Keep coming back to this page. There are yet more stories to tell!
Sunday | 2 p.m. | Knoxville, TN
The scripture theme for Holston camps’ summer season is “Multiplying Mercies,” based on Matthew 18: 21-22:
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Throughout the week, I listened as campers sang, “Mercy is Falling” several times. I heard ministers-in-residence share devotions, counselors pray on the topic, and campers perform skits to illustrate Jesus’ lesson on forgiveness.
At Camp Lookout in Rising Fawn, Georgia, I witnessed participants having a chance to live out this scripture. When a group of campers were reported to have broken a rule, it was time for Director Don Washburn and Program Coordinator Elle Hefner to pull them together to get answers and have a talk.
It was amazing to see Don and Elle work through the situation with patient and focused conversation. As the at-first tense situation dissolved into understanding and a plan, Don suggested the campers remember the scripture they had been learning all week and forgive each other.
The initial offering of forgiveness between the boys reminded me of how opposing school sports teams line up at the end of a ballgame to walk past each other with hands extended saying, “good game, good game, good game.”
But here’s what I saw when the confrontation was over. As the group of still somewhat sheepish boys left Don’s presence and walked together to their next activity, there were heartfelt apologies shared between them. Arms were placed around shoulders. Some paused a moment to look at each other and discuss what went wrong. I heard a camper ask tenderly, “Are you ok?” followed again by, “I’m sorry.”
It was a good day to be at Camp Lookout.
Saturday | 10 a.m. | Knoxville, TN
The tagline for Camp Wesley Woods is “Adventure Awaits.” As soon as Tony told me that, I thought “how perfect.”
As I said on Thursday, even rain and thunder couldn’t keep Wesley Woods down. In addition to the “extreme” board games and roller-chair hockey at the lodge, Tony and Patrice walked me up the path to show where campers were under a Cherokee-style shelter, cooking “dough boys” over a fire. Others were at the craft cabin making fuse bead creations. The camp is so large at 700 acres and so many activity opportunities are tucked into wooded nooks (from axe-throwing to zipline), that the number of choices for Wesley Woods campers is dizzying.
That only includes adventures based at the 62-year-old residential camp in Townsend. This summer, Wesley Woods also offered three offsite tripping programs:
- In June, high-school campers took off for 12 nights of a “Big Sky Adventure” in Yellowstone, the Tetons and Badlands.
- Earlier this month, the Southern Expedition led 8th through 11th graders to beaches, whitewater rafting, snorkeling and more for a week-long trip throughout the Southeast.
- On July 31, campers ages 18 and older will finish the summer season with 13 days at the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota.
In all, Wesley Woods plans to host 458 registered campers, so far, this summer. Tony and Patrice said they could take on 100 to 200 more campers if they could only hire more staff. (Finding staff has been a challenge for all Holston camps this year, when young adults can earn higher pay at fast-food restaurants than they can at camp.) This summer, Wesley Woods has more than 60 staff, including international staff representing 14 different countries. The flags of staff members’ homelands are hanging over the dining hall.
Adventure awaits at Wesley Woods, with the focus on living a Christian life, which is an adventure in itself, Tony said.
Friday | 5 p.m. | Knoxville, TN
Woohoo! 5 camps in 5 days! I made it!
This afternoon, Camp Lookout wrapped up its week with 83 campers while I completed the last of five visits to our Holston Conference camps. In all, I traveled 925 miles, arriving back home in Knoxville late this afternoon.
I haven’t finished telling you about Wesley Woods or Lookout, so I’ll hope you’ll return to this blog for a few more posts.
I’m so proud of our camps. I agree with Don Washburn, Lookout director, who often says, “Camp is one of those thin places between you and God.” (That’s what Elle Hefner, program coordinator, shared with me today.)
I need to rest a bit. I’ll be back at the keyboard in the morning with more stories from camp.
Thursday | 11:45 p.m. | Chattanooga, TN
After a wonderful if soggy day at Camp Wesley Woods in Townsend, Tennessee, I departed for the 160-mile trip southwest to Camp Lookout in Rising Fawn, Georgia this afternoon. Tomorrow is a short day for most Holston campers as they head home, so I needed to get to Lookout tonight to make sure I have enough time with the folks there.
Thursday-night worship at Lookout was sweet -- I’ll fill you in on that. But tonight I received a video clip of worship at Wesley Woods that made me sorry I cannot be in two places at once. I’ll share the short video with you here now, with a promise to write more about Wesley Woods as well as Lookout tomorrow.
I’m staying the night in Chattanooga and plan to be back at Lookout (30 minutes away) for breakfast at 8 a.m.
Thank you, Patrice Lea, for sharing this amazing video from Wesley Woods:
Thursday | 3 p.m. | Wesley Woods
It may be raining at Camp Wesley Woods in Townsend, Tennessee, but nobody is resting on their haunches. I had barely stepped out of the car before I was interviewing three staff members, two who said they practically grew up at this camp. I was about to get into that before I was whisked off to see Tony Lea, director, and Patrice Lea, assistant director.
It so happens that two folks from First United Methodist Church of Oak Ridge were here, talking to Tony about an upcoming retreat at Wesley Woods. It was still raining, so Tony loaded Rev. Denna Hornby, Shelby Fowler and me into a vehicle and took us to see the high ropes course. He was disappointed that we didn’t get to see the campers sharpen their team-building and faith-building skills on the course, since there’s some thunder included with this rain.
I would write more about the last jam-packed 4 ½ hours full of conversations, information, tours and ultra-hospitable people treating me like I’m somebody special. But this room is about to be taken over by campers who are going to play
hockey in roller chairs. Me, I’m going to go catch up with the campers who picked puddle-jumping as their next activity, and then I’ll find another group who are learning to drive golf carts on a specially designed course. I’ve got an umbrella and a poncho around here somewhere but we’re moving so fast the raindrops don’t seem to catch us.
I’ll catch up with ya’ later.
Thursday | 8:15 a.m. | Knoxville, TN
Well, it's storming here at my home in Knoxville, where I returned last night to sleep. I'm headed out to Camp Wesley Woods soon, about an hour away in Townsend, Tennessee.
My little dog is looking at me like, "Are you seriously going to do this in the rain?"
Well, heck yeah. Those campers looked forward to their week at Wesley Woods. They don't just hang it up when it rains, and as organized as these camp staffs are, I know the day will be fascinating no matter the weather.
Wednesday | 10 p.m. | Bays Mountain
Jeff, the director of Camp Bays Mountain, said today that all Holston camps have this common goal. Move them in (hospitality). Move them up (discipleship). Move them out (transference).
To unpack that a little, “move them in” means registrations, marketing and so forth to get campers to come. “Move them up” is “all we do at camp,” Jeff said, including everything from Bible study to the climbing wall.
About “move them out,” he said: “It’s not enough to bring campers in and bring them up. What we’re trying to do is move their experience out into their homes, schools, churches, ballfields, and how they treat each other.”
Today I saw so many encouraging things. First of all, camp is a highly organized operation. Led by counselors, groups of children are moving from activity to activity all over the camp throughout the day.
Tonight each group had a cookout for dinner, and that meant different levels of complication in the meal, depending on the campers’ ages. The kitchen staff packed these perfectly organized boxes of food – meal kits, really – for the campers to prepare themselves. For the younger elementary kids, that meant a “weenie roast,” putting hot dogs on a stick to heat over a fire. The middle-school campers made “hobo” dinner packets, including beef patties, potatoes, carrots, and onions wrapped in foil to cook on the fire.
I followed along as two small boys struggled with carrying their group’s food box down the trail to the campfire. One would carry the box for a distance, tire out, put it down. Then the other boy would try. Both campers chattered constantly, sometimes talking over each other, trying to help but getting in the way while the other tried to push through. The counselor who followed behind offered to assist but held back a little, letting them figure it out.
Finally, one of the boys looked at the other and said, “Why don’t we both carry it?” They each took a side of the box and finished the trip to the fire.
We are a church and denomination in transition. Sometimes we don’t like that, especially the pain that’s involved. But over and over, our historians tell us to look back, look around, and see that change is constant. Brokenness can lead to healing, growth and beauty.
Wednesday | 4:15 p.m. | Bays Mountain
So I pulled up today to Camp Bays Mountain in Kingsport and was instantly moved by two things: (1) Memories of Buffalo Mountain Camp, my childhood camp, which flooded in 2012, and (2) How pretty and new this camp is, and how much progress has been made since the property was purchased in 2015 to create a ministry to follow Buffalo Mountain.
The Rev. Jeff Wadley, camp director for nine summers now, makes sure people remember that today’s Camp Bays Mountain is a continuation of Buffalo Mountain Camp, which was located in Jonesborough, Tennessee. “Even though we started a new camp location, that legacy goes back to 1947," he said.
Every Thursday night during the summer season, Jeff tells campers the story of Buffalo Mountain Camp, and how 66 stones around the campfire were brought here from the old camp, representing the 66 years that Buffalo Mountain changed lives. He tells them how Allison Lodge Dining Hall is named for the old lodge and the family that gave the money to start Buffalo Mountain.
He tells them how the old camp bell and mantle are here. He tells them how a log from the last campfire at Buffalo Mountain was brought here, and how campfire logs continue to be saved from week to week, season to season, to start the next fire.
This summer, Bays Mountain is hosting the largest number of campers since the season before the heartbreaking flood: 420.
Today, the children are involved in caving and water slides and singing and Bible study and hiking and laughing, and tonight there will be a cookout. The signs in front of the new or renovated buildings and the lush grounds remind us of the generosity and hopefulness of churches and individuals who believed that God was not finished with Camp Buffalo Mountain yet.
So much love poured into and out of these Holston camps ...
Wednesday | 2:30 p.m. | Bays Mountain
I’m here to see the camp and the campers, of course, but I’m really enjoying talking to the staff. At each camp, I’m asking staff to interview each other for short videos about how camp changes lives or builds church leaders.
Today, I handed my iPhone to Hunter Hawthorne, who made this reel with Jacob Perhne. I absolutely love it. We are so blessed to have these #NewVoices in Holston!
Wednesday | 9 a.m. | Kingsport, TN
To protect the children, it isn't possible to post photos of Camp in the Community campers until that particular week of camp has concluded. So I'm sharing photos below of CITC campers from previous weeks, courtesy of the staff!
I spent last night in Kingsport to be closer to my next destination: Camp Bays Mountain. I've done a lot of driving in such beautiful country. I'm tired, but it's so worth it. Bays Mountain, here I come!
Tuesday | 10 p.m. | CITC in Narrows, VA
Pastor Doug Armstrong and a team of volunteers from First Narrows UMC and First Rich Creek UMC were on site all day. They made sure campers and staff were well hydrated on such a hot day, cleaned up after 50 little kids having the time of their lives, and offered hospitality to all.
“A lot of Camp in the Community recruits itself,” Pastor Doug said. Word gets around the towns that the local United Methodist churches are hosting a free camp and parents and kids who participated in previous years help spread the word.
Before the pandemic, First Narrows UMC had 30 children involved in the church, as a result of CITC. Getting families to come back to church has been a struggle since the pandemic, the pastor says, but he's trying.
In addition to gaga ball, crafts, cardio drumming, yoga, singing, water games, and so on, CITC offers an enormous educational component. In 2022, CITC won an $85,000 grant to buy a mobile planetarium and special van to teach science, technology, engineering, art, math and music to children.
The blow-up planetarium is really something to see, a state-of-the-art thing that took six months to build
in Israel. It can accommodate 30 campers inside who watch visually stimulating videos about astronomy. I climbed into the planetarium with one group and was amazed right along with the kids, who exclaimed “whoa!” when the stars spread all over the “sky” through a special projector. Abby Atchley, one of the counselors, did a great job of keeping the kids engaged and learning with questions.
The planetarium miraculously folds up into a small bag so that it can be transported to another CITC location the next day.
Tuesday | 4:30 p.m. | CITC at Narrows, VA
Many of the Camp in the Community (CITC) staff are from other countries. I talked to two and was fascinated by their stories.
Raquel Herrera, age 35, is a psychologist in Cali, Colombia. She tells her patients she’ll be gone for the summer so she can work with Camp in the Community. She serves as site coordinator, but her expertise is hugely helpful in helping children and counselors in difficult situations and to help them process trauma.
“I have seen a lot, through the Bible studies and activities. I’ve seen the little faces of those kids and counselors and see how they grow every week we do camp,” Raquel said.
Keenan Gerbach, age 34, is from Cape Town, South Africa. He first came to Holston Conference in 2011 to work at Camp Wesley Woods – although “without a faith in God,” he said. Throughout the summer, “the love of God I found from the staff and campers made me realize I was missing something.” At a Chrysalis retreat, he committed his life to God.
He went home to South Africa to start a camp for children that was supported by Youth Service Fund grants. The pandemic later caused the camp to be halted. This summer, Keenan returned to Holston to serve as spiritual counselor at CITC.
"Camp provides a place where you meet people that you won't regularly meet in life," Keenan said. "It's like a melting pot for God to do something."
Tuesday | 1 p.m. | CITC in Narrows, VA
There are 50 children here at Camp in the Community (CITC) at First United Methodist Church in Narrows, Virginia. A few are from this church. A few others are from First United Methodist Church of Rich Creek, Virginia, which is hosting the camp with First Narrows. Most are children from the community.
A topic that came up a few times this morning (and it also came up at Camp Dickenson yesterday) is how hungry children especially benefit from Holston camps. “A lot of these kids don’t get to eat well at home, along with other horrifying things that go on,” said the Rev. Doug Armstrong, pastor at First Narrows and First Rich Creek.
At this camp, children get breakfast at 8:30 a.m. (today it was biscuits, yogurt, banana), lunch at 12:30 p.m. (hot dog, chips, veggie cup), and a snack at 4 p.m. Whitney Winston, director of Holston’s CITC program, said she and her assistant director, Haleigh Davis, tear up sometimes when camp kids mention they haven’t eaten in a few days.
CITC is a day camp offering a myriad of activities to kids in low-income neighborhoods for one week. This week, there are CITC teams in two other towns as well: White Pine, Tennessee, and Surgoinsville, Tennessee. In all, 1,500 campers will be served at 29 Camp in the Community locations this summer. That’s half of the total 3,000 expected at Holston camps this summer.
2:25 p.m. update: Whitney and Haleigh just left to go buy more snacks. They said the kids keep asking for something to eat.
Tuesday | 9 a.m. | Dublin, VA
I spent the night in Dublin, about an hour's drive from Camp Dickenson in Fries, Virginia, where I was yesterday. I'm headed to First United Methodist Church in Narrows, Virginia, where there's a Camp in the Community going on! It's about 30 miles north.
Tuesday | 8 a.m. | Camp Dickenson
Yesterday I watched two 17-year-old counselors lead groups of small children at Dickenson. To be teenagers, they seemed so confident and competent as they patiently listened to the little voices all around them and helped the campers have a good experience. I noticed how they didn’t seem to overreact to every little thing that happened or that was said (as I might have been guilty of doing as a parent).
Church camp builds Christian leaders in so many ways, says Director Anthony Gomez. (The child of a single parent, Anthony himself received scholarships to attend a United Methodist camp in Richmond, Virginia, and the rest is history. “I haven’t spent less than six weeks at camp every year since I was 15,” he said. I need to write Anthony's story someday.)
“Being a camp counselor means having an extended period of time when you’re shifting your focus off yourself,” Anthony said. “I’ve seen absolute transformation of both campers and counselors over the summer.”
Monday | 10 p.m. | Camp Dickenson
To protect the campers who are attending Dickenson this week, we can’t post their photos until they are off campus. So here’s a couple of photos of campers from last week! Dickenson has a great multimedia specialist who’s shooting the camp photos: Reza Najor, a Virginia Tech student majoring in art and physics.
It was a great day of eating, swimming, fishing, crafting, singing, praying, and relating to each other -- with a luau and more worship at the end of the day. And this is only Monday! Dickenson is a beautiful place, the only Holston camp with a river running through it. Hence the camp’s slogan: “New Life on the New River.” I’ll do another Dickenson post in the morning before I head off to Camp in the Community.
We’ve been talking about family connections here at this camp. Sawyer pointed out that Dickenson has a “more intimate relationship with the towns around here” because there are no big cities nearby. “We get a little more personal” when it comes to visiting churches to recruit campers and staff, he said.
Monday | 4:45 p.m. | Camp Dickenson
A few minutes later, Anthony Gomez, camp director, pointed out that Sawyer’s family has a long and strong history at Dickenson. His sister Brenna is on staff now. His brother Bailey and mom Angel used to be on staff. His dad, Rev. Tim Smith, a Holston pastor, has served as minister in residence and longtime board member.
Here’s a fun fact: Amanda, who is from Frankfort, Kentucky, found out about Dickenson when she applied for a job through the Indeed website three years ago. She not only got the job, but she met her fiance to be. Last November, Amanda and Sawyer got engaged!
Ben Mullins, who serves as New River District youth leader and is serving as minister in residence this week, also met his future wife at Dickenson. His mother Tilda served on staff many years ago. The list goes on and on. Sharing the love at Dickenson.
Monday | 2:30 p.m. | Camp DickensonIt's a busy day here at Camp Dickenson! There are 50 campers total, including a senior high adventure group that headed out this morning for Carolina Beach, where they'll do Bible study, go surfing, visit the aquarium and work together as a team in an escape room. "It's an opportunity to look at the creation of Christ in a different setting," said Amanda Hargis, summer program director.
When I got here, the campers were feasting on corn dogs, green beans and macaroni and cheese for lunch. Elliot, age 7, said he likes swimming best of all among camp activities. Conner, age 17, who is doubling as support staff and counselor this week, gave me a rundown on the camp schedule while keeping an eye on his rambunctious group of eleven 6- to 8-year-olds.
While the campers took a post-lunch "nap," I had the greatest discussion with Amanda and Sawyer Smith, logistics coordinator. We talked about how they've seen Camp Dickenson change lives and build leaders. I'll be sharing some videos on social media of their comments, but I particularly like how Amanda, who is a little shy, brightened up when I asked her about the changed lives.
"I've seen kids come on Sunday and they're completely shut down," she said. "By Friday, they're ready to be in their churches, they're ready to come back. They're ready to work here! It's amazing."
More to come.
Monday | 6:30 a.m. | Knoxville, TNGood morning! I'm leaving now for Camp Dickenson in Fries, Virginia. It's a 3 1/2 hour trip (without stops) from my home in Knoxville. My gas tank is full, and I'll keep a notepad handy to jot down all the questions I want to ask and things I hope to see. Dickenson's director, Anthony Gomez, is expecting me.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newsletter.