Reflections From the Shores | Russell McGrath’s Sermon

Kawaga Family,
I highly encourage you to read this week’s sermon, delivered yesterday by third-year counselor Russell McGrath.
I can’t even remember a sermon – or any speech or discussion of any type – that better explains two things: what the first word of the Kawaga Ideal means and how we view our core value of Sportsmanship.
Thank you, Russell, for teaching us all.

I went away to college during the off-season. While I was there, I found myself having this one conversation over and over. It usually went something like this: I would tell someone that I worked at a summer camp in Wisconsin, and they would ask me, “What do you do there?” I got really hung up on this question, and it sat with me long after each time I answered it. I would usually mumble something about sports or camping trips, knowing that I didn’t have a good answer.
This dissatisfaction with my ability to articulate exactly what it is I do for one-sixth of the year really bothered me. And so, I thought. At first, I thought that I simply hadn’t spent long enough actually explaining programs, activities, or camp life. Perhaps I should have amended my answer to, “We do sports and camping trips and waterskiing and cheering in the Mess Hall, and we count points and we run evening programs and we live in cabins, and we beat Menominee…” but of course an answer like that could never capture what it is that keeps me coming back.

I then sought out a perfect little anecdote to encapsulate the feel of being here, and I was coming up short on that front as well. The plurality of experiences that each day at Kawaga holds was difficult to consolidate so much. Eventually, I thought about the Kawaga Ideal. I didn’t even need to remember very much to find a part that caught my attention. The very first line, in fact. “Build me a son…” This line finally gave me the language to describe what Kawaga does. Kawaga builds boys into men. It seems so simple to say, but there is nuance in this phrase. The Ideal does not ask for a son to be dropped into existence fully formed. It recognizes that growing up, and becoming a man, are not tasks that are simple or quick; it understands that the journey to manhood is long and arduous. The second bit of complexity that I saw in this line is that it does not say, “Make me a son”; it specifically commands, “Build me a son”.

I can think of no better example of the continual building process than the Bay Swim. It starts early. New campers, some of them very young and unsure of their swimming ability, are not just given the option to swim the bay, but they’re expected to swim the bay. It is no easy task, but almost every camper manages it. We do not simply throw the kids in the deep end either. During my first summer as a Sioux in 2014, I was not expected to swim by myself. The kind words and relentless encouragement of my camp Big Brother and the lifeguard propelled me as much as my arms and legs did.

I swam the bay again in 2019, not as a first-year camper looking to ring the bell and come home with a paddle, but to help my camp Little Brother navigate the cold waters of the lake. In five short years, camp had transformed me from the untested Sioux to a teacher and motivator of the next generation of Kawaga Braves. The bar had been raised. Not only did I have to be a competent swimmer, I had to be a leader. In this new role, camp had once again been careful to not throw me in the deep end; it did not make me responsible for the emotional state and successful bay swim of a new camper, without preparing me well for the day when I would swim the bay again.
I swam the bay again this year, quite a few times in fact. I was a lifeguard, responsible for the physical safety and the emotional well-being of many new campers in their first real challenge of their stay at Kawaga. Camp had not finished building me, even though my time as a camper was over. This building of character and responsibilities was not accomplished overnight, and it can be seen every day at camp.

There are the big moments, of course, but they’re not what I’d like to focus on for the purposes of this sermon. The real transformative moments I see here are moments of struggle and failure. I see boys being built into men after heartbreaking leagues losses. I see it when a camper falls for the fifteenth time trying to accomplish his two-ski Miracle. I see it in scraped knees and tough falls. I see it in P’fian swims and garbage ball. The opportunity to fail in an emotionally charged but ultimately low-stakes environment is the backdrop to transformative change.

The opportunity to fail is only one part of the character-building process. Many places offer the chance to fail. The crucial difference at Kawaga is that there is no option but to get back up. The Ideal understands this, saying “…a son who will be proud and unbending in defeat.” Another saying I heard a while back also hits a similar note: “It’s okay to be beaten. That’s not always in your control. It is never okay to lose.” At Kawaga, there are endless opportunities to be beaten. In a typical day, a camper might struggle with a new skill in Clubs, try and fail to get a proficiency during Open Areas, suffer a disappointing leagues loss, and perform poorly in an evening program. The camper is never allowed, however, to throw in the towel and accept defeat. Poor sportsmanship is not tolerated, and neither is sitting out of Clubs or Leagues because of setbacks. From a young age, campers are expected to not only be competitors, but also be sportsmen. Before they know it, they are expected to be experts and leaders. At the end of the game, no matter the score, both teams are expected to do cheers for the other team.

I am not so naïve as to think that Kawaga is done building me. For however long I can stay at camp, I am confident that I will continue to grow. I still have opportunities to fail and learn. I am still expected to get back up and try again. I know that the expectations will be high, and that I have been prepared to meet them. This cycle is the core of Kawaga as I see it.

I’ll leave you all with one last thought. Camp can encourage and facilitate and foster growth all day, but camp cannot grow for you. We are whom we choose to be every day, and Kawaga gives you many opportunities to choose who you are each day. So, struggle, fail, and try again. Each time you get back up, you are closer to becoming a true Kawaga Brave.