I first experienced a UU camp retreat when I was still in high school. At Ferry Beach in Saco, Maine, I found a community trying to live according to its highest values in a place apart from an outside world which often felt so violent, unjust, and broken. For me, Ferry Beach was a place where honest, deep conversations happened on a daily basis, where one could unabashedly appreciate and love the natural world, where people were at ease with themselves and with one another. Children learned to throw the living sand dollars back into the sea, to protect the dune grass, and to care for one another.
Unitarian Universalist religious educators have known for a long time that temporary communities such as those formed at UU camps, youth conferences, and retreats can strongly shape UU identity. To live for a time in a covenanted community based on shared values can be life-changing. The heightened sense of connection can open new self-understanding and build one’s capacity to feel a part of something larger than oneself. UU camps, conferences, and retreats offer important formational experiences. They help strengthen faith. At their best, they make real the experience of living in beloved community.
Temporary communities are part of both our Unitarian and Universalist history. There is a thread in our tradition which pulls us away from imperfect society to build temporary communities where we can live according to our values. Our forebears in the period before the Civil War established utopian communities, with varying degrees of success, at Fruitlands, Hopedale, and Brook Farm. Such communities, the utopians discovered, were difficult to sustain over time. They catered to the participants’ moral and theological leanings yet had little impact on the broader society. At the turn of the twentieth century, our Universalist forebears were enthusiastic supporters of the Chautauqua movement, in which people of faith came together at summer meeting places to hear wonderful preaching, learn from one another, and generate the power to become more effective missionaries for the rest of the year. Our youth movements have since the mid-twentieth century been characterized by the building of temporary communities through youth conferences, General Assembly caucuses, and other gatherings. The idea is that youth conferences can change participants so that they, in turn, might change the world.
Today, the tradition of gathering temporary covenanted community united by Unitarian Universalist values is being upheld by our camps and conference centers, which serve multigenerational intentional communities as well as communities comprised of a single age cohort. When, in the next few weeks, your thoughts turn to summer plans, investigate the offerings of the UU camp or conference center nearest you, or perhaps one across the country. Consider inviting yourself, your family, or your child or youth into a potentially unforgettable Unitarian Universalist experience. Join the long line of people who have experienced the renewal and affirmation of a temporary UU community and brought their own faith not only back home but also outward, into the world.
Learn more about temporary communities in our faith tradition through the workshop “Counter-culture”, in Resistance and Transformation: Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History. Learn about utopian communities through the workshop “Mirages and Oases- Idealism and Utopianism” in Faith Like a River: Themes in Unitarian Universalist History. If you are looking for possible camp experiences this summer, this webpage includes links to many of our Unitarian Universalist camps and conference centers.