ECC Bridge Camp 2016

By: Charles Cowen

I am a fiercely independent person. I like to take care of myself, and I don't like to ask for help. I take great pride in doing good work, and I do it on my own. Even when I was in school, I used to dread group projects. I never trusted anyone else in the group to do the project in a way that upheld my personal standards, and I usually ended up either doing all the work myself or clashing with other leader types in the class. I help me. Look out for number one before you step in number two, as a friend of mine once put it.

Of course, when I only worry about myself or try to solve all my problems on my own, it becomes abundantly clear how inept I am when it comes to survival. I suspect that I am not alone in this. Over and over the Bible talks about communities: the people of Israel, the disciples of Jesus, the host of heavenly creatures. God created us all in community, and we do best in that community. I got an excellent example of this in last week's Bridge Camp.

Bridge Camp is a camp where teenagers sign up to be "helper campers" to a group of "bridge campers" with special needs. The helper campers come a day early to do a pretty intense training with professionals in the field of serving those with special needs, and then we have three days with our bridge campers. The bridge campers have special needs ranging from those with autism who only need some slight guidance to campers who are non-verbal and unable to care for themselves in any way without the help of another person. Some had sight impairment, some cognitive impairment, some had physical limitations, some could get easily over-stimulated, and every single one is a beloved child of God.

The greatest thing about Bridge Camp is that everyone can be themselves. If a camper with autism started making loud noises during church, no one gave them the stink eye. We just knew that that camper needed to make some noise, and we let them. If a camper with autism had difficult social skills and repeated themselves over and over, we didn't get annoyed with them. We just knew that that was one way they communicated, and we listened patiently. There was no judgement and no annoyance. Just love and acceptance.

When I think about my own fierce independence and need to take care of myself, I marvel at these campers who so readily accept the help they need. I also was deeply moved to see how selflessly the helper campers gave of themselves to care for their bridge camper. Every single helper camper went out of their way to make sure that their bridge camper had the best experience they could have, and I was particularly moved by the helpers who worked with campers that needed assistance with everything they do. Some of the bridge campers could not feed themselves or get around without assistance and couldn't do simple human things like take a shower or go to the bathroom on their own.

Think about that for a moment. Teenagers gave up a week of their precious summer vacation to help a person with special needs come to camp. They gladly served that person in some of their most personal moments by helping them bathe and go to the toilet. (I should add that they all had to complete safe church training and special needs training and were supervised by adults trained in the field of caring for others.) Watching those helpers with their campers was an incredible experience of servant ministry--of loving without exception and giving fully of themselves.

When we were doing our training about self-care for bridge campers, Meaghan, our camp director, said something that really stuck with me: "You might think it's awkward to help someone bathe or go to the toilet, but it's all they have ever known. That's their experience of the world." I think about myself in that situation. If I was in a position, as all of us could be, where I could not bathe myself or get to the toilet on my own, what would I do? Would my pride get in my way and cause me to self-destruct? What if no one showed me the incredible love that our teenage campers showed to their bridge campers.

You see, I think one of the great gifts that our bridge campers have is that they know that they are dependent upon others for their survival. In the words of the great Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, "I have always depended upon the kindness of strangers." The rest of us think that we are independent, but really we all need each other. It's the South African idea of Ubuntu. The notion that our humanness depends completely on others. We are all interconnected. I am because we are.

One of my favorite moments of Bridge Camp came during the talent show. One of our bridge campers on the autism spectrum was performing a song and dance number on the stage. Those of us in the audience were clapping and cheering her on when another bridge camper who has Down Syndrome started dancing wildly in front of the stage. I spent a decade as a professional performer, and if someone were to upstage me like that, I would have been furious. I was debating whether or not to go ask the dancing bridge camper to sit down until it was her turn, when something incredible happened. The performer on the stage came to the edge, held out her hand, and helped her fellow camper up onto the stage. The solo act spontaneously became a duet. It was a beautiful, humbling, joyous, Jesus moment. Whereas I would have been annoyed, this bridge camper had the foresight to see that the act was better when they performed together. It was an incredible act of love and humility.

Friends in Christ, that is what Jesus came to earth to establish--a world where we are inextricably woven into the lives of everyone we meet. Our God and creator has so woven us together that God came among us as one of us so that we might not only be interconnected with one another but with God. It's a concept that boggles the mind--unless, of course, you've been to Bridge Camp. If you have, you've seen God's Kingdom come to fruition here on earth.