The Power of Place
Have you ever stood in a place and just known that God was there? That it was holy ground? Felt the tangible presence of the infinite and sensed you would not leave the same person you came?
Back when I was attending college in the late ‘00s, Pine Cove camps interviewed well over a thousand Christian college kids each summer and hired several hundred to staff their then eight camps in Texas. I knew many lovely, faithful, incredible people who didn’t make the cut - it was simply that selective and intense. The fact that I was ever hired and able to stand in that place that would change my life was truly an act of God. But to fully understand, we’ll have to rewind a few months.
I graduated high school at the top of my class; I was student council co-president, a youth group leader, an all around solid Christian kid. Going places. Good head on her shoulders. 4th generation Aggie. Making everybody proud.
Like all good incoming Aggie freshmen, I attended Fish Camp, where, in true love story fashion, I met and fell in love with a boy.
But this not was “the boy” - as in the one I would marry and build a life with. This was “the boy” I would lose myself to, bit by bit, handing him too much too soon until I was no longer giving but instead watching helplessly as more and more was torn from my flesh, my heart, and my soul. What started as perhaps an “unwise relationship” quickly turned toxic, abusive, and soul crushing. My GPA the spring semester topped out at a whopping 1.8 for no reason besides my utter lack of interest in anything outside of said boy. Within the first few weeks of spring semester, I had stopped seeing my friends, essentially moved into his dorm room, stopped going to classes, and all but dropped out of my freshman leadership organization.
But one weekend in February, in a decision I can’t really explain, I escaped the toxic pull of his gravity and left for a work weekend at Pine Cove with my small group - people who were probably shocked to see me. That weekend spent washing dishes and setting tables allowed something inside me to come alive again. One of the camp directors pulled me aside at the end of the weekend and said he really wanted me to work there that summer. Interviews had ended, most of the staff had been selected, but he was inviting to me a single day of interviews by invitation only.
I showed up to my interview the following week and lied through my teeth. I gave all of the right Christian answers and said nothing about what my life and lifestyle actually was - underage drinking, sex, isolation, and degradation. There were countless other 19 year olds who deserved that job, but God knew I needed it.
I was hired to work the second half of the summer starting July 5th. I spent July 4th drinking on the lake with my boyfriend and his friends, because keep in my mind, at this point I literally had no friends of my own. Then, a bit hungover, I got up and drove to camp on July 5th. I pulled through the gates to camp and put on my happy, well-adjusted Christian girl mask and got to work.
And let me tell you, I had the time of my life and felt freer than I had in almost a year. The “no cell phones while campers are on site” rule was a gift that entirely removed me from my “real life” for all but 20 hours each week. I found myself surrounded by people I could truly trust and call friends. Especially the men. For the last year, I had been dating someone who viewed me as little more than a body. Who allowed his friends to degrade and objectify me to my face. Who withheld kindness and basic human decency.
But here, I was with men who respected me, valued me, and just flat out liked me simply for existing as a person. They were getting nothing from me yet revealed a personhood I had lost somewhere along the way in the last 12 months.
Each weekend when our time off rolled around, I found myself less and less interested in making contact with my “real life” and instead dreading the day I would have to.
During my final week that summer, we had a night of worship one evening. Try as I might to focus, I spent the entire two hours fighting with the Spirit of God. I heard a clear “it’s time to break up and heal” deep within my body and spent the next two hours crying out with all the reasons it was too hard and too scary. I’d be totally alone in a sea of 50,000 students without being a freshman to fall back on. Due to the pull of his gravity, I had neglected to carve out a life for myself, I had simply shapeshifted to fit perfectly into his. Not to mention, I couldn’t just cut ties and walk away - my living arrangements for the next year involved living with his best friend’s girlfriend. It was too much and too hard and I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it.
I went to sleep that night torn and tormented. My body was on edge, and my mind was a giant ball of conflict and anxiety. And I woke the next morning filled, no, flooded with peace. The Spirit had unwound and untangeld all of the knots in my soul and body overnight. As I slept my body and my soul had both released their death grip on this relationship, my expectations, and all of the pain and fracturing it had caused. There was nothing left to do but let my mind consciously acknowledge the truth - the relationship had ended, and I had been set free.
I spent the next week saying it all out loud for the first time. I had been stuck, but now I was free and I was choosing a new way. When I told my parents, my mom said, through a little catch in her voice, that I sounded like myself for the first time in a year. Camp friends prayed for me and supported me as I finally had the necessary conversation with him. Considering how much of that summer are still vivid memories 15 year later, that I have precisely zero recollection of that conversation seems a mercy.
My road back to myself, healing, and wholeness wasn’t direct, quick, or easy but without Pine Cove it never would have begun. I gave the entirety of my next two summers to Pine Cove - 15 out of my alloted 52 weeks of those two years were spent there. That place was so much more than a place, more than a camp. It would be in that same place my third summer that I would know beyond a shadow of doubt that I would marry my now husband (who had broken up with me the week prior - but that’s a story for another day).
So back to my initial question. Have you ever stood in a place and just known that God was there? That it was holy ground? Felt the tangible presence of the infinite and sensed you would not leave the same person you came?
A genius loci is defined as the “‘spirit of a place;’ more than just physical geography, it includes the intangible quality of a place, its particular ambiance. Every single element converging together to create holy ground.”
In Genesis 28, Jacob has a vivid dream where he sees angels then is enveloped by the presence and voice of the Lord extending the promise given to Abraham to Jacob, ensuring that His very presence would not depart from Jacob. When Jacob awakes, he exclaims, “Without any doubt the Lord is in this place, and I did not realize it.” (vs. 16)
That little family camp, nestled among the oaks in the hills of central Texas is my genius loci.
The place where I encountered God. A place I entered as one self and left another. A place I could return to over and over to remind myself of His provision and faithfulness. A holy place that immediately broke through my defenses and left me, like Jacob, to say, “This sacred place is awesome. It is none other than God’s house and entrance to heaven.” (vs 17)
A place is just a place. A collection of bricks and mortar, wood and stone. Until God meets you there. Until His undeniable presence fills the room and overwhelms you. Until you cannot walk out the way you walked in. Until it is for you, an entrance to heaven.