Stacie Longwell Sadowski
There is one beach, among all the Lake Michigan beaches I know, that holds special spiritual sway with me. So much that I have not visited there in nearly twenty years, for fear that it has changed. It is the property that was once the church camp I went to as a kid, Pilgrim Haven near South Haven, Michigan. Church camp was a special experience for me, a time of testing independence away from my family. Not only independence in living apart from my parents for a week, but also spiritual independence from them and my church family. It was a time to really stand on my own, being challenged by the camp counselors to think of myself as a spiritual individual; but in an environment of like minded people. For a ten year old that is a pretty safe test, unlike the spiritual test of attending Michigan State University as an eighteen year old. But that is a-whole-nother story.
Pilgrim Haven Camp was on Lake Michigan front property, extremely valuable real estate, a beautiful spot. There were two rows of wooden cabins that ran perpendicular to the beach, set back slightly behind a row of trees on a low bluff. At night, when it had been stormy, we slept to the sound of waves crashing on the beach. When it was foggy, we could hear the fog horn from the South Haven light house nearby. Both were very comforting sounds, adding to the peace that was easy there. Pilgrim Haven was a good name.
It was not the first time I heard God’s voice, but so far it was the loudest. At camp, part of the daily routine included evening Vespers, a worship service that wrapped up the events of the day. Instead of doing this indoors in the main lodge, Vespers were held on a high bluff overlooking the lake, at sunset. We sat on benches made of wooden boards perched on logs, and faced the waterfront where there was a rugged wooden cross near the edge of the bluff. This is where I learned to worship God in sacred outdoor spaces, seeing Him in the colors of the sky and the endless water that seemed to stretch on eternally. God called His creation “good”, and here that truth was unmistakable.
When I was a teenager in the ‘80s, the United Church of Christ closed the camp and sold the property. At the time, it seemed like just another change associated with growing up. My BFF/co-camper Ginger and I learned about it while at another church camp up North that summer. Immediately I felt the loss and wanted to return. A few years later, my husband and I went there while visiting his aunt who lived nearby. It was the early ‘90s then and most of the buildings had been removed. The high bluff was gone; it had been eroded away by the wave action during the period of high lakewater, when many cottages were lost to the lake all along the shoreline. The property was overgrown a bit, but I could still easily make out all the former locations of the cabins, buildings, and play areas.
The changes I saw were pointing toward inevitable development. Sadly, much of the shoreline, particularly in Southern Michigan, is overdeveloped. This has made me move Northward in my beach visits and has now pushed me all the way up to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Shoreline, where the sacred space is preserved. For years, thirty years now actually, I have assumed that my whole beloved Pilgrim Haven had become a condo development, closed off forever. I couldn’t even look.
This spring, I happened to Google the camp, looking for better pictures of the high bluff worship area. I was shocked to find that the woman who bought the land held it undeveloped, and had recently donated it to be made into a park. Amazing! I emailed the organization to ask more about it; what’s happening now and when can I go?! The answer was that it is still in process, and there are no-trespassing signs and fences currently while plans are made. Hmm. Immediately I knew that there would be no fences on the lakefront. Michigan law has established public access to all beaches, up to the high water line. And while I was there, maybe I could take a peek (or walk) inland. Maybe. Camp is an hour and a half away, in a direction I usually don’t travel. Until this weekend.
I was heading back from a business trip to Chicago Saturday near sunset. As I got closer to the highway exit, I felt a pull or a call to go. Sunset! But could I find it again? As the sun got closer to the horizon, I took the exit and drove around on memory and instinct, looking for the right spot. Would I find and recognize it now, among all the expensive new houses? The first road I followed to the lakeshore came out close, but not the right spot. I stopped the car and got out anyway, and the sound filled my ears. The lake was churning, large waves crashing crashing crashing on the beach. For all the years I have been to beaches on Lake Michigan, this sound was unique. I hadn’t heard it anywhere else the exact same way, the way I heard it while I slept in my cabin. It was a greeting that made my heart leap, the Spirit inside me jumping with joy. To the north, I could see the South Haven light house. There it was! I must be close. Determined to do better, I hopped back in the car, and took off.
As darkness was getting closer, and the sun moving toward the eternal line of the horizon, I zoomed through the neighborhoods. Then I caught sight of the right street, turned the corner, and again caught full view of the lake down the road that ended above the beach. Parking in the near darkness of deep twilight, opening the car door, the sound returned, but with it this time was the smell. A mix of pine and other trees, a smell that brought back everything in my memory of this place. There was a line of tall trees along the road, with a fence and the expected No Trespassing signs. I went quickly to the beach and, regrettably wearing high heels and a skirt, climbed down the slope.
Home at last! My soul rejoiced and connected to the place in an indescribable way. As much as I love words, there were no words for this moment. The water was deep blue with the clouds echoing the color, while the sky was reds and oranges, changing by the minute. The waves rolled in, crashing with the sound of God’s voice again. Saying the same thing He said when I was ten; welcoming me and inviting me to follow, like an outstretched hand. How could I refuse?
Turning back toward the land, I looked at my camp. Should I go? How could I possibly be trespassing when my soul owns a piece of this property? This was certainly not a violation of the intention of the woman who protected and donated the land. Climbing up and in, I followed a small trail made by other pilgrims, careful to not disturb the dune grass. Once in past the trees, it was darker and cooler. The spaces were still open in the same ways, but clearly haunted by the oldest trees and their memories. I was only able to stay there a few minutes, this time, as it was getting pretty dark.
I went back the way I had come, staying as long as light would allow on the beach, then climbed back up to the road. As I sat in my car, with the door open, I dumped the sand out of my dress shoes onto the pavement. Any day where I have to clean beach sand off my feet before driving is a good day. And God said it was Good.