April 13, 2023 | by JB Brayfindley
Camping in tents on the church lawn is not typical at Holy Cross UMC in Stockton but it was expected of Tongan families over the Easter weekend as part of observing Holy Week. Nearly 200 campers including children, teens, parents, and grandparents flocked to the church building bringing camping equipment in tow to spend time on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday teaching and learning about the meaning of Easter. It’s called “Easter Camp.”
Eighteen tents were spread out around the church campus alongside various buildings on grassy patches and cement. Those not staying in tents outside, slept inside. During the long weekend, children could be seen playing games in the parking lot, along with a dog lying in the sun next to families sharing food and conversation inside the fenced, covered patio.
“Camp is a particular time that we are teaching the children to learn what is important,” states Rev. Dr. Tevita Vaikona, associate pastor leading the Tongan Language ministry at Holy Cross. “Easter camp is like a school where the heart of the camp is the meaning of Easter.”
“The original idea is to teach the meaning of Easter by telling the historical event, the story, and also the meaning, the application…” states Vaikona. During the weekend, there are bible study and discussion groups culminating in a presentation of skits revolving around the Easter theme. The use of words as well as imagery through dramatic arts are important aspects of teaching to Vaikona. “We teach from different perspectives—through the ministry of word and the ministry of image. Image, where the young people act, like, put on skits; and in the ministry of word, so we can explain it to them.”
“The kids couldn’t wait to come,” states Vaikona noting that the event was highly anticipated by both youth and adults. “The pandemic is really helping us get out and meet with people, it’s been really long—two years… and the kids want to get out of the house and also the parents, too!”
The event is also an opportunity to embody what it means to be community. “This is community, ‘what belongs to you belongs to me and what belongs to me belongs to you,’” explains Vaikona. “Sometimes we want to be in community but don’t understand it--we say, ‘what is mine is mine and what’s yours’ is yours’… but here, we make sure everybody has food, everybody is safe, everybody is involved.”
“I love the fact that many of our Tongan families will quite literally spend the weekend at Holy Cross, camping out on the lawn from Thursday through Sunday,” states Holy Cross UMC senior pastor Rev. Gary Pope-Sears. “Such devotion exceeds even the original disciples who ran and hid from Friday afternoon until Sunday. Come for the Passion, stay for the Resurrection: that has been the mark of faithful followers of Jesus since the first Easter.”
Thursday begins with setting up camp, attending church Maundy Thursday worship and gathering around a campfire before bedtime.
On Friday, students are excused to go to school as adults continue preparing for upcoming activities with more people arriving and setting up more tents. After attending the church Good Friday Service, camp leaders are chosen and assigned roles. The night concludes with an informal greeting and play time.
Easter Camp activities begin in earnest on Saturday with a special morning devotional. Next, everyone chooses a Bible verse to memorize. After breakfast, the camp breaks up into small groups by age and are given different questions to discuss. Then, there is a Bible study. Everyone comes together to share the answers to the questions from their small groups. After lunch is free time. Small groups reconvene to create a skit to express their Easter idea. After dinner, each group performs their skit. Music rehearsal time is held to practice for Sunday. Then a devotional and early bedtime.
Sunday begins with a sunrise service. With more people arriving and after more preparation and lunch, the 2:00 p.m. Tongan Language worship begins with music and dance featuring a youth confirmation service. “After a winter of study and preparation, a number of our youth, eight Tongan and one Pelangi, professed their faith and took their place among us as members of the congregation,” adds Pope-Sears.
“More than anything, I think the most enjoyable part of Easter camp is just the togetherness,” states Kristine Tutana Latuhoi, one of the youth leaders at the event. “Our congregation members have strong bonds beyond the border of the church building and service schedules. We are all aunties and uncles, and we all share responsibility and love for each other’s children. Just to have some time to spend together outside of a structured service/church setting is so meaningful.”
“And, from a mother’s point of view, it touches my heart to see my little family as a whole be so involved, happy and occupied in God’s setting instead of the regular temptations we face in our everyday life. Seeing my kids grow in God’s presence through biblical studies and Bible based activities, in a safe setting with other Christians brings me security and peace,” states Latuhoi adding that her third favorite part of the event was “food, food, food.”