KC McGinnis is a photographer and photojournalist raised in Iowa and based in Des Moines. He's interested in visual depictions of religion, with an eye toward white evangelicalism and its future in the twilight of its hegemony in American...
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Campers make their way up to the hilltop bonfire area at Riverside Bible Camp in Story City, Iowa during the summer of 2019.
Mountaintop is a personal project about how sacred spaces are created. Few spaces in this world are sacred by default; rather, they are imbued with holiness by humans through the formative, transfiguring experiences they encounter there. For generations of evangelical Christians, Bible camp has been one of those sacred spaces.
If you ask an evangelical where they became an evangelical, chances are it was at a Bible camp. It is place where countless youth experience the personal conversion moment that most evangelicals consider a turning point in their lives. Some reflect on it joyfully as a moment when their life changed for the better; others reflect on it bitterly as a place where they were duped into an ultimatum that set them on a course for religious trauma. Either way, it is the density of life-changing experiences within the vernacular of everyday life that makes Bible camp sacred, whether or not the space was formally consecrated by institutional clergy.
Over the course of a summer I photographed a group of high school students who are counselors at a Bible camp in northern Iowa. The project is personal for me because I had my own formative faith experience at around their age, after reading an evangelistic book. I didn’t have much of a faith community for the first few years afterward, and I never attended Bible camps or Christian retreats. My visits to this camp reminded me of just how lonely those years were, and of how meaningful a faith community can be at this age. Of course this is not just limited to Christian camps; day camps in general are proven to grow youth in resilience and in a belief in good outcomes for themselves.
Reviewing these photographs during a pandemic has reminded me of how physical touch can act as a sanctifying agent in these spaces. I was struck by how comfortable and intimate the campers were with each other as they held hands in prayer, napped in each others’ arms, braided each others’ hair, and held hands to each others’ faces, as if in the bestowing of a blessing.
Now that this camp is closed (along with just about every other Bible camp I know of), every teen or preteen who would have been preparing for camp this summer is finding themselves disconnected. It is likely that 2020 is going to be a summer in which the church is not buoyed by thousands of come-to-Jesus moments for American youth. If so, what could that mean for the future of evangelicalism?