For a number of summers, I was responsible for a youth beach retreat for adolescents from Decatur First Baptist Church. It was a large group of hormone-gorged kids, gathered on a Southeastern Stages charter bus, bound for a South Carolina beach. I was struck by the bus company’s theme: Who Knows Where We Goes. Boy, that was true.
This group of sixty five kids were bound for a youth retreat just after school got out for the summer, so they were locked and loaded, as someone in supposed leadership just said. My initial goals were fairly simple: one, to keep my spirited adult sponsors from debauchery while exposing kids to their wisdom and passion; two, to provide a developmental experience for the young people; and three, no teen pregnancies.
This was not my first rodeo as I had chaperoned a beach trip to Panama City where my Southside East Point teens roamed the Miracle Strip, smuggling beer back to the film noir Plaza Motel. Lack of planning and my misplaced trust resulted in a minor disaster for me as upright parents were shocked, I say shocked, at the libertine behavior of their free slaves liberated and having their run of the Red Neck Riviera. Guess who got the blame? Lesson learned, we say in the business world.
This time, I was going to carefully plan and make sure my PCB experience was not repeated. I designed my first Folly Beach retreat from scratch one month after my hiring, with the goal to survive. This youth group went every year to this beach retreat house on Folly Beach, the place being owned by the First Baptist Church of Charleston. There were all kind of stories about this setting: killer undertow that resulted in several deaths each summer; the tendency of youth to leave unsupervised, the paucity of programming, and the lack of any productive community building. My real goal for this first one was to survive, that is, more specifically, that I survive.
I decided to feature small groups that I would select, with a mix of age, gender, and high schools…..a fearful prospect as the group tended to segregate around home teams. I decided to select and train my adult sponsors who would be responsible for leading these small groups. We would have a structured Bible study provided by my amazing boss, the pastor, Dr. Bill Lancaster, a legendary Baptist minister and gifted storyteller. Small groups after dinner. A movie on the huge porch after sunset, around nine. Free time the rest of the day. Let’s see what happens, also spoken by said someone in supposed leadership.
They had never done small groups before, which met with some initial resistance. But it proved to be my “secret sauce” over the course of four years as it allowed for some very real sharing of concerns and feelings of teens who were not normally asked what they thought, much less, how they felt. The cross-fertilization (sans teenage pregnancies) between schools, and backgrounds was magical. People made friendships that crossed normal lines, and found compassion within a community that was intentionally caring. The groups proved to be laboratories for people trying on new ways of being in the scary time of adolescence, where human beings first wake up to the fact that other people are looking at them. The Copernican revolution of adolescence is just this: I see you, looking at me, looking at you. It’s downright scary, and results in an acute awareness of how I am presenting myself to the world, literally, the advent of self consciousness.
The movies I showed in the evening were my biggest investment in dollars and my own risk. I chose some of my favorites. To Kill A Mockingbird started it off. A comedy, Kotch, about an old man, starring Walter Matthau followed. Cool Hand Luke with Paul Newman as the Christ figure, and Drag, George Kennedy, standing in for Peter, was next. And we finished it off with Godspell, a musical filmed on the streets of New York City. These movies primed the pump for discussion, in the groups and informally. And Godspell capped it off by planting the seeds for my producing it later with these talented kids as a play, staged in the sanctity of the church house. Brilliant and risky, movie night became the greatly anticipated event of the day.
The remaining structure evolved as we went, one of my strengths. Luckily, we enjoyed the music of Rumours by Fleetwood Mac specifically, along with some Stevie Wonder. Lot of music around the meals and songs sung with my lame three chords and a grin. After a week of relaxation and community, we would break down the dining room and set up the dance floor. I thought you said this was Southern Baptist!? That why they call me Dangerous Dave. That wouldn’t be the last time the parents from Dirty Dancing tried to shut this boy down, but I stand undefeated!…..or now sit.
Then, on the last night, we would build the proverbial bonfire on the beach, and form up in a circle. We would sing some of the songs we had learned, and then I would share my reflections on our week together, pressing the theme of community and love. I would take bread and grape juice (this is Baptist y’all), remember the scene of Jesus and his disciples on their last night, pray over the elements, remembering Jesus’ words, and then serve communion around the circle. Lots of emotions, lots of smiles, lots of tears. The spirit of God felt especially present in that moment, as was each person who shared the space.
After communion, we sang a couple of songs and then began what I call the Circle. We would go around the circle, greeting each person, sharing a hug, and hand shake, a laugh, a cry….some way of noting our connection to one another before we broke camp to return home. It was another form of communion, just as powerful as any historical sacrament in some medieval cathedral.
This was the stuff of Folly, a magical kingdom where we lived like a community of loving sisters and brothers. I still feel a wistful note lingering in the sea breeze from that night. I was to produce it three more times before exiting for my doctoral work. This first one was so special because I was flying by the seat of my pants. I had no choice but to trust a Spirit that was beyond me, trust my fellow leaders who brought their abundant love for these kids, and these kids themselves who responded to my call to be present. All in all, a miracle at Folly.
In the next few weeks, I will share two additional articles from this experience. Next week, a look at the magic of the dance in which a child is birthed into a person….no teenage pregnancies occurred during this dance, as far as I know.
The following week, I will recount my learnings from this time at Folly which I title “Everything I Needed to Know About Ministry, I Learned At Folly Beach”.
I need a trip to Folly to refresh and renew this old sagging sack of Spirit.