Last week we visited Storm Mountain Center in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Normally, we base our route on the camps we want to visit, but this time around, I was determined to find a camp in this area. There is something so unreal about western SD, and let me tell you – if you’re looking to be inspired, this is the place to be.
Anyway, we were lucky enough to connect with the director, Sean, and park it for a whole week in one of the most beautiful places I know. On top of that, we got to work with the staff during a crazy busy flurry of retreat groups, honing those dishwashing skills. One evening after the last spoon was dried, we were invited to sit in on a session with a youth workers’ training. The group was a hodge-podge of folks who work with young people – some full-time youth leaders, a few volunteers, an associate pastor, and us.
Sitting in that room, full of people who just love teens, was a really emotional experience for me. (Woah, what? Sara got emotional. What a surprise…) Listening to them share their stories and work together on their individual experiences filled my heart to the brim (and also potentially my eyes but we need not worry about that.) These people love kiddos. These people LOVE Jesus. And all they want is to introduce their particular kiddos to an authentic life abundant, life beyond high school, life without so much fear and loneliness and doubt and anxiety and acne… There’s something indescribable about being surrounded by people who want something so GOOD so BAD.
It makes you want to give somebody a medal or shout amen or something.
But back to the story.
The leader of this session (whose name is Marko, whose website is this) talked about the need for youth ministries to “let their freak flag fly,” if you will. We are all weird. So, find the thing that makes you unique and don’t be afraid to own it. Embrace it. Let it be who you are, untethered. Lots of ideas were swirling around the room and in my head about all the different ways that could look. I thought about camps – because that is literally all I think about except for food – and how they could adopt this model of owning that one thing that makes them Camp Whatsasuch. How do we say, “yup, this is what we do,” without feeling like the camp down the street is doing something better and we need to be so much more than what we are?
Then I thought about the camp whose dining hall I was sitting in and the conversations we had already had with its director. When I asked him in our interview what makes Storm Mountain special, he said, “It’s in the Black Hills.” At first, I poised to ask him a more leading question. No, no, tell me what is unique and exciting and spectacular and is going to sound good in this video, please. But then he shut me up (hallelujah) by sharing with us how sacred this land really is to so many people. The Black Hills are central to the culture of the Lakota people. This is their holy land and place of prayer. These mountains are where they have connected with our Creator for hundreds of years. And now Storm Mountain is a place where people from all walks of life gather to seek and pray. Do you have chills yet because COME ON.
The seniors from a school in Pine Ridge Reservation were also out at camp this week for their annual “we are about to graduate and have to be real adults” retreat. Along with lots of typical camp activities like eating, hiking, and playing Red Rover (yes this is still a thing,) the students celebrated some elements of both their Catholic faith and Lakota traditions. I felt very grateful to be invited to their time of prayer, learning as a quiet observer and curious participant. I so appreciate the richness of another person’s way of reaching out to God, and being welcomed into that was very special to me.
In my own silent reflection, I thought about this United Methodist camp in the Black Hills and the role that it plays in bringing people together. In the same spirit of the original use of this land, Storm Mountain offers a space for people to come and just be with each other and with God. There were probably five different groups at camp throughout the weekend, all unique in their purpose for gathering, but together in one place. I recognized a culture of connection and cooperation, where people are invited to weave their individual stories into a much bigger narrative. When the “normal” dialogue anymore is a spirit of divisiveness and separation and the other, it felt good to see an example of people seeking God in different ways, together. It felt… healing? Just a little.
It made sense to me then why Storm Mountain doesn’t have to be anything other than “in the Black Hills.” For a lot of complicated reasons, the people behind Storm Mountain are now the stewards of an incredibly important piece of creation. And instead of ignoring that or cheapening it, they have made it who they are. They honor it. They ensure that it is a place to be at once still and full of joy, connected to the past and building a better future. They teach people to care deeply for creation and invite them to listen for God in the wind and rocks and trees. They know that simply being on this land has tremendous power, and that at the end of the day, that power doesn’t really belong to them. Storm Mountain is a place where you are welcome to be exactly who you are with a bunch of other people being exactly who they are while you all discover answers together.
And that’s enough. It’s okay to just be the camp you are. In fact, it’s pretty spectacular. Eventually, in order for our ministries/endeavors/selves to really achieve something, we are going to have to find that thing that’s right in front of us and fall in love with it.
Who you are is simple.
Don’t be weird about it.