Religion and Culture: Youth camp seeks to connect children with Greek Orthodox culture

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Southern California’s Saint Sophia Camp is a typical summer spot. Kids, seven through 17, can fish, swim, play basketball and even shove a pie in their camp director’s face on his 50th birthday.

But Saint Sophia Camp is anything but typical. Its real purpose is integrating faith into the lives of Greek Orthodox youth, and Father Gary Kyriacou’s years there—from camper to camp clergy—testify to its success in strengthening religious identity.

“I always tell people that the camp is like a full year of Sunday school. You have all the kids in one place, without the distractions of everyday life,” says Father Gary, who started as a camper in 1986.

Reaching 21st century Orthodox youth is especially important for preserving ethnic identity. Campers, most of whom are second- and third-generation Greek Americans, don’t have the same connection to their cultural roots as their parents’ generation did.

Jody Agnius Vallejo, a sociologist at the University of Southern California, says that “white ethnic groups in America tend to retain a ‘symbolic identity.’” Children and grandchildren of Greek immigrants, who might easily label themselves as American, often opt to retain aspects of their “Greekness” to preserve their community and sense of individuality. Vallejo says ethnic immersion programs such as camps and language schools help keep traditions alive.

Immigrants and first-generation Greek Americans launched Saint Sophia Camp in the 1950s as a means of strengthening community bonds among Orthodox youth. After spending a few summers on Catalina Island, the group purchased a new facility near Lake Arrowhead in 1961, which was formerly an after-hours hotspot known for gambling and prostitution, said Director Perry Skaggs.

On Christmas Day 2003, a tragic mudslide destroyed several buildings and killed the property’s caretaker and his family. The camp has since moved to Camp Seely, a facility owned by the City of Los Angeles and located in the San Bernardino National Forest.

The role of the camp has changed over the years. While it originally served as a home base for Greek immigrants and their children, today it’s a way for Greek culture to remain a part of families who have been in America for generations.

For the children of immigrants who launched the camp, “it served as a nice bridge,” says Father Gary. “Instead of just jumping into public school, they already had something in common with the kids they met at camp,” many of whom shared their culture and faith.

While less than 10 percent of today’s campers are immigrants, many are children of former campers. Skaggs says parents send their kids for two reasons: to form a community and to learn more about Orthodoxy.

"We try to provide another avenue for kids to connect to their faith and culture. It’s a little bit more difficult nowadays, because kids are pulled in so many different directions,” he says.

Skaggs says the camp bears similarities to many traditional summer camps across the country, but Orthodoxy is the thread that ties it all together. Indeed, the first item on the camp’s “what to bring” list is a Bible.

Campers attend a 30-minute morning service each day before breakfast, and spend one hour-long activity period studying Orthodox Life. These sessions are tailored specifically for each age group, and are different from traditional Sunday school education.

While younger campers learn the basics, such as the Ten Commandments and the names of saints, high school students discuss morality issues and consider how their faith fits into the modern world.

“They learn how to practice Orthodoxy in modern society without being looked at as some sort of weirdo,” says Skaggs. “Every day, not just on Sunday, and not just in church.”

Skaggs, who comes from what he calls a “mixed family,” because his father was American and his mother was a Greek immigrant, grew up Orthodox. While he didn’t get to choose his religion, he thinks it’s important for children today to be given more choice.

Faith is a defining aspect of Saint Sophia Camp, “but we’re not going to hit you over the head with a hammer,” says Skaggs. “It’s much more powerful when kids choose Orthodoxy for themselves. And when they get older and build their families around it, it’s a conscious choice and not ‘just because I’m Greek.’”

In fact, Saint Sophia welcomes Orthodox campers of other ethnicities (Serbian and Romanian, for instance) and non-Orthodox children, too. Skaggs’ goddaughter, who isn’t Greek, came to the camp with a friend every year starting when she was eight years old. After working as a counselor for several years, she chose to take Orthodoxy as her faith, and was baptized at the camp.

Father Gary says the camp plays an important role in maintaining the bonds of the Greek and Orthodox communities outside each parish. His parents, both from Cyprus originally, met through the Greek community in Southern California.

The longevity of these bonds explains why the staff is made up almost exclusively of former campers, and hundreds of parents continue sending their children to Saint Sophia Camp every summer.

“When you have a history at the camp, there’s a real draw and affinity to send your kids there,” says Skaggs. “The great times you had, the community … you want your kids to be able to experience that, too.”

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past several years. This spring, students will report and write on Southern California's Greek Orthodox community and Syrian refugees and will be visiting Greece.

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