Unitarian Universalist summer camps foster self-discovery, youth leadership, and a passion for justice.
Youth and adult leaders gather at the start of Camp Murray, a UU summer camp in Oklahoma, in June 2015. (Courtesy Rosemary Carson)
The beat-up wooden table just outside the main hall at Lake Murray State Park’s Group Camp 3 is covered with idle scribbles and carved messages that have blended into one another. The benches, low to the soggy ground, are still damp from the remnants of Tropical Storm Bill, which surged north from Texas just in time for Camp Murray 2015. It’s tough to tell where the moisture from the benches ends and the oppressive southern Oklahoma humidity begins.
Eight Unitarian Universalists—five teenagers and three adult advisers—are crammed together around the table to figure out how the youth camp’s programming can respond to news of the massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the night before. At this morning’s “spirit circle,” Rhea Brown-Bright, 17, and Michael E. Riggs, 18, the youth chaplains, read the victims’ names, but now the community needs more. It’s taken some time for the weight of the tragedy to sink in for the approximately fifty-five mostly white youth at Camp Murray, separated from the horror not only by miles but also by poor cell reception—and by culture.
“This killing was about white supremacy, and about hate,” says worship leader Cheyenne “Thy” Collins, 17. Adult co-chaplain Steven Williams and I make brief eye contact. Our shoulders relax, ever so slightly. It becomes clear that all five youth at the table want the community to see Charleston as more than an isolated incident.
Before Steven, a white man, and I, a black man, came to the table today, we talked about our shared hope that the youth leaders would push the larger community to talk about systemic racism—the system that nurtured a killer like Dylann Roof. At some camps the two of us, as adult leaders, would simply decide to hold a special assembly to talk about Charleston, to support the youth pastorally, and to help them see the larger framework. And tomorrow, as it turns out, Steven and I will lead a session on antiracism and white supremacy. In Camp Murray fashion, though, we are not the deciders—nor are our voices the most important ones. In UU youth ministry, advising comes down to how adults approach a simple, impossible question: “Is it our job to provide the right answers or ask the right questions?”
I have been at this table—this very table—before. A decade earlier, I sat here as a youth myself, a 17-year-old leader full of ideas and questions and possible answers. I attended five UU summer camps as a teenager, all here at Lake Murray State Park. I thought, then, that our adult advisers had all the answers but were nice enough to let us figure things out (mostly) on our own. Young adulthood routinely convinces me otherwise.
One youth at the table hasn’t said much today. But Luis Miguel Barajas, 18, a Camp Murray tri-dean, has been challenging fellow campers to understand racism more deeply already, through poems about his journey as a biracial, Latino youth exploring his gender identity and expression. I’m aware that the youth find it easier to use each other’s preferred pronouns—often “they” instead of the English language’s gendered “she” and “he”—than we adults do. Luis is okay with male pronouns at camp; a few months later, Luis will opt for “they.” But are the youth more ready to deepen their commitment to antiracism than I expect, too? It appears so.
Tomorrow night, Luis and I will sit here again.
“Luis Barajas.” Camp director Ann McDermott’s voice catches as she reads the name of the youth who, perhaps more than any other, embodies why she works, year after year, to ensure Camp Murray’s existence. The moment, long awaited (and dreaded), has come: Luis and the other seniors are about to “bridge” out of YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists, the district youth organization) and into young adulthood.
The sun is setting on the last night of camp. Luis steps forward and briefly addresses the community of over fifty youth and a dozen adult advisers. Ann, Cheyenne, Rhea, and four other teens who have journeyed with him flank Luis, present as friends and supporters. A gaggle of young adults, including some who have driven hours from as far as Austin, Texas, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are ready to welcome Luis and the other bridging youth.
Tears stream down most faces. In a few moments, Luis and the other bridgers will gather for “senior circle,” an old Murray tradition. “You have given me such treasures, / I love you so,” the seniors sing to each other—first slowly, then as loudly as they can. Camp Murray gave Luis, a biracial Latino from Oklahoma City’s south side, the treasure of space to explore his identity—even when the mostly white community didn’t quite know how to help.
“I came into YRUU as Louie. I’m leaving as Luis Miguel Barajas,” Luis tells me later that evening. It is not a shift Luis discusses lightly. “Louie and Luis are almost two different people. Louie was ashamed of his real name, of being Latino. Luis—me—I’m not.”
I laugh. We’re sitting at the table. It starts as an interview, but at some point, I put the pen down and we just start talking. Luis wants to know about my experience as a youth and, now, young adult UU of color. Our paths are not identical, yet the common ground strikes us both.
Luis first attended Camp Murray in 2013. White youth and adults struggled to pronounce his full name. “People kept saying to me, ‘Well, you know, whites face racism, too.’” Luis said he worked hard to appear friendly and play down his Latino identity. “It was a friendly space in some ways, but they initially didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t know what to do with me, either.”
I feel that, and tell him so. We talk late into the evening, when the breeze off the lake finally cools things down a bit.
Yesterday, Luis and the other four youth leaders decided at this table that what the community needed was a youth-led remembrance of the Charleston victims, with song, followed by Steven and me leading an antiracism training and discussion.
Both conversations at the table—the eight of us on Thursday, Luis and I on Friday—have asked the same thing of me as an adviser. The youth want something less than answers, but something more than a passive “you got this.” They want nuance, or a greater context filled in. I hear them saying, “Help us understand what’s going on, in a larger way.”
Unitarian Universalist summer youth camps are diverse, like siblings: often similar in appearance (though not always), yet driven by distinct purposes and histories. The air is different in each place—arguably too thin in Colorado, undeniably too thick in southern Oklahoma. Late-night conversations and imperfections and exhaustion and supportive advisers are ubiquitous.
A week later, hundreds of miles north and west of Camp Murray, I find myself sitting at another table. It’s just past 8 in the morning in Winter Park, Colorado. The shirts, which read “Oklahoma Sooners” or “Arkansas Razorbacks” at Camp Murray, are, up here, hoodies representing the Colorado State Rams and the Wyoming Cowboys. Temperatures, which neared 100 in Oklahoma, approach 40 at night in Winter Park. The high school camp of Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, where I serve as director of faith formation, hosts twenty-five campers in its ninth year.
Camp directors Melissa Bishop and Joe Francis sit across from me as the Fraser River roars past, mere feet away from the table. The campers are starting their day. One small team has breakfast prep duty. The pace of the morning is slow: the night before was full of emotion, as the bridging seniors passed the torch, metaphorically and physically, to the rising seniors. Taylor Cullom, 18, concluded her farewell speech by saying, “Camp is a second home. Cherish this place. Cherish it, cherish it, cherish it.”
Everyone at Prairie’s camp follows Taylor’s advice for the remaining days of camp. “We’ve worked hard to build a different culture here. There aren’t put-downs and there’s less judging here,” Joe says. The emotion in his voice makes it plain that such cultural norms have not come by accident.
And what a difference those norms make. At dinner, I talk to Alia Clark-Elsayed, 16. Alia joined Prairie’s youth group less than a year ago, and she’s already a leader. Alia credits Melissa, Taylor, and other older girls and women advisers for helping her feel welcome. “This church and camp have helped me center myself,” she says. I watch how she reaches out to others: an encouraging word here, listening intently there. Alia gently teases a fellow camper before checking in with another who seems a bit down. Leadership, like youth camp, takes many forms.
Ninety miles and a few mountain passes away, my UU youth summer camp journey continues a few weeks later. Nearly 100 youth and adults are singing feverishly in the main cabin of Camp Buckhorn in Bellvue, Colorado, at the annual QUUest camp for youth from the UUA’s Mountain Desert District.
At QUUest, the setting—8,000 feet above sea level, tucked into the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains—helps center attendees. Cell phones barely work. Worship services fluctuate between quiet reflection and boisterous song. Youth, with adult guidance, plan the services. It’s been a tumultuous week of camp already, and the week isn’t over.
I’ve been invited up to QUUest to lead the camp in antiracism and intersectionality work. Some members of this predominately white youth community have marched along Denver’s Colfax Avenue for racial justice and wonder how else they might join the movement for black lives. They are looking for answers—and I’ve come to them with more questions, and some challenges.
“Do Unitarian Universalists have an obligation to fight for racial justice?” I ask. The room quiets. Many have been raised to believe some version of “UUs can believe whatever we want.” The notion feels less true than ever, one youth says, in the wake of anti-Muslim rhetoric and challenges to same-sex marriage. But obligated? That’s a tough word for us.
I think we are obligated, but it’s not my job to force-feed them the answer. They have to find it—and the group does, but through song, not discussion. The refrain from the civil rights song “Eyes on the Prize”—“the one thing we did right / was the day we started to fight”—erupts from some teens’ voices like a battle cry; for others, eyes closed, the words are a mantra for self. Many teens have closed their eyes, as if steeling themselves for struggles to come. “Keep your eyes on the prize. / Hold on.”
After the racial justice workshop I talk at length with Morgan Day, 18, the camp’s senior worship coordinator. Morgan, who is white, talks with me about ways sexism and racism intersect, both internally and in public spaces. She also tells me about pivotal moments in the course of her five years at UU youth events when fellow community members—youth and adults alike—helped her come into her own as a leader. She especially holds up a moment when longtime adviser and former camp director Eric Bliss helped her find her way. “Eric took the time at camp a couple years ago to tell me my leadership was working—and to keep going. To keep working.”
Jessica Laike, director of faith formation at High Plains UU Church in Colorado Springs, tells me at QUUest that advisers, at our best, provide “youth empowerment within a framework.” At UU youth camps, youth and advisers come together, huddling around tables and gathering in circles to sing, dance, laugh, challenge each other, grow, lead, and follow. The transaction is not clear, as it is in school. If the mission is faith formation, or identity development, then the path is not a direct line to understanding. My Unitarian Universalist faith identity is not formed, but forming.
Our task is, perhaps, to sit together at the old, wooden table, youth and adults together, and explore the questions that matter. Perhaps our task is to laugh together, and explore together, and sing together, not as peers, exactly, but as people of faith, together.
At Camp Murray’s bridging ceremony, the community sings, “I wanna linger / a little longer.” The seniors weep, for the end of camp can feel like the end of the story. They are, indeed, saying farewell—to childhood, to a nurturing community, and to their present reality. I bridged out of YRUU in 2007, thinking I was saying goodbye.
Yet the table lingers a little longer, by a lake in Oklahoma and a river in Colorado and a hundred other places, waiting for new advisers and other adult mentors to share in the conversation, this Unitarian Universalist faith adventure. The table lingers a little longer, hoping—as we age and learn and grow and deepen our faith—that we will, too.
Find a UU summer camp, conference, or training program for you or a young person you care about: UUA.org/re/youth/events
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
Kenny Wiley was a UU World senior editor from 2015 to 2018. His writing has also appeared in the Boston Globe, the Houston Chronicle, and Skyd Magazine.
Song in my soul
With Unitarian Universalist youth communities this past summer, I sang—to grieve and to celebrate.