If it’s summertime, it’s Vacation Bible School time in much of the country. Is there any news out there?
Now, I must admit that we never had VBS in the Eastern seaboard areas where I grew up. My brothers and I read or played or went to the beach. These days, kids are sent off to camp. One of the lures of a VBS is they’re free, which means several hours of no-cost daycare for working parents.
This hasn’t gone unnoticed by other faith groups and I've chosen two stories that have to do with a different kind of summer religious camp. One piece covers the trend toward holding Muslim camps and another finds a camp for kiddie community activists. The Muslim story comes from the Washington Post:
It was the last day of Camp Ramadan, and a sea of smiling parents had their arms outstretched, holding up more than a dozen cellphones to capture all of the song and dance and children’s humor contained in the end-of-camp assembly. And onstage, a normally polite and bookish 11-year-old was channeling Donald Trump.
The piece goes on to relate how the child does a skit mocking Trump and then,
When Mona Eldadah started this camp four years ago, the idea was mainly about getting fasting Muslim kids off the couch during the holy month of Ramadan, and into activities that were both creatively stimulating and unifying.
“I felt like kids were having this isolated experience fasting at home, and felt like, ‘Ugh, I’m the only one doing this,’” explained Eldadah, an interior designer and mother of four. And so began Camp Ramadan -- a week-long camp at the end of the month, where kids can fast together while also doing activities that are more enriching than watching Netflix.
Now, the camp has reached its largest number of campers to date at 101, and has acquired the reputation as a place where D.C.-area Muslim kids can learn about and practice a core Muslim tradition, while making friends, creating art and talking freely about current affairs -- like Trump.
The piece segues into an explanation of Ramadan fasting.
The practice typically starts around puberty. For many preteens and teens, it serves as an informal rite of passage into Muslim adulthood around the same time that Jewish kids are having bar or bat mitzvahs and some Christian kids are receiving their first Communion.
It appears the reporter has mixed up her sacraments. Most Christian kids get their first Communion way earlier than puberty. Maybe she was thinking of Confirmation, which often happens during the teen years?
Anyway, the article talks about helping kids build a Muslim identity, throws in a mention of Jewish summer camps, then returns to the main narrative about how the Muslim kids get a sense of pride in who they are after such camps.
If the kids discussed any darker topics, such as ISIS or feeling beleaguered as Muslims in America, the article doesn’t say and at least one conservative outlet felt the Post overdid it in the numbing-positive-news-about-Islam department.
This isn't the first time Camp Ramadan has made the news. Al Jazeera covered it two years ago with a longer piece that mentioned how the calligraphy instructor is Jewish and how these camps are lifesavers for kids who can't eat or drink all day.
I know it’s tough to find decent local religion stories in the summer and the idea of Muslim summer youth camps is kind of new. I could not help noticing how it seemed OK to inculcate Muslim values into kids at camp, but when a Christian group did the same thing a decade ago, they ended up in a film called “Jesus Camp,” about the dark designs of the Christian Right. Don’t you all remember hearing horror stories about the film and its supposed indoctrination of innocent children with religious dogma?
Don’t believe me? Read what the Guardian just came out with last week about “The Kids of Jesus Camp 10 Years Later: Was it Child Abuse? Yes and No.” Does anyone out there think these same filmmakers will make a “Muslim Camp” expose of this kind? I’m not holding my breath.
The second story was from Religion News Service about a liberal Protestant youth camp in North Carolina where kids learn to be community organizers.
“We Have the Power,” as the weeklong camp was dubbed, represents a recent movement within activist networks to invite children and youth into political action, and a renewed movement within religious communities to live out biblical teaching with good works.
Across the United States, churches are joining with social-change organizations such as the American Friends Service Committee, the Children’s Defense Fund and Kids4Peace to use summer breaks to teach children about the civil rights movement and how they might be part of its renewal.
The best quote in the story came from one of the pastors:
Brown said training young activists is a way “to be a beacon of light and love to our community, whether or not people join our church.
“Dr. King didn’t just fall out of the sky. Rosa Parks didn’t just fall out of the sky. Somebody groomed them,” he said. “We’re trying to groom the next generation of Freedom Fighters.”
If you scan VBS listings around North America, most of what’s out there are small announcements about goings-on at Protestant churches, although occasionally a Catholic church gets into the mix. I did look for atheist summer camps for kids but found nothing.
Despite the mockery towards evangelical Christian camps, it’s intriguing that other religions and liberal Protestants have taken a leaf from the evangelical playbook in using the summer as a time to combine faith and fun.
Now, it is possible for a mainline media organization to find actual news in the back story of an evangelical camp. Back in 1999, the Oregonian ran a long piece (yes, my brother wrote it) about the transformation of Rancho Rajneesh in central Oregon from a base for Hindu sex guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to a Young Life camp.
Which goes to say a story about any summer religious camp or program of this kind doesn't have to be boring or mindless. There are actual stories hidden in these ordinary events, but you do have to look for them.