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Freshman year

It’s the spring of 2013. The city bus arrives at their stop, and Ethan Chiu and Julian De La Rosa hop off to walk the rest of the way to school. They’re high school freshmen in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in Queens, New York. Ethan has invited Julian to consider volunteering at JoyCamp, his church’s month-long day camp for neighborhood children. As a kid, Ethan was a camper, and now that he’s in high school, he plans to volunteer. JoyCamp, put on by the Reformed Church of Newtown (RCN), does what it does in large part because of high school volunteers, who corral the nearly 100 campers, help with art and science projects, and lead daily worship.

Group of six student leaders from JoyCamp 2013

As a high school freshman, Ethan Chiu, right, asked his friend Julian De La Rosa, back center, to volunteer at JoyCamp, though Julian was not yet a Christian.

As they walk the remaining blocks, Julian tells Ethan he wants to apply. Julian’s not a Christian, but many New York City high schools have a community service requirement, and the long days at JoyCamp rack up the hours fast.

JoyCamp was started in 1997—the year before Ethan and Julian were born—by RCN’s then-pastor, Ron Bechtel, who saw a need in Elmhurst for affordable childcare.

“He saw that as an opportunity to spread the gospel to young children, to reach out to them at a young age, plant seeds,” says Ethan, who most recently served as director of JoyCamp in 2017, the summer before his sophomore year in college.

Over the years, it has morphed into vacation Bible school on steroids: four weeks of activities from 9:00 to 3:00 each day. The days begin and end with a time of worship. In the mornings, high school and college volunteers lead the campers in studying the Bible and understanding the Christian faith. The afternoons are filled with playing games, making art, improving reading and writing skills, doing science experiments, and whatever other activities the team dreams up—playing ping pong or learning Zumba dance routines. There is a registration fee, but at $170 for two weeks and $320 for all four, it’s far more affordable than similar camps in New York City, and there are scholarships available.

JoyCamp is unapologetically evangelical. Its purpose statement easily rolls off Ethan’s tongue during the interview: “JoyCamp is a place for the children of Elmhurst to meet a fun and lively Jesus Christ through the use of creative and exciting programs done with integrity and lots and lots of love!” (The exclamation point is original—and representative of the enthusiasm of its campers and volunteers.) Ethan grew up in a Christian family, but it was as a camper that he first accepted Jesus Christ.

The contagiousness of Jesus

JoyCamp’s unabashed enthusiasm for Jesus makes it surprising, perhaps, that so many of its high school volunteers aren’t Christian. Chris Koch, pastor of RCN’s English-speaking congregation, estimates that the number is 80 percent, mostly from Buddhist, Muslim, and nonreligious backgrounds. Like Julian, they’re there to fulfill community service hours and have a good time doing it. But even they fall under JoyCamp’s spell and find themselves caught up in the joy of it all.

“JoyCamp was honestly so much fun,” says Sakib Ibrahim, a Muslim student who volunteered in 2017. “I walked in there hoping to just get my community service, but JoyCamp eventually became something bigger for me. It felt really good to volunteer and help teach the children of Elmhurst. I created so many bonds and friendships through JoyCamp. … I still miss some of the kids I used to see every morning.”

JoyCamp doesn’t hesitate to put its volunteers, Christian or not, in positions of leadership.

Sakib and Julian both heard about the camp through friends—a testament to the contagious spirit JoyCamp has cultivated, one that causes people like Ethan to return year after year and to invite their classmates to come, too. Ethan remembers coming for six or seven years as a camper, and then returning as a high school volunteer, to manage the campers; as a leader in training, working alongside the teachers, who create the curriculum and lead the daily Bible lessons; as a teacher himself; and finally as director in 2017.

JoyCamp doesn’t hesitate to put its volunteers, Christian or not, in positions of leadership. Julian played guitar, so he was on the worship team. Sakib was on the team that put on skits about the day’s Bible lesson.

“I was actually learning about Christianity along the kids,” he says. “I found all these stories from the Bible so interesting, and each day was a learning experience for me.”

Neither Julian nor Sakib felt pressured to participate in ways that made them uncomfortable, but Julian says the worship team was encouraged to sing and play with energy for the sake of the kids.

Volunteers meet in the mornings for devotions and prayer, led by RCN members, and they’re expected to come to Friday night youth group or Sunday morning services during the JoyCamp weeks.

“If the students are serving in the church and sharing about the message of the gospel, we want them to be exposed to it themselves,” says Chris. “Whether they desire to follow Christ or not, we desire for them to understand the message so that they can share it with students.”

Becoming a Christian

As it turns out, the focus on the love of Jesus Christ isn’t intended for the campers alone.

“I had some kind of inkling of God, but I wasn’t sure what it meant to me. I was always doing my own thing,” says Julian, thinking about his freshman year of high school.

As he volunteered and came to youth group and to Sunday services at RCN, he experienced “the love of the youth leaders, the love they had for us,” he says. “I got this weird peace in my heart—something I was looking for and I didn’t even know it.”

Though he played guitar, Julian admits he wasn’t particularly good at it, so he came early every day that year to practice. One day, when the worship leader had an emergency and couldn’t be there, Julian stepped in.

“I had to lead praise in front of all these kids, and I was just this new volunteer,” he says. “God used me, and so many people were so encouraging. Ever since then, I felt that God gave me the heart of worship, not just music but in terms of my whole life being a living sacrifice. It propelled me forward. After JoyCamp, I really just went for it.”

In November of 2013, Julian became a Christian.

He went on to volunteer at JoyCamp for several more summers—as a leader in training and then as a teacher. He says JoyCamp played a role in his sense of vocation. In 2017, when he volunteered in the role of teacher, people around him affirmed that he had gifts as an educator. Under Julian’s teaching, two volunteers “started wanting to explore Christ more,” he says. “One of them gave their life to Jesus. It’s awesome. … If you really embrace what it means to be missional, this is our mission field—to be the church in our community.”

Chris says that a handful of volunteers continue attending church and youth group after JoyCamp ends each year, and some of them have become Christians and are committed, active members of RCN. He has baptized at least ten students in his five years as pastor there.

Julian is now a junior at the City College of New York, studying to be a high school chemistry teacher. Ethan is there, too, studying civil engineering. As a child, Ethan wanted to be a missionary, in part because of JoyCamp’s influence. Now, he sees civil engineering as a way to serve other people—and as a useful skill that could enable him to enter other countries and share the gospel there.

“JoyCamp has shown me how to be more missional in the sense that I’ve learned how to take initiative more,” he says. “I’ve been encouraged to be there for other people, to listen to them, and I’ve seen opportunities to share my experience of how Christ has worked in my life.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Ben Lin started JoyCamp. In fact, Ron Bechtel, then associate pastor of Reformed Church of Newtown, had the vision, while Ben Lin, assistant pastor, implemented the program.

Grace Claus serves as children's ministry coordinator for a church in the Seattle area, where she lives with her family. She holds an MDiv from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.