Finding Jesus at Summer Camp

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From Michael, a reader who teaches at an evangelical Christian university:

I just read your series, forwarded from Editor & Publisher, about important religious choices. Mine was in 1973. It was the height of the Jesus Movement. There were hippies all over the country. Some of them were making music.

From that link, here’s a song from 1973 by Malcolm and Alwyn called “Fool's Wisdom,” off their debut album of the same name, “One of the finest spiritual works of musical art to come out of the period”:

Back to Michael:

I was a kid from a western suburb of Chicago from a mixed-ethnicity home. Religion in our home reflected that split. My Dad had come to Chicago from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II and, having grown up Russian Orthodox, had been thrust into the Russian Baptist tradition by his parents. He didn’t much like it. My Mom, whose parents came to Chicago from Mexico in the 1920s, had been raised Roman Catholic. She didn’t like Baptists either.

But that summer of 1973, my Dad’s parents paid for me to go to a Baptist teen camp near Holland, Michigan. And it was there I made the decision that’s changed my life.

I knew God was out there, somewhere, as I grew up. I knew it from having been taken to church since I’d been born. I knew it from the music and programming on WMBI, the radio voice of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.

So one night, a preacher told all us teens that the time for decision had come. Many of us, he said, had been fooling around the edges of what we knew had to be a firm commitment to following Jesus Christ with all the passion of our young souls. I’d mocked kids who acted like churchy geeks. I came to this camp feeling somehow above all these scrubbed church kids.

Yet that night I knelt on that pine floor and, with teenage impulsiveness, said to God, “Okay, okay. You’ve been after me. I’m done running. Take me if you want me.” He did. I felt it.

And it was like the lights turned on. Suddenly all that churchy talk made sense. The kids who seemed so stupid before were looking smarter. I was a changed person. I had a lot yet to figure out about who I was, what life was all about, what it means to follow God in a mixed-up world.

I boarded a bus back to Chicagoland a few days later and knew my life wouldn’t be the same. I’ve been living out that decision ever since.

I teach journalism now, and I’ve been at it for 26 years after a brief career in daily newspaper work. My calling isn’t just to teach students how to excel in the craft (my students have landed at the AP, L.A. Times, Orange County Register, and broadcast media all over the country.) No, my task is bigger. I teach students about how to figure out how to hear God’s voice like I did on that wooden tabernacle floor.

Update from a reader who went to a Christian camp right in the same area:

My first summer camp was very near St. Joseph [about 50 miles from Holland], on the west coast of Michigan on Lake Michigan. Went from age 9 to age 14 to two Congregational Church summer camps—Camp Warren and Pilgrim Haven. That was 65 years ago—I am 72—and I am thankful for those wonderful years. God entered my life and that still small voice has guided me all these years. And it still does whenever I go there and watch the sunset.