It was the anticipation and preparation I remember most: packing my big duffel bag with more clothes than I needed — just in case; not being able to sleep the night before because of excitement; going through the checklist of my sleeping bag, sunscreen, swimsuit, bug spray, towels, flashlight and extra batteries, old shoes and, yes, Bible.
When I was growing up — around the age my oldest two kids are now (between third and sixth grade) — each summer, I looked forward to one week more than any other: church camp.
I can’t speak for other parts of the country or other denominations, but if you were raised Lutheran (which I was) in northeast Indiana, odds are you went to camp. Around here, it was either Camp Lutherhaven or Camp Lutherwald. My brother, sister and I were Lutherwald kids.
My dad and stepmom would drop us off Sunday afternoon. We’d hug our goodbyes, and as we settled into our cabins, they’d make the long drive back to town in a minivan that was unusually quiet and peaceful. I always assumed they were just as excited about the week as we were.
Until Friday when they would pick us up, we’d spend the days swimming, boating, doing devotionals and crafts, memorizing the books of the Bible (for prizes!) and engaging in pranks and other shenanigans with rival cabins. At night, we’d play Romans and Christians or Capture the Flag, and then we’d sit around the campfire singing “Kumbaya” and “They’ll Know We are Christians” and other songs, praising God.
Immediately upon arrival, all the campers would change into their swimsuits to take the swim test, where we’d have to paddle ourselves out to the raft and back — a distance of maybe 30 yards — then show that we could tread water for a minute. Other activities included swimming across the lake and back and a polar bear plunge, where we would get up at dawn for a swim and freeze our Lutheran backsides off.
The highlight of the week for me (and the lowlight for many others) was the mud hike (which is pretty self-explanatory). I can’t remember how long the hike was, but as a 9- and 10-year-old, it seemed like miles. However long it was, we’d slog through waist-high mud (or deeper) and then jump in the lake to wash off. I assume there are hundreds of decades-old shoes still stuck in the earth along that path.
The entire week was magnificent and magical. I don’t want to overstate what the experience meant to me, but, up until that point, I really did have the time of my life.
The memories came rushing back last summer as I saw a slew of photos on Facebook from friends who were sending their kids off to camp. I was jealous and full of nostalgia, wishing for that incredible, memory-making experience for my own kids.
Much like when, after I converted, I learned of the shocking revelation that Catholics didn’t do Sunday school, I was told by my beautiful, devout wife that Catholics don’t do summer camp, either. There might be a retreat here or there, but nothing like the weeklong version I was hoping for, I was told.
Thank God for Google.
Though it clearly wasn’t publicized well, four years ago, a couple in our diocese started a camp exactly like the one from my youth. Only, you know, fully Catholic.
They spend a week swimming and boating, doing crafts and archery, playing games and singing songs around the campfire — hopefully including “Kumbaya” and “They’ll Know We are Christians.” There is also Mass every morning, and they pray the Rosary and have the opportunity to go to confession with visiting priests. The bishop also comes and says Mass one morning and stays to have lunch with the campers.
The brochure I downloaded didn’t mention a mud hike, but either way, I was excited to learn that the Lutheran camp I remember from my past does exist for my Catholic kids today.
So on Sunday, with her large duffel bag packed with more clothes than she’ll likely need, and with her sleeping bag and sunscreen and a flashlight and bug spray and her Bible marked off the checklist, we drove Olivia, our 11-year-old, to Catholic Summer Youth Camp, where she’s spending the week with more than 40 other kids, swimming and hiking and singing and praying and praising God.
Before we hugged our goodbyes (bravely and without tears), we put her gear for the week in her cabin and waited outside as she changed into her swimsuit.
She had a swimming test to take.
I hope she’s having the time of her life.
Scott Warden is the associate editor of OSV Newsweekly. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_OSV.
For more of Scott's Confessions of a Catholic Dad, click here.