I had one more camp left in me for the Great Summer of 2022 and it was the best one of all. It was held at my favorite camp of all, "my" camp, the one I am most proud of, where I spend so much of my time; where my passion lies.
It would be easy to reel you in by starting off saying that we had drag queens at summer camp. And I could even post an eye-popping photo that would get your attention. I might do that later but it would be a cheap trick to get your attention when the camp was so much more than that.
In fact, when I think of it, in the thirty years I've been hanging around youth ministry there was far less drama or deep anxiety at this camp than any I've seen. And I really do think it was because the focus of the whole camp was on honesty and acceptance and the kids were more at peace. And I'll get to that in a minute. But, when all is said and done, this was just summer camp. That's all it was-- just camp. Except it happened to be a camp designed for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer/Questioning kids from the ages of 12 to 17.
One of the most amazing things I've seen in my life was one time years ago I saw a teenager run down the hall and when he got to the end of the hall he jumped up and just flung his body up in the air against the wall. For no reason. For the sheer joy of being alive. And that's what camp is for, folks: to celebrate life.
Kids should have fun. At the end of the day we should all celebrate the joy of being alive.
I love watching kids have fun.
There was one camp missing from the universe until this summer. And then my good friends fixed it. And I am honored to call these folks my friends:
I knew Rev. Pepa Paniaugua before she was ordained as a minister of the word and sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). She was an intern and the Youth Director at our church in Garland. I met Garrett deGaffenreid at one of those youth camps where they have shaving cream fights and kids fling themselves against the wall just for fun. I met Andy Hackett about three years ago but he's been coming to Gilmont for the Great Gluten Escape longer than that. I think Andy was the one who came up with the idea. He talked to Garrett, who was a counselor at Gilmont, who talked to Pepa who was busy founding a dynamic new ministry called the Kindom Community. And here we are.
The whole camp was alive with rainbow flags. They were over door frames. Ribbons on nametags. Stickers on t-shirts. Necklaces. The kids were allowed to express themselves and be proud in ways they couldn't at school or sometimes even with their family. Barriers fell almost immediately. What was interesting to me is that I expected to see romances blossom but it was the same atmosphere of siblings that I saw at every other camp I've been to. We became a family.
It took only a few minutes for me to give up on trying to figure out whether a kid was gay, bi-sexual, transgender, or whatever. It sounds silly to say the obvious: you can't tell by looking and it's a waste of time to worry about it. The bottom line is that it's just really none of my business.
There were a few adjustments to make for this camp:
Nametags. Every morning we made a new nametag as a means of providing the space for campers and staff to explore facets of their identity. I had to think this one over a bit. I was used to getting a sturdy name tag when I checked in and using that same name tag all week long. However, at this camp every morning, everybody made a new nametag. And if it was the same one every day, fine. If it was the name you were born with, fine. But if you wanted people to call you something different, they could look at your name tag and know what that name would be. I decided I like this idea. Camp is the perfect place to test the water for a new identity: you are somewhere that nobody knows you from your school or hometown, not even your family. You can be whoever you want to be.
I found comfort that, upon reflection, I realized I really like my name. I always have. I can't think what I would change it to. But when parents name a baby they have no idea, actually, who they will end up with. They make a ballpark guess based on anatomy and sometimes, things work out. However, we are learning this isn't a black and white world and sometimes Dick and Jane names just don't work. And it's not just about anatomy. Someone soft and gentle could end up with a really loud and boisterous name. It really is the respectful thing to let a person decide what to call themselves based on who THEY decide they are. Maybe this should be a rite of passage at adolescence, a naming ceremony--kind of like a bar mitzvah.
Pronouns were the subject of conversation with the staff one meal. We realized pronouns really have no use in society and will probably fall from use someday. Pronouns only get in the way. The older staff, gave up on trying to figure out who was straight and who was gay or trans and even with the pronouns on nametags we found it easier to use "they" and "them". I can't always read nametags without my glasses. Pronouns are really kind of Boomer.
Then we had the bathrooms. That part was the easiest:
Bathrooms were a lot more relaxed, too. And a lot simplier. Every single bathroom was gender neutral. You were expected to go into a stall to do your business in private. Just like you were instructed to change clothes in private. We only had to tell them this once. It was pretty obvious. Easy.
Security was tight for this camp. We couldn't take photos of the kids' faces. This is a standard rule when working with children. I was used to this rule. They even have this rule for Alzheimer's patients; I know not to photograph anyone who is not able to consent on their own behalf for permission to publish their picture. But, in this case, the camp added the request to not geo-tag the location of where we were. You are seeing this blog only after the camp is over when the rule has been lifted. To my knowledge nobody had made any threats to disrupt the camp but we were in a small town in a red state in a weird time and sometimes the devil just gets bored and goes looking for mischief. We were the first LGBT camp for kids in the state of Texas. Nobody had any idea what to expect.
And, thanks be to God, nothing did happen. Not so much as a raindrop nor an out-of-sorts honeybee showed up at the camp. I'm not even sure the nurse had to open up a box of Band-Aids. The raindrop would have been welcomed. It was hot as blue blazes.
We had about 60 kids and 35 staff. The staff consisted of counselors, a nurse, a media guy, a mental health specialist, a sensory processing specialist (more on that later), two wise elders, and several pastors sprinkled into the mix by virtue of being parents to the kids or youth sponsors.
Wise elders? That's a job title? That's what they decided to call me and my buddy, Armel, for lack of any actual skills we possessed. It's certainly better than "Old Farts."
Armel Crocker is my brother in Christ who used to go to church with me, who went through the commissioned pastor program with me, my study partner and now co-pastor at two different churches in North Texas. When I say that we co-pastor churches together I need to explain a little.
Most co-pastors are married to each other. And that makes things easy. However, Armel and I don't even live in the same town anymore. This makes co-pastoring a lot harder. We can't call across the room, "which page was that quote on?" And the two churches we pastor have two different orders of worship on Sundays thirty minutes apart. In preaching circles this is called a "double-header." We alternate weeks because each of us has another church on the other Sundays as well. So, we consult each other almost daily during the week to keep up with what scriptures and hymns we're using as well as which congregant has what ailment. Fortunately, Armel has a master's degree in Gerontology to go with his big heart.
However, Armel is anything but an old fart. He is a survivor of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic of the 1980's. I am forever in awe that he is alive. He owned a gay bar and witnessed the worst the disease brought to gay men. When I asked him how many friends he lost he told me it was too many to count. He has a unique story to tell. He had a front road seat to LGBT history. So, Garrett invited him to talk to the kids about his time in San Francisco and a little bit about history and the AIDS outbreak.
Possessing no special talents other than a big heart, I ended up declaring myself in charge of hugs and announced to the kids that if anybody needed a hug I gave really good hugs and would be happy to oblige them. A little while later a kid came up to me and asked me for a "Non-Homophobic Grandma Hug." It took me a while to think through what she had asked me because the phrase is a real mouthful. We had a great hug. Then the next kid behind her said the same thing. And by this time it had sunk in. A Non-Homophobic Grandma Hug. These kids weren't getting hugs from their very own grandmothers??!! Their Grandmothers!! There are More Than One Grandmother out there (actually three because there was a third kid) who are not hugging their granddaughters because the kid is gay. I have no words.
But I have hugs.
Now: The Actual "Free Mom Hugs" woman; the woman who started the Free Mom Hugs movement is Sara Cunningham and she came to talk to the kids. She started in 2015 by going to an LGBT pride festival wearing a homemade button that read "Free Mom Hugs." She just stood around and held out her arms just like I was doing. It's so simple. And she got the same reaction I did. Her first hug was from a woman whose mother hadn't hugged her in the four years since she had come out as gay.
Sara passed out all sorts of bling to the kids. And hugs.
If you want to join her movement, here's the website: Free Mom Hugs Visit them later. Stay here for now. I have lots more to say.
Pepa was very clear that she would be treading a fine line with faith. She made it clear that she understood that some of the kids came from families where faith in a divine being was not part of the family life. And she addressed it with respect. But she was also plain that we would be talking a little bit about the bible because she was a pastor and that was her background. The first day she used the story of Abram and Sarai as examples of people who changed their names. Kindom Community has a new intern with a Methodist background and the next day she told the kids one of the best adaptations of the Joseph story that I've ever heard where Joseph has the cool rainbow coat that his brothers are jealous of and his brother Reuben is his ally who takes up for him and prevents the other brothers from killing him.
There was no escaping the cross, however. It was everywhere we looked at camp.
They had all sorts of resources for the kids that camp doesn't usually have: haircuts. Billed as "gender affirming" haircuts, I found out that they did check with the parents to make sure we wouldn't have any upset parents if someone had their long locks turned into a buzz cut at camp. And I was actually expecting that to happen but it didn't. Nobody really changed their appearance too much. But the two hairdressers who came to cut hair did a really good job.
They are from the Abstra(kt) Studio in Frisco where they have a Gender Free Haircut Club.
The Gender Free Haircut Club is part of The Dress Code Project, an initiative to provide spaces for lbgtqia+ to find places in their context where they can shop and be safe.... and Abstra(kt) Studio was the first salon in Texas to be part of that program. Their stylists, Sarah and Brian, visited us at kin•dom camp 2022. Sarah Mendoza (who was one of our stylists at camp) is an official ambassador for the Gender Free Haircut Club. To learn more, visit https://www.abstrakt.studio/genderfreehaircutclub
They have my eternal respect for a couple of reasons: they worked outside in the heat all day so they didn't have to worry about leaving hair on the floor inside the building and because the couple of times I walked past while they worked and overheard snippets of conversations I was reminded of the two great confidants of culture everywhere: bartenders and hairdressers.
I volunteered to help out in the room and sometimes there could be as many as six kids in the room or sometimes only one. They seldom talked to each other, whispering if they did; preferring to stay quiet.
And I'm convinced the room helped. Because when it came time to get loud, just knowing the room was there, those kids were able to be in the thick of the loud. And, boy did it get loud on the last night.
Yeah. OK, Now, I'll tell you about the drag queens.
Yes, they really did a drag show. At church camp. And nobody died. And it was the most tasteful, sweet...gentle....loving.......two drag queens and one drag king I've ever seen.
The kids loved it. Especially when they had a Question and Answer session and gave their questions serious answers: What is their preferred pronouns? She and Her when in drag and He and His out of drag. Is drag their main living or do they have other jobs? One works as an airline attendant and the other one supports herself in entertainment. She does voice work in video games. So the kids asked her which games and which characters, then they asked her to voice the character, and then they went nuts. Apparently that character is well-known in video games. We had a Rock Star Drag Queen here.
AND the show ended with one of them telling the kids a bedtime story. The book was "My Shadow is Pink" by Scott Stuart. I am not kidding.
And the message was: don't let anybody else tell you who you are. Be yourself. Be who God created you to be.
Because who are we to doubt the Creator of the Universe, who made the moon and flung the stars into the heavens?
As I was walking to my room on the last night with my hands still burning from all the clapping, I looked up into the pines and could see the waning quarter moon shining through the trees. It startled me to hold the two opposites of the artificial world of drag queens with their glitter and sequins and thick makeup in stark contrast to the pine needles and deep sky of the unknown. How does God hold both at the same time? I was more convinced than ever of God's amazing power and love because I had seen it shine through the rainbow colors of the banners with the promise of God's love.
God has promised not to destroy the world ever again and gave us a rainbow to remind us of that promise. We are worth salvaging even when a small minority of us are cruel and hateful. God came down in person and now I've seen the rainbow banner hanging on an empty cross. God is here. Here to stay. I've seen the Holy Spirit moving all over Camp Gilmont hugging and holding.
Also, I can't leave without a plug for the group responsible for all of this: Kindom Community. Pepa is their founding pastor. It's a multi-denominational, queer-led, spiritual community that is fully affirming. Led by the Holy Spirit, the vision of kin.dom community is to be an example of what is possible when
- all people in the margins are seen, heard and nurtured
- all people are safe bring their whole selves
- all questions are celebrated as much as answers
- inclusion, integration and love are the norm
They usually have an invigorating discussion once a month online as well as a treasure trove of recorded videos of past conversations.