Camp Westminster, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related camp on the shore of Higgins Lake in western Michigan, hopes to plant “a long-distance vision” in its campers.

The camp, which is in its 87th year of ministry, is intentionally rustic — there is no electricity in most of the camp’s cabins and the icehouse and pump house are still in use.  Campers stay in tents, cabins, or the newly built tree house yurt area — 10 feet above the ground, in the trees.

“We realized that there was a need to have a break from being busy and that it is really a sense of place that does that,” said Suzanne Bates, Westminster’s executive director.

Westminster, in the words of Bates, is very much a vintage camp.

“It looks like when you pay to go to Disney to see the ‘old wilderness’ — but this is actually how it is,” she said. “During the year, kids are up close in school — with their eyes on a screen or on a book, but when you are at camp you are able to look up at the sky and see much farther than you do when you are confined in a building.”

Though Westminster is happy to host groups throughout the year, its primary focus is on children and youth, with eight weeks of camp each summer for kids ranging from 7 years old through college.

“Many of the kids step out at night — we are in one of the darkest areas — they step out and they haven’t ever before seen the stars so clearly,” Bates said.

Westminster’s campers come from a diverse background — inner city kids from Detroit, kids from affluent families whose parents are alumni of the camp, and even kids from overseas whose parents are hoping camp is an opportunity for them to improve their English.

For kids ages 7-11, Westminster offers a traditional camp experience with activities like Bible Study, arts and crafts, a ropes course, canoeing, hiking and sailing. Once students are 12 years old, they can participate in the camp’s wilderness experiences. After a basic level wilderness trip setting up camp and day hiking from one location, kids progress into a multi-day backpacking trip where they set up camp and cook their own food every day.

“Often it seems that by the time kids get to high school they can become somewhat jaded. But when they have to work together to cook food, and to hang the food so that bears don’t get it and to work in community, they are forced to dependent on God and on each other,” Bates said.

Being out in the wilderness also gives the youth an opportunity to put into practice what they are learning — about wilderness skills, but about the Bible as well.

“One time we had a trip and on it one of the Bible stories was about loving your neighbor,” said Bates. On that particular day the campers had just hiked two miles to get their water and bring it back to their campsite. “Up walked a father and a son who had a problem with their food, and needed water. The campers knew, as they gave their water away, that they would have to walk another two miles to get more — but they did it anyway,” she said.

The learning can be unintentional as well.

“I think to really develop stewards of God’s creation, it is vital that each child has a chance to be out in nature and to roll aside a log and see what might be crawling underneath,” Bates said.

But in addition to providing a ministry to kids, Camp Westminster is also a grateful recipient as well. Maintaining an intentionally rustic camp that looks almost like it did 87 years ago is not without effort.

“If it weren’t for churches bringing their young people here for mission trips and work camps, we wouldn’t be here,” said Bates. “They come to stay and to work and then in the evenings we take them on the high ropes course and help them, hopefully, deepen their sense of community so that they can work together for the entire year.”

But thanks to the economic downturn and a rash of natural disasters around the country that have caught the attention of church groups in recent years, Camp Westminster has had fewer and fewer visitors. 

“We ask each group to make a plaque to commemorate their service so that we can hang them in the fellowship hall — churches from all around the country,” Bates said. “It’s a pretty amazing place.”

If your church group is interested in adding another plaque to the Fellowship Hall at Camp Westminster, contact Suzanne Bates

Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico, when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.