My Favorite Camper

I met Tiffanni at Preacher’s Kids’ camp. As was her MO, she was dating a jerky guy and I was intrigued. Why do great girls go for those types of guys? I found myself working for the entire weekend to make her laugh. I wanted her to escape from her dredged relationship into my light-hearted humor. She laughed a lot, but I don’t know if she ever realized the contrast. She was in 9th grade, and I in 10th– 1992.

I saw her again the next year at summer camp. She said hello to me with a cautious smile, her brain churning to remember how she knew me. She tried to convince me later that she always knew it was me- embarrassed to admit I hadn’t left much of an impression. But her smile was the same. It had marked me.

I met other people, but always kept my eye on her. She had a group of friends that decided they weren’t going to waste time with boys that week. They spent the entire week having fun with each other. Laughing and praying together. They lingered at the altar every night crying and snotting all over each other, indifferent to anyone’s opinion.

The next year I came back to camp as a graduated senior and she was a camp counselor. Stationed at the lake, making sure that us kids wore our life jackets, so I absent-mindedly forgot mine every day, just for the reprimand. Any notice was a good notice. I stood beside her and talked away the afternoons, distracting her from her life-saving- but she was doing more important work.

The next summer, I worked the camp, hoping that she would too. She didn’t, but I remember one single night in two months that she showed up just to visit her friends that were there. She was taking a summer class, she told me, and couldn’t come to camp that year. She sat in the camp service, in the balcony- so I did too. The best night of the summer.

That fall, she came to my College as a freshman. For the first time ever, I had her to myself. Every day I walked her to class- how else would she find her way around the campus? We ate together, went out with friends on the weekends, and I invited her to the piano practice room to sing while I played. I had just taken a beginner course and her voice made my novice chord pounding playing sound brilliant. And inevitably, I won. As all upper-classmen do, I turned on the charm and she swooned.

By the end of the school year, we were asked by one of the traveling worship teams to join. I’m certain they asked me to play piano because they knew she would be more likely to sing. With 9-months experience as a piano player, we joined a traveling representative recruiting group for our college and went to camps up and down the East Coast all summer. It was the best summer of my life. By now, you can surely tell that I have a thing for summer camps.

The next year I interned with my brother-in-law who was a youth pastor. He had recently started a summer camp called Beach Freak (which parents still furrow their brow when they hear the name.) I was asked to play piano and Tiffanni to sing. I led a small group of middle school boys (who are in their 30’s now) and fell in love with the camp. After seeing and experiencing dozens of camps all over, there is nothing like it.

The next year, Tiffanni and I were married and became youth pastors. We brought our group from Tennessee to the camp and never left. Every summer for 19 years. We’ve attended Beach Freak longer than every student here this year has been alive! And boy do we have the stories. We’ve watched teenagers find their calling, give their hearts to Christ, release the past, and embrace the future. We’ve seen several marriage proposals, tragedy and heartache, restoration and transformation. Beach Freak has impacted us and those we bring for two decades.

Every summer for 25 years, we’ve camped. I watched Tiffanni as a camper love her friends and then as a counselor, love students. Then as a youth pastor, I watched her pour her life into young people- crying and snotting every summer. I guess that’s part of the experience. And then last night during the service, I watched her sit, wedged between two of our leaders so that her body couldn’t flail too far to the right or left. She pinballed off of them all night. Then they escorted her to the café, arm in arm, and placed her at a picnic table to talk and laugh with everyone. Where she used to entertain, now she watched and listened. Her smile, still as bright, her eyes bounced around the table as people told their funny stories. And my favorite camper and I did what we do every summer- we hung out at camp.