Total Inclusion is Action

By Chad Hershberger

The presenter in front of the group asked us this question: “Who believes you are loved unconditionally?” We all raised our hands and were affirmed as she pointed to us individually and said, “Yes… you, and you, and you, and the person who disagrees with you.” Often, she told us, when we have disagreements with others, it’s because one of us is scared.

Often, when you chart a new course, this is very much the case. That was an underlying theme of the recent Lutheran Outdoor Ministries (LOM) Total Inclusion Symposium. My colleagues from the East Coast gathered for four days at Camp Agape in North Carolina. Total Inclusion is a program funded by the Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies. It’s a collaborative effort of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) churchwide organization and LOM. The goal of the initiative is to be more inclusive, particularly to those who have historically been marginalized in the church.

We began our time together looking at inclusion from a theological perspective. We were reminded that everyone is a member of the Body of Christ, and that Body is more fully present when everyone is with us. We are each made in the image of God. When we are in relationship with others, we see more of God.  We need to come into community with people who are different from us. We were also reminded that in this work, all beliefs can be here, but all behaviors cannot. That was an important statement for me to grasp hold of!

About eight years ago, the Camp Mount Luther Board started talking about how we could be more welcoming and serve new communities. Two areas that we felt were lacking in policies, procedures, and physical facilities were around the LGBTQ+ community and those with disabilities.

We decided that our first step would be to write a welcome statement. CML has always welcomed everyone to participate in our programs and use our facilities. We felt it was important to state that publicly. The drafting of the welcome statement was also part of our desire to be a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) organization. The organization’s vision is to keep expanding the welcome, liberating those who are forced to live in the margins; to keep dismantling barriers and building bridges; and to keep working until all of God’s beloved have equity. The RIC program has been around since 1983. It’s a way for faith communities to see, name, celebrate, and advocate for people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions in the Lutheran church. The RIC Program is made up of congregations, synods, colleges, seminaries, outdoor ministries, and other Lutheran organizations.

We submitted our welcome statement to Reconciling Works after a committee of the board word smithed it, and it was adopted. We were approved with the RIC designation. In the Upper Susquehanna Synod, only CML and United In Christ Lutheran, West Milton, have the designation.

As a second piece of our inclusion work, we developed guidelines for transgender staff and campers and how we would be welcome them and be hospitable. This was developed as I was getting more and more questions about how we would handle this at CML. I felt uncomfortable with my standard “we’ll figure it out” answer. The board put thoughtful work into developing a plan that worked for our site.

During all of this, we were also talking about a new bathhouse for Maple Village. We knew we needed an upgrade in our facilities there. We had an architect draw up some preliminary designs, making privacy and accessibility our top priority. We were about ready to get serious about a capital campaign and design work when the coronavirus pandemic hit. We paused.

After we felt we were back on track after COVID, we did a feasibility study in early 2023 to see if others agreed that new facilities were needed. Overwhelmingly, the response was yes. We launched a capital campaign, Foundations for the Future, and are on track for a Fall 2024 groundbreaking for a new bathhouse. It should be ready to use for Summer 2025.

This year, we also are offering an all-gender cabin option during summer camp. Providing more choices for housing allows us to accommodate campers in safe, welcoming, and inclusive spaces. Everyone who comes to camp has unique needs and this is another way we can provide experiences to meet our campers’ needs. You can learn more about it here.

Camp Mount Luther has always welcomed everyone to our site and our programs. I’m proud that we are being more public about our stance on that. I also know lots of people have questions. I would love to have a dialogue with you about our new practices. Please reach out for open-minded conversation. We can share our questions with each other and hopefully arrive at some deeper understanding.

One thing that really hit home to me during my time in North Carolina was this. We are not really talking about inclusion… we are talking about belonging. We all want to feel we belong. We all want to feel loved. I want Camp Mount Luther to be that place for everyone. I hope you will join me!