Camp Meetings and Community

One of the first things I did when we arrived in North Carolina was attend a Friday night camp meeting. I remember some of this state’s idiosyncrasies from when I lived here during my teenage years, like Cheerwine and liver mush, but I had never heard of camp meetings.

A bit of googling led me down a rabbit hole of local history. Starting around the end of the eighteenth century, camp meetings were a multi-week event where different church congregations came together to live, attend services and socialize together. The “camps” often consist of a central square surrounded by semi-permanent structures for people to live in called “tents.” A hundred years ago, tents were made out of branches and tarp, but today, tents resemble very basic one or two bedroom townhomes, complete with porches and swings.

Walking around a camp meeting feels less like a religious revival and more like a wholesome version of Bourbon St. The camp meeting we attended had well established tents, enough to make two perimeters around the central pavilion. Older folks sat on benches and in swings while teenagers and families filled up the streets. 

“Walking around” is a central activity of camp meeting, and it involves lots of waving, chatting and flirting for the teens. The air was filled with laughter, talking, and the smells of pies and cookies baking in tents. People were happy, excited to see each other, and the kids were clearly thrilled to run around in the summer night with their friends.

The evening we attended was a music recital for a local music school. We heard all manner of stringed instruments being plucked and strummed through renditions of gospel standards. The audience filled in with hand claps when the younger performers lost track of the rhythm. Afterwards, we walked to the “shack” and got ice cream to eat while we walked around. 

This particular camp meeting is one of the oldest in the state, and the tents are a source of pride for the families who own them. Often in the same family for generations, tents are considered something of a second home, even though they’re only occupied for a couple of weeks out of the year.

Community was a big part of the draw that convinced my husband and I to move from California to North Carolina. We didn’t realize how isolated we would feel on the west coast. Not only was it difficult to stay in touch with family back east, it was difficult to find friends or activities when we lived in such a remote area.

Here, we are closer to family and friends. We are also closer to the ongoing project we’ve been involved with to build an intentional community in southern Virginia. I affectionately refer to this as our hippie commune group.

This group has been going through a rough phase of growth, and we’ve tabled recent business in order to focus on a process of conflict resolution/transformative justice. It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve struggled to maintain traction due to being a relatively small group of busy people. For the past several months, we haven’t really gotten much done except to annoy each other.

Despite all of that, we’re still a group of people committed to each other, a piece of land that we bought and a set of shared goals. 

But are we a community?

The other day, one person in our group was chatting with a friend of his who is well versed in Intentional Communities. She advised him that we shouldn’t call ourselves a community. Instead, we should call ourselves a project. 

When my hippie commune friend shared this insight with me, I bristled. This strikes me as an odd gate to try and keep closed, especially coming from someone who has worked within spaces where communities are made.

I think of our group as a community. We’ve been meeting and talking regularly for over a year, and we’ve been learning about and from each other the whole time. I think of these people as friends. We don’t live in the same place, but is that a prerequisite to be considered a community?

At camp meetings, attendees only live there for one to two weeks a year, and many more people attend than have space to sleep. At some points in history, camp meetings had thousands of attendees on Friday and Saturday nights, and many of them went to their own homes at the end. Were they less a part of that community?

To me, a community can be defined not only by physical proximity, but also shared interests, values, history and goals. Communities can exist entirely online, or in monthly get-togethers to play board games, or in yearly trips to see friends. I’ve seen communities spring up among smokers outside a wedding and drunk women in bathrooms. More than anything, though, I think communities are defined by commitment. 

The camp meeting I attended lost around half of its tents to a fire in 1956 and again in 2019. After both events, the churches and families that were a part of the campground rebuilt. People showed up to do the work, and the campground continues today.

Our hippie commune group isn’t dealing with a fire, but we are navigating a situation that requires some rebuilding. Not of physical structures, because we don’t have those yet, but rebuilding of relationships, trust, and systems. On the whole, we are showing up for this work as best we can, given constraints of time, jobs, and family.

This work isn’t particularly fun, either. It’s a lot of listening and making space for hurt feelings. I think it’s remarkable that we’re getting through this process when any of us could reasonably bow out.

That’s commitment, and to me, that’s community. I don’t think I accept definitions of community that are limited to physical proximity. I think we all need more community, not less. I’m looking for a definition of community that acknowledges the many different ways that people choose to exist together, whether they’re near or far apart.

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