When I was growing up, I attended a family church camp in my home town of Rushville, Illinois that had a strong influence on my spiritual life. This year, the camp (at that location) turns 100, so I wrote the following as a commemoration of that milestone. Experiences like this, I’m afraid, are becoming scarcer, so the least I can do is keep the spirit alive through language. If you’ve had a similar experience, I’d love to hear about it!
By the end of the service, the tabernacle emits the only light. High in the rafters, bare bulbs swing gently on electrical wires, casting light from above. The whole building glows yellow in the night, radiating out from the open sides, barnlike panels propped on poles at ninety degree angles to the upper portions of the building. Wooden pews fill the interior to the edges of the concrete floor, pews that have weathered generations of campers, some of whom have scratched their names into the layered paint.
All aisles, all the orderly rows of pews, angle to the altar. Though the speaker’s platform is behind the altar, and the rows of more pews that designate the coir space are behind that, still the altar seems the focus of the tabernacle. The choir peers out onto it; the evangelist in his pulpit bows his head towards it. Those in the pews meet these gazes, and the weight of all their eyes rest between.
The bell calls us in. Summoned by its clanging, from all across the grounds, we come. Teens clatter down from the dorms on open stairs; families drift in from individual cabins; camper doors click shut beside the shower houses and feet scuff down the dusty gravel path, all moving towards the tabernacle. July’s long days keep the air bright. It will be another hour before dusk creeps in with purple light and fireflies wink signals across the darkening space.
Organ and piano music begin to accumulate at the front of the tabernacle, gaining sound until it spills out of the open sides and floods the grounds. Nothing But the Blood of Jesus. Redeemed. Holiness unto the Lord. Are You Washed in the Blood of the Lamb?—old hymns, so familiar to most of us that we don’t need the hymnals to sing along. But the clearest music, rising above the instruments, is the voices—all across the grounds, individual voices: the giggle of children; the gravely tones of farmers, cleaned up after a day of baling; the murmur of older women, chatting in groups; teens, laughing, calling across to a friend; the wail of a baby. As we walk towards the tabernacle, our voices blend, merge, harmonize. We are the Church, all here to worship, and our combined words are the praise that we carry into the open building, that hangs in the heat of the evening, that slides down the pews and fills the sanctuary.
Two hours later, the sky has darkened. Stars, high up, punctuate the night and fireflies are the semicolons to the stars’ periods, unblinking and eternal. The night has hushed us—the night, and the quiet row of people who are kneeling at the altar, individual faces obscured, they are souls only, speaking in syllables that reach no one’s ears here. Above their lowered heads, though, there is a slightly stirring breeze, evidence of things unseen, and it lifts their words beyond them. In the darkness, the tabernacle emits the only light, and it is light not only of the bulbs high up, swaying on wires, but of something flowing in from the high open windows, a trace of shekinah glory that no one can explain.