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A Camp’s New Mission

On a summer Saturday morning, Joe Dunlap stood on the front porch of the dining hall at Camp WaMaVa, giving out red patches and handshakes to each child as they headed for their parents’ cars.

“I’ll see you next year,” said a first-time camper with a big smile, trying to hold back tears.

For 62 years, the camp associated with Churches of Christ has brought youngsters to Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to play sports, toss water balloons, goof off during a scavenger hunt game called “jive turkey” and gather for worship at its Chapel in the Woods. There’s even a greedy momma bear who likes to raid the dumpster for leftover burgers and hot dogs for her cubs. She quickly retreats at the sound of humans.

Joe Dunlap

For eight years, Dunlap has served as director of the camp, which hosts about 500 children, teens and teachers over the course of six weeks each summer. He and his wife, Rebecca, met here as teens and were married 11 years ago.

“We only saw each other in the summer,” Rebecca Dunlap recalled. “Camp meant a lot to me and my spiritual walk with the Lord. Joe was meant to do this, and I was meant to support him in it.”

But even in the short time since the couple wed, the camp has changed. It used to be that “about 75 to 80 percent of the kids who came here were church kids,” Joe Dunlap said. Now only about two-thirds come from church-going homes, he said, “and that trend will continue as millennial parents send their children to camp (even though) they are not in the church anymore.”

For example, the camp’s fourth week included at least five campers whose parents had once been campers themselves and had grown up in Churches of Christ, Joe Dunlap said. But they no longer worship with a congregation in the fellowship.

“That is something that I am praying about,” he said. “What is camp doing that connects well with them, and how can we take that back to our churches?”

“It’s more than a camp; it’s part of my soul.”

He’s happy that campers come from diverse backgrounds — including the kids of Lamica Hembry, his neighbor in Herndon, Va. Hembry, a bartender, worships with a Baptist church. She said she likes bringing her kids to camp because “it’s just good wholesome fun. People come from all over.”

Despite its appeal and spiritual focus, “this camp is not a church,” Joe Dunlap said. “We need to work better with the churches so that this is not a ‘one week on, 51 weeks off’ kind of thing.”


To understand the connections made at camps associated with Churches of Christ, The Christian Chronicle spoke to students, counselors and parents at WaMaVa, which takes its name from the nearby locales it was designed to serve — Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.

Manny Furman

Let them know they’re loved: “I grew up here,” said Manny Furman, who has served as a counselor at WaMaVa for eight years.

“Over the course of the year I prepare to come,” said Furman, who graduated from Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn., in the spring and came back to the camp for the summer.

“I make friends that I will have for the rest of my life here,” he said. “Our goal is to try to make every kid feel like they are appreciated and they are loved.”

He remembers the advice he received from his former counselor: “If you want to yell at a kid, they are probably getting yelled at at home. You want to give them something different.”

No racial barriers: On the final day of week four, Furman shared breakfast with Sonny Simpson, 44, of Laurel, Md. Simpson has been coming to WaMaVa since he was a child. He has been an instructor at camp for years, but on this day he came just for the fellowship.

“It’s all family,” he said. “I drove up here this morning just to have breakfast with Manny.”

He met Furman years ago — as he fished the future counselor’s glasses out of the lake, Simpson recalled with a laugh. Immediately, the two were like family. “It didn’t register to me that he was black and I was white,” Simpson said.

“If that can save one kid’s life and bring them back to Christ, the whole summer is worth it.”

As the friends ate breakfast, they fist-bumped nearly every kid that walked by. They knew them all by name.

A place of reunion and salvation: Wayne Wolfe, 43, lives in West Virginia and grew up in the Church of Christ where his dad preached. He now attends a Catholic church, but brings his two daughters to WaMaVa.

“It’s more than a camp; it’s part of my soul,” he said from the back of a tractor as he deposited gravel in front of the dining hall.

He loves the openness about faith he sees here, he said. “If that can save one kid’s life and bring them back to Christ, the whole summer is worth it.”

The camp also allows kids “to mingle with other cultures,” Wolfe said. “We are out in West Virginia, and I don’t see anybody. People from Deanwood (a neighborhood in northeast Washington) come down here. They don’t ever see trees!

“This is an awesome place.”

• Learning to live by the light: The camp’s assistant director, Joshua Decker, wants children to experience spirituality in a way that goes beyond sitting and listening to adults preach.

Even walking to hear a sermon can be a learning opportunity, as demonstrated by a recent “blindfold devotional.” With covered eyes, campers had to listen for the speaker’s voice to find the location of the devotional.

“Meanwhile, there were other voices intended to distract and throw the campers off the trail,” Decker said. “The point is that there are many voices telling us what to do, but we have to choose whether we listen to God’s voice or man’s voice.”

At another devotional, each camper received a glow stick but wasn’t allowed to “snap” the sticks, causing the chemicals inside to glow, until someone performed an act of kindness for them.

Decker urged the campers to hold on to their faith and continue to let their light shine — even after they return home.

“Let your light shine. Don’t hide it under a bushel,” Decker told the campers, quoting the lyrics to a popular kids’ song.

“And don’t let Satan blow it out.”

Filed under: faith Features Missions Summer Camp Top Stories Virginia Youth

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