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Christian camping ministry has a problematic history with race-relations and diversity. While many camps across the country have gone to great lengths to address the problem, it remains a serious concern for camps and camping ministry as a whole. The problem is rooted in a conflict between two of camping ministry’s most important aspects. On the one hand, camps are set-apart, sacred communities where young people can be fully immersed in the particularity of their faith traditions. On the other hand, camps are places of intense and intentional encounter with otherness. These two essential aspects of camping work hand-in-hand to create the crucible of transformation found in many of our Christian summer camps. The Other, with whom I would normally not choose to be around or would not even encounter in everyday life, suddenly becomes part of my set-apart, sacred community at camp. The Other might simply be someone from a different social circle, but that person might also be from a different socio-economic class, family background, sexual orientation, race, or denomination. In the context of intentional Christian community at camp, we encounter the Other face-to-face and are forced to make sense of this otherness in the context of togetherness – or “unity in difference,” as some feminist and womanist thinkers have put it. The transformative power of the camp experience is diminished when racial diversity is absent.
The lack of racial diversity can be traced to the origins of the camping movement. The first camps in America emerged in the 1880s in order to get white boys from wealthy families out of the squalor of urban living and teach them how to be real men through outdoor living and recreation. The camping movement quickly grew, especially through the spread of YMCA camps, to include middle class and even lower-class boys. The camping movement grew in the context of a Protestant work ethic and idealism that linked Christianity with manhood and good citizenship. The early 20th century saw the spread of camping to Jewish camps, Catholic camps, and girls camps, but they remained separate for much of camp’s early history. The emphasis was on camp’s role in socialization as special, set-apart communities. Upper-class boys went to camp together, and they learned how to be responsible upper-class boys. Jewish kids were socialized as Jews, something that continues to characterize Jewish camping (see Sales and Saxe, How Goodly Are Thy Tents). Early 20th century camps toyed with diversity more than they experienced it. Boys and girls at their single-gendered camps would commonly dress in drag to caricature the opposite sex. More problematic were the early camps’ use of stereotypes in their portrayal of Native Americans and black Americans. Campers wore feathered headdresses and enacted their versions of Native American rituals to emphasize connection with creation. While these camp rituals were often considered as showing respect to Native American customs, they also functioned to deepen stereotypes, lump Native Americans as a single entity, and bastardize tribal sacred traditions. Throughout the 1920s until well into the 1950s, one of the most common traditions for the last night of camp was a drama in blackface.
Many readers are now saying, “Yes, but we’ve come a long way in race relations since the 1920s!” This is certainly the case. However, camp’s problematic history of race relations has followed the movement to the present day. Camps across the country continue enacting stereotypes of Native Americans. Campers stay in teepees (because all Native Americans lived in teepees, right?) and adopt tribal names for the week. These programs at times attempt to show a deep respect for Native American traditions and, at their best, do a fair job teaching the history of certain tribes, along with a history of the exploitation of native peoples. However, camps need to think long and hard about how the inclusion of camp programs using Native American themes serve to perpetuate stereotypes, no matter how virtuous the intentions. Do we really think that kids running around with feathers on their heads is respectful or meaningful in any way? What about more subtle ways of perpetuating these stereotypes?
While I have no reason to believe that camps continue using blackface, camping ministry as a whole is far from integrated. It remains a largely white, middle-class phenomenon. There is very little research data on outdoor ministry, so it is difficult to assess how big the problem is. However, the 2003 National Study of Youth and Religion asked participants if they had been to a religious summer camp, so an analysis of that data yields some important information. The data reported in the original book (Smith and Denton, Soul Searching) gives a surface indication of the problem, showing that Mainline Protestant youth are twice as likely to attend camp as youth from Black Protestant traditions. The data set gives much clearer information than this, however.  According to the data, 3/4 of all religious camp attenders are white. White youth are 1.6 times more likely to attend camp than black youth, 2 times more likely than Asian youth, and an astonishing 2.6 times more likely than hispanic youth. The statistics are even more shocking when income is factored in. White youth from families making under $20k per year are less likely to attend camp than their middle-class counterparts but still more likely than middle-class youth from minority groups. 42% of white youth from families making under $20k per year attend camp, which presumably means that camps are effective in offering financial aid to white youth. However, minority groups do not receive the same benefits. When considering youth from families making under $20k per year, whites are 2.5 times more likely to attend camp than non-whites. African-American youth show the highest percentage (32%) of those attending camp after white youth (43%), indicating that, while still a problem, the gap is beginning to close. However, it should also be noted that almost 2/3 of these African-American youth are from “Black Protestant” religious traditions, indicating that many of them are attending camps that are predominantly African-American. Our camps are segregated. Those who have visited many camps do not need statistics to tell this story. They have seen that many camps are almost totally white or totally black, with a few diverse faces in the mix (these usually make the camp brochure or newsletter to show that the camp is “diverse”).
Camping ministry has a diversity problem. Certain camps are doing tremendous things to increase racial diversity, and they can serve as models for other camps to emulate. A large part of camp’s transformative power lies in its nature as a location of encounter. The nature of camp communities as set-apart and sacred should not include race. Camp racial segregation serves to socialize our young people into ways of being white Christians or black Christians. Since camps have such powerful socializing potential, these racially segregated ways of being Christian can stick long-term. In contrast, observe the exemplary camps that have racial diversity. They serve as places of encounter, and they can help young people envision a new way of being Christian in the world: united, even in our differences.