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Finding Sabbath this Summer

Vacation looks a little different in a pandemic.

With everything going on in the world today, vacation may either be at the forefront of your thoughts or the farthest thing from your mind. Because, while many provinces are opening up, the pandemic is still present, and – as government officials are quick to remind us – ready to relapse into a second wave should our vigilance falter. And so, many people are torn between the desire to escape to a secret hideaway or continue to hunker down at home.

The origins of vacations

It’s slightly ironic that the very thing that is keeping people away from relaxing on beaches, going on cruises, or touring a different country is the very thing that started vacations in the first place: disease. In the past, vacations were often prescribed by doctors as a type of healing for the rich.

But, by the mid-19th century, more and more people had extra income, and everyone was becoming more mobile. People still went on doctor-prescribed vacations for their physical and mental health, but they also started travelling just for fun, including members of the church.

Many churches considered this a problem because the church leadership believed its members would be tempted by all kinds of idleness, debauchery and drunkenness at secular resorts. Enter church camps. At these church-run campgrounds, Christians could break free from the daily grind in safe settings, expand their learning, enjoy fellowship with other believers, and grow closer to God through religious sing-a-longs, lectures and fun activities that were deemed appropriate by the church leaders and camp hosts.

Travel in a pandemic

According to Statistics Canada, in March last year, almost five million Canadians travelled abroad. While a small number travelled for work-related reasons, most of those individuals went outside of Canada for the fun of it.

The pandemic effectively cut those numbers in half. In March 2020 – the month the latest data is available – only 2.7 million Canadians travelled abroad. Between Canada and the United States, the number of people crossing the border dipped to the lowest it has been in almost 50 years. And, since the border wasn’t closed to overseas travel until March 16th and then to the United States on March 21st, the number of people travelling in April would obviously be much lower.

As a result of the on-going border closures, vacations are looking very different this year. People are forced to stay closer to home, because travelling within Canada isn’t the easiest either, especially since provinces and territories have their own rules and regulations regarding travel during the pandemic. Some provinces and territories – like Newfoundland and New Brunswick – are barring outsiders all together. Others are joining the buddy system where tourists from only one province can visit them. Still others are requiring people entering from outside the province to self-isolate for 14 days. And finally, some provinces are saying all Canadians are welcome; however, services like campgrounds are only open to residents of the province.

Within the provinces and territories, there are other rules that are designed to protect workers, residents and visitors. These regulations dictate how you can get food while you are vacationing, how close you can get to others, and whether or not you can actually go on a trip with someone who isn’t related to you.

The rise of virtual church camps

People and organizations are trying to adapt to these rules and regulations by staying closer to home, checking out the local campgrounds and tourist attractions, or by taking their vacations online.

This year the Presbyterian Reformed Ministry International’s (PRMI) week-long teen summer camp, Upward Challenge, will be broadcast into participants’ homes. The leadership team is striving to hold onto the essential parts of the in-person camp, without overburdening the campers with screen time. “It is really important that we hold on to the DNA of what Upward Challenge is,” explained Ashley Patton, one of this year’s camp directors, “to hold loosely to what camp looked like before, and to honour the pieces and the heartbeat of what we do and why we do it.”

Like the original church camps, the pieces that the leadership team are hoping to teach the teenagers over the internet is how to engage with the Holy Spirit, grow closer to God, and develop a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.

But, of course, not everything can be the same; building friendships and cultivating community will look drastically different this year. Patton and the rest of the leadership team are concerned that people might fall through the cracks. “How do you build community [online]?” asked Patton. “It’s easier to notice the people on the sidelines when you’re in person and it becomes a lot more difficult when you’re on a screen. You lose that natural chit chat that happens during the lull moments of the day, and I think that’s a loss that we all grieve.”

Upward Challenge will also be losing their siesta time, which was an hour of each day when campers were encouraged to stop, be silent, and simply exist in the moment God put before them.

Rev. Kristine O’Brien (foreground, right) enjoys a special family dinner at Crieff Hills, where she both works and lives. Crieff will soon be hosting socially-distanced picnic lunches for guests wanting to get away for the day.
Rev. Kristine O’Brien (foreground, right) enjoys a special family dinner at Crieff Hills, where she both works and lives. Crieff will soon be hosting socially-distanced picnic lunches for guests wanting to get away for the day.

Keeping Sabbath in a covid summer

While some individuals might enjoy participating in an online camp, many people are just tired of connecting with others over their computers, tablets and phones. So much so, that the thought of an online summer camp isn’t enjoyable, and it isn’t restful.

Thankfully, Sabbath rest isn’t only found in church camps. “Sabbath keeping, for me, is stepping out of the normal routines and systems,” explains Rev. Kristine O’Brien, executive director at Crieff Hills Retreat and Conference Centre near Guelph, Ont. “So, stepping out of the economic system that is shopping and buying, stepping out of our time-keeping system with appointments and watching the clock. It’s having the opportunity for nothingness, and to remember that God actually has it all handled even if I’m not doing anything.”

Because of COVID-19, the retreat centre has not been able to host people. So, instead of inviting people to come to them to find Sabbath rest and renewal, O’Brien and the rest of the staff are stepping out to bring Sabbath to their communities by offering takeout dinners on Sundays, often using ingredients grown on the property.

While Sabbath involves stepping outside of normal routines, it also involves stepping into systems that God believes are important. As O’Brien explains, “Sabbath keeping is that reconnect with different systems: the family system, the creation, with all of those things.” And the Sabbath meals are giving people a chance to step into those other systems: “to stop, to gather, to be in the same place and catch their breath once a week.”

As the restrictions ease, Crieff Hills will be able to open their doors more and allow people to come for socially distanced picnics on the grounds, to continue to help spread the joy and rejuvenation that can be found in Sabbath rest to their local communities.

This year, vacations may look different. They may not even happen at all, but that doesn’t mean people can’t find Sabbath rest where they are, or that they can’t break free from the systems that normally captivate their attention. In light of a months’ long lockdown, this will undoubtedly involve creativity and finding new ways to connect and enjoy the people you’ve been quarantined with. But the effort will be worth it, because, as Patton reminds us, “Dancing with the Spirit is always life-giving.”


  • Christina Van Starkenburg

    Christina is an award-winning freelance writer based in Victoria, B.C. In her free time, she enjoys reading, dancing, and exploring the world with her husband and two boys.

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