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Faith & fun

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 27, 2005

As the morning light seeps through the trees, kids pour out of the woods onto a semicircle of benches and begin the Rah-Rah-Ray chapel service with an enthusiastic song, "Open the Eyes of My Heart."

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At Calumet Lutheran Camp in northern New Hampshire, this summer's theme is "Pray!" Every day brings a new way to ponder and live that theme, and this morning the campers consider "forgiving." What does it mean to forgive? Who is it hard to forgive? How do you get the yuckiness in your heart to go away after you've been wronged?

Boys and girls have something to say about that, about bullies, and about forgiving oneself, too. After more singing, it's off to a day full of activities, guided by counselors' practical reminders of the day's message.

Religious summer camp is a treasured tradition in many Christian and Jewish traditions. But in today's complex, fast-paced world, where sports regularly competes with the Sabbath, and children may shuttle from one divorced parent to another on alternate weekends, the camping experience promises benefits beyond the joys of good times and new friends.

It offers youngsters a more intense faith experience than sporadic Sunday School, church, or synagogue attendance may provide. And denominations themselves, many of which face serious clergy shortages, are finding that camp develops commitment and leadership skills that are spurring some young people to enter seminaries.

In seminaries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), some 65 to 70 percent of new students say their church camp experience was a key factor leading them to sense a call from God to be an ordained pastor. "That's a compelling statistic," says Don Johnson, Calumet's former director. "Seminaries are saying, 'Wow, what would happen if we were intentional about cultivating a relationship between camps and seminaries?' " Mr. Johnson has recently been hired by the three Lutheran seminaries in the Eastern US to do just that.

Other mainline Protestant denominations also recognize that camps are a potential feeder system and are taking similar tacks. "Our summer camps and junior- and senior-high events now offer an opportunity to explore Christian vocations in both clergy and lay ministries in the church," says the Rev. Kevin Witt of the board of discipleship of the United Methodist Church (UMC) in Nashville, Tenn.

Jewish commitment

In the Jewish community, camping stands out as one of the most promising means for building identity and sustaining religious commitment. Jewish population surveys have stirred deep concerns about rates of intermarriage and assimilation, but they also revealed that camps engender a strong sense of identity.

"We have a tremendous problem of losing people between the ages of 13 and 21, after their bar or bat mitzvah," says Rabbi Niles Goldstein, founder of the New Shul in Greenwich Village. "But the camping experience has been powerful, not just in terms of identity formation but also in cultivating lay and clerical leadership."

As a result, the Foundation for Jewish Camping was formed to increase the number of Jewish children who can have that opportunity.

"The secret is this powerful 24/7 experience that creates what I call 'wow' memories," says Jerry Silverman, foundation director. "From a faith standpoint, it doesn't matter what Jewish denomination you are, the right environment and culture of the camp create a celebration of religion in an informal way. It slowly oozes into the pores."

About 40 percent of US teens age 13 to 17 have attended a religious camp at least once, according to the recent National Study of Youth and Religion. Mormon teens are most likely to attend (78 percent), followed by conservative Protestants, mainline Protestants, and Jews (53, 48, and 43 percent, respectively).

Other world religions use the camp experience to teach American children of immigrants more about their faith. Camps for Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs are developing across the US. About 24 percent of non-Christian, non-Jewish youths have attended a religious summer camp.