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."
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.
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.
After Calumet's morning outdoor chapel, campers head back to more intimate "discovery" sessions with cabinmates on the day's theme and how it touches their lives. The teenage boys in Tent 2 are charged with planning an evening chapel service on forgiving to round out the day. Gathering with Bibles around a picnic table, they review Jesus' teachings on forgiveness, and, amid jostling and banter, design a skit involving contemporary superheroes.
Down at Lake Ossipee, girls write their sins in the sand and see them vanish as the water, signifying God's forgiveness, laps in and washes them away. Then it's time for swimming, crafts, or sports of their choice.
Calumet's counselors are trained in leadership skills and in bringing biblical values to bear throughout the daily activities.An annual theme and curriculum are put together by the ELCA for all Lutheran camps.
"The whole point of Calumet is proving God is everywhere around us and should be in your everyday life," says Haley Andreozzi of Warwick, R.I., who has come here since 1998, first as a camper and now as a counselor.
Attending a church that has few kids, she hadn't connected with her faith community. But her first counselor made a big impact, and she hopes to do the same for others.
"I've been able to be myself here, a lot more than at home," says Ms. Andreozzi, who sports a nose ring and other jewelry. She's also been able to ask whatever questions she's had about faith, and found "tons of kids who aren't scared to talk about God." This fall she'll begin environmental studies at the University of Rhode Island, and may minor in theology.
Meanwhile, two weeks of valuable counselor experience await her at an urban day camp in Hartford, Conn. Calumet cycles counselors through three urban camps it runs each summer, and also brings special education children right into the main camp program, says Karin Schiller, associate camp director.
Pat Maguire, a high school junior from Medfield, Mass., is in leadership training to be a counselor. Along with the "awesome friendships" he's developed, he says camp has "completely changed the way I've thought about certain things: I don't take situations into my own hands now, but ask God for help."
This summer, Calumet's leadership training program includes regular sessions with Carl Sharon, Lutheran pastor at Yale University, in which the young people are exploring questions they most want to pose to God.
It was in such sessions a few years ago that Sara Wilson first considered becoming a pastor. She was so shy when she arrived at Calumet at age 13, she says, that she looked at the ground and didn't talk to people. But that changed quickly, and three years later, during counselor training, she delved deeply into the Bible and talked with visiting chaplains. After hearing her first woman pastor preach at camp, she decided to study religion in college.
"Calumet is completely responsible for my going into ministry and seminary," she says in a phone interview from Emanuel Lutheran Church in Hartford, Conn. After two years at Gettysburg Seminary, she's now an intern. "I'm doing everything - preaching, teaching, doing home and hospital visits."
TyLacy Sims was a high school sophomore working part time at her rural Methodist church in Wisconsin when she first heard the call to the ministry. Working as a counselor at UMC's Lake Lucerne Camp in central Wisconsin strengthened her conviction that this was the right direction.
"Being able to work with kids of all ages, adults, and my peers, and seeing I can communicate clearly and display leadership skills in prayer, worship, Bible study, really strengthened the call," she says. "I learned, too, that I could deal with confrontations in a tactful, reasonable manner." Ms. Sims enters University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa this fall.
Thriving summer camps serve as the core of broader outdoor ministry programs in several denominations. Calumet operates a family camp and retreats year-round.
"It's a retreat center, not just a camp. It helps fulfill our goals of faith formation and leadership development," explains Bishop Margaret Payne of the ELCA's New England Synod.