Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ness Lake Bible Camp

Ness Lake Bible Camp as seen from above
Ness Lake Bible Camp and School District 57 are in the news this week: http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/news/local-news/bible-camp-policies-challenged-1.2306768

I am glad this story has come out. At the beginning of April I received news that a young lady who worked at Ness Lake Bible Camp last summer was told she could not come back as an counsellor because she expressed sympathy for an LGBTQ cause on her Facebook page. While normally a quiet person, she understandably found this outrageous and was willing to go public with her story. I also learned that the PG Pride president was banned from speaking on the topic of gender at a Rotary event booked at Ness Lake. While it does not surprise me that an evangelical Christian organization has a conservative or fundamentalist statement of faith that they require employees to sign, it is disappointing that they feel confident sustaining homophobic policies in an era where no sane person sees sexual orientation as a choice. I was also disappointed that our school district sat on this news for as long as they did, and appeared to have discouraged teachers to whom the young lady reached out from speaking publicly about this issue. This issue had come to the school district's attention in early April, and was, in my mind, an excellent test of the district's new LGBTQ anti-bullying policy; not so much about something happening at school but nonetheless an important opportunity for the district to show that it supports inclusion and breaking down prejudices throughout the community. It was also important for the school district to deal with promptly as there are many school bookings at Ness Lake Bible Camp for class camp-outs and there should be assurances that all students are welcome there regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. These bookings would have been made before April, with deposits paid, so any move to withdraw school district support for Ness Lake school visits would not come without pain. Understandably, the district wanted to ensure they had all the facts before reacting, although that is something that might have taken days or weeks and not months, and not waited until after the issue had become a news story. I can also understand that decisive actions by the school district around controversial events are rarely swift, and involve many closed meetings before they come up at open meetings. Having read the PG Citizen story about this issue last week, I am relieved that out school district is taking this situation seriously and appears willing to consider withdrawing support for school visits to the camp facilities. While I wished they would have acted sooner, they do have a realistic timeline now to encourage the Ness Lake organization to re-examine their prejudicial policies before next year's round of bookings.

I find this story personally compelling because I enjoyed attending Ness Lake Bible Camp for many years as a child and teenager and have had friends and relatives serve as counsellors, maintenance staff, directors, and board members. I grew up in Christian setting and as a youth accepted the conservative interpretation of biblical writings that homosexuality was a choice and a serious sin, and that serious sins land the sinner in some kind of eternal lake of fire. It was not until university when I was exposed to other, less judgemental faith traditions, some science on human sexuality and, more importantly, to gay friends, that I came to accept that homosexuality was not a choice and that there were many Christians who did not condemn others based on their sexual orientation. In fact this was a key theological issue that began a long complex deconstruction of my own faith, a parallel unravelling of the differences between my inherited (and cherished) faith traditions and my "Mennonite" cultural heritage, and the subsequent reconstruction of my current evolving understanding of the meaning of life (and a new appreciation of my cultural heritage). Suffice it to say that there is not a homophobic God at the centre of this construct. This, in turn, led to a difficult decision to leave my home church in the 1990s. I did not feel that it was a place where I could challenge my own faith and beliefs without incurring negative reactions from others, and, although the place and people had all kinds of significance for me, there were too many barriers to inclusion. For example, the church barred women from leadership positions at the time (against the policy recommendation of their parent organization). I believe they have finally put that issue to rest (about 20 years too late), and perhaps one day they will tackle the idea of a homophobic reading/interpretation of biblical writings next.

Ness Lake provided me with great friends, mentors, memories, canoeing skills, confidence in and a love for nature. I fondly remember leaping off the platform onto the jungle swing, paddling into the Lagoon, telling jokes in the cabin at night, singing in the chapel, bat-watching in the huge attic of the old gym, pillow fights, shooting real arrows, BBQs in the Rose Bowl, trying to figure out the opposite sex, playing "mission impossible" in the forest at night, cleaning dishes and cabins (this never caught on at home), lots of running at full speed from one end of the camp to another, debating ideas in my mind and with others in response to the daily religious talks, having thoughtful adults challenge my thoughts and behaviours, and learning (often through mistakes) to become a leader and a teacher. I was a camper there every year from age 7 to 16, plus winter camps, retreats, church picnics, clean-up days, and visits with friends on staff. Ness Lake was also a full immersion into the formulaic version of evangelical Christianity (steady pressure to confess, convert, and convince others to do the same) and consequently a key source of the "lake of fire" rhetoric that made me unreasonably judging of others and what I thought of as their sin. On the whole I do not regret my time at the camp -- it was one of my favorite places on earth and definitely one of the most formative; I agree with the statement by Julianna Ferguson in the PG Citizen story: "It was amazing, it was like a second home to me... [i]t's just been a place where I can feel accepted and be myself".

My 11-yr-old daughter has loved her school visits to the camp, and I would send her there in a heartbeat as a summer camper, but not until they bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights. I read and understand the bit in the Citizen article about the BC Human Rights Code governing religious non-profits (rather than the Charter) but I am of the belief that (Section 2) religous freedoms end at the exact moment in where they violate (Section 15) equality rights. Sending a volunteer staffer the message that her sympathy for an LGBTQ cause makes her unsuitable to work with children is plainly discriminatory and unethical. I don't expect the organization behind Ness Lake Bible Camp to change their belief system instantly in response to this news story -- to me this is more about reminding the public that religious organization harbour prejudices that are at odds with an inclusive society --  but I do expect them to have a meaningful conversation about their core mission, the message they want to send to staff, campers, and parents, and whether or not they want to respect basic Charter rights related to equality, regardless of whether they feel legally obliged to do so.  In my mind that would be the moral thing to do.

As a high school teacher, I have watched as the conversation on inclusion and acceptance of LGBTQ students (and rights) has gone through a dramatic shift over the last 20 years. When I first started teaching, there was no conversation. Then it became an awkward one, with many students (and sometimes educators) being openly homophobic and making life for queer kids a living hell. We have a long way to go, but I am increasingly confident that our schools are becoming safe places for ALL students and that we are starting to model inclusion for the rest of the community. This has not been a steady shift but rather one that occurs in bumps and reactions to events -- two steps forward, one step back. Each time an incident or news item brings the attention around to inclusion, we have had a chance to discuss, react, and open up. For example, in 2011 our newly elected school board faced pressure from students, teachers, and public policy advocates (including the BCTF) to adopt a stand-alone LGBTQ anti-bullying strategy. When the motion to do this came before the school board in 2012, the vote was 6-1 against. When the issue came up again in 2014, it was passed 6-1, with the dissenting voter advocating for a broader revised policy that included all forms of bullying. What changed? The board became convinced that policy is a key component in the shifting societal norms. They also responded to pressure by teachers, students, and the public, many of whom brought stories of homophobic bullying in school. Sometimes change in societal attitudes comes first, sometimes the law changes and people come to accept that change was necessary. Often it is both -- the Charter of Rights itself is probably the best example of this dynamic at work. I hope this news story about Ness Lake Bible Camp is one such incident that spurs reflection on what inclusion really means and whether religious freedoms should protect organizations from discriminatory practices.

So, my message to Ness Lake Bible Camp is this: keep providing awesome programming to campers and services to camp renters -- your work is providing fabulous nature-based formative experiences that kids do not get anywhere else. Keep doing your Christian thing, too -- parents know what they're signing their kids up for and a little exposure to religion is not a bad thing, especially when it is modelled rather than harangued. Keep bringing up the topic of inclusion at all levels of your organization -- it is not okay to skirt the Equality Rights in your employee practices and it is not okay to tell a young women she should not work with kids if she is sympathetic towards the challenges faces by others who are LGBTQ -- love is love. The message you have sent will send a chill through your other staff -- a perception that they can't ask questions of their faith or explore their beliefs publicly without risking their positions at the camp. Don't be afraid of a diverse and inclusive staff -- you would be amazed at the difference it can make for children to see that their role models face the same complex questions that they do, including how to deal with their own sexuality. Rather than shun a young Christian woman who has (as I understand it) expressed love for others who face discrimination based on their sexual orientation, you should be welcoming her and trying to learn from her. This does not compromise your core mission, in fact it would help test it and make it relevant to other youth. It might actually save some lives.

My message to the School District is to do the right thing and insist that the organization behind Ness Lake Bible camp not only ensure that all kids are welcome there (as they have more or less done in their carefully crafted public statements over the last week), but bring their employee code in line with the Charter of Rights if they want to continue receiving bookings from the school district. Let this also be a lesson for future "controversies" -- don't be afraid of a good conversation, avoid the urge to say "let's not talk about this until it comes out in the media." We have seen a dramatic shift in district leadership over the last few months, some of it fueled by a desire to see a shift in management practice and new strategic directions. One of the "old ways" we need to discontinue is the veil of secrecy and tendency to obfuscate around important and controversial decisions, often rooted in a reticence to accept the role the district has in the community. There was been great progress made over the last few years on this front -- keep up the momentum and be open and honest about both mistakes and intentions. This is an exciting year ahead.

In both cases I should not be surprised to see complex, staid, and tradition-rich organizations take their time to move towards radical ends, but I am confident that both organizations are filled with thoughtful folks that will take the opportunity afforded by this (now public) story to make progressive decisions.

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