A Christian summer camp in Kentucky that seeks to promote racial reconciliation by bringing families together from diverse racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds for fun-filled vacations has been drawing high praise as a “safe space” to learn from some who have experienced it.
The Barefoot Republic Camp and Retreat Center, which sits on a 70-acre farm, boasts a 20,000-acre lake outside Scottsville, Kentucky, and has been in operation for almost 20 years, is the brainchild of Tommy Rhodes who also serves as the operation’s executive director.
“Our mission at Barefoot Republic is to facilitate Christ-centered relationships between individuals from diverse racial, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds through an equally diverse platform of artistic, athletic and team-building programs,” the camp explains on its website. “To reflect God’s pursuit of His children through interests and passions, interpersonal relationships, and equipping students with tools for exploring and discovering God’s presence in their lives.”
Rhodes, who grew up in a Japanese American family, told ABC News that the idea to promote anti-racist education came in part from his faith and his own experience with racism growing up in a small Alabama town.
“I grew up in a Japanese American family in a small town in Alabama where it's all black and white, and I just felt like I didn't really fit in,” he said. “I experienced just a lot of racism, a lot of prejudice.”
At Barefoot, campers must learn to live in a diverse environment which requires a certain “spiritual posture” to build relationships, the camp founder explained.
“If you know Barefoot, we are very focused on diversity and bringing people together from other backgrounds,” he said. “Being a Barefoot is really a spiritual posture, and if all you can see is somebody's feet, you know, you don't know if they're a prince or a pauper."
Rhodes further explained that instead of promoting the idea of a “colorblind” society, the Christian camp helps participants acknowledge its diversity.
“I have a lot of people that come alongside me and just say, ‘Tommy, I'm so excited about your mission. You know, I've always taught my kids to be colorblind.’ And I just have this pit in my stomach when I hear that," he said. "You know, God created us to see color. God actually created color, and for us not to see and acknowledge our differences, we're missing out on so much of creation."
In August, The Dominguez family, was one of 10 families that met up at the camp for a weekend.
Leoncio Dominguez, the father who was born in Mexico, told ABC News that this summer, which saw an explosion of protests over racial injustice, has been a period of reckoning for the nation.
“It’s hard for what has happened for so many years here in the U.S., where people of the black community have been persecuted," he said. "There is some movement in saying, ‘Hey, let's call it for what it is and let's step up and take responsibility where responsibility needs to be taken."
His wife, Amy, who is white, believes the Barefoot Republic Camp is a safe space to facilitate some of that conversation.
"The beauty is bringing people into a safe place, which I think is key ... where, you know, you're going to be honored. And let's actually deal with this stuff. Let's talk about it. Put it out on the table and not dance around it," she said.
Thomas Rose, Barefoot’s director of community relations, agreed.
“For the first time ever, I believe that everybody's eyes have been opened to see that there still is a racial issue in this country,” he said. "We thought once we had an African American president that, you know, 'Oh, racism must be gone now. It's over. We finally made it.' And then when you have a situation like George Floyd and that bomb gets thrown into the water, all of the issues come back up again.”
Since the camp’s formation in 2000, they have seen more than 15,000 campers, 2,000 volunteers and a dramatic increase in financial support.
The journey, however, wasn’t easy, particularly when it came to convincing wealthy white campers to participate in a project where they could end up being in the minority due to how reservations for the camp are prioritized.
Molly Damschroder, 14, whose white family have been attending the camp for several years, said even with the camp’s diversity, she was not aware that racism was still a major problem in the U.S.
“I didn't really recognize that there was a problem until people kind of started speaking out about it,” she said. “And it's really kind of changed my perspective on what a lot of people go through that I don't see and I don't understand because I have the privilege of not having to go through all that stuff.”