Camp Mennoscah remains an idyll in my mind, thirty some years after I last visited. I remember the camp as a little slice of heaven, somewhere amidst the scrub flatlands of central Kansas: it had trees shading at least part of the campgrounds; a wide river with a waterfall we could sit under; a pop machine that dispensed bottles of ice-cold Orange Crush; a donut maker for evening snacks; fishing holes in which to cast my line; and an oasis of a swimming pool, cool and blue and beautiful. We needed the pool, because it was hot at Camp Mennoscah. Hot and dusty and full of grasshoppers that banged against your legs on the walkway to the bathhouse. The cabins were hot, too, so that the plastic mattress stuck to your sweaty, sandy legs when you slept outside your sleeping bag—which was always, because it was so damn hot.
To me, it was also heaven.
I started tagging along with my parents when they were camp directors, and then went by myself the first summer I was eligible, when I was nine. And in that first summer, I quickly became one of those kids. If you’ve ever counseled at camp, you know exactly what I’m talking about: the kid who seems a little unhinged, always wanting piggy back rides, making jokes at inappropriate times, finding every possible way to get the counselors’ attention. That was me, especially when it came to the male counselors, eighteen- to twenty-year-old Mennonite college guys who struck my nine-year-old fancy. I couldn’t get enough of them, and looked forward to camp because it meant, at least for a week each summer, I could hang on the backs of college men, beg them to carry me, curry unrealistic fantasies about marrying them.
Except one time, walking up to the pool, I heard several counselors talking about me. They hadn’t known I wasn’t in the pool yet, I suppose, and figured they could grouse about me for a few minutes, the pool house a respite from the most annoying camper ever. That’s what I heard, at least from the mostly female voices echoing against the cement pool house walls: that they found me annoying, and that I was ruining their week. I suppose for some kids, this might temper them a bit, might compel them to stop making inappropriate jokes or beg for piggyback rides. But I wasn’t like some kids. I was that camper.
And then one year, right about the time I entered seventh grade, Camp Mennoscah changed for me. I started seriously listening to the camp message, rather than spending my time pulling at the clothes of the college counselors. I’d broken my leg a few weeks before camp, and was getting free piggy back rides everywhere, so maybe that compelled my attention elsewhere. But I think what really changed for me was the week’s speaker, and what really, really changed for me was the fact that she was a woman, and a strong one at that.
I’d grown up in the church listening ever Sunday to my dad’s sermons. They were great (I imagine; I found out as much as an adult), but a monolith: I never heard others preaching, men or women. My Sunday school teachers and Vacation Bible School teachers were women: some of them my friends’ moms, who had been dragged into the role; and others older folks who wanted to stay in touch with the church’s youth, I suppose, but who had little experience in what staying in touch really meant. (So that, at Sunday school, I was also one of thosekids—throwing paper airplanes while the teacher read verbatim from a long, long scripture story, or on at least one occasion, tossing notes out the second-story church window that said “Help me, I’m trapped!” I think I was only half kidding.)
But there was something different about the camp pastor my seventh grade year, when I hobbled around the hot and sandy grounds, my cast itchy and starting to stink. She was strong, like I said, with a vibrant teaching style that demanded kids’ attention. Her messages seemed relevant, interesting, exactly what I wanted to hear; and even 30 years later, I remember her week’s sermon series more vividly than any other religious message I heard at camp, at college chapel, in the many churches I attended. Using the symbol of a potato chip (aha! Maybe that’s why I remember), she talked about being salt and light on the earth, and what our roles, our callings, might be as salt of the earth. There was something special in what she was saying, entrusting to seventh graders the idea of finding one’s voice and one’s vocation, one’s place in the world of darkness, one’s calling to carry justice to all people. I left Camp Mennoscah that year feeling different than I had before: I had that annual post-camp high, of course, when everything is felt more intensely; but also the sense that I had purpose and direction, if only because Patty Shelly, the campus pastor, told me I did.
Years later, I discovered that Patty Shelly was a professor of religion and biblical studies at Bethel College, a Mennonite school in Kansas. And years later still, when one of my friends was facing grief as a woman teaching Bible at a Christian university, I wondered if Patty Shelly also dealt with those who told her she could not teach the Bible, especially to males, by virtue of her gender. In my seventh grade year, though, none of that mattered, because I had met my hero, the first person who had made the biblical narrative real to me in ways no one had before.
Somehow, in the weeks after returning home from camp, I also discovered Patty Shelly was a singer, and that she had an album. My dad purchased it for me from the Faith and Life Bookstore in Newton, Kansas, and I spent hours listening to her folksy songs on our living room stereo console. Hearing her sing on a real-live album with her picture on the cover made me feel like I’d brushed against fame: I knew the Patty Shelly, the one who had her own record album. And, you know, I still feel that way when we sing “There are Many Gifts, But the Same Spirit” in the Quaker church I attend. Because Patty Shelly wrote that song, too. I’ve even leaned into my husband when we’re singing and said “I know who wrote that song!” Good thing his memory isn’t that great—or he’d probably be really annoyed with my repeated name-dropping.
But the song itself embodies the message Patty Shelly made clear to me—that out-of-control camper, starved for attention—several decades ago. For despite what I’d been taught growing up, Patty Shelly showed me at Camp Mennoscah that there are women who have been called to preach and teach and transform others. In subsequent years, her song has reminded me again and again that we are all gifted by God, no matter who we are, no matter our gender, our race, even our religion. And that we need to celebrate our different gifts, embracing what makes us unique and what shapes our callings. And that, despite our differences, God calls us together to be salt and light on the earth. While I am prone to be that person, craving attention, trying to figure out who I am, (metaphorically!) pulling on others to get them to carry me, Patty Shelly’s words still ground me. Even thirty years later, I am still grateful.