When the Word says “God so loved the world”, Kent knows that it’s not just about people. To love the world is to love the running streams, grazing moose, and rustling trees as much as the people who build, innovate, and rule. There is no one without the other. It is this understanding that sets Kent apart.
At first glance, Kent is not unlike other environmentalists or advocates of sustainability--’Green’ folks. And yet what is different in him is this profound sense of love and responsibility for God’s creation; both people and nature. He takes seriously, but not stiffly, our calling as stewards and image-bearers. Camp Fowler, for Kent, is a place where the two come alive. It is place where youth get to experience life where God the Creator comes to life. It is place where caring becomes real and sheds its superficial skin. It is a place uninterrupted and pure.
Kent and Camp Fowler are intentionally transforming how people view the world. And both carry wondrous, colorful dreams for the world; ambitious but always in step with reality and God’s heart. Come see the dreams and hear the stories of thriving life at Camp Fowler.
Can you tell us how you got to where you are today as the director of Camp Fowler?
I've always loved the outdoors. I started college studying to become a forest ranger but became a religion major instead, out of some sort of call to ministry. I didn't know what that [would look like], but I decided to pursue that calling. I ended up working with a man named Steve who I led backpacking, rock climbing, and rafting trips with and realized you could love the Earth and love God too. That's really where it started. I was asking: How can I be in ministry where I can care for creation? How can I care for this beautiful planet and show people the love of God? Now I know they work hand in hand together and now it’s about how do I show that they are intricately intertwined. I've been here for twenty seven years now.
Was there a moment when you felt like those interests came together, or was it always together inside of you?
I grew up in a tradition that seemed to care a lot about getting me saved and accepting Jesus as my Lord and Savior, but didn't really show me much in caring for the world outside of that. I always had this deep love for trees, waters, rocks, and it was very difficult for me growing up, that [nature and faith] were held like this, (gestures with hands) apart.
I felt like it was opposed to a biblical image of caring for God's earth, being stewards of God's world, and our job to preserve and keep the first commands given in the garden of Eden. It's been a nice long process of learning that those things can go together. Growing up, it was tricky. My faith was really important because of my family and what I grew up with and it was hard learning how it is more than just a ticket off this planet. That's been the more interesting journey for me.
“I was asking: How can I be in ministry where I can care for creation? How can I care for this beautiful planet and show people the love of God?”
So, twenty something years ago, where were you coming from?
I grew up in Coopersville, MI near Muskegon. That's literally where I was coming from. Theologically-speaking, though, I was coming from an understanding that to be saved was to be taken away--to be not of this world, to be a part of something not of this world.
My life training now has given me a much different perspective than when I was in seminary versus: the story is here, with God making his home with humans. We're called to prepare the way with each other and to participate in the acts of justice, peace, and caring.
I’ve been teased for being a ‘tree-hugger’ at times, because I love nature. Have you had similar experiences; were people always supportive of your love for the natural realm?
I still get that [pause] I think our salvation is intricately wound up with the salvation of the world. “If God so loved the world and sent His only son”-- that's a significant statement, theologically. Wendell Berry writes something along the lines of, “to make shoddy work of God's creation is to insult the creator.” To mistreat the things of this world is an insult to God who created all things good.
Why wouldn't we uphold the natural realm and our role within it? As caretakers, stewards, gardeners, people who manage and help? Here at Camp Fowler, everything has a voice--people have a voice, so do the trees, and the rocks, lakes, the trout. They all are to be kept forever wild and we're together in this. To me, where I live is the most biblical experiment going on in the planet. Can we have a place where humans live well, carefully, as well as a place where the animals walk through camp and the moose come back? You know, that makes perfect sense to me as a Christian. That we would want to preserve and create places like this.
Is the youth something close to your heart?
Yes! I consider myself a youth minister from the get-go. The kids I get to interact with, they're much more interested in a God who's bigger than a God who says, “you're in and you're out”. They're much more interested in a God who wants us to have a world where there is enough food. That when you pass the plate around the table, and you share and take care of your resources, it comes back and everybody gets enough. So we try to feed the kids really well and we try to figure out how to waste less. These kids are much more interested in a God who created the world and said it was good, it was very good. Here they get to [witness] that.
We’ve got a groups paddling Elm lake, going over beaver dams. They bushwhack miles to a reach a three hundred foot waterfall in the middle of the forest that nobody goes to. They are in awe, and it's not a cheap awe. It's not a waterpark awe or a Disneyworld awe. It's an awe that's based on knowing the effort it takes to create such a beautiful world. I think it shows them our role within the world--that we're part of it, an important part, but we're still just a part of it. We go out and show them the stars at night. I don't know if you can really believe in God until you've seen the stars and you see how small we are, on a planetary scale. And that's a good thing, a good thing.
Simplicity is a key philosophy to Camp Fowler. How does that impact how you live daily?
Let me expand that a little. The baseline of our program is hospitality; if you show up, we'll find a place for you and make sure you're cared for. You don't have to be a 'member of the club' to be home here. That means we often host and care for sisters and brothers in the Islamic community who are on a ten day spiritual retreat. Because that's what I think Jesus would do.
Then once the kids understand that they are welcome, and the staff understand that we welcome anybody, then there are three things that are important for understanding Christianity in this place. First is to experience community, of being together and being interdependent. We're called to be the body of Christ. If they don't have any experiences of being a body, then we won't have a good understanding of what it means to be the church. So we learn to work together and live together; problem-solving, low-ropes courses, canoeing, communal sports, and talk to each other since a lot of kids talk (makes texting motion) with their thumbs and don't have real relationships.
Another thing is that we do less. And take more time doing it, so that talk happens while doing gentle work. I’m not sure where kids get uninterrupted talk these days. But they're not allowed to have their cell phones here.
Simplicity here is so important because there are fewer and fewer places where our head, heart, body, and soul, are all together in one place. And how do you learn to love God with everything, if those things are never in the same place? So, if you want to do good ministry, you get people where they're finally all together in one place. Camp is just one model where that can happen. There are other models. This is a good one. For some, they finally get to hear that still small voice of God whispering.
Simplicity is key to getting to deeper levels--to be able to be present just long enough [pause] for something else to get moving in you. We don't have those opportunities very often and I don't want to lose that opportunity here. So we're not going to schedule the week around their wants, what's cool, and what's “in”. They're not going to see videos; they're going to see sunsets. A sunset is a slow moving thing, but it's powerful. It's like turning the soil for the Spirit. Maybe something will grow from there--I'm not in charge of that (chuckles) I can only work on preparing the heart--it's in community and simplicity.
And the final thing is caring for the world. If we're Christians just for our own sake, that's not very Christ-like. So we have to model for these kids and they model back to us, how to care for something outside of yourself. These kids have been told over and over again how great they are, how wonderful they are, and how they're the best. And maybe they are. But they need, too, to learn that the kid who is slow over there, that boy who's fat, that girl with the pimples, they're just as loved and wonderful, and they're just as important. If we can do that with each other here at camp, then maybe we can do that in our schools and our communities. Maybe some of those racial and gender stereotypes can start to break down when we see all of us as a part of a loved world. Maybe we'll be a little less violent, a little less ready to grab all of the pie for ourselves, and a little more willing to share.
So we model that interpersonally and with how we live--generating solar energy, composting food, gardening, harvesting eggs, using a compost toilet system etc. We're trying to show these kids, we can live joyfully and well, as well as being stewards of God's world and each other.
It’s evident that much of your work is pouring out into the people that come and instilling good values in them.
I don't have any delusion that these kids all start from the same place. Some come from church backgrounds. A lot don't, so our goal is to show and tell the love of God. We see it in Jesus Christ but we're also going to model that in a way that celebrates every little step these kids take. I'm not going to run them through a meat grinder so that at the end of the week I can say, we've got 60 commitments to Jesus Christ.
We're looking at a ministry long-term, and frankly from a much more Reformed view of knowing God is with us from the beginning all the way through, that all of our life is the process.
“[What we do here] is like turning the soil for the Spirit. Maybe something will grow from there--from community and simplicity.”
These kids are trees and a tree doesn't grow and mature in a day. It takes a long time to nurture a tree--a lot of work and a lot of pain. I've watched a lot of these kids grow. You think, ‘This kid is just a pain in the ass’...
...and he grows and he grows and suddenly turns into something that you wouldn't have expected. He may still be a pain, but he's a loved pain. He's someone that has a gift to give to God in his own way. That’s why you never write a kid off.
“If we can [learn to love and respect] each other here at camp, then maybe we can do that in our [own] communities. Maybe some of those racial and gender stereotypes can start to break down when we see all of us as a part of a loved world. Maybe we'll be a little less violent, a little less ready to grab all of the pie for ourselves, and a little more willing to share.”
Do you have your own time or resting place where you are able to pour into yourself before you do others?
Yeah. I go paddling. I take my dog out on a boat and nobody can find me there. I go out often into the woods. I have my own garden. I have an incredible spouse.
This is a ministry that is pretty demanding, both on a physical level and a mental level. But I think a huge part is realizing that this is bigger than me. I try to hire good people and empower them and then let them go. I try to worry about the stuff that is helpful for me to worry about and let the rest go.
My time and my space usually involves reminding myself why I love this work. That would be getting in a boat or canoe, paddling away and having quiet time, remembering to look and be aware of what's around me, eating well (chuckles) healthy. Reading good stuff, Christian stuff, but also a lot of other stuff: poetry or books about where I live. I garden, I beekeep, make maple syrup in February. I cut my own wood for heating our house. We make our own beer and wine, we can our tomatoes. Those are all things that give me great joy. Those things all fill me.
You mentioned that your wife is really supportive. Is she one of the key figures that does this together with you?
Oh my goodness, yes. I mean, it goes back to community and being interrelated. She's the one who can say, “What were you thinking? That's crazy!” (chuckles). She's the one who spots the fatigue coming in. She has a little bit of distance from what's going on and that's a helpful perspective. I don't have any delusion that all my ideas are good ones. I'm blessed to be able to have a mate who understands of my love for this, shares a deep for love for kids as well as the wilderness. It's where we met, out backpacking. It would be very lonely without her.
I can't help but feel like I'm not getting the full picture because I'm not there seeing and experiencing it.
(Lifts his computer monitor and to show the scene outside the window)
(Laughs) Thank you.
(Laughs) No, you can't get the full experience without being present because it's an incarnational ministry. It's something that has flesh and blood and dirt and bug bites. You can’t know it virtually. We want to, more and more. But I want the kids to wake up if it's cold; I want their cabins to be cold. If it's hot, I want it to be hot. I want them to hear the birds in the morning and to feel the cold of the lake water when they go for a polar bear dip in the morning. I want them to be alive. Camp is one of those few places where we can be alive. This isn't the be-all and end-all. We shouldn't need camps. But we kind of do. What we don't need are camps that recreate our homes, our comforts, and our worldview at home. We need camps that show us and allow us to be pressed in interesting and powerful ways.
Are there any struggles in doing what you do?
Oh no, it's just rosy!
(Laughs) Well, yeah! We've got kids out in nature all the time. You're always wondering what's the wind doing, where are those clouds moving, was that thunder that I just heard? You've got a 20 year old in charge of a group out in the woods and did I train them well enough? Will they make smart decisions? You're dealing with people and dynamics [so it can be difficult].
[Pauses to speak with a camp visitor]
There are people who pass through this place with great stories. This space evokes memories and take them back to significant times in their lives. We are not only stewards of a space, but also stewards of a time. Helping people nurture their memories well, so that they don't tether them but help them move forward is pretty important. So when kids come back and see the place, it's not “the good old days” type thing, but more “I remember this, and so I can go forward”. So Fowler becomes one of those road signs that help you remember who or what you are or were, to help guide you into what you are becoming.
We're not a cult. Cults get you hooked into a place, person, or time. We're a catalyst--a catalyst for moving forward into your life, on this journey of following Christ. You hope that when they look at the stars they are amazed, so that when they're in science class they're interested. That they can pay attention in Physics to learn more about the world. Hoping it spirals into great outcomes so that they're better human beings. Isn't that what God really is calling us to be in Christ?; to be complete, to be caught up in Christ. I think it means making us better human beings, not anything else.
“This space evokes memories and take them back to significant times in their lives. We are not only stewards of a space, but also stewards of a time.”
Do you see yourself doing this for the rest of your life?
Well [Long pause]. Yes, if I can. If it stays creative; if it stays alive. Once the ideas start to calcify, once there's no more wonder then I've stayed too long. If the laughter stops, if things turn sort of sour, then I would have stayed too long. If we stop going “Here's a great idea, let's try this!” within the fabric of hospitality, community, and simplicity and caring, I would have stayed too long. There's much good work to be done so I would be real blessed if I could do this another twelve or fifteen years. I need to be aware that it also needs to remain a blessing for those who are present here. I would love to keep doing this. As long as I can flip a canoe over my head and paddle, I'm happy to be here.
You mentioned that you read a lot. Do you have any favorite titles that come to mind or things you have been reading recently?
I try to read stuff that's outside of my discipline. I enjoy Wendell Berry’s poetry and prose. I enjoy Bill Mckibben’s articles and books on caring for the world. I enjoy guys like Jared Diamond. One of our neighbors is a professor, and I just finished a book he wrote using our lake as his research project. It was a delightful book. I see God working through all of that. All of those things help my ministry and what I do. But I don't like to read [pause] insider literature. I like to read stuff that expands my understanding of God. I don't want to find out how to be a better camp director. I don't want to read stuff about how to be better. I'm curious about things. So I like to read things that expand the world for me.
What sort of a legacy do you hope to leave? Is there something that you want to leave behind?
I would like to leave behind a place and time that has a clear sense of itself, what it's role is, and what it's role isn't. We're not the only thing going on in these kids' lives, we're not the only thing that's positive. I'd like a space that is aware of what it can and can't do. I would love to a holistic and integrated ministry where everything does matter from what we eat to how we schedule the program, to how we talk, our language etc. A ministry that is based on process rather than outcome.
I preached last Sunday on Peter, and it struck me for the first time: the very first and last things that Jesus says to Peter are “Follow me”. It's not “Believe this about me” or “Say the right thing about me, sing the right song about me”, it's “Follow me”. So I would like to leave behind a ministry that's well immersed in that idea. That we're following Jesus.
It will look different. It better not look the same ten years after I'm gone as when I left. We've fostered a climate of constant change, the way a forest constantly changes. It looks the same often, but if you pay attention, you see how the trees are maturing and different things are coming up and happening. That's the kind of ministry, legacy, I’d like to leave behind. That you can come here and you would know where you are. You would know this time and space, and yet, it would be different. Because it has to be. That's what being alive means.
Last question: do you have any favorite moments that have stuck with you through the years?
If you're asking me what's my favorite story, or what's my favorite color [pause] they all are. I wouldn't know where to begin. Is it the kid who was a real pain who grew up to be a great volunteer? Is it the staff person who was so mad at God for the first two or three years she was on staff but who has grown to become this deeply faithful person, partly because of what happened on her journey here? Is it the time someone dropped the motor in the lake? (Laughs) Is it seeing the eclipse on the meadows with a bunch of high school students? Or seeing the northern lights? Is it the time that I told the story about how the moon lost her voice and just at the right spot, a loon shouted out? Is it the rainstorm where you're stuck in the lean-to all day? You cook every bit of food you have just because you have nothing else to do? (Laughs) I've got a lot of favorite moments and they all come together into a tapestry of a delight and blessing.
That is beautiful. Thank you so much for your time Kent.
Nice to sort of meet you (Chuckles)
“I would like to leave behind a place and time that has a clear sense of itself, what it's role is, and what it's role isn't [...] a ministry that is based on process rather than outcome.”