Summer staff spotlight: Burton Peese

By Jim Vitale

In the dining hall of Sequanota, on a summer night almost ten years ago, a middle school camper got up from her table to go and see one of her friends at the senior high camper table. As she approached the table she called to her friend. Suddenly another camper leapt out of their chair and started barking at her like a dog. She laughed nervously and did her best to ignore the incessant yelping. But as she talked with her friend, she began to notice that things were not quite right at that table. One of the campers was grunting and moaning, arms outstretched like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster. Another camper, a boy, was rambling in a loud Valley Girl accent. Across the table some other camper appeared to be asking their foot permission to speak—and surprisingly the foot responded! Even the girl’s own friend seemed to be doing everything in her power to avoid using nouns. What was happening!? The middle school camper left the senior high table laughing but totally confused; and as she walked away, the barking stopped.

This is one of Burton Peese’s favorite memories from camp. Before coming to us here at Camp Mount Luther, Burton served for eight years on the staff of Sequanota. This story comes from Burton’s time as a senior high camper there (he was the Valley Girl). That particular week there was a small number of senior high campers, small enough for all of them to fit around two tables shoved together. They decided that for dinner that night they would all pull out the “rule cards” from the board game Quelf. They left the board game behind and each adopted one of the silly rules for the duration of dinner.

It’s a strange paradox that in acting like someone else we can come to a deeper knowledge of ourselves. Burton’s hobbies include role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and LARPing. (LARP is an acronym for “live action role playing,” think Dungeons & Dragons but acted out in real time). Burton spends a lot of his free time pretending to be other people: wizards, warriors, and the occasional Valley Girl. I suspect he, like so many others, is drawn to these hobbies not because he doesn’t want to be Burton but because they help him to be more Burton. Games like Dungeons & Dragons or Quelf help us to let down our guard, to be more spontaneous, adventurous, and playful. They help us to engage with friends and peers in new ways. They teach us more about others and ourselves. It is like the actor who, in playing Hamlet, comes to a deeper understanding of the fear, bravery, and uncertainty within himself.

Summer Camp and LARPing have more in common than you might think. Indeed, that sort of spontaneous and playful freedom can be found in only a few places outside summer camp. Elsewhere we tend to be concerned about what other people think of us. But at camp, especially toward the end of the week, those barriers start to fall and people start to act like their true self. And usually their true self is pretty goofy!

Burton believes these moments are imperative. “Camping ministry is important,” Burton says, “because it’s an important place for campers to grow, learn, and build their identity.” Youth (and adults, too, for that matter) need spaces where they can relax and be themselves. It’s not just about taking a break from the stress and monotony of daily life—it’s about growing into the people God created them to be. Silly as it may be, moments like the one in the Sequanota dining hall ten years ago are key to youth learning who they are. Playing together with their peers, youth learn about their own character: their likes, their dislikes, their ways of relating to others, their ways of viewing themselves. If you want to learn more about who you are, come to camp.

Burton brought his Dungeons & Dragons materials with him here to summer camp. And some Friday night, after the campers have gone home, we’re all looking forward to becoming wizards, barbarians, rogues, and rangers—even if only for a night. Not so that we can escape ourselves, but so that we might become more ourselves!