At the heart of the Salvation Army camping experience

by Carol Shoults

With the summer months rapidly approaching, divisions are gearing up camps for ministry experiences and unique outdoor opportunities. Salvation Army camps offer children and adults the opportunity to get into the great outdoors, leave behind ordinary routines of work and school, meet new friends and develop relationships, and enjoy dedicated time to learn more about God and His amazing creation.

Activities like swimming, archery, ziplining and boating in a Christ-centered community help youth establish a sense of independence and encourage acceptance. It allows for kids from different cultures and backgrounds to find a common place where they can share experiences together.

At music camp, instrumentalists and vocalists advance in their abilities and learn how to make music together at all proficiency levels. At youth character-building camps, young people discover new interests and skills.

But can a few days, a week or even several weeks at camp really make a significant change in a young person’s life?

From his vantage point, Matt Walter says it can. He first worked at a Salvation Army camp as a dishwasher in 1999, and that summer changed his life.

“I come from a low-income situation, and my home life could be chaotic at times. I was a very introverted individual with low self-esteem. As a 15-year-old, I believed that camp was a little taste of what heaven would be like,” said Matt, recalling how the camp staff was encouraging and loving.

He accepted Jesus as his Savior and came home from camp a new person.

“I was confident and extroverted, knowing that my worth was not found in what my peers thought about me but what my God thinks about me,” Matt said. “My experience at camp completely changed my life!”

He carried that first-hand knowledge of how camp can change lives with him and it informed his ministry for 17 years as youth director at the Omaha Citadel Corps where he often encouraged children and families to take advantage of camp opportunities.

With his recent job change to Western divisional music director, he is looking forward to summers as he leads music camp, traditionally one of the division’s largest and longest camps. Throughout his time with The Salvation Army, Matt has seen many lives impacted by camping ministry and many people come to know Jesus for the first time while at summer camp.

As a young girl who grew up attending The Salvation Army, Major Joyce Winters, a retired officer, had many opportunities to accept Christ as her personal Savior during the quarterly decision time in Sunday School. When the invitation was given to accept Jesus into her heart, she knelt at the altar almost every time. However, it wasn’t until she was 12 and at girl guard camp that Joyce began to understand more fully what that meant and that she needed to do something herself.

“Perhaps it was because the message was geared to my age group, but it was then that a real change came into my life,” recounted Major Joyce.

She knew she needed to dedicate her life to living for Christ, and for Joyce this meant becoming an officer in The Salvation Army, which became a lifelong passion.

Joyce and her husband, Walt, raised five children together, and all of them and their spouses are still active in ministry.

Camp also played a pivotal role in the faith of Joy Caro, a soldier at the Aurora, Ill., Corps and teacher for children with special needs.

Joy’s family—10 children in all—didn’t attend church until her older sister was invited by a classmate, the daughter of a Salvation Army officer, to come to the corps. With her parents’ blessing, she did. After a few years when Joy was around 2, her sister was allowed to take Joy with her.

Growing up in the corps, Joy participated in programs like sunbeams and accepted Christ as her Savior as a junior soldier. She went to character-building camps throughout her youth and loved it so much she then worked for several summers as a teenager on camp staff at Army Lake.

At Central Bible and Leadership Institute (CBLI), Joy rededicated her life to Christ and says that afterward she relied on the Holy Spirit to guide her life and make decisions like which college to attend and whom to marry.

“Going to camp gave me a new experience that I never would have had at home and helped me in my teen years to develop my relationship with Christ,” recalled Joy. “It was a safe space—emotionally, physically, and spiritually—and this was the place where I started taking my relationship with Jesus seriously for the first time.”

Growing up, Lt. Ken Jones never left a five-mile pocket in Detroit until he attended Echo Grove Camp at age 13. It opened a whole new world for him. And it wasn’t just about discovering nature or having access to the pool, it was about meeting people.

“It really broadened my outlook. I met so many different people from diverse backgrounds,” he said. “But as we shared our stories, I began to realize what we had in common and that other people I’d never imagined struggled too.”

Rather reserved at home and school, Ken felt that at camp he could be himself and who he wanted to become. He grew not only socially but spiritually.

“CBLI was the place I loved and looked to grow my faith,” he reflected, citing small groups, being a camp counselor and learning from speakers and mentors whose faith ran deep. “Those camping experiences gave me access to teachers and officers to hear from and to look up to.”

Camp was also the backdrop for forming friendships. Some of these friends became as close as brothers and still play a vital role in Ken’s life today and he in theirs.

It was also during a CBLI night meeting where Ken was exposed to Summer Mission Teams, a concept that captured his imagination and catapulted him the very next summer onto a team to Hungary where God spoke to his heart about becoming a Salvation Army officer. He now leads the St. Clair County, Ill., Corps in the St. Louis Area Command with his wife, Captain Samantha Nolan-Jones.

Looking back, the lieutenant said, “Some people make an immediate impact on your life, and others like Jill Johnson or Jerrie Miller make an investment through camp, the huge significance of which you realize over time.”

Originally from Chester, England, Captain Christopher White was introduced to The Salvation Army through camp.

“God used Wonderland Camp in Camp Lake, Wis., to completely alter the trajectory of my life!” he exclaimed. “My experience through Camp America in the early 2000s working as a camp counselor allowed me to spend almost 10 months at camp over three years. While every camp was impactful, God used Central Bible and Leadership Institute and Central Music Institute to draw me closer to the people of The Salvation Army, to get to know leaders from across the territory and musical guests from around the Army world.”

He continued, “It was during these summers at camp that God spoke to me about His future plans for my life as a Salvation Army officer and encouraged me to get serious about my daily devotions. If I can fit morning devotionals into my life as a camp counselor, I can fit them in anywhere! This is a discipline I have continued ever since.”

The captain notes the youth camps especially drew him closer to the heartbeat of the Army as he worked with children primarily from inner-city Chicago.

Captain Christopher is now a divisional youth secretary and is excited that he gets to spend his summers back at camp, ministering to camp staff and campers.

Camp is where lifelong friendships are formed in an atmosphere of acceptance and love. It’s where lives are enriched, and some find their calling. Most importantly, Salvation Army camps are where people find Jesus.

 

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