WESTPORT — Even in a sunny setting where the thermometer has topped a sweltering 90 degrees, area youngsters seem to be playing it cool at Southeastern Baptist Youth Camp.
And why on earth not?
Swimming, canoeing, paddleboating and snacks all day long. Songs and games like the golf-style noodleball, plus pool basketball, where children dunk the ball and each other.
Amid the call of the wild on 52 rustic acres southeast of Columbus in Decatur County, here reigns nearly everything but video games and cellphones.
“No — none of those,” said Sarah Snyder, camp manager with husband Don.
In this low-tech land with two lakes and one mission — bringing young people and adults closer to nature and God — the place known mostly as Westport Camp actually functions as far more than a getaway. It is one among several Christian camps in south central Indiana.
“Sometimes this may be the only version of church some of these kids see,” camp volunteer and Versailles Pastor Mike Cantrell said.
It presents the gospel alongside games such as human foosball, where participants use their bodies to get a ball into a goal — or to block it, somewhat like a shield of faith blocking evil in the book Ephesians.
But pure, sheer fun is prized, too, whether it links directly with a lesson or not.
“The (new) pool is awesome,” 10-year-old Caleb Walker of Hope said. “Probably the best part is the basketball goals. And the slide is extra fast.”
No matter what unfolds during a Sunday-through-Friday camp of about 100 registrants, Christian pop-rock music blared from speakers everywhere creates a soundtrack with more than a nice beat.
As Walker speaks at the lake dock, Casting Crowns’ rising anthem, “Courageous,” pours from a nearby sound system.
The only way we’ll ever stand Is on our knees with lifted hands.
Make us courageous Lord, make us courageous.
Many of the readings and presentations during this week for these fourth- through sixth-graders focus on Old Testament David’s courage versus Goliath. A lesson earlier in the day highlights the importance of biblical, spiritual armor in life’s battles.
For those wondering if elementary schoolers can retain information amid a million joyous distractions, know this: With little prodding, three different students quickly outline nearly every piece of armor when a visitor questions them out-of-the-blue.
Yet, they still are average youngsters. They hate being awakened at 6:30 a.m., despite the fact that they love breakfasts such as homemade biscuits and gravy.
“But I like the idea that we get to go out in the open water and find turtles,” Hope’s 11-year-old Micah Walker said.
Others turn more inward.
“My favorite part is probably just learning more about God,” said 11-year-old Amanda Bower of Hope. “Being here is like having God everywhere.”
When she arrived last year for her first such experience, she battled a bit of homesickness.
“But I just asked Jesus to make it OK,” Bower said. “And I asked him to let my parents know I was OK.”
Hartsville’s Kathy DeSpain came a year ago to become food services director.
Her kitchen in Grace Hall smells heavily of chocolate chip cookies when she emphasizes that God is at work in every corner of the camp. She laughs when asked if she is making dinner or disciples here.
“Both,” she said, her gaze turning serious.
Westport’s Bob King, a retired Army veteran, volunteers all summer long as a cabin leader. Faith’s spark lit his world in Cabin 4 when he attended a week-long gathering at Southeastern in 1977. So now the man campers know as Crazy Bob gives back, often speaking in a silly, cartoonish voice and letting go a cackle with nearly every comment.
“I love to pick on the kids and make ‘em laugh,” he said, and cackles. “But, on the serious side, you can see their (spiritual) growth almost every day. We see the Lord wrap his arms around them.”
Sometimes, he uses King himself to do that. On this day, just before supper, the volunteer asked for the microphone during prayer and song time.
He talked about a tiny girl approaching him recently to pray for him when he was feeling down.
King, the very man who repeatedly cackled earlier and tickled campers’ funny bone, felt tears pool in his eyes. He put a hand to his bowed face to stem the tide of emotion but gave up.
He then looked out at the funeral-quiet campers and said in a quivering voice, “I love you guys. You’re my kids.”
What a crazy idea from Crazy Bob. Not only that the great outdoors can give youngsters a great chance to feel God’s affection.
But that summer camp can give former strangers a real sense of loving one another.