At first glance, The Naming Project’s summer camp experience looks like any other. There’s canoeing, swimming, arts and crafts, singing and gathering around a camp fire.
But this ELCA summer camp in Minnesota focuses on something deeper. For one week, young people between the ages of 14 and 18 come together to discuss human sexuality in the context of their Christian faith.
Youth at this camp are actively involved in conversation about the Bible and their life experiences as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and discerning youth, with a whole lot of outdoor fun mixed in.
“Our goal is to provide a safe place for young people to explore their faith and to share the message that each child is made and claimed by God,” says Ross Murray, director of the camp and a founder of The Naming Project. Ross is a member of Mount Carmel Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Minneapolis.
Beginning of the project
The Naming Project began in 2003 when three members of the ELCA sought to provide places of safety for LGBT youth. A year later, the founders had the idea for a “church camp.”
“Parents want their children to find a good and safe community,” says Ross.
For the past eight years the camp operated quietly, until it was featured in “Our America with Lisa Ling” on the Oprah Winfrey Network in March 2011.
While support from ELCA members and congregations for the church camp remains overwhelmingly positive, Ross hopes there will be a time when safety is no longer a concern for LGBT youth.
“Bullying still continues. And for many kids, they don’t know whether or not they’ll make it past the ninth grade,” says Ross. “There are kids still fearing for their lives. This camp helps provide a loving, supporting and safe environment. It’s designed to remind kids that they have been created and named as a beloved child of God.”
A life-saving experience
Ross says he has heard kids say that their experience at camp was life-saving.
“There are some kids that are really on the brink when they come to us,” says Ross. “One child, who was highly medicated, discovered that he didn’t need most of his medication after our camp. Most (of this child’s) anxiety, stress and fear went away.”
Ross credits the campers themselves for the emotionally safe environment. “They work hard at it,” he says. “And while we have kids of all sexual orientations attending the camp, there are straight kids who come, too. They’ve found it helpful to be part of this community.”
And the camp is also good for the ELCA, says Ross.
“It ensures that we have leadership for our church now and in the future,” he says. “If the public perception is that all churches hate LGBT youth, then there’s no reason for them to be involved with this church.”
And not only will that affect the ELCA, says Ross, LGBT youth will miss out on understanding that God created, knows and loves them.