Eastern Mennonite University hosted the Mid-Atlantic region of Fellowship for Christian Athletes' all-sports camp in late June. Approximately 400 campers, coaches and staff were on campus for a four-day session, using residence halls, athletics facilities and the dining hall -- the first large outside group to be hosted since summer 2019. Summer is one of the busiest times for EMU Auxiliary Services, which works with large and small groups to rent facilities for summer conferences, camps and other events. (Photos by Rachel Holderman)

Back in business: Fellowship for Christian Athletes campers kick off summer season for campus crews

For a few weeks, Jenn Gustavus was holding her breath about the Mid-Atlantic region’s Fellowship for Christian Athletes (FCA) summer camp.

“We opened registration May 5 and by May 24, we only had 50 campers and we weren’t sure this was going to happen,” said Gustavus, administrative assistant to the state FCA director. “But God was at work.”

She gives this synopsis while also, in succession, handling a request for XL t-shirts, telling a camper how to work around a lost ID card, and fielding other questions from various staff and coaches coming in and out of camp headquarters in the Eastern Mennonite University commons. With no sign of flagging energy on the third day of the four-day camp, she also mentions doing a dorm check at 11:30 p.m. the night before.

“God at work” in this particular context means that by Sunday [June 27], 268 teenagers were travelling to EMU from Virginia, Maryland, and Washington D.C. 

And Gustavus, camp director Todd Burger, 25 coaches, and 56 staffers were ready for action — and ready to shake the rust off after a year of interactions that were limited by COVID-19.

So were EMU’s director of auxiliary services, Cheryl Montgomery, and her staff, as well as Bruce Emmerson, director of dining services at Pioneer College Catering, and his staff in the university dining hall. 

Montgomery has actually been waiting for the FCA campers for close to two years. The organization booked EMU facilities for the first time in summer 2020 after having been based at University of Richmond for many years. Then COVID hit.

FCA athletes participate in activities on the turf field.

Even up until a few months ago, Montgomery was liaising with FCA and campus officials and paying close attention to government regulations to determine if events would be allowed and what limitations might be in effect.

The FCA camp is the first large group that EMU has hosted this summer.

The unusual sight of hundreds of teenagers — string bags on their backs and athletic gear in their hands, crossing Park Avenue, lined up on the turf field or clustered in small groups under any available shade tree — has drawn a lot of attention. (“Campus is hopping. What’s going on?” came the email from one curious EMU employee.)

It’s been a slow process, Montgomery says, working with planners through so many uncertainties. She estimates EMU will host only about 25 percent of their normal summer bookings.

“Still, we’re so glad to have people back on campus this summer. It’s been great getting to know FCA staff and volunteers,” she said. “Our groups usually return, we get to know them and they become like family. Every summer is a bit of a family reunion.”

Family is one theme of the FCA camp, too. Many coaches and staff bring their families, which means all-camp events includes all age ranges from babies on up, Gustavus said. 

But it’s also “our SuperBowl,” she said, the biggest event of the year in part because of its size but also for its potential impact on young people.

“In some ways, high school is the last opportunity to introduce them to Jesus,” Gustavus said, “and this age group is prime for the introduction. We get every kind of background under the sun and they all need Jesus.”

Coming to faith in Christ through sports is the natural hook for athletes, said Burger, who moved into his FCA work through involvement in baseball. (FCA also offers some sport-specific camps.)

At all-sports camps, campers work out in two practice sessions guided by college and high school coaches each day. Instruction in eight sports is offered. Campers also participate in huddles, or devotionals, with leaders who are college athletes. 

Kendrick Golhston, a former professional football player and director of Northern Roanoke Valley FCA, guides a daily devotional time “Doing Sports God’s Way,” built around 1 Timothy 6:11 and the camp theme of “Pursue.” 

“Sunday was pursuing love, yesterday was ‘pursue worship,’ today was ‘pursue unity,’ and tomorrow will be ‘pursue rest.’ God is in each one of those things,” Gohlson said. “We talk about being competitive and in pursuit. You can be competitive and still have the will to win but when you win what are you winning for? That’s the difference between those who have accepted Christ and those who haven’t.  When I’m winning, I’m bringing Him glory. I am not bringing it on myself but on Him.”

Each evening, everyone gathers for a program, which includes games, skits, music, testimonials, and a speaker. Burger said the highlight of the week, for him and many others, is the last evening program. “Thursday, our last day, we do a last chapel and the athletes and sometimes coaches give a testimonial about what happened at camp and it’s so powerful. Sometimes we hear about an athlete who their coach will say at the beginning may not be open and then they’ll get up and talk about what happened … that’s what we’re here for.”