By Pastor Paula Burchill
We sat in the back corner of the Mandan cabin—flecks of paint dusting the backs of our legs as we shifted to find a comfortable way to sit and a place for our open bibles. Light streamed in through cracks in the walls as I had the girls open to the middle. As we read the psalm, a girl, one of my favorites—the one who told me proudly that her mom was “pitch tan”—proudly proclaimed “Jesus is our refugee and strength.” I smiled, tucked that story safely into my heart and said he sure is.
The next morning, we gathered as a staff after breakfast. It was the 30-45 minutes a day we got without kids around and I wanted it to last forever. We sat close together on worn couches and the floor, giving each other back rubs, sometimes arm in arm, always laughing as we shared our celebrations and struggles, our plans for the day, where we might need help. And then she said, Jesus is our refugee and strength—get it? It’s supposed to be refuge. We giggled and smiled and I thought, I would do this job for free.
I walked to the church on the hill with my girls following like ducklings through the crab grass and gopher hole ridden landscape. I could smell the prairie roses and hear meadowlarks as the blue sky promised a great afternoon on the little muddy. Did you know there are 9 kinds of grasses here, one girl told me proudly.
We walked into the cool cement floored church with the cross in a wagon wheel at the front. The kids took their places by cabin in the pews, and I took my place at the front as song leader. I took a breath to brace myself for the 10,000th rendition of Pharaoh, Pharaoh. Watching the kids scream and sing O baby let my people go made it only slightly more bearable. Actually, their scream-singing and dancing in joy warmed my heart.
The kids took off for break-out sessions and Karl and I stayed to lead song writing, although how could we ever top, O Jesus you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind, hey Jesus? The song parodies flowed from our mind, with the kids only marginally involved, this being our chance to sneak in inside jokes and bad theology. Its guys like you Jesus. You died for us died for us, you even cried for us!
That afternoon, we paddled through chocolate milk toward the cliffs just a short ways up the river. I taught the girls J strokes and C strokes and it was hard not to think about impermanence as we neared the cliffs, which were really just chunks of prairie being reclaimed by the Little Missouri. We silently watched the birds dart in and out of the holes they had dug into the cliffs. Their calls were almost deafening and they gave me time to reflect.
What a contrast this was to last summer when I worked at a crop insurance company, where I was a caged bird walking through rows of file cabinets. I only half listened to the other women, cawing about and pecking at their husbands, boyfriends, the boss.
I would arrive early, so that when I punched in I would get a few extra minutes on my time card that might mean some overtime. I perched, oblivious to the boy who would one day be my husband, filing away into cold gray tombs evidence of summer fallow, lost crops, premiums paid. I broke the hour into minutes. 15 minutes of filing S’s…that’s one dollar and 6.25 cents. 7 hours and 45 minutes to go.
As my mind was drawn back to the swallows diving and darting in every direction, who I wanted to be became clearer. I wanted to be part of something that was making a difference in people’s lives. I wanted to be creative. I wanted to be able to use all of my talents—my voice, my leadership, my writing, my teaching. I looked at the girls who were paddling and laughing and splashing the canoe next to us and rejoiced that every day was different than the one before, and that each day I was using my gifts in new and surprising ways.
The tug in my heart that had started when I was a camper tightened just a little bit further. I knew I wanted to work in the church, because that was where I knew I could fly free.
[I hope you make it to Family Camp or All Church Camp or middle camp this summer!]