My call to ministry came in a ramshackle little building with creaky floors and windows that let the bugs in: Central Cabin number five.
I’ve been asked countless times by committees and curious individuals just how I ended up sensing that God wanted me in pastoral ministry, frequently enough that I’ve honed my story into conveniently bite size pitches. The polite small-talk-at-a-party answer involves a joke about God being more stubborn than I am, which is true. The heartfelt join-me-in-ministry answer tells the story of a college kid touched by his work as a camp counselor, also true. The professional please-ordain-me answer centers the whole response in a divine encounter, definitely true.
What I rarely tell is the whole story.
While I had considered going into the ministry previously, I started working as a camp counselor at Judson Collins Center with my plans firmly set in alignment with the engineering degree I had begun at my Texas college the year prior. I had wanted to find an engineering internship for the summer but no one would hire me and so, without anything else to do during the day, my church invited me serve as a lay delegate to Annual Conference. The Judson Collins director was there and, apparently in desperate need of male counselors, made sure to meet me and practically hired me on the spot. I filled out an application, stopped by the next week for an interview, and it was official.
When the camps began, I was responsible for a cabin of elementary school boys from drop-off Sunday midday until pick-up on Friday afternoon. What began as the only gainful employment which would take me was suddenly everything I had ever wanted to do in the world. I was in my element and I loved it, so much so that I started thinking again about going into ministry. But I knew the difference between having fun and being summoned – and I hadn’t heard God do the latter just yet.
That came the last night before sending the final campers of the season home. I had gotten all of these rowdy third and fourth graders to bed and was laying dutifully awake awaiting the first all-cabin bathroom break of the night. To fill the time, as I made a habit of doing, I prayed for each of the campers by name, mentally working my way one cot to another, all the way to the other end of central cabin number five.
And when I did that night, I heard God speak.
It wasn’t a call to pastoral ministry just yet. Instead, the voice I heard said to pay special care to the final day with these campers. They were held closely in the divine grasp while at camp, I understood, and far less so when they left.
I let their names pass through my mind again and wondered for the first time about the lives they would return to. It felt like a non sequitur when the disconcertingly divine experience continued with an unquestioning call to ministry – a spoken affirmation that I would go to seminary and become a pastor. And though I stubbornly got my engineering degree first, I listened.
Later that night, I understood how it all fit together.
There was a young man in that cabin who had driven me absolutely crazy: Miles*. He didn’t get along with the other kids, was slow moving making us perpetually late to activities, and (worst of all) couldn’t tie his own shoes. I spent the whole week tying his shoes everywhere he took them off, which he did with frustrating frequency. I was more than ready to send him home to wherever he came from.
So of course he was the one to interrupt the joy of my newfound call to ministry with quiet sobs from his cot.
He told me that he didn’t want to leave camp, that he loved all of the camp activities and – most especially – he loved the Bible studies. I was surprised but thankful; he had picked the one camp activity that could be duplicated absolutely anywhere in the world, and I told him as much. But Miles disagreed.
His parents didn’t take him to church, he said. I could send him home with a Bible, but they wouldn’t read it with him. And when I realized that no one had ever even taught him to tie his shoes, how could he be wrong? I sent him home the next day with a youth pastor on a church bus and we were both distraught to see him go.
God is everywhere and, yet, some places especially so. The invitation to care for campers was just a particularization of my broader call to ministry. There and now still, the call to ministry for me is most faithfully the work of making places like that camp – places where the Miles in all of us can experience the presence of God and never want to leave.
Central Cabin number five was dismantled a few years ago. It was old and in disrepair, but it still hurt my heart to see it go. This morning, I got the news that Judson Collins would be closed for at least the 2020 camping season. With all the most faithful rationale I can muster, it still hurts my heart to see it go.
I imagine that there must have been no choice, though the hurting heart always and often wrongly imagines that there must have been. All I know is this: I don’t know where else Miles could have gone but I suppose he did have to leave.
Perhaps he found another faithfully crafted place or built one of his own. Perhaps this should always be the response when we lose a place we love.
God is everywhere and, yet, invites us to make places where it is especially so.