By: Christa Meland
In his 14 years, Cole Belton has never wanted to go to camp out of fear that he wouldn’t be accepted. But when another teenager at his church—Park UMC in Brainerd—invited him to a camp for gamers, he decided to give it a try. The week was transformational for him and its positive impact stayed with him even after returning home.
Belton was among eight youth between the ages of 12 and 17 who participated in a new, six-day “Games Galore and More” at Northern Pines Camp in Park Rapids in June. Led by Rev. Amanda Larsen, a gamer herself, the camp combined gaming and faith and drew connections between the two. Attendees played Magic: The Gathering, Dungeons and Dragons, Pokémon, Pandemic, Silver Bullet, and Spoons, among others, while also enjoying traditional camp activities like archery, swimming, and campfire singalongs. For arts and crafts time, the group painted miniatures and built dice-rolling towers out of Pringles cans.
“Cole has longed for a group with which to belong, that shares the things that he loves, and that respects the person he is,” said his mom, Twila Belton. “He felt all that, and more, the week that he was at camp. He told me that it was a ‘10 out of 10’ and that he would definitely do it again. This is from a kiddo who is currently questioning his beliefs, professing being an atheist, but open to other options. Do you know how huge that is? One of the few places he felt valued, loved, and respected happened within the boundaries of the church! That is incredible!”
The key message that the youth gamers left with: Our faith walk should influence us in our everyday life. They internalized the message by exploring John Wesley’s Three Simple Rules:
• Do no harm: They discussed the dangers of bullying, not destroying a new player in a gaming environment (even if you can) so that they have a good experience, and winning graciously.
• Do all the good you can: They talked about teaching new people to play the games they enjoy, the benefits of cooperative games that involve passing the spotlight around so everyone gets a chance to play, and how including and inviting others is part of Christian living.
• Stay in love with God: This involved a discussion of living a disciplined and balanced life. For example, it’s important not to become addicted to games.
“I love that we were able to host this camp that found new, clever, and unique ways to connect campers’ lives with their faith,” said Leslie Hobson, director of Northern Pines Camp. “As a ministry area, we know we have to continue to search for new ways to connect young people with a faith life and a desire to be on a spiritual journey. This camp is a great example of making that connection and providing the space and opportunity for campers to grow in relationship to each other and with Christ while doing the thing they love: gaming.”
The mission of Camp Minnesota, which includes Northern Pines, is to help campers experience Christ, creation, and community. Cole Belton is a testament to the transformative power of camp, and his experience transcended his week of camp.
“He came home more engaged in outside activities and experiences than he had been,” said Twila Belton. Whereas her son had spent most of the summer indoors, upon returning from camp, he has been water skiing and enjoying connecting with nature—which has benefited his overall well-being.
“He got so used to not doing things during Covid that he needed a new experience to get him out of his routine and remind him of other things he loved,” said Twila Belton.
Nonprofit MagiKids donated more than $250 in supplies for the camp; it gives kids access to the card game Magic: The Gathering by giving teachers and mentors the cards and resources they need to teach the game, which facilitates critical thinking, math, and reading opportunities and encourages socialization and engagement.
Games Galore and More will return to Northern Pines next year, and Larsen plans to open up more spots and is already writing an even more robust curriculum.
Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church