I’ve been trying to write about camp. This is not easy. It’s hard to describe the adults who are Deaf with additional disabilities, most of whom live in group homes. Years ago, Carol Stevens and Peggy Johnson moved mountains to set up a week long camp just for them, where everyone would use ASL and the only goal was to show them that they are loved. That crazy idea, to share RADICAL LOVE, I have seen how it has transformed people, most of all myself. I refer to these incredible people as campers, which for me is a term not of respect, but of the sacred. They are so incredibly vulnerable and largely ignored by our society. To me, they are everything.
I worked at church on Sunday. There is a Methodist church close to where some of the campers live. It’s one of those giant stone churches with a huge slate roof, stained glass, and a ton of Sunday School rooms. Only now, like so many churches the membership rolls have tapered down to a handful of faithful.
I get nervous anytime the folks who go to camp enter a new environment, ESPECIALLY a place with lots of Hearing people who have different expectations about how to behave in certain situations. Some people are uncomfortable around the men and women who come to camp, their funny laughs, the things they get angry about, the things that make them shout and clap their hands… I just find them incredibly honest. They have no filter. They tell you precisely how they feel about any given topic at any given time.
G- is particularly famous at this. Once she led a prayer that asked for people to make it home safely driving through the snow, and the Eagles to win, and that she could go shopping with Marshall’s gift cards, a beautiful dress maybe, and did you know that Rocky is her favorite movie? The Italian Stallion. Somewhere in that hodgepodge is her fervent prayer, along with all the other things she is juggling. Yes, it is funny, but it is entirely sincere. When theologians talk about meeting people regardless of where they are on their walk of faith, that is where she is. Her faith and her daily activities are all the same thing. I wish I could say the same.
I can honestly say, the folks at this church, they LOVE these campers. They have welcome them and accept them and have tried to learn a bit of ASL. The time during the service where you are asked to stand and greet your neighbor, I have been to churches where that takes about 74 seconds. People stand, they put on their Church Smile and they give a Queen of England finger handshake of the person to their right, the person to their left, and then they sit right back down. Not these folks. They get up and they loop around. They take time. They make time. The Hearing folks come around to the front where the campers sit and they give them huge hugs. The sign “Good Morning!”. They smile and they nod and they shower love on them. They welcome them as they are. They don’t care if they get up to go to the bathroom 10 times during a service. They don’t care if they wear their pajamas, or Phillies gear, or camp tshirts.
I’ve seen the difference it’s made.
Once Pastor Cindy stood and asked, “Who would like to serve communion?” and one woman in the front row, Deaf, in her 60’s, uses a walker, she immediately popped up and made her way. Now, she always hops up. She LOVES to hold the bread or cup. Once she told me, “They can’t have church without me.”
This last Sunday there was the usual mad scramble at the end. Hey, there was fellowship hour down by the library, lots of goodies there, summer fruit, danish, coffee, punch…
Sometimes the folks who come to camp are caught up in their own world. They often seem indifferent to the person they may share an apartment with, or a car ride to church on Sundays. But sometimes, they show a kindness that just blows me away.
At the end of the service Pastor Cindy announced about the fellowship hour, the food, the drinks, and the resource available every Sunday at the end of every service, “If you need prayer, we are here.”
I made a point of high fiving and or hugging each friend who had come. Then I came to M-. M- is older black woman and always always nodding and sweet. This morning she hugged me and held on tight. She held on a long time. Inside my heart I knew something was wrong. I held her even tighter.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My knees,” she said, “they hurt so bad, I can’t sleep at night, I’m not steady on my feet anymore, I hobble about and get dizzy.”
We stepped to the front of the church.
Tracie came over, she is a black woman, younger than M-. Tracie served as Lay Leader that morning. But I think Tracie serves in a way that is so much more than that. Tracie took a day off to wake early in the morning and drive the 2+ hours to come to camp. She spent a day with everyone. She helped with their arts and crafts, helped them make costumes, she ate meals alongside them, she showed them that they matter to her. She stayed for their drama and left after dark, still facing a 2+ hour drive home.
I know what it means to take an entire day off to come to camp. I also know that the next day Tracie must have felt run over by a bulldozer. Camp is long long days with lots of fun but it is exhausting.
I also know what taking the time to come to a Deaf space, a space made only for camp, to step into a space where you don’t know the language or the customs, but you come anyway with an open mind and open heart, I know what that means to these guys.
Tracie put on her serious face. M- explained about her knees, her pain, her suffering.
I stood there and watched as Tracie knelt down on her knees before M- and placed one palm on each knee. M- put her hands together in prayer.
Then I watched as L-, ML-, G- doubled back. They had been making their way toward the fellowship hour and the watermelon and zucchini bread and the punch but they turned around and came back, even with a walker and a cane, they doubled back wobbling with their steps to come to their friend and each placed their hands on M-‘s shoulders.
G- began to pray.
“God, help her to feel better.
Maybe by next week Sunday.
I’ll make a card.
I’ll make a card and write, ‘feel better.’
I stood there, a convinced Quaker, and marveled at the whole notion of prayer for healing. I stood there, tears running down my face and feeling my own heart healing.
We can be good to one another.