From camper to leader...
Pastor Dave Kerkove
South Waterloo COB
My mom, Helen, served as dean of junior camp (grades 4-6) at Camp Pine Lake several times in the 1970s. My younger brother, Travis, and I came to camp with her well before we were old enough to “officially” be there as campers. I spent time at Camp Pine Lake every summer from the mid-1970s through the summer of 1990 (after my freshman year of college, I served as a counselor at Camp Pine Lake for the first time).
My first camp counselor was Bob McCulley (1980). My second camp counselor was Tim Oliver (1981 – his first year as a counselor). What a privilege it has been to co-counsel with Tim in recent years! One particularly strong memory from Camp Pine Lake was a brief conversation I had with Louise “Louie” Rieman, former pastor of Ivester Church of the Brethren, at Camp Pine Lake near the end of a meal in the dining hall in 1987 or 1988. I had been doing more talking with my friends than eating. They left before I had finished eating, leaving just me and Louie at the table. We engaged in a little small talk and then Louie looked me in the eyes and said: “David, I think you would be a good minister.” I was relieved none of my friends heard what she said and I finished eating as fast as I possibly could! I may have left Louie behind at that table, but her words did not leave me. I have remembered them – and her – fondly in the years since.
I spent the summers of 1991 and 1992 traveling to Church of the Brethren camps across the United States on behalf of McPherson College. During my week at Camp Pine Lake’s Youth Camp in 1991, I led a large group game. While introducing the game, I said something like this: “I’m no leader, but I think…” Gordon Hoffert, dean of youth camp in 1991, immediately interrupted me and shared these words so everyone could hear them: “Dave, you ARE a leader.” Gordon doesn’t remember saying it, but his words were unforgettable to a shy 20 year old trying to figure out God’s call in his life.
After college, I lived in Kansas, Maryland, and Indiana before returning to Iowa in 2007. I didn’t, however, spend much time at Camp Pine Lake until I attended Primary Overnight Camp in 2012 with my oldest son, Caleb, who had just completed Kindergarten. We took a hike during Primary Overnight Camp and when we crossed one of the old bridges around Pine Lake (built by Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress administration in the 1930s), I told six year old Caleb, “Your grandfather crossed this bridge as a camper when he was a boy, I crossed this bridge as a camper when I was a boy, and now you are crossing this bridge.” A profound moment for me, but not so much for 6 year old Caleb.☺
There are so many memories I could share: silly and serious songs around the campfire, drinking from the natural spring at the edge of Pine Lake, skits, games, the bell, 4-square, wooden name tags and magnifying glasses, slamming the shutters on the cabins, swimming at Pine Lake (and later at the Baptist Camp and in Eldora).
I have pastored three Church of the Brethren congregations since 1999 (including two in the Northern Plains District: Panther Creek and South Waterloo). Would I have become a pastor without Camp Pine Lake’s influence? My experiences tell me that God is persistent, but I am convinced our Lord used the beauty of Camp Pine Lake and the many people of Camp Pine Lake to call me to minister and to encourage and support my efforts in ministry.
Being a camp counselor means get to justify the fact that I’m 22 years old and army-crawling through the bushes with a bunch of middle schoolers because I can’t bear the thought of losing a game of capture the flag. Being a camp counselor means I get to sit in the sun and make friendship bracelets if I want to. It looks like a flip flop tan line and a messy bun. It feels like squeezing into the same sleeping bag I had 15 years ago. Being a camp counselor means I’ll always remember what it felt like to be a kid.
To be a camp counselor is to carry on the purest of traditions. When I sit next to Maecie or Lily at campfire, I remember that their Uncle Robby was one of my favorite counselors. When I’m seated between Jacob and Tito, I remember that their Grandma Dorothy was my cabin counselor when I was their age. When I see “Oma Sue” at church, I’m reminded of the each time she braided my hair to match Brittany’s. Sometimes I look around the campfire and wonder, Which of these campers will be counselors when my kids go to camp?
These friendships, across generations and formed at camp, are the purest of sorts. To spend even one night around the campfire at Camp Pine Lake is to join the family. To belong to the camp family is knowing that whether you’re sitting next to someone 20 years younger than you or 20 years older, it makes no difference. It’s walking to the mailbox to find good old fashioned snail mail just for you, just because. It’s sharing good news as well as grief. It’s having people praying for you from all over. They’ve heard your deepest prayers and taken them as their own. Camp friends are different like that.
Being a camp counselor means many things, but if I have to choose what it means most, I will say this: being a camp counselor each summer feels like coming home to family.
It may surprise some people that I’m an introvert at heart, so going to camp was always a bit nerve-wracking for me. As a grade-school kid, my stomach would be in knots as we pulled onto the dusty gravel road that led to Camp Pine Lake. Was everyone already friends with each other, and was I going to be the odd one out? Would I be made fun of for how I looked or how I acted? How long until I can be home again?
Those questions lingered for about the first 15 minutes after my arrival at camp, and then they quickly faded as we made name tags together, all made fools of ourselves during the get-to-know-you activities and shared in a common experience of escaping our everyday lives to join in a naturally spiritual week of reflection, silliness and warmth around a campfire.
As a young adult, I spent a few weeks as a camp counselor, and the value of Camp Pine Lake became even more apparent to me. I could see myself in the visibly uncomfortable faces of campers arriving for the first time and watched as their eyes and hearts were opened to the ever-open arms of the folks at camp.
Perhaps the greatest—and most unique—impact Camp Pine Lake has had on me is the silly songs I’ve learned over the years. While the songs themselves are ridiculous, they’re a tool for bringing laughter and a spirit of unity to all kinds of situations. We sing them at family reunions. I sing them to my partner (he rolls his eyes but I know he secretly loves it). And a couple years ago, when I spent a few months volunteering at a Hispanic Church of the Brethren in Santa Ana, California, I was able to pass these songs along to a group of children who were learning the songs for the first time. They still sing them when I come back to visit.
For me, camp is more than a place or an experience. It’s a rich attitude of joy and beauty that we can pass along to future generations, whether they’re physically in Eldora, Iowa, or half a world away. When I think about camp today, I ask that same question I asked myself as a nervous camper, but from a completely different perspective: “How long until I can be home again?” With Camp Pine Lake, I’ve learned the answer is “You’re already here.”