Two weeks ago, Westminster Presbyterian Church celebrated Scout Sunday, in honor of the 12th point of the Scout Law, which declares that a Scout is reverent. It’s a day for thanking our Scouts, leaders and families for their service to the community. While different this year because of COVID-19, this is always a fun and special service. We raise money to combat hunger and to support our Scouts, many of whom come from neighboring low-income families who work really hard and give in many ways and yet can’t afford the ever-increasing fees and cost of equipment. As an Eagle Scout myself, I especially love this service.
I remember, as a Scout, hiking in the woods, a compass in my hand, camping in the snow, s’mores on the fire. I remember service projects of mapping new trails, building footbridges and cleaning up streets. I remember the sound of the bugle at dawn, swimming in the lake, leading my troop in prayer, making great pots of stew and chili and scrambled eggs. I remember learning to orient myself in the pitch dark of night and playing capture the flag beneath the stars. I remember all of this with love.
But this year, we felt compelled in our Scout Sunday service to be mindful that there are some whose memories of Scouting are not so loving. There were the Scouts and leaders who were excluded on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity. There were those who never internalized the moral responsibilities of Scouting, who thought it was all guns and arrows and power, the Scouts (and yes, I remember this, too) who, while at camp, threw rocks at animals and laughed. Then, last year, the Boy Scouts of America filed for bankruptcy due to lawsuits accusing leaders of the most heinous evil (many of those accusations of abuse tragically true). It makes you wonder: Is Scouting really worth saving?
I say, yes. It is worth saving. But it is also worth changing. It is worth saving only if it is willing to be held accountable for past wrongs and become something better. Here are four reasons.
First, Scouting is one of the few opportunities new generations have to experience nature. There are in nature truths of God and of self that cannot be discerned elsewhere. There is a plethora of research revealing that free, unscripted play in nature is vital to the formation of imagination, critical thinking, compassion and independence. Moreover, as humanity faces its greatest threat in climate change, Scouting is equipping our children with the love and the knowledge necessary to fight this threat.
Second, Scouting is about character. It’s there in the Scout Law: trustworthiness, kindness, bravery, reverence. So much emphasis is made these days on the accumulation of information, skills, power and wealth that we have forgotten the need to shape our children — and indeed ourselves — in morality. Here, in this age of relativism and hate, are children learning to serve principles higher than themselves, more important than their pleasure or their privilege.
Third, Scouting tells every child: You matter. When I became a Scout, I was a shy, bullied kid with a speech impediment. And it’s not that Scouting suddenly made all that better. But Scouting gave me people who believed in me, challenged me. When we look at the ills of the world, how many of them come down to people who are hurting and use that to hurt others? If we really want to save the world, we should build up people’s internal sense of worth.
Fourth, Scouting is about teamwork. Scouting teaches collaboration, provides community, and reveals that there are some things, often the best things, that can only be achieved together. Almost all of the points of the Scout Law are about how you treat others: with honesty, with loyalty, with kindness. In a world of me-me-me, we need more of the servant’s heart.
Look, I don’t care if the organizations survive — BSA, Girl Scouts, whatever — anymore than I care whether the Presbyterian Church survives. These are but fallible institutions, and they must be held accountable. Abuse and discrimination must never be tolerated. What I think we cannot afford to lose is Scouting itself.
We must save it, and we must change it. Already, Scouting is becoming more inclusive and implementing safeguards and protocols to ensure the accountability of our leaders and the safety of our children. Already, Scouting is changing. It looks different. Good! It should. Only then is it worth saving.
Rev. Patrick David Heery is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church and the former editor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s denominational magazine Presbyterians Today. A graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Patrick lives in Auburn with his wife, Jenna, their son, Emerson, and their two dogs, spending much of their free time hiking the countryside.