|At Buffalo Mountain, AIDS campers find acceptance
By Annette Bender
David sits on a bench, talking about HIV/AIDS and why he likes coming to this Holston Conference camp to commune with other victims of the disease. To make a point, David stands and lowers his pants, showing how the illness has wasted away his leg muscles. He's a young man in his 30s, upset by the number of pills he takes each day, horrified at his loss of vigor.
It's "Strength for the Journey" week at Camp Buffalo Mountain one of two weeks each year that Holston hosts victims of HIV/ AIDS here in Jonesborough, Tenn. "David" is not the camper's real name, nor are the names of the other campers mentioned in this article. In order to protect the campers, visitors are required to sign confidentiality agreements.
Victims of HIV/AIDS are "the lepers of our society," says Dot Avers, who has directed Holston's Strength for the Journey since she started it in 1997.
"The majority of these campers come from small towns in the South," she explains. "Frequently, they're not within an hour's drive of someone they know with the disease, and they feel terribly isolated."
For instance, David lives in South Carolina where 112 of the 240 total campers attending Holston's camp have resided. Most of the other campers come from North Carolina and Tennessee, with a few from Virginia, Georgia, Alabama and Florida.
Because of the stigma associated with the disease, many people with HIV/AIDS try to keep the illness secret from neighbors and co-workers, David says. However, people with HIV/AIDS are usually not well enough to work full-time, leaving them home and alone.
A former caterer, David also says it's a blessing that drugs are helping him to live longer. But with the blessing comes the fear that he won' t have enough money to sustain a longer life.
David is the kind of person who touches your arm when he talks. He says he misses being touched by other people since he got sick. He looks forward to camp so he can meet people who aren't put off by his disease.
"What about your faith?" David is asked. "Did you have a relationship with God before you came to this camp the first time?"
Like other campers interviewed for this story, David is no stranger to Christianity. The campers seem comfortable with the fact that God loves them they're just not sure other Christians do.
"Coming here is a risk for them," the Rev. Beverly Robinette, a Holston minister and regular camp leader, says over breakfast one morning. "They may have heard good things about this camp, but they still don't know what to expect what we will say or do when they get here."
Some of the campers admit not going to church at home, but are willing participants in the praise services held at Buffalo Mountain. At the evening campfire, there are a lot of sniffles and confessions. The campers clamor for hugs when the service is over.
One man, a first-time participant, draws on a cigarette and tells how he appreciates the counselors for accepting campers as they are. The leaders have worked hard to gain the campers' trust, he says.
There are no high-pressure conversion tactics here, camp leaders say, although prayer, hymns and smallgroup activities dominate the agenda.
"We don't do evangelism because we don't have to," Avers explains later. "God's presence is so obvious that we would just be getting in the way."
One of the most outgoing campers at Strength for the Journey was Keith. He came on a Greyhound from Virginia. He said he had 10 grandchildren, although he didn't look old enough. He found out just four months earlier that he had diabetes and AIDS, too. Keith had a beautiful voice and loved to sing around the campfire.
Most of these campers are men; about 15 percent are women. Most are white; about one-sixth, like Keith, are African-American. Many of them have heard about this camp through the grapevine, but some, like Keith, heard about it through their United Methodist churches.
The campers have all sorts of pasts. Sometimes their jokes are bawdy, but the counselors don't flinch. Sometimes they keep the counselors and nurses up at night with their medical problems and schedules, but the volunteers seem to take it in stride.
"A lot of these people aren't used to living with other people," Avers explains. "They sleep all day and stay up all night, so we're reversing the schedule on them."
At the end of each week, the camping staff throws a "Celebration of Life" party. Amidst balloons, the campers play games and listen to music, enjoying the last night of camp in East Tennessee's mountains. The next day, they return home to continue fighting their illnesses.
A few months later, Avers is asked if she's heard from Keith. Did he make it back to Virginia and his 10 grandchildren?
"He's dead," Avers said. His body was found in a crack house.
Camp relies on generosity of church members
When Holston's "Strength for the Journey" camp was founded in 1997, the conference provided $600 for start-up funding. A drug company contributed $5,000. The conference's Redwine Committee awarded grants for new programming.
Since then, the camp has survived on the generosity of church groups and individuals, says camp director Dot Avers.
"It's been an act of faith," she said. "We've never known where the money will come from. When we get in a bind, the money always comes through."
Each camper is asked to pay a $25 fee, and then $125 scholarships are provided for each. In actuality, it costs about $250 to host each camper for the week, Avers says.
The camp can accommodate a maximum of 28 participants per week. Volunteers receive no salaries and pay their own expenses.
A United Methodist Communications video is available for churches to view, or camp staff will come speak to your group. Call Dot Avers at (865) 521-6456 for more information.
To give to Strength for the Journey, make checks out to "Holston Conference" with "SFTJ, Advance Special #3500301.58" on the memo line. Drop your check in your church's collection plate or mail to: Holston Conference, P.O. Box 2506, Johnson City, TN 37605.
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