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RelationSHIFT Great Gathering: Guest Post by Nick Coenen

14 Nov 2019 5:35 PM | Jen Burch (Administrator)

For those of us who have attended previous United Methodist Camp & Retreat Ministries National Gatherings, the start of the journey always feels the same. At least it does for me. After packing the night before and an inevitable poor night’s sleep filled with anticipation followed by the long journey of driving to the airport from our relatively remote camp and retreat centers at some pre-dawn time, loading into a flight or two as we watch the familiar ground of our home states shrink below us, arriving in some new place like an anxious camper walking up to the registration table with our bags tiredly pulled behind us, loading into shuttles to finally arrive at our new home for the week. Did that sentence feel long? So does travel…but it’s always worth it, right?

This is my seventh national gathering event. In camp-staff-dog years, that makes me somewhere in my middle-age thanks to the beautiful longevity I see in our colleagues. While I tend to be a bit introverted, I still know the faces of most of my United Methodist family. I know the eager smiles, familiar laughs, and hugs that come eagerly from those who are committed to tending the same campfires as me, just with different lakes, mountains, rivers and deserts in the background. It’s our extended family arriving for another family reunion.

As we boarded the shuttle from the Greenville airport though, it felt quite different. I saw people that looked like my UM brothers and sisters, but somehow I didn’t recognize a single face on the bus. It was like an odd dream. Did I…did I get on the wrong bus?

So imagine how much stranger it felt as we arrived at Lake Junaluska; a beautiful United Methodist site where I had even been to a previous National Gathering event several years ago. At registration there were the familiar fleece-vested organizing team members…but not a single face I recognized…oh wait…is that Mike Huber?

This odd dissonance lasted the first several hours. Eerily the same, yet somehow unfamiliar and altogether different. It was unsettling to me somehow. How different would this week be? We settled into worship for the evening, gathered together below the exposed wood and history of the Stuart Auditorium. We sang, we prayed, and we laughed. We marveled together as Ken Medema weaved anthems of the words we heard shared into instantaneous song. At the right of the stage stood a giant blank canvas for Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity to share her gift of worship art with us. It stirred in me a wonder of just what kind of painting would fill that canvas as the week progressed. What kind of new creation would God make of all of us?

The week proceeded with an insightful keynote from Joan Garry, who challenged us to reexamine how we prioritize and structure our non-profit effectiveness. Dr. Jim Cain stirred us with insights and new skills all week long. We heard from Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor in one of the most resonant messages of appreciation and gratitude for the work we do I have ever heard. Shane Claiborne reminded us that the need for our deep commitment to share Christ is the essential path to love needed to restore a world that seems so eager to break itself. Rev. Dr. Luke Powery concluded the week by reinforcing the potential we can have as a truly unified body of Christ, working together as unique parts, but divinely whole too.

This feels familiar. It was encouraging and good for my soul. But do you know what was even better for my soul? Getting to know the names, ministries, and stories from all of those new faces. These were not my UM brothers and sisters. But they were my beloved siblings from denominations that have much more in common with mine than I might have considered. There were people I met who serve in camp and retreat ministries located in the same state (just a few counties over!) from where I have served for the last 14 years. And yet, in many cases, this was the first time I had ever met an actual living, breathing person from the staff of “the other church camps” in my state. It took two flights and bus ride, but we finally met!

With these newfound friends, we shared our successes and struggles as the week went on. What a joy it was to ask questions like, “What is the best part of your camp?” and hear such wonderfully similar stories that remind us all of the best moments of serving a God who shows up in miraculous ways. And -- can I be real honest for a second? There was a small bit of relief to hear from other denominations without the looming anxiety many of us have felt from our United Methodist connections in recent years. I was reminded that despite the weight of all the decisions that are out of our control, the basic model of camp and retreat ministries remains incredibly effective. That while our future may be uncertain, our mission to show Christ’s love, grace, and forgiveness in all the ways we can remains the same and all the more important in this difficult season. That while some parts of the body of Christ are hurting, we continue to be places where all are invited to know God more. That when someone feels unsettled in a new crowd of unknown people, they can feel the comfort and care of Christ through our words and actions, inviting them into something new and good.

Had it not been for the Great Gathering, many of us would have continued to journey in parallel to brothers and sisters who tend campfires just like ours, just under a different name. But now, after a week of shared meals, worship, teaching, and communion, perhaps we can move forward with a broader understanding of what the kingdom of God might look like here on earth.

There is a common sadness as an event ends and we say good-bye to an even larger family who truly “gets it” when we share about the joys and challenges of camp ministry. Yet there is also a deep and resounding joy as new connections have been made and new partnerships of faith forged as a result of this historic gathering. Now that we have found joy together, may we be eager to remain connected, and may we find ways to meet again this side of heaven.

Nick Coenen is Director of Pine Lake Camp & Retreat Center in the Wisconsin Conference. His newest ventures include (but are not limited to) becoming an Emergency Medical Responder and developing a local youth Lego League.

Somehow Nick was able to write this reflection *during* the Great Gathering. The UMCRM Association extends its admiration and gratitude for this gift.

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