the fellowship are 12 volunteer staff – not all HIV-positive -- but just as giddy on unconditional love and acceptance.
The joy shifts a gear, however, when a camper stands to share her own poem. It’s called “Knocking at the Church’s Door.” The images seem out of place:
The World was my home, my life, my all
I somehow got lost in all its vastness
Drowning, dragging, down and desperate
Long ago memories of the Church resurfaced
So I dressed my best and knocked at the door
Doors, Church doors were slammed in my face …
On Sept. 6-10 at Buffalo Mountain Camp in Jonesborough, Holston Conference hosted its 14th year of a unique camp for people struggling with an incurable, misunderstood disease. Offered two weeks annually (the next one is Oct. 18-22), the most recent Strength for the Journey camp drew people from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee.
The HIV-positive campers came from all kinds of situations. Some were childless, but some were parents and grandparents. Some were single, some were married. One young woman was engaged. Some campers were on disability or unemployed. Others worked in restaurants, construction, design, or social services. One man in his 40s was preparing for medical school. Some have been incarcerated.
All are suffering from the long-term effects of powerful medications and must diligently monitor their medical care and nutrition to continue to survive.
For some of these folks, worshiping in the east Tennessee mountains with the United Methodists is the biggest (and best) dose of church they get all year. The camp schedule is carefully planned to include the gospel of Jesus as well as crafts, nature hikes, canoeing, wellness classes, small groups, rest and relaxation. Also included is one-on-one care from an on-staff registered nurse and family-style meals.
“Some people say this ministry is the best-kept secret in Holston Conference,” a leader said at one of the staff meetings held nightly after each busy day of activities -- but his statement might not be true.
The first-ever Strength for the Journey camp for AIDS sufferers was organized in 1987 in the California-Pacific Annual Conference. In 1997, retiring deacon Dot Avers organized and led the first Strength for the Journey camp in Holston.
Since then, about 100 clergy and lay members from Holston and other denominations have served as camp leaders at one time or another. About 500 HIV-positive campers have attended in all.
Several United Methodist Women groups now make gift bags or prayer shawls for the participants, while a handful of churches donate money or place the ministry in their budgets. Last June at Annual Conference, the camp was included in a video of Holston ministries, and UMTV has also made a national video about the ministry. In 2009, Bishop James Swanson spent a day with the campers.
The campers themselves make no secret of their appreciation for the camp and staff who return each year. Many of the campers return, too, developing close friendships.
“You remind me of my mother,” one man said tearfully to a staff leader on the last day, after a week of hardly showing any emotion at all.
“I’ve been to a lot of these retreats, but you guys really get it,” said one man from Alabama, the son of a Baptist missionary in Central America.
Many campers testify that churches and communities still shun and fear people who are HIV-positive – despite U.S. progress in battling the disease and public education about its transmission.
One retired lay woman – who has volunteered at the camp for four years -- confessed that her friends are often shocked when they learn about her ministry with HIV-positive campers.
“Aren’t you afraid you’ll catch it?” her friends ask.
“Well, no. I don’t plan to sleep with any of them," she responds.
‘Don’t be afraid’
The most common ways that HIV is transmitted is through unprotected sex or sharing needles with an infected person, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The virus can also be passed via childbirth, breastfeeding, and blood transfusions.
HIV cannot be transmitted through sweat, spit, tears, clothes, drinking fountains, phones, toilet seats, or through sharing a meal, according to the CDC. Yet, campers say they still encounter people who are afraid to shake their hands or handle their used dishes. They still have trouble getting accepted in congregations that know about their condition.
“I tell people, ‘Don’t be afraid of me,'” one HIV-positive woman said during the daily small-group time. “'I’m more likely to catch something from you.'”
People with the virus really do have to worry more about getting other people’s germs than the other way around. HIV stands for “human immunodeficiency virus,” which can progress to fatal “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” (AIDS).
In the early years, Strength for the Journey workshops, worship, and small-group topics reflected the reality that some campers would die before the next camp could be offered. At an emotional campfire session, one man shared that he had lost two partners and 300 friends to the disease.
Today, improved medications and treatments have changed the campers’ prognosis and even the camp agenda. At this month’s traditional Thursday night “celebration dinner,” campers applauded and cheered for several participants who have lived with the virus for more than 10 or 20 years. Only a few were diagnosed within the last five years.
“My doctor told me that HIV is not going to kill me,” one camper said. “But I can get a cold from a healthy person and end up dying from pneumonia.”
The CDC estimates that around 1.1 million adults and adolescents are living with HIV in the U.S., including those not yet diagnosed, and those who have already progressed to AIDS. In 2008, 14,222 Tennesseeans and 19,951 Virginians were living with an HIV diagnosis. In Georgia: 31,806.
Through agencies, churches, physicians, and friends, word is spread throughout the southeast that Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church has a week-long retreat for people with HIV. Especially as budget cuts are eliminating social services in other places, Strength for the Journey leaders say their number of applications is rising.
“It breaks our heart to turn away so many people,” said a member of the Strength for the Journey board.
This year, organizers received about 135 applications for 60 camp spots. There would be more, "but the grapevine works so well that when the retreat is full, people stop sending applications."
The fee is $150 but the camp actually costs about $250 per camper. Most campers demonstrate hardship and receive scholarships to attend. Some save up all their vacation time for their week at Buffalo Mountain. One man endured a 24-hour Greyhound bus trip from Clarksville, Tenn., to attend the September camp.
Strength for the Journey is funded by grants and donations, with support from Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries as well as from other denominations and community organizations. Currently, only two camps are offered each fall, but organizers say donations would enable them to add weeks and welcome more people.
At this month’s gathering, leaders announced that veteran campers might have to be refused in order to accommodate more first-timers. The hurt and disappointment was immediately evident.
“I need this,” one man said in a hushed tone. “On the last day of camp, I always start counting how many days it is until next year’s camp.”
In small-group sessions, several campers said their years of attending Holston’s quiet camp in east Tennessee had motivated them to publicly share their faith journeys or advocate for HIV awareness. Several were already volunteering in nursing homes, centers for the blind, churches.
By the end of the week, there was hope that the spiritual community created biannually at Buffalo Mountain would testify to the healing power of Jesus Christ. The goal is to welcome and support more people who have not yet experienced the church at its very best.
- Names were omitted to protect the confidentiality of participants. To invite a Strength for the Journey speaker to your church or to offer your support, write firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
- To give directly, write a check to your local church or to Holston Conference with "Strength for the Journey, Advance #300" on the memo line. Place check in your church offering plate or mail to: Holston Conference, P.O. Box 850, Alcoa, TN 37701.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.