by Kelly Wilson
The summer after my first year in college, I didn’t tend bar, backpack through Europe, or even join a rock band.
Instead, I found myself lost in the wilderness.
It wasn’t my idea to work as a camp counselor with underprivileged kids from Brooklyn and the Bronx. A theater friend gave me the idea in the college pub one night.
She told me about a sprawling Lutheran camp where she had spent summers since she was a kid. It was 1,200 acres of mountains, lakes, and forest, tucked away up in the Catskills.
She told me a little about the kids—that they were tough but that I would be great with them—but it wasn’t the altruism of helping children in need that inspired me to go.
After the excesses of my freshman year, including many challenges to my faith, both philosophical and practical, the woods seemed like a good place to clear my head.
I told her I was in.
We started with 2 weeks of “training.” This was when the counselors, adorned in flannel and hemp and earnestness, learned to splint broken arms and navigate nighttime trails by the light of the stars, when we hiked supplies up the mountain and pitched tents on the hillside, when we talked about God and other heavy things around campfires we built ourselves.
The days were punctuated by devotional services in open-air chapels that dotted the camp. Our first Sunday service was in the Chapel of the Pines, nestled in a clearing at the edge of a cliff, overlooking a deep green pine-filled valley. The hewn log “pews” all faced toward the cliff’s edge, where the minister stood.
When it came time to pray, a remarkable thing happened. The pastor, in hiking boots and a baseball cap, didn’t close his eyes and lift his voice to heaven. He didn’t even look up. To my surprise, he turned his back to the congregation and started praying straight forward, right out into the trees.
It was a transformative moment. As someone who had grown up thinking of God far off, away from all the dirt and grime of this world, I had never imagined God right down here, strolling around in his garden.
If that insight were all I got from the whole summer, it would have been enough.
But then came the kids.
Once the first busload arrived, the romance gave way to full-on work. It was 2 weeks of kids, all day and all night, followed by a weekend of too much beer and not enough recharging, then another 2-week marathon of kids. Repeat.
These kids were hard. Many of them had seen things I couldn’t even imagine—abandonment, poverty, violence. It aged them. Seven-year-old boys walked and talked like old men preaching from the corner of the bar.
There were kids whose sleeping bags I’d have to wash every day because they wet the bed every night. Kids making aggressive sexual comments to each other and even the adults. Language so foul you couldn’t play it on TV. One kid who never slept, but would just start commenting on the world from his bunk in the middle of the night.
The worst were the fights. Who knows what battles some of these kids had to wage in their normal lives. But as a counselor, my job was to keep them safe and healthy, so the fighting had to stop.
One kid wanted to prove he was tougher than the rest. He picked new fights every day. First I asked him to stop, then I told him, then I threatened, then I yelled.
I felt the temptation to do what generations of elders had done before me, which was just to smack him and make him to obey. But I had gotten it into my head that I was going to be the voice of nonviolence. I was going to imitate the Jesus of justice, not the Jesus of judgment.
One day, this kid jumped another boy on a hike to the mess hall. I yanked him off the other kid’s back, and asked the other counselors to watch my kids for a minute. Alone on the trail, I told this kid that it was my job to protect these kids. If he had a beef with somebody, he was going to have to go through me.
He took a swing, and I let him. I let him just wail on me. He wasn’t hurting me. He wasn’t that big. But it still made me mad. It triggered that thing in me that wanted to just lash out and make him stop. But I just kept my hands at my side, and told him over and over again it wasn’t going to make any difference until we talked about it.
I thought of that God out there through the trees, and hoped that he would help give me the strength to be still.
Finally the kid wore himself out, and I sent him to dinner. I stayed in the woods, batting fallen branches against the tree trunks until I was ready to come back.
When the kids loaded up on the bus at the end of each session, it wasn’t like the movies. Nobody hugged me and said he’d always remember me. I was just another guy telling them what to do.
I wondered if one of them might think to talk himself out of a situation someday instead of fighting. But maybe not. Where they were going, many of them needed to fight.
No, the biggest transformation was mine. My sojourn in the wilderness gave me more than I expected: not only a new way of looking at God and myself, but the sense that I might never, ever know the effect of my well-meaning actions, even though I must do them anyway.
And with those tools deep in my heart, I was ready to go back to the real world.
Kelly Wilson is a writer, blogger, advertising professional, and member of the production staff at the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in New York City. His writing website is www.kellywilson.me.
image by Jon White