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A Heart No Longer Hardened

““We already work in full time ministry,” I remember thinking, “Why do we need to spend more time leading mission trips?” Our senior pastor at Rock Harbor Church in Costa Mesa, California, had just announced that that year everyone on staff was going to lead a mission trip. Something about being outward focused or some other trendy church lingo idea drove the decision. All I knew was that as a lowly staffer my workload just increased because of our leadership’s ideals.

So I did what any apathetic church worker would do: look for the mission trip that would take me the least out of my comfort zone. I found an opportunity to go to Mexico to build houses. It was just my speed. Go, work hard, and get the job done while avoiding any significant people connections. Who knows, if the group had the right personality, every night after work we could go out for tacos and margaritas. At least we would get to have a little fun.

I signed up with the mission team to go to Mexico. My job at the church was communications so I was prepping all the materials that advertised the fifty or so missions opportunities our congregation had to sign up for that summer. As I was preparing the listing for press, I read one that said, “Be a counselor for abused and neglected kids ages 7–11 at summer camp.”

Go to that camp, God told me in my heart, as I was reading it.

No way, I told Him, You know that half of the church with the nursery and playrooms and kids’ stuff? I don’t work there.

Go to that camp, God repeated.

But you don’t understand, I protested, I am not called to minister to kids.

For some reason at the time, this protest seemed logical. Still, it is never wise to ignore a prompting of the Almighty—and I had an out. I knew that it was too late for the mission team to switch me and my wife (who was also on staff) from the Mexico trip to the summer camp counselor gig.

“No problem,” the mission administrator told me.

“What do you mean, ‘no problem’?” I asked her, because it definitely was a problem for me. I was supposed to call to arrange a switch and she was supposed to say no, not yes. The only reason I called was to clear my conscience. I expected the bureaucracy would prevent me from following this prompting of the spirit. For some reason it seemed logical at the time.

The next thing I knew, my wife and I were sitting down with Mike Kenyon, our mission’s pastor, and Kathy Smith, the director of Royal Family KIDS Camp from St. Andrews Church in Newport Beach, California. A sixth-grade teacher who was shorter than many of her students, Kathy had a kindly disposition and could bring a chaotic room to attention without ever raising her voice. St. Andrews was an aging congregation and their camp needed the fresh infusion of youth our church could provide, hence the partnership was formed.

Kathy explained to my wife and me that since we were “leaders” from our church, we would not be counselors. Instead, we would run some sort of tea party for small groups as an activity. I felt huge sense of relief. My wife would interact with the children. I would take care of logistics. The kids come, we do the activity, and then we send the kids back with their counselors. When we didn’t have activities we could hang out in the adult-only staff lounge, or so I gathered from Kathy’s description of camp. That was an experience I could manage—not too far out of my comfort zone at all. It might even be fun.

But there was one other thing to do as a leader: Kathy asked me to be a chaperone on the boys’ bus to camp. There were three of us chaperones and about fifty boys, and I remember noting as I walked to the back of the bus that the last time I had interacted with a ten-year-old was when I myself was ten. When I said I wasn’t called to minister to kids, I wasn’t kidding. There was next to no kid interaction in my world. Also, as I worked my way back on the bus, I noticed these kids weren’t the kids that ran around the halls on Sunday after church. They looked different. They dressed different. They used words that kids from good Christian families didn’t use.

At the back of the bus one kid stuck out, Jose*. He was smaller than the other kids, but he made up for it in toughness and charm. In a group of kids he was always the center of attention. In other circumstances I would have described him as a natural leader. But in this situation the word I used to describe him was bully.

He was that special kind of bully who would be nice to you at first and then turn on you for his amusement. He knew how to inflict pain, usually emotional, in a way that he wouldn’t get in trouble for. He was smart enough to follow the letter of the law, but always found a way to bend the rules as much as possible. Because he was clever, likable, and wore the popular gangster-style clothes, the other kids would rarely shun him even though he often tormented them.

In my heart I despised Jose. I knew this kid was rotten to the core. I wanted nothing to do with him. And I was all too happy when the bus trip was over and I no longer had to deal with this conniving brat. Now I could go hide from kids at my activity for the week and make the most of the situation. But it wasn’t to be.

Not long after I got off the bus, director Kathy came up to me with a problem. Apparently, more boys had come to camp than was expected. They needed a couple more male counselors, and Kathy asked if I would mind switching from activities to be a counselor.

My inside and outside reaction to this change of fortune could not have been any different. Outside, I consented saying I would do anything “for the kids,” a mantra we often use when making personal sacrifices for our campers. But inside I shook my fist at God like a modern-day Jonah. I went from interacting with kids four hours a day to being responsible for the well-being of two kids, Tyler* and Miguel*, twenty-three hours a day (counselors get a one-hour break!). I wouldn’t be bunking with support staff; now I would be in a cabin dealing with the whining and fighting and mess of ten- and eleven-year-old campers.

I found I wasn’t a very good counselor. I often dozed off during our cabin activity time while the kids in my cabin ran wild. Also, for some reason, I kept calling Miguel by the name Victor. This is especially bad because we wore name tags all the time. But Tyler and Miguel were easy kids. Neither of them talked too much, and they only got into a fight once when Tyler smashed a rubber exercise ball with a handle on it into Miguel’s face. Without much prodding, I was able to get Tyler to apologize. In retrospect, I realize Kathy probably gave me easier kids on purpose because I was a rookie.

My real breakthrough came a couple days into camp. I was already worn out, exhausted, and ready to quit. I had no idea why I was there, and I was sure that my “suffering” was pointless. That summer in California was particularly hot (with no A/C at the camp, anywhere) so even though counselors could take a short break at pool time if needed, I found myself getting in with the kids so I could beat the heat.

For some reason I can’t remember, I found myself talking to Jose, the little miscreant I had to deal with on the bus. I don’t remember what we were talking about, but I do remember Jose expressing he wasn’t happy about being at camp. He was sitting on the edge of the pool and I was standing in the water, so that my eyes were close to the level of his legs dangling in.

There wasn’t much to him. I remember thinking how scrawny he looked, especially when he wasn’t wearing his hoodie and baggy pants. I noticed some odd marks on his legs, and I almost casually asked him what they were. But the question caught in my throat.

Cigarette burns.

There were dozens of them. In that moment God revealed my foolishness. I had put Jose into a neat little box that made it easy to write him off with words like conniving and brat and rotten. But I had no idea of who this kid really was. I had never experienced anything like the torture he had experienced at the hands of people who should have been protecting him. I had no reference to begin to understand how that kind of pain at that age twisted his understanding of right and wrong and even reality.

“I want you to love these kids without condition,” God told me in my heart. “Love them because they are my children. That is reason enough.”

With that request, God broke me. The tears I could not hold back went unnoticed because my face was already wet from being in the pool.

At the talent show, Jose and some of his followers did a rap. He looked angry, but as soon as he broke into his lyrics, we were thrilled:

I love camp.

The food is delicious.

The counselors are awesome.

Archery is the best.

 

And so on. I had no idea he was enjoying camp so much. I didn’t realize the walls that these kids-God’s kids—put up are a defense mechanism for survival in dark situations designed to destroy their lives and souls. And yet so many of the kids that come to camp are extremely resilient (Jose included), and like seeds they will grow when they receive water and light.

Jose came back to camp for several years, and there are two more stories that come to mind. Once when he had caused a particularly problematic disturbance, I had a chance to pull him aside. I told him he was a gifted leader. Kids would follow him. He had the choice to use his leadership for good or bad. It was his choice. He was stewing quite a bit, but I think he heard me.

The other story I only know secondhand. We had a superhero theme that year, and Jose fashioned himself as the Dark Knight. One morning at five o’clock, he was missing from his cabin and later found in costume patrolling the grounds. He was protecting his fellow campers.

As for Tyler and Miguel, I struggled to connect with them other than being a caregiver. They were both eleven years old, so they “graduated” that year and were not allowed to return. At our camp we do a late-night graduating ceremony for those kids who aged out. At this ceremony we eat treats and counselors say encouraging things to their campers.

I explained to the group that I had struggled to call Miguel the right name, often calling him Victor. Then I explained that perhaps the reason that I called him Victor is because he was going to be victorious.

“I believe Miguel is a bright kid with a bright, victorious future. And he will always be a Victor in my heart,” I explained. It sounds hokey now, but at the time I think it meant a lot to Miguel.

The buses rolled away from camp. I was again on the bus as a chaperone. These kids were facing the fact that camp doesn’t go on forever and that many of them would be going back into a system that struggles to give them any sort of true home. Some, like Jose, were tough. But other boys wept aloud. I had little with which to comfort these kids. In the end, I moved from seat to seat putting my arm around them and just being there.

When the buses got back to the church, they unloaded the kids and their luggage. One by one, caregivers picked up the kids. Soon they were all gone. I haven’t seen or heard from Tyler and Miguel since then. But God stirs my heart from time to time with memories from that week, and I think of them and pray for them. It took a long while to process that week. To say it changed me sounds cliché. But let me try to capture what it meant in my life.

First, I encountered God at camp like never before. Many Christians at varying levels of spiritual maturity struggle on a daily basis trying to determine God’s will for their lives. I have a lot to say on this, but at camp this question never entered my mind. For that one week there was no anxiety over what God wanted me to do. I wasn’t wondering what music should I listen to, or if I gave enough money to church or if I should watch football or read my Bible. The freedom this gave my spirit was incredible. In fact, it made my “real” life feel fake and my camp experience feel real.

Second, and almost opposite, it caused me to question God in very real ways. Sure we all know there is evil in the world, but RFK camp forces you to see its ugliness up close. Why would He allow Jose to be painfully burned by cigarettes? Why would He let His children be forgotten, abused, molested, humiliated, and crushed to the point that they couldn’t accept the love they needed even if they were offered it? I don’t have easy answers for these questions, but I have made peace with God over these issues. Through this struggle, my faith in Christ has been refined and it has brought me close to Him. For some, I know, this is a bridge too far. But there is no lukewarm here.

Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, I was no longer ignorant of these forgotten children. Or, to put it another way, now I would have to harden my heart against them and, perhaps, God, if I did not in some way alter my life so I could help bring God’s love and care to these orphans.”

Jacob Roebuck Camp Counselor – Director of Feature Film “CAMP”

*To protect camper confidentiality, names have been changed.

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