NEWTON, Kansas (Mennonite Mission Network) — Amid an unsafe world, Katrina and Matt Eberly didn't worry when their four children were nowhere to be seen at Camp Deerpark in upstate New York. They knew they were scampering through the woods with their new camp friends, catching minnows in the creek and stretching their bodies and souls in ways that they couldn't in the family's small backyard in Reading, Pennsylvania.
From July 27 through August 9, the children explored the Mennonite camp, located in the Catskill Mountains, two hours from New York City. It's where the family served with Service Opportunities with our Partners (SOOP), a "connecting network" sponsored by Mennonite Mission Network offering intergenerational volunteer experiences.
"A high point for me was watching our children run freely in the wide, open spaces and under the stars and among the tall grasses," Katrina Eberly said in an interview. "At home we live in a rowhouse, and our space is only 12 feet by 12 feet."
The SOOP experience served as a "retreat" during which they could transition into a new season of family life. In January, Matt Eberly resigned from his 10-year pastorate at Shiloh Mennonite Church in Reading. They sought a place where they had freedom to process this change by weaving prayer and play into their work.
Matt Eberly prayed for campers as he used a chainsaw, weed eater and a machete to clear the path on the camp's Meditation Trail and cut up firewood for campfires. Working side-by-side with their father, the children followed his example.
"As they spread out bark moss in the Children's Forest, they prayed over trees and asked God to use their rakes and shovels to impact someone else's life," Katrina Eberly said.
Katrina Eberly spent some of her time helping redesign and edit a camp brochure. A stay-at-home mom who, during the pandemic, homeschooled her children (who normally attend public school), she enjoyed this leisurely creative task and the quiet time to simply be.
"I loved sitting on the Adirondack chair on the front lawn in the early mornings and reading the Bible," Katrina Eberly said. "I watched the fog lift over mountains and good soul care and healing happened. … God spoke to me: while watching my children's hearts enlarge; while observing the … mountains and birds chirping; and … while sharing lives around the campfire with our new friends."
Eberly family becomes part of camp family
The sharing of lives is a major priority at camp, said camp program director Kevin Smith. This is a priority that the Eberly family valued, as exemplified by their humble, servant-hearted attitudes. They showed hospitality to both the staff and a community of multiracial guest families, many from New York City.
Because of the pandemic, Camp Deerpark didn't run its summer camp program this year and couldn't serve meals in the dining hall, Smith explained. "The staff brought food and water to our guests and volunteers," Smith said. "They had come to serve, so they tried to help us out with those tasks as much as possible."
The family also reached out to the many guests, Smith said, and exuded the love of God by chatting freely and often with guests.
The family received more than they gave, Katrina Eberly said. "We went to camp during a time of racial tensions," she said, "but at camp, if you were a Hispanic, Black, Garifuna or White family, it didn't matter. At camp, it's about being a person, a child of God, not about the color of your skin."
Downsizing space, upscaling togetherness
The family shared one room, named Faithfulness, as their living quarters. The outdoor space was much larger than their space back home, while the indoor space was much, much smaller.
"When we first arrived, my oldest two daughters were a bit dismayed when they realized that all six of us would be living in one room together for two weeks," Katrina Eberly recalled, "but it turned out great. We settled in for the night together and talked about how we had experienced God for that day."
When it came time to leave those woods, the family shed many tears and even began to plot their return.
"On Sunday morning I took the Eberlys their breakfast, and told the kids, 'No crying when it is time to leave,'" said Ken Bontrager, the camp's executive director. "Matt said, 'Too late. We were crying in the room before we came out for breakfast.'"
As tears were drying on the ride home, Katrina Eberly recalled, "Our 14-year-old, who loves her tightly-knit school class in Redding, pointed to a house for sale and said, 'I would give up my school to come back to come back to Camp Deerpark.' The other kids chimed in and asked if we could go home and pack our bags and come back to live."
In the process of giving the Eberlys' hearts more space to roam, Camp Deerpark also provided fertile soil in which to grow.