On July 8-9, the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, the Banquet Network, Cresthill Baptist Church in Bowie, The Gathering Place, and Skycroft Conference Center partnered to host the “Every Child Belongs” camp, an inclusive, welcoming camp for those with various disabilities. This is the second year for this unique camp. Space was limited due to the number of volunteers required.
The Cambridge dictionary defines BELONGING as a feeling of being happy or comfortable as part of a particular group and having a good relationship with the other members of the group because they welcome you and accept you.
Belonging is something most of us long for in life. We desire to be a part of a small group of friends, to be liked and accepted for who we are, but a lot of times, we are defined by our differences instead of our similarities; this can even happen in our churches. We desire a sense of community where we can be real and still be loved for who we are. This is one of our deepest desires, acceptance, and belonging — community.
You see, my daughter has disabilities, yet this is not her identity. Anna is a beautiful daughter of the King. Yet sometimes, it is hard to find a peer group, a small group, or even a worship service where we can honestly say she belongs and can be her true self.
Belonging Accepted and Loved
Every Child Belongs Camp at Skycroft Conference Center in Middletown, Maryland, is a rare jewel, a camp experience wrapped in love and acceptance. A camp designed for children and young adults with disabilities and their parents and guardians.
As we arrived at this beautiful facility in the mountains, every camper was assigned a special buddy for the weekend, and my friend Kim was Anna’s buddy. Kim encouraged Anna to use her talent to interact with other campers while playing the games Jenga, Trouble and Connect4. Anna loves the rules and competition of games. The smile on Anna’s face said it all. She was excited to be around friends in her element. Isn’t that what we all want for our children, a place filled with people who love and support and care for them with the love of Christ?
Katie, a beautiful, artistic young lady, was my friend and camper. As her buddy, I learned that Katie loves to color, paint and sing. She also loved the camp food! Katie was able to sing “Honey In The Rock” during a talent show, and the joy in her voice and on her face truly glorified God. Campers and buddies cheered each other by name as eager participants shared their talents.
Katie was already excited to experience camp again next year. Throughout the weekend, she told every staff person she met to “sign me up!”
Pastor Tommy Rowe and his son Brian from The Gathering Place Church in Bowie led worship and Brian led in singing and playing drums as an expression of praise. The campers, buddies, and staff lifted their hands and danced to the theme song, “Freedom,” by Jesus Culture, as they were guided by the Holy Spirit. At times, this beautiful expression of freedom in worship brought tears to my eyes. Pastor Tommy shared about our freedom in Christ with the theme verse for the weekend, John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will really be free.” We were encouraged to follow Christ, break the chains of sin, and serve others — to take off our masks and be who God created us to be, not trying to be something else.
Dropping the Mask
The irony is my daughter is who God created her to be. Anna doesn’t have a filter or much of one. She isn’t always in control of her emotions, and if she is having a bad day, it is not hidden behind a smile. She is honest with her words and her feelings. However, that can make some of us uncomfortable. I asked myself, who is more likely to wear the mask, her or me? Do I smile and say things are fine even when they are not? Maybe this is an area where Anna is more obedient to God’s call than I am. Yet, at Every Child Belongs Camp, she is not alone in a camp filled with other beautiful sons and daughters, without the filters and all the social graces we have been taught. Real, and loved by our Creator, each camper’s life has been planned by God for the purpose of bringing Him Glory.
As a mom of a daughter with different abilities, this camp was a beautiful gift — a place where my daughter and the other campers were loved and encouraged to be free in Jesus. As my friend Katie said, Anna agreed, “Sign me up. This is where I belong.”
Thank you to all who made this camp possible.
But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me.” II Corinthians 12:29.
Sherri Swanson is the coordinator of 12nine Abilities Ministry and the Young Adults and Adults ministry at Bayside Baptist Church in Chesapeake Beach and is the wife of BBC Pastor Glenn Swanson.
(feature photo of Sherri Swanson and daughter Anna, by Sharon Mager)