Leaping from tall poles in a single bound and other tales of Christian camp

superman-shieldThis week in a cove near Elizabethton, Tenn., some kid is going to jump off a 30-foot utility pole and live to tell about it.

No need to be alarmed. It’s a safety-harnessed gut check for youngsters (and the occasional adult). They put on a safety helmet, tie on a harness with an assistant holding the other end of the rope, and climb to the top of the pole. As they stand there, teetering, a trapeze bar hangs about six feet away.

The goal is simple: To launch themselves into the air and grab the bar. The hard part, the first time, comes just before jumping. Will the rope hold? Will the guy holding the rope do his job? Will I look stupid if I miss the bar? The answer to all is yes.

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The leap of faith (but this one isn't at Doe River Gorge)

But why do it? The name of the activity offers a clue: the Leap of Faith. It’s one of the outdoorsy and out-of-the-ordinary activities featured at Doe River Gorge, a Christian ministry center.

“Our goal is to bring young people to maturity in their character, in their skills, in their understanding of God,” according to Director Terry Maughon. “We get kids who come for fun and adventure, but we want to expose them to Christ in a positive way, and we gear our programming to that.”

That kind of mission is shared by at least 10 Christian camping and conference centers within a 50-mile radius of Johnson City and hundreds more nationwide. The Christian Camp and Conference Association claims about 1,000 member facilities. (There are also about 300 Jewish camps, a dozen Muslim camps and a handful of other religious camps nationwide.)

Camps have changed from their heyday in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, when they were rustic and simple in every respect, from sleeping quarters (bunk beds in barracks-like dorms) to food (hot dogs and Tater Tots were typical) to programming (Bible classes, chapel, swimming and softball). These days, a camper is likely to find air-conditioned housing, salad bars, and options like high ropes challenge courses and wilderness expeditions.

“People want the experience of the woods, but require more stuff for that to happen,” said Jason Onks, executive director of Buffalo Mountain Camp and Retreat Center. It’s a challenge, he said, “to balance meeting those needs but not take away the experience of being outside. It’s partly the result of changes in expectations from campers, but mostly from parents.”

Faced with a different culture and shifting expectations, camps and conference centers need to be more creative than ever, said Mike Staires, director of communications and marketing services at the Christian Camp and Conference Association. While some facilities are thriving, average nationwide attendance is shrinking. CCCA members report about 6.5 million participants every year, down from 8 million earlier this decade.

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Ramsey Falls, at Buffalo Mountain Camp. Photo by Mark Peacock.

The campers themselves are changing too. More kids than ever grow up around cities, live with electronics and participate in organized activities, and so fewer feel at ease living close to nature. (“Our staff jokes about kids having ‘nature deficit disorder,’” Onks said.) Camp leaders see more spiritual diversity too.

 “Most kids who came 20 or 30 years ago didn’t question the Bible,” according to Brett Forney, promotions and development director at Appalachian Christian Camp in Unicoi. “But for the generation now, that’s not the thing. We’re not assuming they believe. A good number don’t go to church. Their parents just want them out of the house, and Christian camp is a safe, relatively economical option. So we’re getting back to basics, including more evangelistic aspects with some of them.”

Even so, she and other camp leaders say the constants of the camp setting make a unique impact on children and teens. It’s not about air conditioning or water slides.

“Kids may come the first time because of the toys,” Staires said, “but when they leave they say the most important part was talking with their counselors, meeting friends – those relational kinds of things.”

Camp provides a kind of “greenhouse environment,” he said. “Kids are in the Bible, having some quiet time, playing hard, spending the day together, not distracted by TV. But through the heat and exhaustion they are pushed together, faced with how to figure out how God fits in all this. They’re able to stop and think. It’s like someone pushes a pause button.”

Except when they jump off a very tall pole.

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 27 June 2009.

Faith until the very end

endoflifecaresos024hiressmall

By the time Stacie Davis’ mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer in the fall of 2005, the disease had advanced past the point of saving her.

As Davis tells her mother’s story, her voice slightly quavers. She knows what cancer can do, both as a daughter and as the nurse manager of oncology at Johnson City Medical Center.

Her mother and family had decided against heroic measures, but sometimes her mother seemed to forget.

“It was like she would say, ‘I’ve got to do something’ – almost like a panic,” Davis said. “I’d remind her that chemotherapy would only make her sicker and end her life sooner.”

Her mother was “a very strong woman, a great believer, very active in the church,” Davis recalled. “She always studied the Scriptures. But as with most people, fear stepped in for a while.”

Eventually, her mother accepted her approaching death and focused on final preparations, right down to what her grandson would wear to her funeral.

“It gave her a lot of peace to know that she had worked out the arrangements,” Davis said.

Both personally and professionally, Davis was intrigued by a study in the March 18 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. A team of researchers found that patients who were near death with advanced cancer and who drew on their religious faith to help cope with stress were three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging medical care than those who weren’t “religious copers.” Most of the patients in the study, which was conducted in New England and Texas, were Christians.

“Many people … assume that more religious patients would be less likely to pursue aggressive end-of-life care (such as mechanical ventilation and cardiopulmonary resuscitation) because they have peace with the idea of death because of faith in God and belief in an afterlife,” wrote the study’s lead author, Dr. Andrea Phelps of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, in an e-mail this week. “Our results show that the influence of religious factors on care at the end-of-life is much more complicated.”

Religious copers were also less likely to have less advance-care planning, such as living wills or do-not-resuscitate orders. (Phelps pointed out that most religious copers did not receive aggressive end-of-life care; they just received it at greater rates than other patients.)

The researchers suggest several reasons for this connection: trust that God could heal them through the treatment or that they are working with God to overcome illness or bring about transformation through suffering.

“Alternatively, religious copers might feel they are abandoning a spiritual calling as they transition from fighting cancer to accepting the limitations of medicine and preparing for death,” they wrote. Other patients pursue life-sustaining treatments because of their belief that only God knows when it’s a patient’s time to die or, out of moral or religious conviction, place high value on prolonging life.

Davis hasn’t noticed a strong connection between a patient’s religion and decisions about life-prolonging therapy.

“What I have seen is that it is really more individualistic, as far as their life experience goes,” she said. “Some people feel like they’re done, and it’s OK. But I’ve had people who thought much more about the separation from a loved one, especially if they were caregivers. It’s feeling like their job is not done.”

Davis sees many deeply religious people decline life-extending treatment.

“They see it almost as a grace thing, like ‘Thy will be done,'” she said. “On the other hand, it’s a struggle for a lot of patients. At times they’re sure they know what God wants them to do, but like anyone they have doubts.”

A more common factor in treatment decisions, she said, is whether or not patients had indicated their wishes in advance.

“With advance directives you see a much calmer environment with the family,” she said. “It gives you a sort of control. People have thought about it and talked about it and have in a way rehearsed their roles.”

Davis’ mother lived until June 2006, long enough to see Davis’ son graduate from high school and celebrate three family birthdays, including her own.

“We wanted to go through the milestones with her,” Davis said. “But terminal patients can detach from this world and start looking forward to the next. We were glad she was there, but she was ready to move on.”

Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 28 March 2009. Image: NIH Consensus Development Program.

Entering Lent, secular and sacred

It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably.
It was a just a coincidence that President Obama delivered his not-State-of-the-Union speech on Mardi Gras. Probably

All eyes were on Washington this week, when President Barack Obama spoke before Congress, mainly about the economy.

Surely it was a coincidence that his speech fell on Mardi Gras. I doubt the president scheduled the event with the Christian calendar in mind. Even so, the timing seems appropriate.

Our collective financial Mardi Gras is over. Now it’s time for some discipline. Figuratively speaking, the nation has entered a kind of secular Lenten season.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. Now and then we need to be reminded that it’s not healthy to always get what we want, when we want it. Grown-ups understand the joys of delayed gratification.

The actual Mardi Gras, “Fat Tuesday,” is the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of that 40-day season of fasting known as Lent. Mardi Gras originated as a practical ritual of cleaning out cupboards before fasting began but, human nature being what it is, the day evolved into an excuse for a blow-out party. People are funny that way.

Ash Wednesday was established 15 centuries ago by Pope Gregory the Great. As repentant believers entered the cathedral, he would mark their foreheads with ashes and remind them of the biblical symbol of repentance, sackcloth and ashes, and of their mortality, quoting the book of Genesis: “You are dust, and to dust you will return.”

Irony is at work here. While Christians have their foreheads ritually smeared with soot, they might recall these words from Jesus himself: “When you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. … But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:16-18).

That’s why many Christians refuse to observe Ash Wednesday.

Someone must know a good explanation for a church practice that apparently flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching. I heard one minister explain it by saying the act is itself a reminder to Christians that they are imperfect even when they try to obey Christ. We’re laughing at ourselves, he said.

As with many other practices, not all Christians observe Lent or do so in the same way. It’s more common among the mainline denominations, such as the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and Lutheran churches. But it’s an ancient Christian tradition, dating back at least to the second century.

Specific practices have changed over the centuries, but the purpose has remained constant: self-examination and repentance for sins, expressed by self-denial and other disciplines. It leads to Easter, so Lent also carries a strong sense of preparation and anticipation. (Lent began this week in the Western church calendar; the Eastern Orthodox season starts next week.)

The name, by the way, is derived from the same word as “lengthen” – that is, Lent comes when the days are getting longer. (Now there’s a good idea. If people want to change their lives, they probably stand a better chance when days grow brighter and warmer than in the depressing dead of winter, on New Year’s Day.)

The 40-day period recalls the length of Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness, but the number is associated with other dramatic (and traumatic) biblical events, such as the 40 days and nights of rain during Noah’s flood and 40 years of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness.

But Lent is not about punishment. It’s about discipline, about the shaping of souls. It is about facing up to the ways we’ve gone off track and doing what we can to recover what we’ve lost or repair what we’ve damaged. It’s about reflecting on what is really important and lasting.

In a word, observing Lent is about turning and returning to God.

And it’s about anticipation, knowing that self-discipline and sacrifice today can make tomorrow that much sweeter. Again, the joys of delayed gratification. Lent leads to Easter.

(Johnson City, Tenn., Press, 28 Feb 2009) 

Multimedia gets religion … or vice versa: A Poynter-eye view

Imagine a pair of American teenage girls talking about what to wear on their first day in high school. Nothing unusual there, except they are Muslims and are debating whether to wear traditional head coverings.

 

Or maybe it’s another group of teens from various religious groups who are on the brink of rejecting their family’s faith.

 

Or a middle-aged minister struggling over his disagreement with his denomination’s official stance about abortion. Or a priest who must announce to church members next week that the denomination is closing their small, tight-knit parish.

 

Now imagine watching any of these scenes through a camera lens.

 

Those kinds of stories – high in human interest and rich in meaning – seem tailor-made for the quickly evolving media mix appearing every day on the Internet as text, video, sound, graphics and photographs.

 

So says Kelly McBride, leader of the Ethics Group at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, a school for journalists based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

 

“I can see kick-ass religion stories using multimedia tools,” McBride told me on Wednesday. “Religion as a topic should fare well if someone leads the way.”

 

I was attending a Poynter seminar designed to help college educators use and teach multimedia journalism more effectively, and that gave me an opportunity to sit down with McBride and talk about the connection of multimedia and religion reporting.

 

McBride, who covered religion for eight years before joining the Poynter faculty, thinks the new technology allows journalists to add layers of understanding to complex issues since it can present both compelling human stories and immense amounts of information and data.

 

“For instance, in a trend story, good storytelling will find people who play out the issues,” she explained. “A journalist could highlight theologies in different denominations or tell the tale of someone who is gay and Christian. A journalist can look for people at varying points of their journeys.”

 

A reporter can then use computer-based tools, she said, to produce dynamic images that illustrate a trend’s regional impact, for example, or create a data map to track, say, changing seminary enrollment.

 

But she rarely sees such in-depth coverage on the religion beat. One reason is money. Reporting is expensive work, and newsrooms around the nation are trimming (sometimes slashing) budgets and reporting staffs, and religion is often first to the chopping block. Even the Dallas Morning News, which produced what many observers considered the nation’s best religion news section, carved its treatment to the bone last year.

 

 “Newspapers can’t even cover the school board,” McBride said, “and religion is the low man on the totem pole.”

 

But tough financial decisions, McBride said, are made easier by readers’ lack of interest in religion as a news topic.

 

“I don’t hear anyone complaining anymore about lack of religion in the news or about the media who don’t understand religion,” she said. “For instance, religion was one of the subtexts of the election, covered badly and sporadically, but very few people complained.”

 

Some specialists keep their eyes on mainstream media’s religion coverage, such as the Get Religion Web site and a new book critiquing religion news, “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion” (Oxford, 2008). But McBride thinks they are the exception.

 

 “Nobody seems to care anymore,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s because so many newspapers can’t do it, but religion is not clearing the expectation bar.”

 

 Just a decade ago audiences wanted robust religion coverage. What happened?

 

“Clearly an engine in the 1990s was the sense that people of faith felt alienated from the mainstream,” McBride said. “But as a society we got over that. I don’t believe they feel alienated, not more than 30 percent of the population. Now anyone can find a forum and can be heard.”

 

But a more immediate problem, she said, is that religion stories can be … well, boring.

 

“No one reads them,” she said. “Text can allow you to get away with a lame story. Not every story is worth telling.”

 

That’s where multimedia comes in, since it requires telling a real story to work well. Few readers will thrill to policy reports or announcements, but most will attend to the narrative of a person’s life.

 

“Religion lends itself to multimedia,” McBride said. “But you can’t sit at the desk and talk to wonks all day. You have to ask, ‘What does our audience want?’ They have so many choices. It’s a brutal reality for editors to deal with.”

 

First published 14 Feb 2009 in the Johnson City Press.