By Ben Herr |

Summer Camp Countdown: 2004 (with Mike Almquist)

Summer 2004. “The Quest.” The theme verse, commonly referred to as “The Great Commission,” was Matthew 28:18-20. From the NIV:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This year was my fourth and final year serving on summer staff. It was also the final year that my childhood best friend, Mike Almquist, was on summer staff (as Senior Counselor of Robin). If it weren’t for Mike, I’d have never known about Black Rock Retreat: he invited me to come with him as a camper in the summer of 1995. Since then, it’s held a special place in both of our hearts.

And now, without further ado, our interview with Mike regarding the summer of 2004.

Patrick: Do you remember that first week, the training week? Things got off to a crazy start.

Mike: We went in thinking it would be Jamie Sensenig’s fifth year as Summer Camp Coordinator. But one of the first things we learned when we arrived was that Jamie was changing careers and was making a decision to leave at the beginning of the summer. Our friend Cliff Eberly stepped up to quite the challenge and became the director for just that summer.

But Jamie was there for training week, and he worked with the staff to develop a pretty strong script for the skits we performed for the rest of the summer. We had a good cast of characters, and it had a very adventurous “Quest”-like theme to it.

Patrick: And who was your character?

Mike: Well … I’m still not sure for what purpose I was put in, other than comic relief. My character was “Minnesota Smith” (an obvious parody of a famous Harrison Ford character). He showed up to help the prince (Jon Raber) rescue the princess (Amy “Spunk” Sauder) from some sinister fellow (Mario Shonio). I took down various minions, reunited with a long lost brother (played by Brian Strauss), and I think there was a dance-off on Thursday nights…?

Patrick: That role of yours grew from one week to another.

Mike: Like I said before, Jamie built a pretty strong script, but I started improvising lines, and my character grew ever larger than life with each week. It got a little out of hand by the end. I seem to recall taking on four counselors-in-training by the end of the summer during the dance contest, and I did “the worm” on stage. Wild, no question.

Patrick: And do you feel like you fulfilled your quest as “Minnesota Smith” that summer?

Mike: Absolutely not. The skit was good! I mean, it had very explicit and obvious parallels to the Christian message. But my role was superfluous. Fun, yes, but superfluous.

Patrick: So what quest did you fulfill?

Mike: Man … I don’t know! That was nine years ago, and in some ways, a lot of years blur together.

Patrick: I hear that a lot from the other summer staff I speak to.

Mike: I will say this. As the counselor of Robin, I’d like to think that I was doing what I ought to do both in what I said to the campers and how I lived my life.

Patrick: Any other poignant memories?

Mike: Since you and I had been campers for so many years before working for Black Rock Retreat, there was a part of me that always felt surreal that we were adults – young adults, sure, but adults nonetheless – and we were in charge. But even as a staffer, I’d hold the Summer Camp Coordinator in high esteem. And to me there was a real gap in maturity and responsibility.

But one night, Cliff (the 2004 director) pulled me aside and just asked me how I was doing … in a very personal way. And then, and this was the big surprise, he went on to tell me his personal struggles. He was as open and vulnerable with me as I was with him. And suddenly, the gap closed. I felt empowered, but I also realized that we were all human. We were equals, both just doing our best to do the right thing during that summer.

Patrick: We grew up in the same church, and we were Biblically literate from a young age. How did you feel about having The Great Commission as a theme that summer, and how does that command from Jesus impact your life to this day?

Mike: For a very long time, I took issue with the verse. Not Jesus’ words themselves, but the modern notion of “The Great Commission.” To bring in more people as disciples. I think I generally kept my mouth shut about it in 2004, but as I’ve grown I’ve had to really face these words and figure out where my feelings originated from and how to reconcile them with Jesus’ words.

Since 2005, I’ve been a member of the Circle of Hope church community (based in Philadelphia). And we have a yearly meeting to map out our plans for each year. And I was getting kind of sick of this language of adding, and gaining. It didn’t sound Christian. It sounded like Capitalism. It was all about more people. It was about growth and multiplication. And at one of these recent meetings, I spoke up.

Another member of the congregation offered some very compelling wisdom with me. A way to look at the Great Commission without getting mixed up in the language of our day. To “go and make disciples” doesn’t have to be understood in terms of a numbers game. And for us at Circle of Hope, it’s about inclusion. It’s about making the space and getting the message out there, that Jesus wants them, that there’s a purpose and a place for everyone, and it’s something they can be a part of. Seeing Matthew 28:18-20 as a message of inclusion, and our quest is an ongoing one to invite and attract, but not to measure in terms of numerical growth … it’s a hard thing to separate from in the 21st century, but that message has been huge for me.

Patrick: Before I let you off the hook, I wanted to give you a chance to give other BRR followers some insight into what’s going on in your life right now.

Mike: For some years now, I’ve been working with musicians. I do management: not just the business management portion (funding, networking, tour booking) but also some creative management. I’ve been with mewithoutYou for many years. And, since Five Iron Frenzy‘s reunion last year, I’ve put a lot and time and effort into managing them. As some readers will know, FIF broke up in November 2003, but they’ve come back together, and they’re releasing their new album [Engine of a Million Plots] on November 26th, exactly 10 years since their “final show” back in the day. I put together the design and layout for that album, working with illustrator Douglas TenNapel, and that was a real treat.

Patrick: And I understand you have big news in your personal life, yes?

Mike: I got engaged a few months ago. Brittany and I are getting married in May 2014. We’re psyched!

I’m so thankful to my good friend Mike for giving us a great, unique perspective on his final year serving at Black Rock Retreat’s summer camp ministry. We hope you enjoyed it too!

Were you a summer camper (or on staff) in 2004? Feel free to share any memories about that summer, related to the theme or not, in the comments below!

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