We All Need An Anytown, USA

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I’ve been thinking recently about the value of life. Being very candid, I was a little bit bothered by the current resurgence of the BlackLivesMatter movement. Candid again, I am a fairly privileged white male living in suburbia removed from many of the difficulties taking place in the world today. I’ve taken exception to posters and signs pointed at the “white” community stating “silence is violence”.

But, I am learning. I am growing.

Where I grew up, many people where white Caucasians like me. I don’t remember having any friends from different ethnic backgrounds though there were some in my high school. I grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS or Mormon are commonly used nicknames) same as most of my friends.

I belonged to a peer leadership team at my high school. During one particular summer, I attended several workshops designed to help our sixteen and seventeen year old minds think in broader terms. The “hot” topics of the day were drugs, AIDS, the emerging LGBTQ+ community (“gays” as we called them back then), and the continued racial divide in the United States. I think we probably spent an hour or two on each topic. In my mind, that made me pretty well versed.

Then, something magical happened.

On a hot August afternoon in 1996, my parents dropped me off at Camp UTABA in Ogden canyon. The name of the camp that year was Anytown, USA.

Today, Camp UTABA’s website states that the camp “exists to provide a place for spiritual renewal through environments, experiences and resources which draw people of all ages to God through the ministry of Christian camping.” Of course, in 1996 there was no website.

What I learned at the outset was Anytown, USA was about inclusion. When we arrived, we were divided into ethnically and religiously diverse groups. My counselor’s name was Marco. There were, I think, four or five young men in my cabin along with Marco.

On the first day of camp, I was afraid of Marco. While he had been born in the United States, his parents were first generation immigrants to the United States. Marco spoke English and Spanish — with a lot of swearing in both languages — and he smoked. A lot.

The first day, a Sunday, we played games to get to know the people in our assigned cabins as well as the others at the camp. There were perhaps 50 campers — all between fifteen and eighteen — plus perhaps a dozen counselors and a few camp staff.

I remember going to bed that first night being very uncertain of what my parents had signed me up for.

The days that followed were remarkable. Every morning we would gather around the flag, have a flag ceremony, and sing our camp song: the Anytown Song. I spent my days learning about faiths other than my own from people who belonged to those faiths. I learned important lessons from people of different ethnic backgrounds. Even as a seventeen year old, I began to appreciate the diversity of humanity and what I could learn from others.

The man who led our camp was a gracious, kind man named Curtis. He was African American and worshiped at a local baptist congregation not far from the camp. I remember having to look up at Curtis to meet his eyes so he must have been three or four inches taller than I was. I remember his muscular build. I think Curtis must have been in his late 40s or early 50s at that time.

August 9, 1996, a Friday morning that started much as previous days at camp had. We all shuffled into the mess hall after staying up too late talking in our cabins about the activities of the day. Curtis was standing at the front of the room as he did each morning. Each morning a different religious denomination would offer a prayer on the day.

“Today a Mormon will offer the prayer then they’ll go first for breakfast since they think they’re better than everyone else.” Curtis said.

My blood ran cold.

What was happening?

Curtis had been so kind all week long. The entire week had been about inclusion, about meeting people where they are, and loving them for who they are.

He asked for a volunteer. I can’t remember who offered the prayer. It was short.

The members of my faith gathered uncomfortably to get breakfast while the rest of the camp waited.

There happened to be a single individual at the camp — a counselor — who was Jewish by birth and religious profession. Curtis asked her a question so incredibly inappropriate that I won’t repeat it here.

Over and over again Curtis said things that were hurtful to every group represented at that camp. They came rapid-fire.

Now, I have to tell you about Liliana. Liliana, like Marco, was of Mexican ancestry. She was short of stature, but a vibrant firecracker of a soul.

Just after everyone had been seated with their breakfast, Curtis said that when we were done, we should leave our plates on the table for the Mexicans to clean up.

Little Liliana stood up with her plate of pancakes drowning in syrup, walked up to Curtis who was probably a foot and a half taller than she, and smashed her plate in Curtis’s face with all the force she could, and stormed out of the mess hall.

Curtis stood, almost unflinching, at the front of the mess with pancakes and syrup stuck to his face and shirt.

Several people ran from the mess hall after Liliana.

I was in shock over the entire scene. Curtis remained fixed where he stood. Voices began drifting in from outside. They were singing the camp song.

Anytown, Anytown, yellow, black, white, red or brown. Makes no difference when you come down to Anytown, our Anytown.

An outstretched hand, a friendly face, another creed, another race. There are things we have by grace at Anytown, our Anytown.

Anytown, Anytown, yellow, black, white, red or brown. Makes no difference when you come down to Anytown, our Anytown.

Sometimes people just don’t bother, care for themselves never for others. We can show them we’re sisters and brothers at Anytown, our Anytown

Anytown, Anytown, yellow, black, white, red or brown. Makes no difference when you come down to Anytown, our Anytown.

If you listen you can hear it, what we call the Anytown spirit. Love for others will bring you near at Anytown, our Anytown.

Eventually, the mess hall emptied. I am a bit ashamed to admit that I was one of the last — if not the last — to join my new friends who were gathered outside, singing loudly now, as they were locked arm-in-arm around the flag pole.

When I finally made my way outside, the dam broke inside me. I found a football sitting on the ground. I picked it up and threw it as far from the group as I could. Then, I walked very slowly, sobbing as I walked. I was probably only a hundred feet from the main group. I kicked the ball along the ground, increasing the distance, as I continued to cry.

I didn’t know what to do with all the emotion I felt so it spilled out of me uncontrollably.

About the time I made my way back to the group, Curtis emerged from the mess hall still wearing the pancakes and syrup bestowed by Liliana. He asked everyone to come in close, nothing but kindness in his voice again.

Curtis explained what he had been doing. It was all an experiment to see how far we could be pushed. He said we — thanks to Liliana — had been the fastest group in the history of the camp to rebel.

I understood. I still had a hard time forgiving Curtis for the things he had said.

Then, I really understood.

Curtis, Marco, and all the other counselors were trying to help us understand what happens when we don’t love people for who they are. He was trying to teach us that the experience we just had was being repeated in the real world. All the time. Wherever we found ourselves in the world, we would have an opportunity to be a part of the problem or just love people. That’s the most important thing. We don’t have to agree on everything, but love is absolutely essential for the survival of any society.

I learned some lessons during that week at camp UTABA that have been with me my entire life. Some of them, I forgot for a while.

It is true that all lives matter, but it is critical to the survival of our nation that right now those groups that have long been marginalized, persecuted, and oppressed be heard. Making societal changes to fix what’s broken are long overdue. They’re big, complex problems that will take everyone getting involved. The question is: what can I do as just one person?

Let’s all do our part to keep learning and growing with love.

Love for others will bring you near at Anytown, our Anytown.

Married to my best friend. Father to five exuberant children. Fledgling entrepreneur. Writer. Software developer. Inventory management expert.

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