Summer 2012 wasn’t all that long ago. But that didn’t make it any easier for our interview guest, Peter Fenton, to unpack all the memories from his first summer on staff.
In 2012, the theme was “Backward.” That did not mean “wear your shirt backwards,” though I’m told that did happen a lot. To learn more about that theme, and what all happened in summer 2012, we turn to Peter. Enjoy!
Patrick: Before we get to the Black Rock Retreat memories, I wanted to let our readers know a little bit more about you. Give us some background! What’s your story, and where are you now?
Peter: Well, right now I’m giving this interview from my dorm room on the sixth floor of Traber Hall at Wheaton College [in Illinois, west of Chicago], so that’s pretty cool. Wheaton is awesome. I love it. Other than that, I worked at Black Rock this past summer, and the summer before that.
Patrick: So then, 2012 was your first summer working at Black Rock Retreat?
Peter: Yes, you could say it was my “rookie year.”
Patrick: And had you been a long-time camper? Many of our past guests on the blog had been campers for a long time before they started working there.
Peter: I only actually went to Black Rock as a camper in 2011 for a Teen Week. And I applied the next summer on a whim. I wasn’t sure if I’d even be hired, but the rest, as they say, is history.
Patrick: I read on Facebook that you won the award for “earliest to re-apply” for the 2014 summer!
Peter: There’s nothing I’d rather do with my summer. I’m a Lancaster native, graduated from Conestoga Valley high school. So I’m going to be home for the summer anyway, and I figure my time will be best spent at Black Rock. After two years as a Junior Counselor, I’m hoping to be a Senior Counselor for the upcoming year.
Patrick: Alright, let’s get specific with 2012. Tell us, what was this “Backward” theme all about?
Peter: The theme verse was Jesus’ words “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me [and the gospel] will find it,” found in Mark 8:35.
[Editor’s note: Jesus makes this statement in all three synoptic Gospels. For reference, the verses are Matthew 16:25, Mark 8:35, and Luke 9:24]
This kind of logic is the opposite of what you would expect it to be, and that kind of surprising statement is what encapsulated the summer.
Patrick: Did you celebrate “opposite” days that summer?
Peter: No, but we had a lot of campers intentionally wearing the shirt backwards. And that was funny, especially the first time I saw it. It was clever at first, but by the end of the summer it got less funny to the staff I suppose.
Patrick: What is your “takeaway” from this theme?
Peter: A short answer would be, “you’re going to look weird if you’re a Christian.” This was big for me. If you’re a Christian, you are different from the world.
Patrick: Do you feel like, in the world you grew up, you didn’t feel different because you were in an insular, bubble-like Christian community?
Peter: Yes. Absolutely, yes.
Patrick: And you’re at Wheaton now, so do you feel like you’ve experienced that counter-cultural “weirdness” you spoke of earlier?
Peter: Wheaton is a Christian school, so I’m not actually seeing that so much in college, but I definitely started to see it when I came toward the end of high school. I had my eyes opened to people around me rejecting the faith and engaging in acts of rebellion. As I noticed that, I had to come to terms with the fact that faithfully following Christ wouldn’t be smooth or easy, even in a strong traditionally Christian area like Lancaster County. You have to really make a choice to pursue Christ actively.
I think this theme, alongside resonating with me, it definitely resonated with some of the older campers, those who had been coming for a long time or are otherwise “churched.”
Patrick: Any stories you’d like to share in that regard?
Peter: I had a camper whose parents had recently gone through a very messy divorce. It was a complete surprise for him. He thought everything was fine, he was in that insular community, and all of a sudden this divorce rocked his world, and he was angry. Suddenly he saw the way the world operated, where people don’t hold to their commitments. The fallen-ness hit him, and the upside-down kingdom we are called to live in? That was miles away from where he was in his personal life.
And you know what? I don’t remember what I said to him when he told me about that. I know that the Lord spoke through me, but I couldn’t tell you how that conversation went. All I do know is that that camper a few months later reached out to me and Seth (my co-counselor that week) and personally thanked us for showing him true love – love that he hadn’t seen before in his life, and especially what he’d seen in his family.
I know that, whatever that was, it wasn’t me. It was God.
Patrick: Do you ever feel nervous or uncomfortable in your position as a Christian in a position of leadership at Black Rock? What is leadership like when you are choosing to be a servant of Christ?
Peter: That was an ongoing struggle for me that summer. Especially with it being my first summer, I wanted to be a “cool counselor.” I really wanted the kids to like me. And I know there were instances where I should’ve been more of a strong, respectable leader and mentor instead of a passive “buddy.” I didn’t want to point out problems and work them out. That’s difficult, it’s the path of greater resistance. But that was all part and parcel with the theme.
Patrick: Was there a time in the past two summers when you felt like you were getting weaker, or going the wrong way, but then you got feedback that in fact you were doing the right thing?
Peter: I can’t recall anything like that. But in fact, I do remember in 2013, I thought I was doing the right thing, but a member of the staff leadership suggested that I was approaching things the wrong way.
Patrick: How so?
Peter: In 2013, I was the only returning Junior Counselor that summer. And because of the mistakes I’d made in 2012, I went into 2013 wanting to be a strong authority figure for both campers and new staff. But it was hard, and I felt like I was distancing myself from everyone, even my best friends on staff. I didn’t feel empowered. I was attributing it to not being supported by the staff, and the Men’s Director, Addison, asked me: “Do you think this might be an identity issue for you?”
And at first I was really offended by that question. It’s like, hey! I’m a Christian, I’ve been one forever, I’m a counselor at Black Rock, I know my identity is in Christ.
But in searching and praying through this, I realized, no, I wasn’t identifying myself fully in Christ. I was trying to set up this identity of super-counselor. And I tried it both years. In 2012 I tried to be super-counselor by getting along with everyone, and then in 2013 I tried to be super-counselor by acting tough and in charge at all times. Neither method was working because my goal was “being super-counselor,” instead of just being God’s servant. And I had to really think about what it means for Him to live in me.
Patrick: Now, I remember, you’re a guitar player. What is it like leading worship at Black Rock’s summer camp?
Peter: Leading worship is truly an awesome experience. Obviously, I enjoy being able to select the songs that I’m good at playing and singing. Beyond that, I have to say that I connect really well with God through music. It’s a great vehicle to get closer to Him. And it’s indescribable when one hundred, nearly two hundred people are all gathered at Laurel Side singing to Him together. I love it.
I also want to say especially that I’ve come to love worshiping God during Special Week. That has humbled me and moved me in ways that, again, I don’t know how to put into words.
Patrick: Anything else you’d like to share?
Peter: Campout is my absolute favorite part of camp, program-wise. No question about that. I just love everything that goes on those nights. One week in 2012, when I counseled Robin with Jacob Ragsdale, there was this crazy toad who was attracted to fire. We were at camp-out, and I was about to make bannock over the fire. This toad keeps hopping around the fire, and I’m trying to chase it away. I had a pan over the fire with oil in it, and right before I put the bannock in, the toad jumped right into the oil and fried himself. And all the campers just started freaking out, like “this is the greatest thing EVER!!!” It was also kind of a great illustration for the “allure” of sin, and how it leads to our own destruction.
Another time that summer – it was my first week as a counselor at camp-out. I was with Bluebird, co-counseling with Jordan Engel. As the kids were falling asleep that night, he was telling a story about a python from his time in Uganda. Once he finished, our campers were like, “you have a cool story too, right Peter?” And I, still working at thinking on my feet, said, “No, I don’t, but I do know some cool stories about Jordan’s grandmother. Yeah, Jordan and his grandma have been on some wacky adventures together.” And then Jordan jumps in and spouted off, “Oh yeah, my grandmother sings me a lullaby every night.”
Of course our middle schoolers didn’t believe us, and they demanded that the two of us sing the grandmother’s lullaby to them. And we improvised a lullaby together about adventures, jaguars, monster trucks, and chainsaws. It was a truly weird and beautiful moment.
Peter Fenton is the man. I am very thankful to have gotten to know him the past two summers, and it was wonderful talking to him about his “Backward” year. I’ll throw in my two cents regarding this theme by recommending Donald Kraybill’s classic book The Upside-Down Kingdom. And, for those who care to listen, I wrote a five-part piano sonata for the 2012 summer (staff) called the “Backward Sonata.” You can listen and download it for free here.
Were you a camper or staff member during 2012, the year that everything was “Backward?” Have you been in Peter Fenton’s cabin? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below!