I left in search of the auditorium, to watch some teenagers rehearsing a play they would perform that night. Along the way, I was approached by 10-year-old Genevieve Van Camp of Boynton Beach, Florida, pen in hand, on a break from a water-balloon game her group was playing.
“I’m taking a survey. Do you like apple pie or pumpkin pie?”
I couldn’t decide, but we chatted long enough for her to spill the beans that her father, David Van Camp (who attends the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Boca Raton), and his Gospel Glee Club would hold a surprise performance at lunch. I added that to my don’t-miss list.
Turning a corner, I happened upon a dozen enthusiastic folks from teen- to middle age taking turns practicing slacklining, the tightrope-like balance practice.
The leader, Mina Greenfield, who lives in Kensington, Maryland, and is affiliated with River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, told me she was surprised by how quickly her workshop had filled up. She also told me how relieved she was to be teaching it at all.
“I’m currently going through chemotherapy, so I’m really happy to be here,” she said with a big smile.
With her eyes on a student tensely teetering on the nylon webbing tied between two trees, Greenfield shouted out, “Bren, are you remembering to breathe?” They both laughed and inhaled dramatically.
I hightailed it to the auditorium to find the stage filled with teens doing a lighting walk-through. Dashing out, I reached the cacophonous cafeteria just in time to catch the twenty-three-voices-strong glee club, clad in orange T-shirts and ranging in age from teens to 60s. Diners and cafeteria workers smiled and clapped as the group belted out their own rendition of “I’m Hooked on a Feeling.”
When you hold me in your arms so tight,
You let me know everything’s alright.
I . . .’m hooked on SUUSI.
For you “nuubies,” as you’d be called here, that’s pronounced sue-see, and stands for the weeklong Southeast UU Summer Institute, held at Radford University in the foothills of Virginia’s Appalachians. And, yes, people really do get hooked. The sixty-third SUUSI, held last July, drew 1,154 participants, about 80 percent of them return visitors, many several times over, and some for decades. The majority hail from the East Coast (though states nationwide are represented), and about 85 percent of attendees report a congregation affiliation. The pre-civil-rights-era SUUSI aimed to grow a liberal religion in the South, but these days the location is more convenience than purpose.
I’d parachuted in midweek to get a taste of what goes on at the second-largest UU gathering behind the Unitarian Universalist Association’s annual General Assembly. What I found was an exuberant village of all ages, sizes, sexual orientations, and personalities, blending and reblending as if in a kaleidoscope, colorful and bright, with points of overlap drawing from family, a history of friendships, shared experiences, and liberal thinking.
Organizationally, SUUSI operates as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) with an annual budget of about $550,000 and an all-volunteer board and staff, plus hundreds of other helpers, who run a remarkably well-organized, tech-savvy, and convivial operation. Current director and sixteen-year SUUSI-goer Lindsay Bennett-Jacobs of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who planned her pregnancy last year around SUUSI and considers it her spiritual community, said the group is the “healthiest and most robust volunteer organization I’ve ever been a part of.”
While GA focuses on congregational and denominational leadership, SUUSI, as with many UU camps, is more about fun and personal growth. Through nature outings, music, workshops ranging from theatrical to theological, worship services, late-night entertainment, and spontaneous conversations in dorm halls, the members of this intentional community create an experience that feels like a high-octane, thinking-person’s family camp. But for SUUSI-goers, it’s so much more.
“The beauty and the defining characteristic of SUUSI is that almost as soon as you walk onto the campus and into the community, there’s this feeling of being able to be yourself, of being safe, no longer needing to keep up your guard,” said the Rev. Bill Gupton, author of the 2013 book Remember the Feeling: A History of the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute, which SUUSI funded. “We basically bring the best of Unitarian Universalism into our life for the week. We’re all about community.”
Gupton, the Institute’s historian and minister at Heritage Universalist Unitarian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, has attended since 1982 and met his wife, Jennifer Sanders, at SUUSI. The couple was here with thirteen other members of their extended family.
Those kinds of family reunions are commonplace. The first person I struck up a conversation with was Carol Robbins Hull of Montgomery, Alabama, who had attended the mountain gathering in 1967, when it was held in North Carolina. A decade later, she returned with her son Jay Camp. Later, when Gupton was the teen director, he took Camp under his wing. “I actually contacted the youth directors last year and thanked them for helping to rear my child,” said Hull, who attends the UU Fellowship of Montgomery. “I really give them credit for how he developed.”
Hull herself returned five years ago, after her husband died.
“Even though I had friends at home, this felt like the safest place to come on my own. It’s both spiritual and about community.”
As I spoke with Hull, Camp, who lives in Austin, Texas, listened in. Also at the table were his wife, Torie, their two sons and a daughter, and Torie’s two brothers.
“SUUSI cost me a summa cum laude,” interjected Camp, affiliated with First UU Church of Austin. “All my professors but one were cool about me missing a week of summer school. He gave me a B.” He glanced at his wristwatch and stood up. “Oops. My van is leaving for Dismal Falls.”
Camp sped off to help lead an outing for 8- to-10-year-olds, a hike along the Appalachian Trail to Dismal Falls, where water cascades down multiple ledges of the 15-foot-high falls. An adult “silent” version was offered on another day.
Nature trips, which come with nominal fees above the cost of tuition, are for many a huge part of SUUSI’s appeal. The nature staff last year tested, organized, and volunteered on nearly 100 outings, ranging from a family-friendly cookout and tubing down the New River to a hardcore cave climb and rappel at Pig Hole Cave.
The outing I had hoped to join, a kayaking course that included Class II rapids, turned out to be full. I typically avoid any rapids, but I found myself wanting to test my limits in such a nurturing environment. That sentiment was echoed by several people I contacted after SUUSI.
Karen Wood, for instance, who is legally blind, devoted much of her fifth SUUSI to the outdoors, going on seven nature trips, including hiking and kayaking.
“I intend to live my life to the fullest,” said Wood, a member of the UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland. “SUUSI helps to make that possible in a big way.”
For nature staffer Betsi McGrath, a member of Bull Run UUs in Manassas, Virginia, who led a group of volunteer guides out of a tight spot on a trial run of a hike they later deemed too dangerous to offer, the episode led to facing a fear in her personal life. “After that harrowing experience, where I found the way out, I thought, I can’t continue in the same path in life. I have to have the courage to move forward.” Shortly after returning home, she finally told her three young-adult children she is a lesbian.
Limit-pushing at SUUSI comes in many forms. A few people told me that initiating conversations with strangers was a stretch, while others challenged themselves onstage. Some moved beyond their comfort zone in workshops, like Stacie Vecchietti, a member of the UU Community Church in Glen Allen, Virginia, with whom I spoke as she hunched over a sewing machine to stitch a small art quilt she created in “Spiritual Expression in Fabric.” She later said, “Sometimes I was almost weeping because I was so far out of my element in this class, but I could do it because folks were cheering me on. At one point, while I was sewing on my tree, I was so excited that I yelled out to everybody, ‘I’m sewing, y’all!’”
Because I attended SUUSI as an observer and hadn’t signed up for anything in advance, I was invited to drop in on a delicious stew of activities, including beer tasting, jazz singing, a tie-dye class, an ultimate Frisbee game, a juggling course, toenail painting, and more. I also enjoyed several worship services—they’re conducted in the morning and the afternoon by a rotating list of ministers—which helped to ground me after so much stimulation.
I’d heard that music held a special place at SUUSI, but the sheer number of listening opportunities at any hour, and their quality and range, were impressive. Thursday night was a high point, featuring first the teenage School of Rock and then the 40-somethings’ Old School of Rock, both accompanied by light shows, guitar solos, and screaming fans—myself included.
Some performers are perennial favorites, such as the Rev. Amy Carol Webb, a singer-songwriter from Miami Springs, Florida, whose invitation to play at the Institute in 1999 led to her ordination, years later, as a UU minister.
“I started timing my new CDs to be ready by SUUSI,” said Webb, consulting minister to River of Grass UU Congregation in Davie, Florida. “It’s kind of like bringing the new baby to the family reunion.”
Webb is known not only for her advocacy-tinged sermons and her fine music and singing, but also for her popular workshop “Empower Your Voice.”
“It’s not about singing per se, it’s about who we are, made audible, and how important each person’s voice is to the transformation of our world.”
A couple weeks after SUUSI, I read a moving story involving Webb written by slacklining teacher Mina Greenfield on the blog she started last spring after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Greenfield has been attending the institute for two decades, since she was 18, and calls it the “beacon of my year, where I take stock and am reminded of the person I strive to be.”
While waiting during various medical procedures, she would sing Webb’s song “With You Without You” and imagine a map of her “SUUSI tribe members” scattered across the country.
I am with you even when I am without you.
From afar I feel everything about you.
Be still and you will feel my arms around you. For I am with you even when I am without you.
One afternoon, Webb brought her guitar to Greenfield’s room and played “With You Without You.” “My holiest moment of the week, to hear the song that I had sung to myself to help me cope, sung to me,” Greenfield wrote. “I curled up in my chair, armed with a box of Kleenex, and wept while she sang.”
That Greenfield first attended SUUSI as a teenager and continues to value it is not unusual here, where teens (14 through 17) hold a special status that leaves a mark on many.
During a guided tour through the teen dorm (no unescorted adults allowed), I laughed when I read the “evening” schedule, which included a 1 a.m. check-in followed by a 2 a.m. run to the 7-Eleven across the street. (Young adults and the older “medians” also keep a night-owl schedule, which might include the post-midnight outdoor “BBQuusi.”)
Thursday evening worship always includes memorials, baby dedications, and “teen bridging”—a “big-hankie service,” as Gupton described it.
The spotlight shines brightest on teens at TWOB, or Teen Way Off Broadway, a musical held on the final evening and so popular it’s performed twice to accommodate the crowds.
I’d met one of the cast members, 15-year-old Taylor Noll of the UU Fellowship of Fredericksburg, Virginia, earlier in the week during afternoon Community Time, where folks of all ages mingle on the lawn. “It’s a really great time,” she said while overseeing the Slip‘N Slide for the younger set. “But if you’re in the teen dorm, you practically never sleep. We rehearse about three hours a day and all day on Friday.”
Their hard work paid off in The Fifty-second Week. With an original script focusing on teen life at SUUSI, the 75-minute production was entertaining, thought-provoking, and moving—a perfect final-night activity.
So what does someone “hooked on SUUSI” do the other fifty-one weeks of the year? Fans seek out “decompression parties,” where SUUSI-goers gather to share photos, trade stories, and count down to next year. They find each other through SUUSI Facebook pages and the “Mugbook,” a photo and address directory impressively compiled, printed, and distributed midweek. One group of SUUSI-connected women calling themselves the River Nymphs travel together throughout the year.
For David Scheidt, a twenty-three-year SUUSI veteran who attends Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina, and met his wife at the 1996 gathering, the life-changing antidote to SUUSI withdrawal came to him over time.
“When I first starting coming to SUUSI, I met people so sparkly and uninhibited and creative and full of life. I was overjoyed to see it was possible, but I thought I could never be there. Then I got to know them in more complex ways, and over time I found that I had that in me, too,” he said, his eyes moistening. “Now I have this incredible reserve of good feelings I can summon, not just at SUUSI, but anytime.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (page 32-36). Photograph (above): Children take to the river in inner tubes at SUUSI, the largest intergenerational gathering of Unitarian Universalists, in Virginia (Selina Kok).
- SUUSI: Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute. Largest UU family camp, each July in Virginia. (suusi.org)