This summer I was on a beach at a Christian camp and I heard a lifeguard say to a group of swimming children, “Okay, guys and gals and non-binary pals!”
My heart smiled to hear the college age lifeguard casually insert a new gender identity, like it was perfectly normal to affirm queer people at a Christian summer camp in the middle of rural Wisconsin. A region where 74% of the camp’s neighbors voted for Trump and Pence.
Children of every shape and tone of melanin ran out of the water and lined up as the smiling lifeguard counted them for a safety check. Children of African, Asian and Latino immigrants were laughing about how cold the water was. Some still carrying heavy accents they had inherited from their families. Black teens were standing shoulder to shoulder with and rural and suburban white teens. And some of these white teens were spending significant quality time with people of color for the first time.
The camp counselors were as diverse as the kids. College students from Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Jamaica, North Dakota, Copenhagen, gay and straight, and non-binary pals. All working together. Leading their little crew of kids through games, scrubbing dishes, and teaching them about loving God and loving their neighbor.
Now don’t get me wrong, the camp was still majority white, it was rural Wisconsin. But seeing all diversity was so inspiring to me. We are living in a country that has become so divided by region and religion and sexuality and class. It feels like a precious thing for children from across the political and geographic spectrum get to spend quality time together. To hang out and play together. And these relationships begin to form new categories that break down old stereotypes.
It was also inspiring because I knew how far this camp had come. How long we had worked to make this diverse beach a reality.
Seven years ago, I started taking children from our church up to camp. Our church is in a first ring suburban church with a very racially and ethnically diverse children and youth group.
And my first year at the church, it was very hard to convince any of our children of color to come to summer camp in rural Wisconsin. Most had never been to a sleep over camp and no one had ever been to rural Wisconsin.
In the middle of winter, I showed our 40 mostly from Latino and black children at our After School program the promo video for the Christian camp.
And because of my own racial blinders, I had completely forgot to check if there were any kids of color in the camp promo. Aaaaand, mid way through I realized the video was all white kids and all white counselors.
I could see the kids liked the idea of swimming, games, and singing around a camp fire. But there was an apprehension in the room.
At the end of the video one black 4th grader raised his hand, “Is this a camp for white people?”
Is this a camp for white people?! I asked myself. The video sure made it look like a camp for white people.
“This is a camp for everyone.” I said trying to sound confident
A Latino teen’s hand shot up, “Then how come I only see white people at the camp?”
“I am going to be there the whole time with you and it is gonna be really fun.” Hoping it was true.
I asked one of the white kids in the room to explain what summer camp was like.
We finally got 12 kids of color from church to agree to join our 20 white church kids at camp that summer. The camp graciously offered full scholarships to our children who could not afford the camp.
When we got to camp, my heart sank. Our kids were the only black or Latino kids. I spend the week helping navigate cultural differences. The white counselors had not spent a lot of time with urban kids of color, but they had a willingness to learn and sharpen their cross cultural skills. I made sure to reach out to the our families of color several times that week to ensure them that their kids were safe and well treated.
At dinner I told the camp director our kid’s response to their promo video. “They asked me if it was a camp for white people.” I held my breath and braced for a rant from a white rural guy. But he didn’t get defensive. Instead he immediately got proactive. “I’m sorry.” He said and he meant it. “I didn’t even think of that. We have to do better. I will have someone take video of your kids this week. And we will cut a more diverse video for next year.”
He made good on his promise. The next year our children were prominently featured in the camp promo video. The effect was palpable. Our students of color became cultural ambassadors for the camp, explaining how great camp was to a group of their peers. Most of whom had never been to a small town.
We signed up more kids and the camp graciously agreed to give out more scholarships for more of our children to come.
And for the last seven years I have watched the camp get more a more diverse. I watced their advertising begin to feature more kids of color – kids who didn’t go to our church!
Sign hanging outside the camp dining hall
I saw the camp make a point of seeking out counselors of color – some from out of state and some internationally. Dedicating staff and financial resources to make the camp more hospitable and welcoming to people from diverse background
The councelors began leading discussions about the importance of diversity and inclusion. The high school campers learned about overcoming systems of oppression, personal obstacles, and acknowledging privilege.
T-shirt from a white teenager at camp
I heard they had some hard conversations with the staff and board of directors about welcoming people of color and LGBTQ people.
And no w I was sitting on the beach watching a transformed camp. And that one week gave me so much hope. Because relationships are so often what break through stereotypes. there are 200 kids who are going to leave camp after a week of building relationships and learning to appreciate other people’s cultures. This is just a true for the kids from Trump supporting families as it is for the black kids who thought “camping was for white people.”
But these transformational changes don’t just happen on their own.
Change happens when leaders choose not to get defense and decide to get proactive. To shoot a more diverse new promo video & then do the hard work of finding and creating a cohesive diverse staff.
Change happens when the board of directors agrees to invest staffing and resources into new initiatives.
Change happens when community leaders make a commitment to remain engaged over several years.
Change happens when families of color courageously choose to engage rural towns and historically white (and often pretty racist) institutions.
Change happens when lifeguards choose to intentionally welcome all genders to the beach with “Okay, guys and gals and non-binary pals.”
There is still more work to be done. Representation is still needed in every level of the camp and the churches that send their children. But in those moments when we see the fruits of our labor we should remember to stay present and appreciate the hard work we have already done. Celebrate the change we are making right now in the hearts of the next generation.