The Eastern American Diocese has a longstanding tradition of hosting various children’s camps throughout the summer months. When we talk about summer camps, we usually think of scout camps, particularly the camps of St. George Pathfinders of America (ORUR) and the Association of Russian Explorers Outside of Russia (NORR). But over the past 25 years, a new camp in honor of Venerable Seraphim of Sarov has emerged in the Pocono Mountains. Founded in 1992 by the parishioners of Christ the Savior Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA, St. Seraphim Camp has grown to become the single largest summer camp in the Eastern American Diocese, and it shows no signs of slowing down. We visited the Poconos on Friday the 4th and Saturday the 5th of August to find out the secret behind this very popular summer camp.
"The camp started out in 1992 as a parish project back when I used to serve in this area," said Archpriest Alexis Duncan (rector of Nativity of the Mother of God Church in Albany, NY, and the camp’s founder). "After two years, more and more people wanted to attend, and that is when Archbishop Laurus (later Metropolitan) encouraged us to open up the camp to the public." As the organizers searched for a suitable campsite, word of the newly formed camp began to spread like wildfire. Through the prayers of St. Seraphim, Fr. Alexis was able to get in touch with a local Boy Scout troop, who graciously offered their facilities at Camp Acahela for use by the newly established Orthodox summer camp.
Camp Acahela is located in the town of Blakeslee, PA, and sits on a 242-acre peninsula formed by the joining of the Lehigh and Tobyhanna Rivers. The location is perfect for an Orthodox summer camp, not only because of its close proximity to New York City, but also because the camp offers a wide range of activities for the children, such as whitewater rafting, archery, a rifle range, and much more. The Boy Scouts even have a camp chapel, which is converted into a temporary Orthodox church every year with the installation of a mobile iconostasis. All of these factors make it very easy to organize an Orthodox summer camp without having to purchase land or build new facilities. "The first year that we came to Camp Acahela, everything sort of exploded," said Fr. Alexis. "We had well over 100 kids, and those numbers have consistently grown over the years." Currently, the camp attracts an average of 200 kids per year.
The most obvious difference between St. Seraphim Camp and the scout camps in the Eastern American Diocese is the use of the English language. While the scout camps are primarily conducted in Russian, St. Seraphim Camp is English-speaking. "When we started the camp, we wanted to give those children who did not speak Russian an opportunity to attend an Orthodox summer camp," said Fr. Alexis. "But since St. Seraphim Camp is always held after the scout camps, we started noticing that many Russian-speaking children were signing up, as well. This year, it’s safe to say that the majority of our camp is bilingual."
Another feature that differentiates St. Seraphim Camp from other camps is that there is no formal scouting program . "It is not a scouting camp. I grew up in a Russian scouting camp where we wore uniforms, raised the flags, marched, and so on. But that is not for everyone," said Archpriest Andrei Sommer (Vice Chairman of the Synodal Youth Committee). "Some people prefer one camp over another, while others may attend both. But as the Russian Orthodox Church continues to grow and encompass people from various non-Russian backgrounds and traditions, it is important for us to address these traditions and provide a camp that addresses their specific needs. This camp is unique because it is one of the only ROCOR camps in this country that is simply Orthodox – it doesn’t have any specific patriotic or scouting theme."
Priest Richard Reed (rector of St. Joseph of Optina Church in Virginia Beach, VA) has been coming to the camp for six years and noted that, "This is one place where the kids can be in an Orthodox environment 24/7. When we are here, we are not really in the world – we are in an Orthodox oasis where the kids are able to practice and live their Faith. Here they are able to learn what it means to be Orthodox Christians."
St. Seraphim Camp is traditionally held on the first week of August to coincide with the feast of Venerable Seraphim Sarov (August 1 n.s.). Every day begins with morning prayers, followed by breakfast and classes on the Law of God. These classes are led by a group of 8-10 priests from all across the Diocese, who take time off from their busy schedules in order to spend time with the children. Classes are rather informal and usually take place outside, where the children are divided into groups based on gender and age. "We try not to replicate something that they will get in their home parish, such as the basics of the Law of God. Since most of these kids already have a fundamental understanding of the Orthodox Faith, we are able to delve into more complicated and relevant topics," said Fr. Alexis.
As we visited each individual group, we heard topics such as understanding the Orthodox approach to suicide, same-sex marriages, transgender issues, etc. "We can’t get away from some of the modern topics that are being thrown at our kids in school. These topics are being forced down their throats in school, and so when they come here, they ask us questions – this is great! We are able to guide them in an Orthodox direction," explained Fr. Andrei.
While the older kids talk about these serious and relevant topics, the younger kids talk about things like the lives of saints like Venerable Seraphim of Sarov and the Holy Hierarch John of San Francisco, myrrh-streaming icons, and living a life in Christ.
After the young campers complete their Law of God classes, the rest of the day is spent on what Fr. Alexis calls "the fun stuff." The camp provides the children an opportunity to float down the whitewater rapids of the Lehigh River, play sports, shoot rifles and bows, participate in interesting craft projects such as t-shirt making and rock painting, building camp fires, organizing talent shows and dances, swimming in the pool, and much more. But no matter what activity the kids participate in, one thing never changes – the clergy are always there. Since each priest is assigned a group of children, they are able to continue their interaction with the kids well beyond the Law of God classes. "I constantly have kids come up to me throughout the day and ask personal questions that they did not want to ask during the group sessions," says Fr. Andrei. "Through these interactions, we are able to establish a personal relationship with each of the kids in our group – this is truly wonderful!"
This personal relationship with the clergy is key to the camp’s success, and it always leads to the kids eventually opening up and talking about the challenges of being Orthodox in today’s world. Priest Gabriel Weller (rector of Holy Myrrhbearers Church in Harrisonburg, VA) recalled one of these conversations. "I had some older counselors tell me that when they go out and eat, they do not make the sign of the Cross or pray because people stare at them. And I said – well, you gotta pray! You gotta have people look at you! Being a witness to Christ is what we are all about – I mean, that’s what we are here for. We are not of this world. We also talk about St. Seraphim and how he spoke of gaining that inner peace through which thousands will be saved around you. We explain to the kids that they never know what kind of an impact they can have on those around them if they are bold enough to love God and not be ashamed of their Faith."
At the end of the fun-filled week, all of the commotion suddenly stops and a peaceful silence comes over the entire camp. As we approached the main dining hall, we began to hear the familiar words of the pre-Communion prayers being chanted over the loudspeaker. All 250 campers and counselors were quietly standing in line for confession, as the older kids read the Communion rule. The young boys who were recently playing pranks on one another in the woods stood quietly in line, pondering their sins and offenses. Next to them stood the girls, who all wore proper head-coverings. The priests were spread out over the dining hall, hearing confessions and offering guidance to the children. Then it came time for the akathist to St. Seraphim, which was beautifully sung by a youth choir.
Later that day, the youth gathered under the open skies at the camp chapel for the All-Night Vigil. As the youth choir prayerfully sang the service, the clergy continued to hear confessions late into the evening. After the service, the campers returned to their tents and the rest of the evening was spent in quiet prayerful contemplation awaiting the Divine Liturgy. The last day of the camp was truly a triumph of Orthodoxy! Having spent the week with their brothers and sisters in Christ, and having confessed their sins, the campers all together partook of the Holy Mysteries of Christ.
But the beauty of St. Seraphim Camp is that it does not end when the camp week is over. Interaction between the campers usually continues throughout the year on social media and at various functions, such as the St. Herman Youth Conferences. The friendships that begin at St. Seraphim Camp tend to last for many years, and some even culminate in marriage. "This is why we bring our youth here," said Fr. Gabriel. "So that they can gain Orthodox friends across the country and eventually find an Orthodox spouse. Since we are so far apart from each other, it’s hard for our youth to find someone to date unless they are willing to date someone outside of the Faith. Here we are able to establish a network of friends, and as a result there have been marriages that have come out of this camp, including three just this year.” Fr. Richard reaffirmed this, saying, "The benchmark for St. Seraphim Camp is the amount of marriages that come from here. That shows me that we are doing something right."
Providing the youth with an opportunity to interact with clergy and each other in an Orthodox environment may be the primary goal of St. Seraphim Camp, but does it work? Even though camp attendance is constantly growing, can we be certain that the kids are growing spiritually as well? "Absolutely," says Fr. Richard. "I notice it when I come back each year. I notice it when the kids talk about their lives and how they have grown over the past year when we were not together. So, even though I might not be able to see it right this minute – I’ll see their spiritual growth next year when they come back, and this is a great blessing for me. As a priest, I see that I am doing what God wants me to do. I’m able to have an impact on the kids who will be the future of our Church and our country."
As much as St. Seraphim Camp provides an unforgettable experience for our children, it is also provides the clergy some much-needed bonding time. Fr. Andrei says, "For the clergy, this is almost like a continuation of the pastoral conferences." Fr. Richard goes on further to explain, "The clergy get together around a campfire at night and the things that we discuss are topics that we just can’t get to during the conference. This is a great place where we can get together to be honest and open with each other and learn from one another. The secret here is that the clergy get just as much out of this camp as the kids do."
Although it is not easy to live in the woods for an entire week, Fr. Gabriel believes that the benefits are worth the sacrifice. "It is a struggle to be here, but it is totally worth it. We connect with people all over the country here. It is a warm and fuzzy type of feeling." This feeling of love for the children is what unites all of the volunteers who take time off from their busy schedules in order to ensure that our children have a place where they can have fun and at the same time become better Orthodox Christians. Fr. Andrei said it best: "The biggest plus of coming here is the joy of giving. It is just wonderful to give it all to these kids! Giving is the best thing!"
Subdeacon Peter Lukianov
Media Office of the Eastern American Diocese