By Sarah Gioe
Over 100 youth, aged high school to college, wait for this one week in August each year. The week when they can return to camp, reunite with their friends from past years, ask questions about God out loud, shout cheers at the top of their lungs, play silly games, meet others wrestling with the same faith puzzles, and be themselves.
This is Pinecrest Lutheran Leadership Ministries, an 86-year-old institution in our synod. It began in 1927 when the Long Island District Luther League separated from the Brooklyn district and involved leaders wondered how best to instill leadership skills in their youth. Pastor Gerhart from Christ, Little Neck led an overnight retreat, and kids came from 12 local congregations. The weekend events continued, under the name Luther League Leadership Training Institute, until 1936 when the program had grown so much that it became a five-day event at Pinecrest Dunes.
Nowadays, campers arrive at Camp Louemma on Sunday and stay through the following Sunday, beginning their days with Bible study and ending with faith meditations. They take classes in the morning and play sports in the afternoon. The classes, led by synod pastors and other leaders, range from "Misconceptions of the Bible" and "Strong Men and Women of Faith" to "Finding Your Calling" and "Leaving Kadesh: Empowering Your Life." Activities such as kickball, basketball, dodgeball, and capture the flag are organized for the afternoon. There are sing-alongs, competitions, campfires, a daily newspaper, a canteen, talent shows, and evening vespers. During nightly cabin devotions, campers share questions of faith that are impacting their personal lives.
Over the decades, Pinecrest has remained relevant through the active involvement of campers who serve on the board of directors and participate in the planning of each session, choosing the classes and the faculty. And each year, the camp is shepherded by a volunteer staff of adult leaders, many of whom developed their own skills as Pinecrest campers. There’s something about this camp, this special week, that keeps them coming back for years.
"My dad, all my brothers, all my sisters, and my niece all went to Pinecrest. It’s a lifestyle—we knew we were going to go! I went the first year I could," says Sara Neidig, a member of Ascension, Deer Park, who was back to visit on Alumni Day. "I went for eight years and was student council president. Now I walk back in and they’re singing songs from 30 years ago. You can go back and pick up where you left off."
It’s not just the campers who are returning. Activities director Steve Goodenough, better known to Pinecresters as "Uncle Steve," has been coming to camp for so long that he remembers the days in the ‘60s when his congregation would compete with others to see who could send more kids to camp. "This mountain top experience is really important," he says. "Now it’s such a part of our lives—it’s nice to see [the campers] become leaders."
"I was a shy kid before," says activities director Walton Williams, who met his wife at camp. "Pinecrest helped me realize strengths and talents I have and set me on my career path."
The traditions run strong, and it’s obvious that Pinecrest has quite a legacy, yet the organization works to remain current. Faculty rotates every two years, the staff changes, and different directors each bring their own flavor. And, "while the program of Pinecrest stays the same, the campers change," says Jenn Bald, an art therapist who spent seven years as a camper and three years as a cabin leader. "Over the past ten years, I saw an influx of new life as the veterans move on and new campers join the community."
Business manager Tanya Behnke, member of Calvary Hauppauge, has been involved with Pinecrest for 17 years. When asked why she keeps coming back, she says, "I’m drawn by the community. The bonds we develop here are stronger; the outside world doesn’t matter when we’re here."