MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Crip Camp - On Netflix Streaming
Documentary, directed by Nicole Newnham and Jim LeBrecht
Summer camp in the late ’60s was every bit – if not more popular – than summer camp these days. If you ever went away for a week of church camp, you came home with great memories, new friends and maybe a new relationship with Jesus Christ.
But for most children and youth living with differing disabilities there wasn’t much available. Often restricted to special schools with limited resources and treated as less than complete, they came home to towns without handicap accessibility and faced a steep uphill climb to develop skills that would lead to meaningful work, ongoing friendships or marriage.
There was one summer camp, however, that refused to play by the rules of separation. It was Camp Jened, located in the Catskill Mountains area of New York, begun in 1951 by a private foundation to offer a program for youth with disabilities (with an initial emphasis on polio and cerebral palsy). It was a no-frills kind of place, but it had a lake, cabins and provided an alternative to the many camps unequipped to meet special needs. But then something interesting happened during the countercultural revolution of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Young “hippie types” became directors and counselors and made it their goal to open up every possibility to their young campers. Counselors would sleep in the upper bunks in the same rooms as the campers. Most of all, the counselors sincerely loved and cared about their kids. Music was often playing and there was a level of freedom that most of the youth had never experienced before. Anyone who wanted to play baseball was on a team, even if they couldn’t swing a bat. Many campers had their first romance and – in some cases – sexual activity. It was anarchy with a lack of supervision that still has the ability to shock parents today. But there was also unfettered joy and real empowerment to dozens of kids who had so often been treated as outsiders and misfits. Thanks to the miracle of videotape recording (and a group of students working on a class project) summers at Camp Jened were well documented, including first-person reminiscences from former campers and counselors.
That story by itself makes for an entertaining and often funny film.
But that’s just the first part of the movie. The second half of Crip Camp tells the ongoing story of camp alums who then grow up to become change agents who will push society to break down barriers of restriction and to ultimately – after many years of hard work – coerce the government to create the American Disabilities Act, and make handicap accessibility a new normal. One camper who becomes the face of this movement is Judy Heumann, a brilliant and tireless advocate and motivator (another key figure is Jim LeBrecht, co-director of the film). As these former friends join forces to speak truth to power (and both Democrat and Republican leaders take their hits), Crip Camp becomes a suspenseful and stirring witness to the power of friendship and a passionate vision that refuses to give up hope.
This film reminds us of what can happen when people join hands and move forward with purpose and passion. God’s love in Christ continues to want to lead us with such shared ministry and mission.
“Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14 NRSV)
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A moving and inspiring true story about how the power of acceptance and community became the foundation for social change.
Two pitchforks: Occasional swearing; non-graphic stories about drug use and casual sex; archival footage of deplorable state institutions.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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