Racially Oblivious

The periodically blown-down and re-erected beach cross at Camp Magruder.

There's nothing like a good picture to start an essay.

When I sit down to write a post for this blog, my first task is finding an image. This helps me stay focused on the thesis for the essay. It also gives the post a good visual hook for the tiny bit of publicity I do on Facebook and Twitter. Finding the right image usually takes just a couple of minutes: if I can't think of any photos I've taken myself, I just go to Google and search a few keywords. I find one that grabs me, copy it to the blog, and I'm off.

There are times, though, when the search for an image alters the focus of the essay. Such was the case today. I knew I wanted to write about a racial incident at United Methodist Camp Magruder in 1996. When I Google "Methodist Camp Magruder," the result of my search was dozens of campers, young and old, splashing in the surf, playing tug of war, riding in canoes, singing arm in arm, listening attentively at devotions, doing all the things I remember so fondly from my own days both as camper and staff member. I felt a rush of nostalgia. And then it hit me: on the entire first page of results, out of nearly 400 images, I counted four that included persons of color. Bear that in mind as I tell this story.

In the summer of 1996, I was 35, pastor of two small churches in Yamhill County, a year and a half into my first divorce, and already engaged to the woman who would be my second wife. One day I took a call from Gerry Hill, a friend, colleague, and mentor, who was going to be dean of Camp 642, a popular high school camp held each August at Magruder. I loved the idea of working with Gerry, especially at one of my favorite places, and agreed immediately. Talking to one of my brothers about what I was going to be doing in August, though, I found myself having misgivings. This camp had a reputation of being dominated by repeat attenders who then became part of the counseling staff, solidifying traditions that were passed on from year to year until they had the force of canon law, and the camp became something of a church-sponsored fraternity. I also learned that, to the younger generation of campers my brothers represented, the camp was known as "Sex-42." It was likely I'd be doing some vigorous chaperoning at this camp, rousting couples out of the many convenient hiding places the coastal foliage provided.

Even so, I looked forward to my week at this magical place. I was, after all, an alumnus of Magruder's other camp fraternity, MADD (Music, Art, Drama, and Dance), the camp for arts nerds that had its own rabid following. 642 started tamely enough: kids arrived Sunday afternoon to be met by their counselors and escorted to their cabins, then join in mixer games that helped introduce new campers to the returnees. I noticed that the counseling staff was heavily packed with veterans of this camp, but didn't think much of it until our first staff meeting, when those veterans nearly took over the agenda, something that was to happen repeatedly that week.

Gerry did his best to transcend the power games, running meetings with patience and empathy, but it wasn't easy. Again and again, his program ideas were shot down by veteran counselors whose goal for this camp was to recreate their own experience as campers. The traditions had to be passed on to the next generation.

One of those traditions was the slave auction. Yes, that's what it was called, and there was plenty of precedent outside of Camp 642 for that moniker. Slave auctions--in which young people volunteer their services for chores and odd jobs in exchange for donations to their organization--had been used by generations of youth groups, Scout troops, cheerleading squads, band boosters, soccer clubs, and countless other benign affinity groups for decades. The 642 slave auction had a record of raising large sums of money from the campers for whatever mission project that year's camp had selected. Usually it went into improving the facilities at Magruder, but it had also been directed to worthwhile mission funds of the United Methodist Church. I can't remember what the beneficiary of this year's auction was, but I do know the sum raised was huge for a camp of teenagers.

So it had been for years: 642 raised a ton of money, and they did it by auctioning off services campers could perform for each other. But this year was different, for two reasons.

The first has to do with the white faces in all those pictures I found in my search. The Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference is an extremely white group of Methodists. Most of this is geography--outside of Portland, there just aren't that many African-Americans in Oregon and Idaho--and the rest is culture. African-American Christians have some ancient (by American standards) worship traditions that don't translate well into white Christian settings, and vice versa. That's the main thing that keeps 11 a.m. on Sunday morning the most segregated hour in America. Be that as it may, United Methodists like to think of themselves as open-minded lovers of diversity, and go to great lengths to reach across perceived racial barriers. In the mid-1990s, one way they did this was sponsoring groups of African-American children to attend a week of camp at Magruder. So in the midst of the 120 white campers were a dozen black kids from inner city Portland.

By itself, that should've raised a red flag for Gerry and me when the veteran counselors talked about their slave auction. I do remember feeling uncomfortable as they did their planning, but I think the sheer power of the veteran bloc on the staff, coupled with the relative youth and inexperience of the two of us as administrators (Gerry was 39, I was 35) kept us from surfacing our misgivings. Which brings me to the second problem with the auction.

At the heart of the veteran bloc was a man not much younger than me who'd been counseling 642 continuously since he met the age requirement. He'd been a camper (of course) in high school, and this camp clearly meant a great deal to him, as (unlike Gerry and me, who, as clergy, were contractually entitled to a week of camp every year) he was giving up a week of vacation to be here. He was also an agnostic, something Gerry found more problematic than I did. And he was the MC for the auction.

The evening of the auction, I was on the margin of the crowd, gathered in the camp meeting hall, and from there I watched, stunned, as the MC took the stage to begin the auction. He was dressed in a white suit, accompanied by several other counselors who were wearing choir robes, and he had covered his face in dark makeup. The shtick he'd chosen for this auction was that it was a prayer meeting, with the other counselors functioning as a gospel choir.

About ten minutes into the auction, I realized there was not an African-American face in the crowd.

I stayed until the end, growing more and more uncomfortable. As I said, a great deal of money was raised for the mission project, but that was soon to be dwarfed by the fallout: one of the African-American campers who had walked out had gone directly to the camp pay phone and called his parents to tell them what was happening. Gerry and I had a racial incident on our hands.

The following afternoon, a delegation of parents arrived to meet with us and the counselor who had been the MC. They were furious. How could we let something like this happen? Why would we bring their children all the way out here to expose them to such ridicule, to a program that not only made light of slavery but did it in the context of a black-face parody of their worship tradition? At one point, I offered up the possibility that this came out of ignorance, that many of our counselors came from small towns in the Northwest that had homogeneous white populations. I said that I had not had any black acquaintances, not to mention friends, prior to being an adult, and still had not known very many. "Weren't you ever in the service?" he asked. "No," I said, shaking my head and, for perhaps the only time in my adult life, regretting that fact.

It was an incredibly tense meeting, one of the most difficult I've ever been part of. By the end, we managed to change these parents' minds about taking their children home with them, assuring them that this had become a teaching moment, and that their continued presence at Camp 642 was an opportunity to heal wounds, open minds, and help everyone at the camp, regardless of color or age, to grow. The following year, Gerry cleaned house, purging the camp staff of several counselors, cracking down on many of the least helpful traditions, but it was still a hard week, culminating in an incident of alcohol poisoning. The auction, in particular, was gone: campers just handed over their mission money at the beginning of camp, with no need for an elaborate production. The year after that, there were new deans, four of them, drawn from the least compromised counselors: Gerry had had his fill, and was spending his camp week as a counselor at Sawtooth. I came in as chaplain, but was dealing with my own issues, as my second marriage was already coming apart. It was my last gig as camp staff. I was burned out on all things church-related, and knew this even as I sought to inspire these young people with my meditations.

I can't know what lessons others took from that hard week at Magruder. I can only speak for myself. I learned that sometimes the most hurtful things are said and done obliviously, by people who have the best intentions, and are sincerely trying to do the right thing. I've been on the receiving end of such well-meaning ineptitude, and while knowing these things are done or said in ignorance doesn't lessen the blow of the words or actions, it does make it far easier for me to excuse the perpetrator. It's also sensitized me to pre-screen my own word choices when I'm coming into a potentially explosive situation, something that happens on a daily basis at the inner-city school where I teach.

The best lesson I can offer from this story is simply this: if you, like me, grew up in a mono-culture, surrounded by people who look and talk and think like you, then don't be surprised if you find yourself called on the carpet for saying or doing something that a person of color finds offensive. And when that happens, lay aside enough notion of defending yourself. Instead, listen. Learn all you can. And the next time you're in a similar situation, do things differently.

One more thing, and then I'm done: if all your friends and neighbors look just like you, it's time to find new friends and neighbors.


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