Holding hands in a circle and singing out the Hebrew words “Shalom chaverim”, to the starlight sky in Resistencia, Argentina, I look around at our group, bundled up in the winter air with hats and scarves, our eyelids heavy with sleep after a busy four days of games, crafts, workshops and singing. Flags from many nations decorate the patio and cultural costume items are strewn on the surrounding tables, flat brimmed hats from dancing the Chilean cueca and the Paraguayan polka, guitars and song books from singing Puerto Rican melodies and a pretend fireplace used in a skit of telling Argentine one-liners.
As we sing the familiar lyrics of Shalom, my mind wanders to my summer camp experiences at Horton Center in mountains of New Hampshire. A year ago, every night throughout the summer, my voice drifted through the trees joining in with those of campers and staff, singing the song first in English, next in Hebrew and lastly in Shona. In fact, as a youth, it was at that summer camp where I first truly saw the face of God. It was there, as a staff member, that I crawled out of my sleeping bag on a ledge overlooking the White Mountains and felt called to apply to Global Ministries. Now, I find myself singing these same words in Spanish, Guarani and Mapuche. On a different continent, in a different culture and surrounded by people I just met, we sing this same song and here too I feel the presence of God.
This week, there are 51 of us gathered here in Resistencia, Argentina for an international camp leadership conference. It’s a varied group, in nationality, age, and experience and because of that, we originally had various concerns. As we gather just weeks after the final game of the Copa América, we considered that the Argentines might be hostile to the Chileans, or that the Chileans would brag, or that break time soccer games might turn into the Copa América take two. We hoped that political standpoints wouldn’t cause rifts between the Puerto Ricans and Americans or the Paraguayans and Bolivians. We hoped that differences in cultural norms, like how to drink mate (a popular loose leaf tea), the correct time to eat dinner, or varied vocabularies wouldn’t cause separation but instead provide opportunities for sharing. Years of planning and coordination between countries took place to get us all here this week. As the dates drew closer and we gathered materials and set up decorations, we prayed that God would move in the lives of the participants.
My week at the international camp leadership conference has reaffirmed the belief that I’ve held all along: camp changes lives. There’s something special about cheering on team members in a ridiculous game, chatting and praying with your cabin before bed and fervently singing a song about a watermelon who aims to conquer the world. Silly costumes and puppet shows, bear hugs and group chores, stringing beads and intentional conversations are all part of what makes camp great. At camp, we learn to work as a team, to see past the walls of society’s stereotypes and to provide space for each person to grow.
Now, as our time together comes to a close, we ready ourselves for tough goodbyes and days of traveling back to our home countries. We rejoice in the ways that camp has changed our lives and are thirsty for opportunities to pass it on. We value our new friendships and leave behind false stereotypes. We leave with a better understanding of resilience, dignity and integrity. Maybe, we leave with more questions than when we arrived.
We know that there’s still work to be done, in our churches, in our communities and in ourselves. We know that not everyone will understand the worth of the community that we created here. But now we, Paraguayans, Argentines, Bolivians, Chileans, Americans and Puerto Ricans leave knowing that we are not alone in this endeavor. We seek to spread the camp spirit outside the walls of summer and across the borders of our countries. We seek to sing the same song around the world: Shalom.
Lauren Kabat serves as a Global Mission Intern, serving with the Pentecostal Church of Chile at the Shalom Center. Her appointment is supported by Week of Compassion, Our Churches Wider Mission, Disciples Mission Fund and your special gifts.”