I woke up on Sunday morning feeling excited (and a little bit nervous). We had arrived at Camp Barnabas the day before, I had heard about how amazing Barnabas is, how it is life changing for both the campers and our students . . . and I had heard about how challenging it can be — it is emotionally intense, stressful, and sometimes you get a little beat up.
Camper arrival is so much fun — there is music playing, people are jumping around and cheering for each camper that arrives, and its only 106 degrees.
We got all the campers into their cabins . . . and that’s really when my night starts.
We had a camper that struggles with developmental disabilities and related behavioral issues, who was overwhelmed, overstimulated, couldn’t communicate with us in a way that we could easily understand, and was becoming more and more physical and aggressive as his frustration continued to increase. He was hitting, grabbing, scratching and biting both me and the cabin staff, so to protect the rest of the campers in the cabin his missionary and I took him outside to walk around camp to reduce the stimulation around him and to allow him to work off some of his extra energy before bed. However, his frustration with us continued to increase because we couldn’t understand him or what he needed — so he continued to lash out at me as the source of his frustration.
That was my first two and a half hours with a camper.
It was at this point that I realized that the situation was at the point where we couldn’t manage it anymore and needed to bring in camp staff, so after a switch was made I had an opportunity to step back and take a break.
During all of this, the activity for the first night was a decades-themed dance party that has gotten started in the mess hall — everyone is all dressed up and awkwardly standing around like it’s a middle school dance. I am beat up — my arms hurt from stopping him from hitting me and his missionary, I have scratches that are bleeding from where he has grabbed me and dug nails in, I have been bitten a couple times, I’m already mentally exhausted — and all I want at this point is to go to bed.
But as I was walking back to where the adults sleep to take a moment to myself, I felt a little tug on my heart to go poke my head through the door of the mess hall and check out what all was going on. And y’all — the party was going. People were dancing and singing and smiling.
But more than anything — It was good.
There was so much love and joy in that room. That was when I realized that’s why we were here. That’s why we give literal blood, sweat, and tears to this camp — because it is so good. It teaches campers that they are loved and treats them with dignity and as equal and it teaches students that they are capable of more than they could ever imagine.
Barnabas was hard. And God was there.
Associate Director of Youth Ministries
Camp Barnabas cannot help but teach us something. Barnabas is beautiful, strange, transformative, and hard. For just a week, we are forced, by circumstance and necessity, to be completely outside of ourselves in the service of another, and that inevitably shakes us.
The cabin I was assigned to was completely non-verbal and dependent for everything from brushing teeth to changing briefs and feeding. The missionaries (or one-on-one high school helpers) in my cabin were overwhelmed and exhausted, not just by the care, but by the inability to understand what their camper needed. Come Tuesday afternoon, and one of the campers, a girl adopted from an Ethiopian orphanage, and in a wheelchair, was getting very agitated, and starting to cry and physically lash out. I watched her missionary in almost tears try to comfort her, “what do you want? What can I do?” as she continued to cry. The missionaries told me hopefully that they thought they had seen her smile once, but I hadn’t seen it.
The missionary and I moved the sweet girl inside so she could listen to music and be in the air conditioning. The missionary told me she loved music. We sat inside, and the missionary fell asleep in her chair sitting with this sweet camper, who she had been up all night caring for. I sat there with her. The camper, who had some limited motion in her hands and arms crumpled a piece of paper over and over. I listened to the music, it was John Mark MacMillan’s “Future/Past.” Without thinking, I sang.
She looked at me, locked eyes for the first time all week, and broke out in what was unmistakably a smile, teeth and all. She moved her little hands together in a clapping motion. I choked on tears and heard my voice shake as I kept singing to her. In that moment, me and that sweet girl were the only people in the whole world, and everything was ok. It was Tuesday, the whole week of struggle and joy was still ahead of us.
And God was there.
Director of Youth Ministries
Before I recall my greatest “God moment” at Camp Barnabas, let me give you some background information on the situation. Just as we were getting the campers to bed on Wednesday night, one of our sweet campers had a complete mental and physical meltdown. This camper is one of the most God-filled human beings I have ever met; he is always full of compliments and high-fives and will go out of his way to get your attention to look you straight in the eyes and say, “I love you,” and you can just feel in your gut that he means it. With all the joy and dancing that had come throughout the day and at the party that night, he became exhausted and over stimulated. His meltdown was heartbreaking to watch; he was too genuinely kind of a person to experience such a violent shift in personality for reasons that were out of his control. I went to bed that night with a heavy heart, because there wasn’t anything I could’ve done to help.
Before our evening activity on Thursday, James* and I, amongst a few others from our cabin, were on the porch jamming to our favorite church songs when I noticed signs of another meltdown sneaking in. I was terrified — not of James or what would happen if another full-blown crisis occurred — I was terrified of failing to help him. Over the course of about ten of the longest minutes of my life I stood by James to help him decompress as his mood shifted rapidly from happy to sobbing. I was his shoulder to cry on, I was his funny storyteller when that’s what he needed, I prayed for him when that’s what he asked of me. Together we backed away from the ledge and were able to attend the evenings closing activities.
That night I sat on the edge of James’ bed and rubbed his head and back as he fell asleep. A wave of calm came over me as a soft snore started to come from James — he was asleep, and there God was. God was still at work in the midst of the thrashing and screaming of the meltdown from before, but God was unbelievably present in the peace of James’ resting. My heart was the most content in that moment.
And God was there.
Youth Ministries Intern
*Name has been changed for child’s privacy
God was at Camp Barnabas.
If there is nothing else to be gleaned from our stories, our experiences of that place, may it be that. God was there. We had moments of struggle, of victory, of fear, and of peace, and God was in all of it. This is just a window into moments for 3 of us that went to Camp Barnabas, but, Church family, we took 38 to Barnabas and every single one of them has story after story of God’s presence. We come back with sore bodies but hearts overflowing, so contact Kat (email@example.com) if you want to hear more about what happened, or to have someone who went speak to your Sunday school class, UMW circle, or to learn more. We are grateful for a church that makes experiences like these possible and hope to continue to pass along the goodness we’ve seen. God was at Camp Barnabas, and God is here, too.