Steering for the Deep: The Many Homes of Camp Henry
If you were to ask someone who attended Camp Henry 30 years ago to describe it, you might hear a description right out of a fairy tale--winding pathways through the gardens, stone courtyards and hidden corners and a "castle" in the middle of it all. A present-day camper might describe something a bit different--a relaxing retreat by a shimmering lake, a place surrounded by nature and blissfully separate from the constant connection of the world. And yet, after the initial descriptions of the place, both campers would tell you the same thing, "but it's the people that make it my special place."
Older campers remember Camp Henry's prior location, In-the-Oaks, a grand, 1900s-era estate located in Black Mountain, NC. Built and owned by the Terry family in the early 1900s, In-the-Oaks was donated to the diocese in 1957 following Mrs. Terry's death. The Terry's, having gained their fortune in the the field of electric lighting, ensured that In-the-Oaks would have many new and popular features of the time--an indoor swimming pool and a bowling alley being among them--while still serving as a family home, nestled, quite literally, in the oaks. In-the-Oaks was a hub of social gatherings in prohibition-era America, made possible by the railroad tracks that ran right through the property. Ian Williams, a former camper and later a Camp Henry director, remembers falling asleep to the sound of passing trains, which only added to the wonder and magic he felt as a child at Camp Henry.
My house has (oh my house has) Many well-worn paths (many well-worn paths) Through the gardens and streams! -Lyrics to Bright Shining Day
"As a child, being in what we saw as a castle, your imagination just goes wild," Williams said. "Running around in the woods and on the paths, you felt like the property was thousands of acres, you felt like you were in a book! Being built in the early 1900s some [parts of the house were] falling apart, you weren't allowed to go in some places, but that just added to the mystery of it. It was such a cool and unique place to have camp. There were all sorts of legends."
For Liz Tester, a former Camp Henry counselor at In-the-Oaks and Camp Henry director at Lake Logan, some of her earliest memories take place at the estate. Growing up in the diocese and now serving as the rector of St. Luke's, Lincolnton, Tester is still actively involved with Camp Henry. Though Tester grew up at In-the-Oaks, what keeps her involved with camp was what kept her coming all along--the sense of imagination and community.
"Camp Henry has always been a camp of imagination," Tester said. "It was never about having expensive toys or horseback riding or about trying to keep campers busy. [At Camp Henry,] there was just always an emphasis on community with each other and with God, but we also weren't overly churchy. I think Camp Henry is a camp of deep spirituality, identity and ethos."
At the core of Camp Henry's mission has always been an emphasis on accessibility for all to attend camp. The result has been a camp centered on the simplicity of nature and community, forming tight-knit connections between campers new and old, even if they experienced camp in different locations. William Allen was a fellow camper alongside Ian Williams during the "transition years" when Camp Henry moved from In-the-Oaks to Camp Mishemokwa to Lake Logan, and remembers feeling a sense of anxiety and fear in moving camp to a new location. However, what he found surprised him.
But we have found (but we have found) That we must bid (that we must bid) This old house goodbye! -Lyrics to Bright Shining Day
"I was 16 the last summer at In-the-Oaks," Allen said. "I remember when we found out [about the intending move,] there was a real sense of 'Camp Henry is a place.' But then it was amazing to go to Mishemokwa and have a phenomenal summer and have camp be special there. It was kind of a weird camp, there was a water slide and we ate a lot of hot dog soup, but it was just so special and such an amazing time. I remember thinking, 'Ok, if we can do camp here we can do it anywhere.' That was an interesting transition for everyone, to feel like we were losing something by leaving In-the-Oaks and then to realize in the end that we weren't really losing anything, because we were together."
Camp Henry officially left In-the-Oaks in the fall of 2000. For one summer in 2001, camp was held at a nearby summer camp in Hendersonville, Camp Mishemokwa, or more colloquially referred to as "Camp Miss-yo-mama," by campers and staff at the time. Finally, in 2002, Camp Henry was moved to its permanent home at Lake Logan Conference Center.
"[That last summer at In-the-Oaks, I went on] expedition camp, the precursor to the outdoor school at Camp Henry," Williams said. "We used Lake Logan as a base camp and we camped there for a week and got to see it. [We came to learn that] it's really an ideal place to have a summer camp, the property allows for so many different things, the lake is awesome, and so we got excited about it! I think that helped with some of the sadness and fear and anxiety about having to leave this other place that we loved."
Most present-day Camp Henry campers are likely familiar with a high-energy song called "Bright Shining Day," often sung at full volume and incorporating the iconic Camp Henry bell outside the dining hall. While the song has come to be an energetic, lively experience, the original song was actually one of sadness and hopefulness. Written by William Allen, alongside his friend Simon Tait, the song was a reflection of this journey of leaving behind In-the-Oaks for a new camp home. Allen recalls writing the song in the courtyard of In-the-Oaks, and describes feeling more like a vehicle for the words God was telling him than the actual creator of the song. The resulting song has gone on to carry a legacy, both for those who loved In-the-Oaks and those who call Lake Logan home.
Some things come (oh some things come) And some things go (and some things go) But the spirit never fades away! So much love (oh so much love) It carries us (it carries us) To a bright shining day! -Lyrics to Bright Shining Day
"I remember it was the last day of camp, and we were asked to respond to the prompt from the Walk Whitman poem, 'sail forth, steer for the deep waters only,' for closing Eucharist" Allen said. "Camp Henry is so intertwined with music, and so Simon and I had that quote, and it felt like a reflection of leaving In-the-Oaks and what it would mean. So I felt like the song sort of popped fully formed from our spirits, it just kind of emerged from our experience of being there in that place and that community, but it felt like divine inspiration. It's not us, we were the caretakers and the channel for that song, but I feel more like a steward than an originator."
Liz Tester was Simon and William's counselor at the time, and recalls them coming back only 20 minutes later with an almost fully-formed song at the ready. They played it for the rest of their senior-high group, and soon the song became a collaborative effort, as the group began to offer their ideas. Among these suggestions were the echoes, now a staple of the Camp Henry original.
"My major contribution was all the echoing," Tester said. "Once we put all the echoes in we went and sang it for the final Eucharist, and I think the staff got a copy of the lyrics to continue to sing. We taught it to the campers but we thought that was pretty much it."
Perhaps no one involved in the original creation of the song could have predicted it's impact. In fact, Williams remembers hearing the song sung on his first day as director of Camp Henry years later, and being shocked by the lasting impact and message it had left on Camp Henry.
"In the summer of 2010 when I came back to camp as director, I heard the counselors play [Bright Shining Day] for the kids and the kids singing along," Williams said. "It had so much energy and it was so loud, you could just tell it had become something really special to this new generation of campers. It was my first day as camp director and I really felt like I was in over my head, but I remember hearing Bright Shining Day and just being floored that this song my friends had written was being sung! Seeing and feeling the energy and passion these young people had for that song, it was amazing, it connected them to me and me to them. I think it connected their generation to many, many earlier generations of campers."
We are pilgrims (oh we are pilgrims) Just traveling through (just traveling through) With the cross in our sights! -Lyrics to Bright Shining Day
Allen also finds the lyrics of the song to be a comfort to him to this day. Having moved across the country to California, Allen finds that 'steering for the deep waters' has become a guiding phrase in his life as he faces new people and places, reminded that the community at Camp Henry will always support him.
"Steer for the deep waters; it's about recognizing the places that you've been and understanding what they mean but also having the levels of faith and bravery to steer for what's to come," Allen said. "It's honoring the place we were and the feelings that we had, but looking on the horizon with faith, with hope, and belief. I think it's the story of a journey, it's the story of a group of folks who are coming together to love one another and take care of each other and be present for each other, and recognizing that sometimes you have to leave certain things behind. But there are deep waters out there, and you keep steering for them."
Jessi LeFiles, the current director of camp, recalls feeling drawn to Camp Henry long before she had any personal connections. Growing up attending and working at Camp Mikell, an Episcopal camp affiliated with the Diocese of Atlanta, LeFiles was drawn to the Appalachian Mountains, and found at Camp Henry much of the same spirit that she loved at her own childhood camp.
"I couldn't tell you why, I just had a feeling like, 'I'm really drawn to this place,'" LeFiles said. "As an outsider it was kind of crazy because I had no history here, but I just felt drawn and so I kept my eye out for a [position opening] and lo and behold, I got hired. When I got to camp and started meeting counselors and talking to staff members, it was very much like two pictures from the same scene of the camp that I loved so much."
As for the history of In-the-Oaks, LeFiles shares that while she only knows Camp Henry at Lake Logan, she is always astounded and inspired by the Camp Henry community across generations and locations. As the current director, she is excited to continue learning about the history and stories that make Camp Henry so special, so she can help carry on those traditions for years to come. Inspired by the lifelong mission of Camp Henry, to make camp available for all, LeFiles is eager to share the word about the Camp Henry Scholarship fund and welcome all campers to Camp Henry, regardless of socioeconomic status.
Across the new shores (across the new shores) We find ourselves (we find ourselves) Dancing beneath the sun! Waking to (oh waking to) Familiar sounds (familiar sounds) Oh that old ringing bell! -Lyrics from Bright Shining Day
"My dream is to retain all of the tradition and history that has clearly come down through the generations," LeFiles said. "I want to grow our numbers and and make sure that people in the community know that summer camp is not out of reach for kids based off on their socioeconomic level. I think we have the potential to really be a camp for all people, [especially if they know] that our scholarships exist. I want to serve the community in that way, so camp can offer something for every young person and be accessible to every family. Everyone has a home at Camp Henry."
In growing their numbers and opening their doors to all, Camp Henry is still a living example of the welcoming, spiritual summer camp that began all those years ago at In-the-Oaks. Though Camp Henry has known many homes, the one thing that unites campers old and young is the fact that they all continue to call their camp community "family," wherever it may be located.
"Camp is it's own special part of the universe," Allen said. "I think the formative lesson for me is that [your camp experience is something] you carry with you, and it makes these impressions on your heart and on your soul that you'll never forget. It's something you want to ensure lasts for the next generation."
In a now Camp Henry tradition, the whole camp joins together in singing Bright Shining Day at every Friday-night Eucharist. As campers sing together, joining in the words of the campers before them, they are reminded that the spirit of Camp Henry will follow them throughout their lives. Sail forth, steer for the deep waters only...
All historical photos in this article were provided to the diocese by Craig Friend.