Written by: Joey Schwartz
Designed by: Katy Jones
Three teenage boys stepped off a bus in Fraser, Colorado. Each of them breathed in the mountain air, a significant upgrade from the smell of Lance crackers and dirty socks that filled the bus. Along with 40 other high-school students, they had travelled 1,700 miles from Matthews, North Carolina.
Along the way, they gobbled up Chick-fil-A biscuits underneath the Gateway Arch, zipped through the air at Six Flags park and hibernated all the way through Kansas. But the journey to Colorado was just the prequel for the boys, who were entering their senior year of high school. They had now arrived at Crooked Creek Ranch, a Young Life camp and the paradise they had been thinking about since their parents waved them goodbye three days earlier.
Bennett, one of the three friends, wasn’t sure where to set his eyes as he ran toward the cabin.
“Hey guys! Come on, ours is over here,” he said to his friends, as the wheels of his suitcase skidded across the asphalt.
To his left, there were some volleyball courts and a small lake with a large inflatable called “the Blob.” There was a swimming pool to the right and a hot tub that could have fit the whole senior class. Above him were the Rocky Mountains, with colossal peaks that made North Carolina’s Appalachians look like anthills.
Bennett was the star of the varsity basketball team, on track to set the school’s record for career points. A good-looking kid with blond hair and blue eyes, he was well known throughout the school. But he didn’t seem to care. He didn’t talk about himself much, and while he showed up at some parties, he didn’t like being at the center of attention. To most people at his high school, Bennett was a “good kid.”
He knew Young Life was a Christian organization, but like most of the people who had come from Matthews, he signed up for the fun. They had to listen to a Bible talk once or twice a day, but then they got to play, swim and run around with their friends.
The second of the three friends, a bulky lacrosse player named Conor, followed Bennett as he walked into the cabin.
“I’ve got the top bunk,” Bennett said as he swung his suitcase over his head and slammed it onto the flannel comforter.
Conor pulled his suitcase onto the bed beneath Bennett’s and began to change into sports clothes. He and Bennett had been friends since elementary school and stayed close through the awkwardness
and acne of middle
Like Bennett, Conor didn’t like being at the center of attention. He was known throughout the school as a down-to-earth, pretty funny guy.
Also like Bennett, Conor didn’t come for the Bible talks. He had been to several weekend- long Young Life camps and knew that they were a blast. Between the competitions and games, it was well worth the three-day trip.
As soon as they had put on their tank tops and sandals, Conor and Bennett sprinted out of the cabin toward the volleyball courts. They had a few hours to play around before the first camp meeting, where someone would start talking about Jesus.
“Let’s go two-on-two. Who’s in?” Conor asked, holding the ball. Behind him, the third friend raced up to the court and walked to the other side of the net.
“I’m in, serve it up!”
That night was the first Bible talk of the week. After jumping around and singing a few songs, 500 students filling the jam- packed room sat down, and Jason, the speaker, jumped onto the stage. Jason was nothing like what the three boys expected. He wore a black tank top, exposing several tattoos along his arms. His long blond hair wagged back and forth through his trucker hat as he paced along the stage.
As unique and energetic as Jason was, he couldn’t grab the attention of the third friend, who was sitting between Conor and Bennett. The third friend had became friends with them in sixth grade and stuck with them ever since. While Conor and Bennett had dipped a foot into the party scene going into high school, they watched their friend dive in headfirst.
The third friend had gone to a similar weeklong Young Life summer camp in New York after his freshman year. He was emotionally affected by the talks and committed his life to Jesus, but after a few weeks of forced prayer and inattentive Bible study, he went back to his old ways.
By the time he had arrived at Crooked Creek Ranch, he was known throughout school as a party animal.
“I want to tell you about someone who offers life to the fullest,” Jason said, his toes hanging off the edge of the stage.
As sweat dropped down the passionate speaker’s face, the
third friend zoned out, paying more attention to the girls sitting around him than the words coming from stage.
Later that night, the boys went back to their cabin and gathered with the rest of their friends for what Young Life calls “cabin time.” It’s a meeting after Bible talks when Young Life leaders talk openly and honestly with the campers about their lives and how they responded to the message.
Drew, the Young Life leader who had befriended the three boys and invited them to camp, called them into the cabin to gather around in a circle. After some pushing and shoving, the 12 boys in the cabin sat down in a circle.
Drew knew that a group of high school boys trying to have a focused conversation was like a group of dogs trying to get in a single-file line for dinner. So he took a red baseball cap out of his bag and held it up in the air.
“This is the cap we’re going to use any time we have cabin time,” Drew said. “When you have the cap, you can talk. When you don’t have it, don’t talk.”
From that point on the third friend looked at that cap as if
it carried the plague. Anytime the cap came near him, it meant discomfort, honesty, touchiness, feelings. All things that made him want to squirm.
After the cap was tossed like a hot potato for a few questions, it finally landed on the third friend’s feet. He had been daydreaming and missed the question. He looked up at Drew, who repeated himself.
“What did you think about the message? Did it speak to you in any way?”
The third friend had known Drew for a few years. He knew that Drew followed Jesus. He knew that Drew wanted him to follow Jesus. And he knew that there was no way that he was going to follow Jesus. So he figured he would be short and to the point. No use in getting Drew’s hopes up.
“I’ve tried out Christianity before,” he said. “It didn’t really work for me. Didn’t really do anything. So I don’t think it’s for me. And I didn’t get much out of the message.”
Mission accomplished. Drew’s heart sank as the third friend tossed the red cap across the circle to another boy. Drew had met the third boy at the camp in New York, when he had committed his life to following Jesus. Drew watched him transform from an innocent freshman to a punk within the course of a couple of years. Drew thought that a change of scenery might do the trick. Sometimes you have to get away from the noise to hear from God.
By day three of camp, Bennett sensed that something was happening in his own heart. The young basketball star had no intention of changing his life at camp. Things were fine back home. He had a solid group of friends, good grades and a possible college basketball scholarship ahead of him.
But as Bennett leaned in while the speaker talked, and as he opened up with the red cap in his hands, he felt like he was getting more than fun and games during his time at Crooked Creek. Life back at home was good, but the life with Jesus, the life that the speaker spoke about, started to feel better.
He didn’t talk about it with the other two friends at first. But Conor noticed when Bennett’s answers to Drew’s questions became more thorough. He noticed when Bennett started to reach his hands out for the red cap.
Across the room, the third friend didn’t notice much. His mind wasn’t on the universe, or God, or the meaning of life. It was on a pretty girl he had met earlier in the week. Cabin time was like going to the doctor’s office for a shot – just get through it, and then you can enjoy the rest of the day.
When one of the other boys tossed the red cap at the third friend, he would conjure up a shallow answer like, “Yeah, I don’t know about that,” or, “I agree with what he said.”
The following night, the speaker ended his talk in a unique way.
He had just finished talking about the cross of Jesus – how Jesus had paid the penalty for the sins of the world on the cross, how he had risen from the dead and offered forgiveness to anyone who believes
in him. He told the students to go outside in silence, be alone for 15 minutes and try to talk to God.
Since he had already been at a Young Life camp, the third friend knew this was coming. This was the time when most campers get emotional and commit their lives to Jesus. That’s what he had done two years earlier, and he wasn’t going to do it again.
He stepped outside of the meeting room and looked around. All the lights in the camp were turned off, but a million lanterns shone through the clear skies. The other campers were following directions, so he didn’t have much else to do but find a place to rest on the grass.
He lay down on his back and looked up to the stars. He knew he had a couple of options: either he could sit there for 15 minutes and try to think about nothing, or he could use the time to try to say something to God.
Might as well, he thought.
“God, if you’re there, go ahead and feel free to do something right now,” he whispered, with all the apathy he could muster.
In that moment, something happened to the third boy. As his words left his lips, he felt like there was a brick wall above him, bouncing his words right back to him. He didn’t feel the non- existence of God, but rather the absence of a God who did exist. Instantly, his apathy turned to awe, and then awe to alarm.
When he was back at the cabin later that night and the red cap fell at his feet, all the boys were expecting the same cookie-cutter response he had given all week. Instead, the third friend clenched the red cap and burst into tears, unable to say a word. From that point on, there would be no apathy when the third boy talked about Jesus.
Three teenage boys stepped off the bus in Matthews, North Carolina. They were different boys than the ones who had stepped on the week before. The boys who left were looking for girls and games and anything to make life fun.
The boys who came back found someone who is better than life. The boys who left were friends. The boys who came back were brothers, tied together by an experience they would never forget.
Conor and Bennett became Young Life leaders in college, bringing students to camp every summer, hoping that they might see what they saw there.
As for the third friend, he is the one writing this story. He entered full-time ministry in the church, committing his life to telling others about the life found in Jesus. At his summer camp, he found out that most often, camp is not about where you are going or what you are going to do, but who you might find while you’re there.