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UU Camps, Conferences Are Booming

by Jane Greer

Priscilla Phillips went to The Mountain, a UU camp and conference center, in the summer of 1986 and came back a changed woman. "I felt like I was born again," she said. "It was so transformational!" Her experience of Unitarian Universalism in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina convinced her that she had found a home in the denomination.

She became a volunteer at The Mountain and now, 15 years later, she serves on the board of the Southeast Unitarian Universalist Summer Institute (SUUSI), the largest independent UU summer conference.

For additional information, visit the "camps and conferences" section of the UUA Web site. Click here.

Unitarian Universalist camps and conferences have become increasingly popular in recent years. No statistics are available, but many camp directors report increased registration and long waiting lists. Janet James, operations manager at Camp de Benneville Pines in California, reports that attendance has doubled in the last seven years. The surge reflects a broader national trend, according to the American Camping Association, which reports a decade-long rise in youth camps especially.

About 30 groups belong to the Council of Unitarian Universalist Camps and Conferences (CU2C2), a loose federation that shares information and promotes UU camping. Other small camps, many run by congregations, operate independently.

The camps and conferences offer a broad array of programs in a variety of settings, including programs for youth, families, men, women, gays and lesbians. Of the 30 member organizations, less than half own their own property. The rest use other organizations' facilities. SUUSI, the largest "unlanded camp," takes place each year during the last week of July on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. More than 1,000 people attended last year.

In Washington State, the Seabeck Conference Center on the Hood Canal hosts five week-long UU camps sponsored by the Eliot Institute each year. According to the Rev. Anne Heller, the UUA Pacific Northwest District executive, each of the "Eliots" has a devoted following with many families returning year after year. Such dedication is not unusual.

"You'll see third- and even fourth-generation campers," says Joyce Gilbert, past president of Uniron-dack, a camp in western New York. "Camp is a bonding experience," she says. "It takes people and puts them into intentional community for seven days."

Clay Bosler, president of CU2C2, agrees. "People can really experience what it's like to live in a community informed by the principles and purposes." This can be especially important for UUs who live in areas with few congregations and for young people in churches with small religious education programs.

The sense of community also provides a feeling of safety. "People want a safe place to be together — unchanging, affirming, unthreatened," says Deborah Weiner, the UUA's director of electronic communications and a board member of Star Island, a landed camp eight miles off the coast of New Hampshire. This feeling of comfort may embolden them to try new things. According to Priscilla Phillips, campers often feel empowered to develop skills in new areas such as music or outdoor activities.

Nature clearly attracts UU campers. Most camps are set in beautiful locales. At Star Island in the Isles of Shoals in the Atlantic off Portsmouth, guests stay in an old resort hotel and gather for candlelight worship services in a spare rock chapel. De Benneville Pines, named for the 18th-century Universalist mystic Georges de Benneville, is in the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California. Unirondack is in New York State's Adirondack Mountains. Ferry Beach is on the coast of Maine. "Most of our campers come from urban and suburban areas," says Gilbert. "People want to see the stars."

UU camps and conferences are a powerful and sometimes overlooked form of outreach for the denomination. Phillips's experience at The Mountain is not unique. Bosler says, "Our camps and conferences are transformational for an amazingly high percentage of the participants."

UU World XVI:1 (January/February 2002): 52-53.

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