- a reflection on the Transformative Power of Time Away
by Fran McKendree, AwakeningSoul Partner
In the spring of 2018, my friend and colleague, River Guerguerian, and I went to DC to provide some music for worship and a concert at the Festival of Homiletics. I had not been feeling particularly optimistic about our ability as a people to come together to solve the problems that we, and our planet, are facing. One of the highlights of that experience for us was that we were asked to do a concert between presentations by Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren. They were each compelling and inspiring. Their message was clear; don’t demonize the other side, don’t give up, and be strong in your resolve. I returned home feeling like there was some hope. 
I have experienced the time in between then and now as a roller coaster of emotions. Last November, we hosted a truly inspiring AwakeningSoul gathering where the message delivered by our presenters, Catherine Meeks, Ed Bacon, Heidi Kim and Larry Maze was strikingly similar to the one in DC. I have tried to carry that message in my heart and into my life and work. If I’m honest, I am not always successful.

So it was that I found myself at the beginning of this summer of 2019 struggling to remain optimistic and hopeful that change will come. Over the past few years, summertime has become ‘camp season’ for me. I’m here to say that there is no better medicine for curing the weary-world blues than a summer spent hanging out and working with young people!
I begin with Sawyerville Summer Camp. Sawyerville serves children ages 6-13 in rural Alabama. At camp kids hear Bible stories, create artwork, make music, play sports, learn to swim, and enjoy breakfast, lunch, and snacks all at absolutely no cost. This year over six hundred campers were enrolled. It’s staffed by high school and college students from around the state who volunteer their time and resources to be a part of this amazing event. Dinner for the staff every night is prepared by volunteers. Every year there is a different theme, and I come up with a theme song for the week I’m with them. I can only skim the surface here, trying to describe how much being a part of this camp has changed my life.

I work with the 6-8 year old group - if you could harness the energy, as they say… enough to power the entire state. What I love most about this camp is that the model really works - the kids who came as campers when they were 6 now serve on staff or as counselors. There is a loving regard for the camp within the towns nearby - you go into the Piggly Wiggly with a staff T shirt on and the checkout person gives you a hug, tells you how much she loved camp, and how her kids are loving every minute of it now.

One of the most powerful moments for me over the years was when a little one came to me and said she’d written a song. I asked her if she’d sing it for me… the lyric was ‘A change is gonna come.’ She sang in a tender, hopeful voice. I asked her if she’d sing it for the whole camp if I played the guitar with her, she did and it was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever been blessed to be a part of. Yes… a change is gonna come!!

Here is a link to their website where you can find more photos, a video and opportunities to offer support. sawyerville.org
I then headed once again to the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Rhode Island for Music and Arts camp. This year there were about 80 campers, grades 8-12. The counselors are high school and college age folks, supported by a resource staff of adults with experience in a variety of backgrounds. The program/workshop options for the campers are photography, creative writing, dance, mural painting, rock band, acoustic band, a cappella, and musical theatre.

This camp, too, has a different theme each year, decided upon by the youth and my dear friend the Rev. Canon Meaghan Brower. Meaghan is the camp director and a woman of immense creativity, energy and faith. The theme this year was ‘Don’t Be Afraid’ from Isaiah 43, which seemed very appropriate given my aforementioned state of mind. I got fired up about writing the theme song.
One of the most amazing things about this camp is the way the theme song comes together and then becomes part of the glue that holds the week together. I arrive with a bit of a sketch, maybe a chorus and verse melody, with hopefully enough of a lyric to begin to build around. A few of us huddle together and we begin an amazingly beautiful collaborative process of crafting the song; filling in the bare bones melodic framework that I brought, overlaying harmonies, digging into the text. For the final lyrics we turn to Meaghan who, while doing all the never-ending work a camp director is responsible for, somehow manages to write words that are relevant and contextual.
Other folks come on board to help further shape the song which will become the finale of Music Camp Madness. The last night of the camp week parents and relatives of the campers come for an evening performance of all the works the various groups have created. We do our best to incorporate the work of the groups into the song, as well, so we might begin with reflections from the creative writing group, adding some dance, electric guitar solos, horns, etc. It’s an exhausting, life giving endeavor, and I am truly amazed at the commitment and passion the young people have for this work.

What inspires the deepest sense of wonder in me ‘tho is the process of community building, the mutual respect and trust that emerges and grows through our time together.

Meaghan has written thoughtfully about one aspect of this process which I’ll quote here:

"This morning at all camp chorus Fran led us in a song he taught us years ago. The song comes from Malawi, and the words repeat: Da ku o na moni.
The song loosely translates to: I greet you with my eyes, I greet you with my heart. I know that God is in our midst, I greet you with respect.
He asks us to partner up and sing this song to one another – looking into each other’s eyes. There are hand motions we use with each repetition. Moving our hands from our eyes to the person we are facing. Motioning from our heart to theirs. Moving our arms up and towards one another. And at the end, a small bow of respect.
I tend to be pretty comfortable with most spiritual practices, but I’ll be honest that the vulnerability required to sing this song catches me off guard each time we do it. As a culture we don’t spend much time looking into one another’s eyes. Asking a room full of teenagers to do it – over and over – in small and large groups always feels like a big ask to me. But each year – with no hesitation – everyone participates, and they are all in. Each year it brings me to tears watching the way they greet one another. But this year, something in particular struck me while I was watching the group sing and dance today. I noticed the boys – the young men – who were singing and dancing and motioning from one heart to another.

These boys did not hold back. They didn’t hesitate. They just starting singing and moving and acknowledging God in their midst. Watch some of them here: 
I started to think about what it’s like to be a young man in America in 2019. How there’s a needed push for an end to toxic masculinity but still enough toxic masculinity around that it’s hard to find an abundance of role models about how to be instead. I started thinking about how much pressure there is on young males – and teens in general – to be “cool” and “popular” – to dress a certain way and act a certain way. I thought about how they are told that they can’t be too arrogant but they also can’t be too sensitive and how hard (impossible) it must be to find that perfect middle ground. I thought about how desperately we need vulnerable, faithful, joyful, brave men to help us bring about a much needed culture change. We need men who will show great love and enthusiasm for one another, and who will help change the world in all the best ways.
I realized as I watched the boys dance in front of me that if they can just harness this feeling – this joy and love and openness that they experience at camp – and figure out how to live this way in their lives outside of ECC, they WILL be the change we need in the world.”

Here is a glimpse of the whole week in under 7 minutes:
These are the moments that bring me to tears and fill me with gratitude that, somehow, I have been given the gift of doing this work. I have often quoted the words of Fredrick Buechner “the place where God is calling you to, your true vocare, your vocation, is the place where the deep gladness/longing of your soul meets the need of the world.” I know there is a lot of talk about doing verses being. At this point in my life I don’t really feel much separation or distance between these two. I feel like this work, this being in community, singing, playing the guitar, mentoring as I’m able, collaborating with folks of all ages, this astounding dance that I’ve become part of, is my soul work.

For me, an AwakeningSoul gathering is another layer of ‘camp’ that I’ve described above, just in a more condensed time frame, with a large palette of life experience to draw from. It is a full immersion experience. Arriving, we too are often still searching for meaning and purpose, no less fraught with those voices that would diminish us and others. Within our AS community, as at the camps I’ve mentioned, I feel the deep level of connectedness with the Spirit. I feel the fullness of grace, wonder, passion - a yearning for something worthwhile, something life affirming. We are not about demonizing the other side, we are firm in our resolve, we are not about to give up, and we are carriers of hope. We are “all in.” A change is gonna come!

My last camp experience of the summer led me to Camp Cross on Lake Coeur d’ Alene.
I leave you with a short video clip:
Morning prayer on the dock, from inside my guitar!
(yes, a young person thought this up!)


In This Great River - Presence, Deep Listening, and Discernment

with Barbara Brown Taylor, Jacqui Lewis, Larry Maze
and the AwakeningSoul Ensemble

November 7-10, 2019
Lutheridge Conference Center
Asheville, NC
Registration for AwakeningSoul 2019 is currently full.
HOWEVER, we always have a number of cancellations. We expect 20 or more spaces will open up. If you want to come, please go to the registration site to get your name on the waitlist. 
AwakeningSoul Is the collaborative partnership of Fran McKendree and Ann Holtz. Fran is a gifted musician based in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Ann is both a spiritual director and an independent consultant. She lives in Waynesville, NC. Together they have formed AwakeningSoul to offer spiritual events to feed hungry souls. Ann can be reached at annawakening@gmail.com or 865-414-8509.

AwakeningSoul Banner Images are used by permission ~ Rara Schlitt (c) and Mary How (c)