From Camp Counselor, Joanna Ueland
“I had plans for my summer, I was going to get out of my comfort zone and spend 2 months in another state working on a project. Well, God had completely different plans, but they still included getting out of my comfort zone!
I sat with my Bible in one hand and a wordless bracelet on the other, I was explaining the first bead on the wordless bracelet – gold, which stands for heaven. It was Tuesday night, the night I had so been looking forward to when us counselors would take time in the evening to share the gospel with the 2 girls on our team assigned to us.
I was at Camp David of the Ozarks, a camp for kids that have a parent currently in prison; it was senior girls week and my co-counselor Macy and I were assigned the oldest team, the 15-16 year olds. I was not expecting my campers to be that old, nor was I expecting the way my campers would respond to camp and certainly not the response I was getting from them right now. Papa Big Heart had said the first bit of camp normally went smooth before conflicts and problems surfaced; the minute our team of 6 were all together in our cabin, things had been rough, and it just went to from rough to worse!
I paused for a moment and silently begged God to know what to say and to give me wisdom! I had not yet finished with the gold bead, and Reta* was huffing and puffing in her chair and muttering about how she didn’t feel like this and to hurry up. Mandy* sat in the chair in the corner and had a pillow over her face and was clearly not interested when suddenly she burst out “I’m sick of this and it’s time you listen to me before I hurt someone or do something bad!” She proceeded to tell me how much she hated camp, how much she hated me and any other Christian there. She boldly stated “If God is anything like you or anyone at this camp, I never want to know Him!” I told her to never base her view of God off anyone’s actions, but to only base her view of God off of who God is and what the Bible says He is like.
Inside my heart broke, her words had cut so deep, I felt broken and raw, like a broken failure. All I had hoped for at camp was that I could give my campers a glimpse of Christ’s love, and it looked like everything was crashing down. I was struggling so hard to stay positive, happy, and loving. Reta then proceeded to tell me she didn’t want to ever hear testimony time again because no one here had any idea what she had gone through and nothing people shared even started to compare to her story! Mandy loudly said “Amen to that!” Reta had lost her brother only 28 days ago when his girlfriend stabbed him to death. I told them I was sure I could never ever imagine what they had gone through, but asked if they would just let me walk through the gospel bracelet for 5 minutes, then we could talk about whatever problems they had with camp or whatever they wanted. When I finished, Mandy said, “Wow, if God really came down like you said He did, He must have been a really nice person who wasn’t proud!” Even if she only remembered that one thing for that night I was completely thrilled.
Mandy and Reta then launched back into how I probably grew up with an absolutely perfect life, so why would I dare ask them if they wanted to share their stories. Mandy paused for a moment, then looked me square in the eyes and emphatically stated, “You do NOT deserve to even hear my story! I have more family members and friends that are dead than I have living. I don’t feel anymore and I certainly never ever cry about anything!” I sat there slightly stunned, these dear girls had experienced so much pain in their lives and their solution was not to play the victim, but for every pain they added a layer of bricks to the walls that surrounded their hearts. For a second it was as if I was staring at walls built so high from pain that the Eiffel tower seemed small in comparison. But I knew deep down under all those layers was a bruised and broken heart longing to be loved, longing to truly be loved, longing to feel again, but there was no way I could ever get there. I silently let a prayer slip up through the ceiling, begging God for a miracle in their hearts. I looked back at these two girls that I loved so much and they looked back at me, their counselor with the big yellow counselor t-shirt on that they disliked so much!
I then spoke as honestly as I knew how. “Yes,” I said, “I have lived an amazing life and grew up with an amazing family, and yes, you are right that I don’t have anything to complain about or a story half as hard as you!” Reta stared back at me with a shocked look on her face and said, “Thank you, Jo, for being honest. That’s my favorite thing I’ve heard so far!” I continued, “But when it comes to grief and losing someone I have experienced that. I lost 3 family members in 4 years and one of them was my mom.” Mandy looked up at me and simply stated, “Sorry Jo, can I give you a hug?” The three of us hugged and, even though it was brief, I could see a ray of feeling and compassion shining down on their wounded hearts.
For the next two days I had to hold tightly to that single ray of hope I saw admits the forest of chaos! Our four campers fought with each other constantly and it seemed like there was never a moment without tension. They had moments here and there at craft time or with the horses when they would be calm and happy, but at any given moment they would let their tempers fly and often dump it all out on me. The worst times though were when they would just cut everyone off and not say a single word, acting as if no one there existed. On Wednesday Mandy didn’t say a single words to me or anyone else for 8 long hours, no matter what I would do or ask her, not even a nod when I asked if I could take her tray at lunch. She began to crawl deeper and deeper into her cold silent hole. I was so worried about her and sometimes had to step into the bathroom for a minute to just let it all out and cry, begging God to work even though I felt like I was failing as a counselor. I kept taking every possible chance to get to serve Mandy and Reta or to show them that I did care, but I got no response. The harder I tried and the more I sacrificed, the colder they became to me.
“Something is going to have to change or things are going to explode,” I kept thinking. Sure enough, Thursday morning, explode they did! A group of us were standing around talking when I casually made a comment to another camper about camp that seemed like just a random meaningless comment to me, but somehow it flipped Mandy’s switch and she let it all out – cuss words and anything negative imaginable sprayed out like hot lava all over me. One of the counselor coaches stepped in and helped remove her from the situation so more girls wouldn’t get involved and it wouldn’t escalate any more. She stomped off out into the open field and told everyone to stay far away or she would hurt them! Once again my heart broke for her, the walls around her heart seem so tall and impenetrable!
After walking around outside in the field for about an hour, Mandy came in for lunch and sat down my me and didn’t say a word. Inside I groaned, hoping this wouldn’t launch into another 8 hours of complete silence. Near the end of lunch she leaned over to me and quietly said, “Jo, can I tell you something?” I nodded and said, “Of course!” She stared down at her plate and continued, “I’m sorry for saying all those nasty thing this morning.” I smiled and said, “Thank you, Mandy, that means a lot to me!” She added quickly, “Should we go play carpet ball after lunch?” I told her I would love to! I felt like hopping right up on top of the table right then and there in the middle of the sea of people and screaming, “Praise the Lord!” but my senses came back to me quickly and I stayed sitting squarely in my seat. The game was awesome and I could see her opening up. She kept giving me hugs and always wanted to walk hand in hand everywhere we went. She went from never wanting to be with me to clinging to me like I was going to disappear if she let me out of her sight.
That afternoon we were sitting outside Fort Turley chilling while everyone else was running around that field doing an activity and she finally opened up and explained why she’d acted the way she had during her week at camp. She said, “Jo, I know I’ve said I hate you and never want to see you again and I’ve been as cold as I possibly could toward you, but why do you just keep being nice? I don’t understand why you do!” I then got to share with her about Jesus and His unconditional love for us. Mandy then looked at the ground and admitted, “I was so cold to you because I was scared to get close to you! Every adult that’s been in my life that was supposed to care just turned around and hurt me, took advantage of me, and left. I didn’t want to get close to you because I was afraid you’d leave like everyone else!” I sat there feeling like balling my eyes out at her honesty scarred by such deep pain. I told her it was ok and I couldn’t always be there for her but I would pray for her everyday and do my very best to keep up with her after she left camp. We hugged and I felt her relax, as if she felt like she could drop her walls just a little bit! The rest of the day we had so many meaningful conversations about life and she always wanted me right with her all the time.
Friday morning came and she held my hand whenever she could but would hardly speak a word to me. “I’m scarred to leave,” she whispered, “I want to stay here forever. I finally feel safe and I’ll never forget about what I learned about God.” When the time came to load up on the busses after lunch, we hugged for the last time and the 15 year old teen that had firmly stated she didn’t feel anymore and she never cried melted and broke down sobbing in my arms, I cried too. I quietly whispered in her ear, “It’s okay to be sad, it’s okay to let it out and cry!” Tears flowed like a steady rain. Not tears that caused wounds and pain but tears that heal broken hearts dropped steadily, softly, on a battered heart, slowly starting to melt away a few of those deep festering scars that seemed so impossible to ever reach at first! I let go of her hand for the last time as she climbed onto the bus and silently begged God to hold her close, keep her safe, and help her realize it’s okay to cry…. that tears don’t always have to leave scars – but instead heal scars!”
*names changed for privacy