Every child should get the opportunity to go to summer camp.
That was the constant refrain playing in the minds of Josh and Libby Black when they had the idea for their church, First Baptist Church of Longview, to host a week of Pine Cove City. That idea in itself is not so extraordinary; hundreds of churches partner with Pine Cove each year to bring day camp to their area. But Josh and Libby wanted to take it a step further. They wanted to host a week of camp exclusively for underprivileged kids in their community—and they wanted their church members to foot the bill. So they took the idea to their pastor, Collin Bullard, who was immediately on board. And soon, the rest of the church was too.
“Everybody very quickly said, ‘Oh yeah, this is cool. Let’s give other families an opportunity who would not get to go to camp. Let’s give them that camp experience,’” Josh recalls. The church raised $55,000 total, enough to cover the cost for 162 campers to attend a week of City for just $10 each.
The next step was to start reaching out to potential campers in their area. They found the closest elementary school to their campus and began laying the groundwork.
“We’d come in, do lunches for the teachers, or bring flowers, you know, just kind of little things,” Libby shares. “Knowing that in the spring we were gonna come in and bust out Pine Cove, we kind of wanted to slowly trickle in throughout the year. And then by the time camp came, they’re like, ‘Yeah, come to all of our lunches, show the camp video up on the screen and all that.’ And so the teachers and the principal were very invested in it happening.”
One thing they hadn’t anticipated? Needing to find a way to explain the concept of camp.
“For so many people in the middle class, we’ve all grown up going to camp,” Josh says. “People who haven’t had family members do that—they didn’t even understand what camp was or why you would do that. So the biggest hurdle the first year was just trying to educate kids and parents and talking to them about what this experience is about.”
FBC Longview’s generosity didn’t stop at paying for those 162 campers to attend a week of Pine Cove City. They saw to it that every camper’s lunch was provided for by partnering with local restaurants and organizations, who donated meals and snacks for each day of camp. The church bought Bibles for every camper to take home at the end of the week. And they made sure transportation from a local low-income apartment building was taken care of by providing a bus to and from the church each day.
The church was acting from a place of fullness. And God met them with grace.
Pine Cove City Site Director Avery “Queen Juice” Harlan and her team of college staffers didn’t know what to expect from this very different week of camp. Normally a sizable number of City campers are children of the church members. This week, though, the entire church was sitting it out and allowing all of their spots to go to the kids in their surrounding neighborhoods—many of them from difficult backgrounds. But the staffers stepped forward with open hands, ready to be used by God.
The staff was acting from a place of believing God would fill. And He met them with grace.
As the week of City began, the church found joy in watching so many kids experience camp for the first time.
“A lot of these kids have never been on a rock climbing wall or a large inflatable slide,” Josh explains. “It’s really helped us keep things in perspective, just how blessed we are and how important it is to provide a good experience for your kids. A life-changing experience like camp—it is a milestone in a lot of people’s lives.”
Something else many of these campers had never experienced before? The concept of grace. Throughout the week, the counselors sought again and again to explain that if someone wronged them, they didn’t need to wrong them back. Again and again, the staff was able to teach the campers that we extend grace to others because grace was first extended to us.
Throughout an already tough week, the staff frequently faced additional challenges, including language barriers and behavioral issues. Avery directed her staff to do one simple thing: love the campers.
“I kept saying, ‘The best thing that you can do this week is to love them really, really well.’ So at the end of the week, our hope is that they know what the Gospel is and what it means for them. That’s why we do what we do.”
One camper who presented his counselor with an extra degree of difficulty was Lucas, a first grader with a penchant for acting out, and whose mom was often late to pick him up. On the last day of camp, though, that extra time with Lucas paid off. While on their way out of the kids’ building, Lucas pointed to a mural of Jesus carrying the cross and asked his counselor, “Why is that man holding a T?”
Avery and her staffers were astounded. “It was really sweet that it was that camper of all campers. The fact that it was in the last 10 minutes of camp. The fact that what was burdensome for us—the fact that his mom was never on time—ended up being one of the biggest gifts because we got to sit with him for an extra hour. And his counselor got to pray with him and talk about stories in the Bible and explain how that all points back to Jesus.”
Again: God met them with grace.
“I don’t know what Lucas is doing today,” Avery reflects. “I don’t know if he’s a part of the church. I don’t know anything, but I do know that a seed was planted, and that the Lord’s Word doesn’t return void. And whether that is Lucas following the Lord, or whether in 20 years a life-altering thing is gonna happen and the Lord is gonna find him again and Lucas is gonna remember that conversation with his counselor… That is so sweet. We are not carrying that burden, but man: we know and trust that the Word is good and is going to be faithful.”
This stretching week of camp led to many of the Pine Cove staffers to feel more tired than they’d ever been—and it was only Week One. They wondered if the rest of the summer would be just as trying. When they brought their exhaustion to Avery, she opened up the Word.
“In Philippians 1, Paul is talking about all the different things that have happened, including imprisonment. And Paul says it is totally worth it because it’s the advancement of the Gospel. So no matter what it costs me… praise the Lord.”
FBC Longview’s investment into their local community, and specifically into the school they had partnered with, didn’t end with the conclusion of one week of day camp. They continued to invite the kids and families to attend other church events, volunteer at the school, and provide necessary items.
“The plan wasn’t just Pine Cove City. It was always to continue to bless the school,” Josh explains. “We’ve supported the teachers with school supplies. We provide food backpacks to the school every weekend so that the students that qualify can take backpacks home so they’ll have something to eat for the weekend. We read in the library to them, visit them in the cafeteria. And it’s still growing. It’s still developing.”
At the end of the summer, Avery looked back on that intense week of camp and all it had taught her, realizing how little she knew going in.
“The Lord said, ‘Avery, I’m going to use you and your team and these churches. But I’m gonna do the work. I just need you to be open-handed and seek me.’ I think that really was one of the biggest things that I learned throughout my summer: I don’t have the answers. But let’s seek the One who does know.”
The One Who Knows made a perfect plan that involved FBC Longview reaching out and partnering with Pine Cove to host a week of camp that would continue to impact campers in the months and years afterwards.
“We love the idea of this being a cumulative effect,” Josh says. “If we had a first grader come last year, we can get that same student to come for the next three or four, five years. How can that not impact the trajectory of their life?”
Josh, Libby, and the rest of the FBC Longview congregation generously flung open the doors of their church, and out flowed grace.
Avery and her City team faithfully poured themselves out for the sake of the Gospel. And out flowed grace.
Grace upon grace.
For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. John 1:16
Posted Jan 2, 2023