This is a reflection I wrote back in 2015 during my time in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) – we were asked to share stories for story theology, and this is one of the stories I told. I came across it again recently and thought it might be good to share here.
One of the keystones of the camp experience at Camp Carol Joy Holling in Ashland, NE, is the series of “co-op activities” that all campers participate in. These are physical activities designed to make groups work together, with the goal of increasing trust and building relationships. They range from simple games with objects like tennis balls and foam pool noodles to the more demanding “Co-op Challenge Course.”
As a chubby eighth-grader, obliged to attend a week of church camp with peers who had bullied me off and on for as long as we’d known each other, I was not exactly thrilled about the prospect of us all doing physical activities together. Still, there were were, one hot July afternoon, up in the woods on the challenge course, struggling to work together as a team. We had already completed trust falls and balanced ourselves on a giant teeter totter and built a human bridge over an imaginary river of molten peanut butter. However, the next obstacle in front of us was the most challenging we had yet faced. Prouty’s Landing wasn’t much to look at – just a couple of 3’x3’ wooden platforms spaced 12-15 feet apart, with a rope tied around a strong tree branch in between, dangling down to the ground. To complete Prouty’s Landing, everyone in the group had to stand together on one of the platforms and swing across to the other platform, one by one. If anyone touched the ground at any time before everyone was across, the entire team had to go back to the beginning platform and start over again.
I couldn’t do it. Lacking the strength and/or coordination to hold onto the rope, I flew through the air with all the aerodynamic grace of an overripe tomato and landed *thwack!* on the forest floor. And then again. And again. The rest of the group groaned each time I fell and we had to start over. Some began snickering among themselves and laughing at me. Finally, our well-meaning co-op leader asked me to stand off to one side while the rest of the group finished the activity. I felt terrible. “One more thing for them to tease me about,” I thought, “just because I couldn’t hold onto that stupid rope.” So much for team-building and trust-building; I had been kicked off the team! Because I wasn’t physically able to complete the activity, the group had just gone on without me.
Despite this humiliation, my week at camp ended up being an overall positive experience – enough so that, seven years later, I started working at Carol Joy Holling as a counselor. But I never forgot about Prouty’s Landing. I knew that, as part of staff training, we would be divided into co-op groups and sent through the challenge course to build our trust with one another. I was deeply anxious about the prospect of facing Prouty’s Landing again. As I grew closer with my co-op group, I shared my anxiety with them and the incident that had caused it. They were warmly supportive and promised to stick by me no matter what.
Pretty soon, the day came for us to march across camp, up the hill, through the pasture, and into the woods to the Co-op Challenge Course to complete our training. We teetered and tottered and tiptoed over that molten peanut butter like champions. We were owning the course. Midway through the course, however, we suddenly hit a wall. Literally. The Wall obstacle was, as its name suggests, a ten-foot high wall of wooden planks with a platform for standing on up at the very top. The instructions for the Wall were very simple: get everyone to the platform at the top. The catch: no rope, no ladders, no nothing, and, once you go up, there’s no coming back down to help the rest of the group climb up. We were dumbfounded. There was no way to climb the wall, nothing to hold onto. We only had ourselves. After much deliberating, one member of our group – K – bravely volunteered to be the first to go up. We made handholds and pushed her up, as she carefully stepped on backs and shoulders and cupped hands to reach the top platform.
I decided that it would be best to get it over with while most of the group was still on the ground and volunteered to go next. I was horribly, acutely conscious of my weight and terrified about whether the group would actually be able to get me up there, and about what they must think of me. We gathered in a tight circle for prayer first; then, beginning on their knees and working their way up, the members of my group somehow, miraculously, began lifting me up the wall. I was astonished! Their hands were lifting me up, high up in the air, and soon I was high enough to grasp K’s outstretched hand and shimmy up, awkwardly, onto the platform. My teammates cheered! And, emboldened by having two team members up the wall already, we made short work of bringing everybody else up, too. The very last person, S – an exchange student from Kenya – was tall and lanky enough that we were able to reach down and hold onto his arms as he basically walked himself up the wall. As S set foot on the platform, we all burst out cheering, embracing one another in disbelief that we’d done what we thought we’d never be able to do.
Riding high on this wave of confidence, we sailed into the next challenge activity, where my heart promptly sank. There in the leaves lay the familiar platforms, a dozen or so feet apart, with the rope swaying gently in the breeze. My teammates clapped me on the shoulder and high-fived me and told me, “You got this!” and I began to believe them. We crowded onto the first platform and I watched a couple of them fly through the air and land on the other platform. I decided it was time to face my fear, and took the rope, clenching it tightly in slightly trembling hands. I took a deep breath, and jumped with all my might from the edge of the platform. I, too, sailed through the air for a glorious second. Then the horizon went funny and the trees flipped upside down and I hit the ground hard with a loud *thud*. The wind was knocked out of me, and the pieces of sky between the treetops went blurry as my eyes filled with tears. “I failed,” I wailed inside my head, “I failed again. I let the team down. I couldn’t do it.” I felt awful. I made my way slowly to my feet, feeling horribly ashamed. As he helped me stand up, our co-op leader said to me gently, “Day, why don’t you stand over there and rest while we finish this activity?”
It was like hearing words from a nightmare. I had felt so much a part of this group, and we had just done amazing things together as a team. Now I had let them down. They were a team that I could never be part of, never be good enough for. I longed desperately for a rock big enough to crawl under. I watched, tears sliding warm and salty down my cheeks, as the members of the group swung one by one across the gap and landed on the other platform. They clapped as they finished, and the co-op leader and a couple of the members of the group walked onward down the trail toward the next activity. But the rest of the group came over to where I stood at the side of the clearing, and all together, they wrapped their arms around me and squeezed me tightly. I began weeping as they told me how much they cared for me and appreciated my presence in the group, how my courage in climbing up the wall and even attempting Prouty’s Landing had inspired them, how much they loved and valued me as a person. It was a moment of grace.
To this day, I’ve never made it across Prouty’s Landing. But it doesn’t matter, because that’s not the point. As a counselor, I never made a group finish a co-op activity that all members of the group couldn’t finish. Prouty’s Landing taught me that co-op – and life – is about much more than completing the task(s) in front of you. It’s about the relationships you make along the way. It’s about how you live and support one another in community, recognizing that we all depend on one another for support and meaning-making. It’s about learning that we can’t do it on our own. We all have a need for grace. And we can all be the means of that grace for one another.