As the long days of summer wane, we’re enjoyed some days of “rest” following 5 amazing weeks on the road. I’m finding it hard to capture with words what we’ve experienced this past month as it’s been so extraordinary, but I’ll give it a try. Just know my words will fall short.
We flew to California on Thursday, July 18, after spending three days at home upon our return from Uganda. It was just enough time to get done what we needed to get done (with no time to spare) and we were off for three weeks of family camps. Prior to family camp starting at Forest Home on July 21, we managed a daylong trip to hang with my mom, and a day with Garcias, and then family camp.
It was such a joy to be back at Forest Home for our second consecutive summer, and we were thrilled to be teamed up with Mandie Pinto (worship leader), Brandon and Kara Reed (pastoral host), and Ricky and April Jenkins (the evening speaker). We loved our entire team and felt so privileged to be with this incredibly talented, Christ-centered group of people. Paul and I taught every morning on family and marriage issues and were very humbled by the reception given us by the campers. Do you know how much we love family camp?? :)
As happy as we were to interact with the sold-out crowd, we were most happy that 10 of those attending share our DNA. Yes, thanks to Forest Home's extreme generosity, our whole immediate family was invited to be their guests and we were once again put up in the “Englehaus,” a three-story, perfect-for-our-crew home, where we enjoyed many memory-making moments together. So blessed! We had a blast together enjoying the mountains, the pool, the craft area, the lake, and the many wonderful family campers with whom we were sharing the week. A highlight for us was having our kids do a “Q & A” session following our parenting talk, in which they candidly responded to no-holds-barred questions posited by the audience. Their responses were insightful . . . even to us at times! We are so grateful to have shared this week together and are looking forward to returning in 2020 (July 26–August 1).
The day family camp ended at “big” Forest Home, we managed to have a birthday breakfast for Nathan’s 6th at Garcias’ on our way to Forest Home Ojai to get ready for our two weeks of H.I.M. Family Camps. Doughnuts, bacon, and dinosaurs were the favored themes of the celebration, and fun was had by all.
On to Ojai we continued to launch our first H.I.M. Family Camps, which also was the “resurrection of our brand of family camp.” Though we have prayed and hoped the door would open up for us to return to do family camp at Campus by the Sea, that has not come to pass, so we landed in Ojai to continue this family-life-shaping tradition, which has been the centerpiece of our heart-driven ministry our entire marriage, and which sadly had been suspended the past two summers.
Admittedly, we had many concerns, fears, and trepidations. Would the campers make the adjustment to a new facility? Is there really any way to replicate the experience CBS offers in a place that’s “on the grid” and “drivable”? Could the recreational opportunities at Ojai compete with being on the ocean? How could we pull together a team and orient them in 24 hours vs. the week-long orientation we’ve always had? Could our brand of family camp be resurrected?
Let’s just say, the “giants” were real and we had a fair degree of anxiety leading up to July 27th.
But then . . .
Twenty-seven hours ahead of launching family camp 1, the most incredible group of young people gathered for final preparations. With Elementary Director Shelby Dreves, and Junior High through College Director Lisa Friesen, the team of seasoned veterans had developed the children’s and teen’s curriculum (based on Paul’s adult curriculum) over the previous weeks. Every single staff had previously served on staff and/or had been raised going to family camp.
They definitely had what it takes. They “get” family camp, having been “raised in it” and having served previously. In a real sense, they had been in training for this week for 18–36 years. And because they “got” it, we spent no time going over staff standards of behavior, life-in-community expectations, nor did we have to make a “naughty word list.” We had the greatest confidence that this group would live, love, and serve well, “as unto the Lord,” and that our family campers, who so highly value the modeling impact of the staff on their progeny, would not be disappointed—and we were right.
We couldn’t have asked for a better staff team and it was such a joy to serve with them.
With high expectations and even higher spirits, we launched Sunday evening, July 28.
Some things never grow old.
And some traditions should never be broken.
Singing the “Butterfly Song” is one nearing the top of those lists, so sing it we did, and the 5th generation of campers continued that tradition which began in 1976. The “Littles” loved it, but not as much as the “Bigs.” Where or when else do you see teens and college students enthusiastically doing the motions to a very meaningful kid’s song?? No coercion, no bribery . . . but their choice to joyfully sing a song they’ve loved since they were Littles.
Very sweet, redemptive moments.
At that, we were off and running—and the “giants” of fear and uncertainty we had dissipated.
God is so faithful.
Great small group times, inspiring teaching by Ray Johnston (joined by his son Scott for two sessions), heartfelt worship (led by Jacob and Whitney Kovacs, Liz Yardley, and Johnny Kovacs) including the memory verse set to music by Jacob and Whitney (which everyone loved and is still singing!), an exhaustingly fun night of square and line dancing, a hilarious game show night, late night ice cream sundaes, family lawn games and pool games, birthday and anniversary skits, poignant Paul-developed-and-led kid’s devotions every morning, banner making, the boat race . . . all tied together with many moments of interaction.
And though all of those good traditions contributed to a wonderful week, the overwhelming consensus at week’s end was “it’s not the place, but the people.” The community, bound together by a shared desired to grow in Christlikeness, experienced what we’ve all missed so deeply the past two summers: the genuine community nurtured in the context of family camp. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room on Saturday morning as the staff sang “The Benediction” to close our time together, knowing it would be another year before we would come together and celebrate this healthy, life-giving communion with one another.
“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Commit your way to the Lord and trust in Him, and He will act.” Psalm 37:4–5
All praise is His.
As great all all of these traditions were, and as much fun as the activities provided, and as profound as Ray’s teaching was, and as meaningful as reconnecting this community was, there was a much greater highlight in the week. It will be impossible to capture the depth and breadth of what we all experienced, but I’ll do my best.
The story really begins four years ago at Camp Berea in New Hampshire, the last year we ran the family camp program there before passing the baton to the Berea staff. A family of four, Greg and Tanya Marshall and their two children Nikolay and Sophia, arrived on the strength of their son’s insistence. He had heard about family camp while at Berea’s Deep Freeze weekend and thought it would be a great place for his struggling family. And so they came, really knowing no one and by their own admission, not knowing Jesus, but hoping to find something that would help them keep their family together.
They didn’t find something. They found Someone: Jesus.
Greg and Tanya asked to meet with us for counseling with a desire to “fix their marriage,” and after listening to them describe their issues and the hopelessness they felt for their marriage, we said, “We can give you some tools that will help your marriage improve, but honestly, those tools will be non-sustainable apart from a changed heart.” Since this was Thursday of camp, and they had been hearing about Jesus all week in their small group and in the speaker sessions, we built on that and presented them with the gospel, affirming that we believed only Jesus could produce lasting changes in hearts. We invited them to respond, and they both enthusiastically said “Yes! We want to follow Jesus.”
That was the beginning of what is now a four-year journey towards the heart of God and the changes are “night and day” in the words of their brother-in-law Gerrit. We met with the Marshalls last summer when we spoke at Berea, and they showed so much fruit of changed-by-Him lives. They’re involved in a good church, they are reading the Word, and their family is in a much healthier place. All praise is His!
What does this have to do with our week at Ojai? Good question.
The Marshalls visited Tanya’s identical twin’s family in Colorado earlier this summer, only to find a desperate-for-help situation. The marriage of Gerrit and Natasha Chalay was on the rocks, literally, and the whole family was in chaos and crisis. The Marshalls had read about our family camp in Ojai, California, and decided that was exactly what their beloved relatives needed. A call to Gabby seemed to put an end to that idea when she told them camp was sold out, but several days later a cancellation came in so the Chalays were in.
Twenty hours of driving later, this precious family arrived in Ojai on July 28th, knowing no one, including Jesus. They had no Christian context, no “Christianeze,” no knowledge of scripture or worship songs or of Christian culture.
And their start was rough.
Though we warmly welcomed them, 4 of the 5 were determined to leave Monday morning.
He had really different plans for them (unbeknownst to them).
Prayers for their family were offered in full force right from the start.
Thankfully, they stayed through our breakfast together Monday morning, and apparently there were enough walls broken down through our friendly banter over the Patriots-Broncos rivalry that the idea of leaving didn’t surface. After one morning in class with our gifted, Christ-honoring staff, the 9-year-old reunited with his mom at lunch exclaiming, “I loved my class! I have so many new friends. Can we come back next year?”
God was continuing His work. The talk of leaving subsided.
After two mornings of small group, two talks by Ray, and one talk by Paul, we met couple-to-couple with Natasha and Gerrit on Tuesday afternoon. Their hearts were open, and after talking about their marriage challenges for awhile, we asked them if they wanted to stay married? Yes, they responded. Do you love each other? Yes. Are you willing to do some hard work? Yes.
Similar to what we said to Tanya and Greg four years earlier, we explained that we could give them some tools that would help in the short term, but which would be non-sustainable apart from a changed heart. And we believe that Jesus is the only One who can change hearts. We explained the gospel, and after more talk about His design for marriage, and more talk about the power of the gospel, we invited them to respond. Both of them said they were definitely ready to say yes to Jesus, so they did.
By now, the whole camp was involved in this unfolding drama. Everyone was loving on them, interacting with them, making them feel very much a part of the community, sharing their stories of hope, and praying for them. All three children—Kenny (9), Annelieke (11), and Danny (14)—were being poured into by their staff and slowly but surely being drawn into the heart of God. At their request, we met with the whole family on Thursday and during that session, the kids prayed to receive Christ. Baptisms followed the next day, in the context of this amazing community which had become their new family in six short days.
In 43 years of marriage and camping ministry, we’ve never seen a more powerful display of God’s grace and redemptive work. We were in the front row of seeing God transform a family, replacing their despair with joy and their hopelessness with the hope found only in Him.
In the words of Natasha, speaking with her charming Russian accent, “We were broken birds, bleeding, and we are being healed.”
We assured them that there would be obstacles on the road ahead, and that following Jesus does not immunize us from pain, sorrow, and conflict because our sin nature is still a reality and we live in a very broken world, but the good news is that as followers of Christ, we’ll encounter none of the challenges alone. He will be with them. And His wisdom and presence will change them from the inside out. Day by day.
And so family camp 1 ended, but the impact of that week on all of us has not. We will forever be changed by what we saw and experienced that week.
And we have repented from our fleshly fears, trepidations, and concerns about even doing the camp.
By His grace, our brand of family camp has been resurrected. Though our hopes are that Campus by the Sea will one day again reopen to us, and we are all praying to that end, we are beyond grateful for what we were able to experience this summer.
All praise is His.