The children and young people, thirty-seven of them ranging in age from 8-18, were gathered outside in a ragged circle around a stylized tree, covered with wooden leaves, each one decorated with paint, markers, and glitter. Around the young people towered living redwoods. One by one children spoke up: “My family is on the Tree,” “Music,” “Creativity,”…”My heart,”…”My liver.” Finally, one young person spoke up; “St. Dorothy’s, this is sacred to me. As much as my family loves me, as great as my friends are at school, this is the only place on earth where I’m at home, where I’m understood, and totally accepted.”
This was the final day of Health Camp 2 at St. Dorothy’s this summer, a camp for young people who have received major organ transplants: heart, bowel, kidney or liver. I had was the chaplain for the week, joining an extraordinary team of counselors and volunteers, most of whom were there for the whole summer, and a team of nurses from the Lucille Packard Stanford Children’s Hospital.
Katie Evenbeck and I agreed on Health Camp 2 as the best time in the summer for me to really be part of the summer camp experience this year, something I have been eager to do since coming to be Bishop of California. While serving as a priest in the Diocese of Virginia I spent four hectic but exhilarating and deeply satisfying summers as the chaplain at Shrine Mont, one of the camp and conference centers in that diocese (they are enormously blessed, as are we, by having not only one center, but two). I could paraphrase Robert Fulghum and say that everything I learned in life I learned at camp, but the learning came later in life.
Anyway, there was a challenge to being chaplain at this particular camp, that went even beyond the campers’ fragile health and the strictures this placed on camp practices (diet restrictions, sport restrictions, times for getting medications, as examples) – this was a secular camp. Being chaplain for a secular camp session…
Katie did tell me that the theme for the whole camp season this year was “Finding the Sacred in Our Lives.” I carried this around in my heart all spring, thinking of what we could do for chapel time during Health Camp 2. And then Sheila and I went for another visit to the Bali exhibit at the Asian Art Museum.
For a three week period three artists of the sacred sat on a platform in the central hall of the museum, fashioning clay plaques in eight different colors. The plaques were mounted on a framework of wood and chicken wire, and when completed it was the Tree of Life, the sacred cosmos.
Perfect! We could create our own Tree of Life during the week of Health Camp 2. I floated the idea to Katie, and we were off! Ben Evenbeck and two of his carpenter friends made a beautiful frame and a bunch of wooden leaves. I worked with the campers each day, deepening and broadening the idea of the sacred in everyday life: What is universally sacred? What is personally sacred? What is sacred for this camp?
Late on Friday night, the last night of camp, Katie and I and two counselors sat with a group of teens in the velvety darkness on Lydia Point, the shadowed land falling away beyond us, a group of people perched on the edge of the world. They wanted to talk about their grief over the death of one of their friends, a camper who had come for years, but died suddenly before Health Camp 2 in 2010. Their conversation was loving, funny, deeply touching for me. At the end Katie began a circle of prayer, which I ended, lifting all of this up to God, the one as near us as the night, and who yet fills the whole universe.
The next day, on one of the last leaves placed on the Tree of Life, our picture of the sacred universe, there was the name of their friend who had died. Evergreen, alive in God’s infinite, beautiful cosmos.
The tree of life as it appeared at San Francisco's Asian Art Museum (above), and our version at St. Dorothy's Health Camp 2 (below) with Katie and Ben Evenbeck.