Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Crying at Camp
distributed 8/16/02 & 6/15/07 - ©2002, 2007

Church camp is often an emotionally intense, even a life-changing experience.

A few weeks ago, I heard a mother talk of her son's return from camp. For him, the most significant event of the week was a late night conversation where the boys in the cabin talked about the deteriorating state of the earth. By the end of the evening, the boys were all in tears about the death and destruction that they see around our troubled planet.

Weeping is an appropriate -- and perhaps a necessary -- response to the numerous and broad-based crises that we face. But it is rare that we hear of people being moved to tears.

Maybe it takes the intensity of camp to allow those thoughts and feelings to surface.

As I have pondered the boy's experience at camp, I've looked for lessons that can inform local church ministries. I've been led to several insights about how our congregations can be helpful in addressing the world's eco-justice crises.

  1. The campers already knew quite a bit about environmental problems. I don't know what issues they discussed, but there is certainly no shortage of important problems. And it is not surprising that a collection of reasonably aware youth would be informed enough to have an evening's conversation.

    Indeed, I find that almost everyone I talk to has a general knowledge of some of the big environmental problems. They don't necessarily know enough details to talk about public policy options, but they are very aware of the danger of toxic wastes, air and water pollution, and habitat destruction. They know about species extinctions and global warming. Lots of churches put most of their efforts in addressing eco-justice issues into education, but it is quite likely that we really don't need to do much about providing our church members with that sort of basic information.

  2. The boys felt a personal connection with the problems they discussed. They felt compassion for the impacted communities, the threatened species, or even the earth as a whole. They realized how the problems will touch their own lives on a practical, emotional or spiritual level. Their tears speak of an emotional response that is far more complex and engaging than a purely intellectual knowledge.

    In our congregations, we can help people make these emotional connections, so that the problems we know about "out there" have a close-to-home feel. Our connection with the issues must move out of the head, and into the heart.

  3. They had an emotionally safe place do deal with their feelings. Young teenage boys don't cry easily in public. It takes a setting like church camp, youth group, or the family to allow the feelings to come to the surface, and to let the tears to flow.

    The need for a safe place is not unique to children and youth. It may be even more necessary for adults, whose emotional barriers are higher, and whose social expectations are even more constrained.

    There is a tremendous need to create emotionally safe places where people have the time, and the support, to touch the feelings that are stirred up by their knowledge and their compassion. We must find times -- like the boy's church camp experience -- when it is possible to process the complex and difficult feelings that we so often have to stifle.

    Churches should be good at that. But from what I hear, churches are not often intentional about creating settings for processing the deep emotions. Classes and committee meetings are not the right place. Retreats, fellowship groups and worship gatherings are far more appropriate. Certainly counseling sessions and pastoral care visits can delve into this intensely personal and vulnerable level.

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But the boy's experience at camp does not show us all that needs to be done. It is not enough to help people cry. We also need to help them find the tools, skills, community and commitments that will allow them to work toward healing and transformation -- for themselves and for the earth.

In the ministry of our congregations, we need to help people develop strong emotional tools, so that not paralyzed by grief and guilt, fear and anger. We need to provide a deeply grounded vision, so that it becomes possible to claim an energizing hope. And we need to help folk find effective ways to act -- including personal lifestyle choices, advocacy on legislation and public policy, and ways of standing in faithful resistance to destructive social values.

Our churches, if they are to be relevant, need to minister to the difficult knowledge, emotions and needs of all the folk in our churches -- the kids and the adults. As churches, we have unique opportunities to move people through a progression of stages. We can build on commonly available knowledge and lead them into compassion. We can provide settings that allow them to release and process deep feelings. And we can move them beyond the feelings into transformative ways of living and acting.

Those ministries are essential for our members, and for the earth. May we be intentional in planning all the stages of this important work.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
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