How Dirty Dancing with Jesus Can Set You Free

The Idea of Having an Empty Camp for the Summer was Almost too much to Bear

Guest Contributor / 10.27.20

Thankful for this post from Chip May:

It is late, almost midnight, and I call an emergency staff meeting. Sitting in a circle, as I prepare to speak with our 14 college-aged summer staff members, I feel like a fraud. I told them that we could do this. That God would bless our efforts. We just finished our second week of the summer and we are dealing with a situation that may put the rest of the season in jeopardy. 

One of our staff members has been exposed to the coronavirus and will have to be quarantined for 14 days. While at this point they exhibit no symptoms, if they test positive or start to get sick, the rest of our staff will be at risk of getting sick or having to be quarantined. This may start a snowball effect that results in our cancelling the rest of our summer. Not to mention that it would be a devastating blow to my own personal sense of self-worth.

Camp Arcadia is a Christian family camp on the shores of Lake Michigan that has been around for almost 100 years, with families returning year after year. It is more resort than rustic. I’ve often described it as Dirty Dancing with Jesus — nobody puts Jesus in the corner. At Camp Arcadia we normally serve around 3,000 people a summer, with around 42 college-aged staff. This summer, under the COVID-19 restrictions, we had created a plan to serve around 1,000 guests with just 14 staff. Many thought (including me) that we might not be able to have any camp at all. So having camp, even a much reduced camp, was a pivotal decision.

We had spent months planning how to run camp during a pandemic. Then, we spent a week training the staff and instilling in them that they needed to follow all the new rules if we were going to be successful. Wear your mask, socially distance, don’t share food, be careful on your days off, and don’t let your guard down. You don’t want to be the reason we have to close camp.

Financially it meant the difference between breaking even and possibly taking on debt or having to lay off staff. It also meant we got to do what we were meant to do — carry out our mission to provide a place to be renewed in spirit, mind, and body. Something we all need, especially in a global pandemic. 

For me personally, the idea of having an empty camp for the summer was almost too much to bear. I have served as Camp Arcadia’s director for 20 years and have always struggled with over-identifying with my job, so the idea that we might not be able to have Camp crushed me. A good friend and mentor assured me that I was not responsible for the global pandemic. Yet I still felt like it was up to me to make sure Camp Arcadia survived it. If I was not a successful camp director, then who was I?

My response to a global pandemic was to take control. Create a good plan. Work hard and follow the plan. If we do this, it will all work out for the best. Except when it won’t.

As we faced the reality that we might need to shut camp down for the season, it would have been understandable and quite easy to blame the staff member that was exposed. But the truth is that we had all taken similar risks. At some point over the previous few weeks we had all violated the rules. Whether it was hanging out with friends inside for too long, letting our masks slip below our noses, or forgetting to wash our hands for 20 seconds, we could all have been the reason camp might have to shut down. If we were going to play the blame game, there would be plenty to go around. 

Add the fact that even if we had done everything perfectly, there was still a chance that there could be an outbreak. We were not in control. In truth, we never were, but now we had to face it.  

As I stare out at the staff that are trusting me with not only their summer but also their health, I wrestle with what to say to them. Is this my moment to play the seasoned camp director who has all the answers and can tell them it was going to be alright? Is this my Coach Taylor moment?  Should I give them a pep talk about staying the course? Keep working hard and follow the rules and we will get through this? Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose!

Or do I level with them and tell them the truth? Do I tell them that I don’t know what will happen? That any one of us could be responsible for shutting camp down? That we could do everything right and it could still come crumbling down around us? How’s that for inspiration?

And if I tell them the brutal truth, what does that say about our relationship with God? I had assured my staff that God was with us and was there to guide our efforts. Did I fail God by not praying enough? Did I not listen to God? Was it hubris to even try and run camp during a pandemic? If we had to shut down camp, was God still with us? 

As I prepare to tell the staff to not lose hope, to keep working hard, I see it in their eyes for the first time. They are afraid. They are scared to death of letting me and each other down. The joy of running a summer camp is replaced with anxiety and fear. We are being crushed under the law. 

In my press to save camp, I forgot that it is not camp that needs saving, but me. My attempts to replace our Savior with our efforts is killing us. I perverted the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ unburdens — “My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Yet I have turned a gift into a crucible that we could not pass. I have made a good thing, a successful season, into an ultimate thing.

But then I open my mouth, and by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, I speak not only to them but to myself. I tell them for the first time that it is going to be okay, even if we have to close camp. I tell them that no matter how hard we try we may still end up having to shut camp down. And while that would be very disappointing, it is not the end of the world. Instead of demanding more from them, I share with them that God’s grace is free and thankfully never has to be earned. 

Christ is with us, to love us and to set us free, no matter what the circumstances. I tell them that each day we get to have camp is a gift and we should treasure it and enjoy it. We have a job to do, but we should leave the rest to God. We are not in control. God is. 

In this moment, I realize that the freedom of the gospel isn’t just a theoretical thing, detached from the gritty realities of everyday life; nor that this freedom is only for other people — as I stay stuck in my own warped reality, relying solely on me and my efforts. In short, I realize that in Christ I am free to be, come what may. And that’s enough.

The COVID test came back negative. We ended up having a wonderful summer, no one got sick, and we did not have to close camp. I give thanks to God for this, but I am grateful for that moment when I was shaken out of my desperate attempts to save camp. You and I both know that there will be hardships in life much worse than a cancelled season. It is during these times of trial that I hope the Camp Arcadia staff of 2020 will remember that to follow Christ is not a life of self-reliance but rather one of continually returning to rest in the arms of Jesus, who tells us we are enough because his love is enough. It is to be set free.