Reformed Quarterly Volume 10, Issue 1
For starters, eleven-year-old Jeff Thompson absolutely did not want to go to summer camp. His church in Asheville, North Carolina, did not have a structured junior high youth program, so his parents thought Look-Up Lodge and Camp in Travelers Rest, South Carolina, was a great idea.
“I was against it from the start,” vividly remembers Jeff, now 25 and a senior M.Div. student at RTS. “I wanted to lay around the house all day and watch television. But I had no choice.”
So he went. But the disaster he expected became the most exciting adventure of his young life and a major turning point in his faith. It was in the wilderness that Jeff met Jesus Christ.
“I believed in God and thought I was a Christian; I knew all the right answers anyway,” says Jeff. “But as we sang the words to Psalm 23 everyday, I realized I did not have a relationship with God like David, and I wanted it. Two weeks later at a campfire service, I committed my life to Christ.”
Jeff had never before felt such love and acceptance. At the end of camp, when his cabin counselor knelt and washed the boys’ feet, Jeff knew for the first time that he was a very special person in God’s sight. That knowledge carried him through some very tough times the next year.
“Camp held me together during a very difficult time,” says Jeff. “In seventh grade, I changed schools, and the new junior high was terrible. I gained weight and became painfully shy; I had no friends and did not participate in any sports or clubs. My schoolwork suffered. But the next summer I returned to camp; that made all the difference in the world. There, I was loved and appreciated; I could openly live the Christian life without being tagged an oddball.”
Other church activities crowded out camp for the next several years. But with his new-found faith, Jeff became very close to the youth leaders at his church — one of whom took a special interest in him. Basking in the leader’s genuine love and respect, Jeff’s self-confidence grew, and by his junior year in high school he was no longer overweight.
After graduation Jeff headed for Mars Hills College near Asheville, to pursue an international business career –visions of wealth and world travel dancing before him. A degree from Mars Hill would very likely secure him a spot at the University of South Carolina –one of the nation’s top international business graduate schools. Camping was a warm but distant memory; after all, he rationalized, God needs men in international business — right?
Right, but not Jeff Thompson. The summer before his senior year at Mars Hill, Jeff was asked to be a counselor at Look-Up Lodge, and, as his love for camping was rekindled, God began to show him how powerful a camp ministry can be.
“I led a weekly Bible study, shared my testimony regularly (something I had never attempted), and modeled the Christian life for the kids. I was thrilled to learn that, within a week, I could build solid relationships with these kids and earn the right to share with them spiritually.”
The children came hungry to be loved and listened to; Jeff did both and was especially sensitive to those who withdrew and shunned participation in camp activities. He encouraged them, remembering himself at that age — very lonely and self-conscious. Although Jeff felt he had given his life to Christ and was open to whatever God wanted him to do, he could not shake the lure of an international business career. Then the unthinkable happened — the University of South Carolina rejected his graduate school application.
“I had done everything humanly possible — kept a high grade point average and even gained a congressman’s recommendation,” recalls Jeff. “After three years of hard work, I thought I had blown it. But the Lord helped me realize that I had been doing what I wanted with my life, and I had never really presented my life a living sacrifice.”
Humbled to the Lord’s will, Jeff went back to camp that summer and by the end of the season knew that God had equipped him to serve the church — particularly youth. Since arriving at RTS in 1988, he has put his gifts to work. Early in his seminary career, he became the resident director of a men’s dormitory at Belhaven College in Jackson and has led two students to the Lord. This past year he has also coached one of the fifth and sixth grade basketball teams at First Presbyterian Day School in Jackson while serving as the youth minister for a church in Monroeville, Alabama. Jeff sees camping as an integral part of youth ministry.
“I have seen God work in tremendous ways at camp,” Jeff explains. “Many times more can be accomplished in a week at camp than in two or three years of youth group ministry. The kids are isolated from the media, friends at school, and other pressures; in such a relaxed setting, God works on their hearts. Tight bonds are formed within the group as they eat, sleep, and play together.”
Camping is stimulating and rewarding, but, Jeff cautions, it is not for the fainthearted.
“Camp work requires a real servant’s heart because it is very frustrating,” confides Jeff. “The crises are constant; you learn to expect the unexpected. It’s easy to think, ‘If I have to listen to one more kid, handle one more complaint, unstop one more toilet, I’ll quit.’ The job takes tremendous patience, wisdom, and a real burden for youth.”
CAMP: IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR
As hard as camping may be, some sturdy souls actually adore it. Ask RTS middlers Jim Miller and Adam Boyd if they’ve ever been to camp, and they’ll probably just smile enigmatically and nod. The fact is, they have either been campers or lived at camp virtually their entire lives.
Both M.Div. students come from veteran camping families who make their homes in the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Twenty-seven-year old Miller is a fourth generation camper; his great-grandfather, Dr. Joseph Sevier — a Presbyterian minister — founded Camp Greystone for Girls in 1920, feeling that young people can come to know the Lord more naturally at camp than anywhere else. He also saw a need for girls to have the same opportunity for outdoor sports as boys. The family has been running the 180-acre facility ever since, and Jim plans to return after graduation to help.
Twenty-four-year-old Adam took his first steps at camp. When Adam’s father, Spencer, was eight years old he knew he wanted to run a camp and started his first one, a daycamp outside Atlanta, while in college. When a highway sliced across the property, the Boyds sold the camp, and five years passed before the senior Boyd bought Camp Merri-mac for Girls in 1978 — celebrating its 40th anniversary this year — and the adjoining Camp Timberlake for Boys in 1983. An award-winning horseman, Adam is the associate director of Timberlake and heads up the riding and rock climbing programs, while four of his five brothers are involved in other areas of the camps.
Raised in strong Christian families, both Adam and Jim accepted Christ at an early age, but for Adam real commitment did not come until his years at Wofford College. Through the witness and discipling of his brother Bobby, whose life changed dramatically when he accepted Christ, Adam left behind his double life and realized God wanted him in a camping ministry.
The Millers have stood for Christian values at Greystone even when it was not easy. In the early 1970’s, they put their faith on the line and changed Greystone from simply a quality camp with Christian values to a Christ-centered camp. The move upset many longtime Greystone families who felt it was not necessary to be so outspoken in the things of Christ. Jim’s mother, Libby, held firm. “My desire is to honor the Lord and to see the lives of young people brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” The Lord has honored that commitment and blessed Greystone abundantly; by Christmas each year the camp is usually booked, with a waiting list –always. Girls come from all over the world, as do well-known Christian speakers like Elizabeth Elliot and Edith Schaeffer. Many commitments are made for Christ each summer.
Neither camp allows television and Merri-Mac does not even allow radios; campers make their own entertainment while participating in challenging activities, eating wholesome food, resting in the afternoon, and rising early.
Both camps place a high priority on the caliber of their staff. Adam says, “You can have the highest ideals in the world, but without a sharp staff, you are wasting your time. From day one, the counselor is a role model; the child walks through the cabin door immediately wishing to be just like her counselor. A Christian can have a powerful influence in that situation.”
Jim agrees. “Every one of our counselors is a Christian; we try to recruit the very best. We know that our campers will come looking for Christian role models. We try to build a covenant community, teach Christian principles, and preach Christ to the children in a positive way they can relate to all day long.” Lifestyle evangelism and discipling are key strategies at Timberlake. Adam says, “Devotions and chapel are important, but we stress modeling what a Christian young man is. Most of our children come from Christian homes, but they are developing personal independence, making decisions about their faith, and experiencing peer pressure. At this impressionable age, we can have a great influence.”
“At Greystone,” says Jim, “young people are given the chance to feel the Holy Spirit working, not only in themselves but in a group of about 600 people. We believe this is accomplished through prayer, obeying the law of Christ, and working together as a community with well-defined rules and fun activities. We try to develop the girls physically, mentally, socially, and spiritually, giving balance and dignity to their lives.”
And they do this in the context of fun. “Camp is the only place a child will go simply to have fun,” explains Adam. “And every fun activity at camp is a tool with which to teach. So, when a child comes to camp we can revolutionize his idea about God; we can show him God is not boring, He is fun.”
Camping professionals say that one of the hardest parts of the job is seeing so little of the fruits of their labor. Adam says, “Camping ministry builds values into the child’s life, and many times she doesn’t realize until years later whom to credit. Even then she may not come back to tell you. My dad has always said there’s not much money in camping, but the psychic income is fabulous when he hears a former camper is doing well.”
A woman recently approached Adam at a camp reunion and confessed, “Adam, the principles by which I live today are the ones your father taught me thirty years ago.” It’s a fact; investing in a little piece of eternity does bring a good return!
Born to Camp
When 55-year-old Dick O’Ferrall went to camp for the first time in 1947, he was twelve years old, and his parents never thought he would make it for eight weeks. Not only did he stay, but he made camping his life’s work. This year he celebrates forty years in the camping business.
Dick was young — a mere 23 — in 1959 when he and a friend bought Alpine Lodge Camp for Girls in Mentone, Alabama. They changed the name to Alpine Camp for Boys, and, in 1963, Dick bought out his friend’s interest. That first summer, 114 campers registered; this year there were 625 campers, with a waiting list for some sessions.
Part of the reason for such success could be Dick’s own exuberance about camping. “I have never been happier than the times I was in camp,” he reveals. “I know first-hand that camp experiences can have a tremendous impact on the life of a child. A camp situation is made-to-order for youth ministry. You have children twenty-four hours a day for several weeks in a controlled environment — minus television, radio, and other distractions. That’s a lot of concentrated time to work through problems, change attitudes, and build relationships.”
Ric Cannada (RTS ’73), senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Macon, Georgia, won’t argue with that. It was at Alpine Camp one summer after the eighth grade that he reached a turning point in his walk with the Lord.
“I was already a Christian,” says Ric, “but friends were pulling me in different directions and the tension was mounting. I was asking myself, ‘Can I be a Christian and still have fun?’ That summer at Alpine, I met sincere and committed Christian counselors who could hold their own in the biggest shaving cream wars and water fights, and then sit quietly with us during cabin devotions and talk to us of God. I saw that summer that a Christian can have a lot of fun — the right kind of fun. After camp, the tension was gone; I was a Christian and proud of it.”
Says Ric, “The key to a camp is the quality of its counselors. Almost any camp can come up with a fun program to get the kids there, but, in terms of spiritual influence, a counselor who cares and wants to build a relationship is vital.”
Dick feels the same way. “I wanted to have a Christian camp from the very beginning,” Dick explains. “The Lord taught me very early that the only way to operate one was to have a Christian staff. I didn’t know where we would find that many Christian college-age boys. God taught me that if I would be faithful and patient, waiting for His guidance, He would raise them up. That first summer He provided fifteen guys; this past summer we hired fifty.”
Dick is very selective, hiring much of his staff through Reformed University Fellowship. He looks for counselors who can live their faith daily and love the campers.
“We tell the staff that our campers are going to learn more about the love of Jesus Christ through their day to day relationships with the staff than they will in cabin devotions. They will note the way the staff loves and cares for them, as well as how the staff relate to each other.”
“We have a one week training program for the staff,” says Dick. “Luder Whitlock, who spent many years as a camp director and staffer, has assisted with our staff training, plus RTS alumni and Christian psychologists.”
In addition to superior training, Alpine puts a high priority on ministering to its staff. Over the years, some ten RTS students have served in the important post of camp minister, whose number one priority is to take care of the staff’s spiritual needs.
Dick is quick to point out that Alpine is not a church camp. A low-key evangelistic thrust seeks to minister to children who want a quality camping experience and would never go to a church camp. About eighty per cent of Alpine’s campers are churched –not necessarily from evangelical churches –and a small percentage are not churched; Alpine could be their only chance to hear the Gospel.
During each session, Dick and his staff want to give each child a chance to:
To would-be professional campers Dick says, “Strive for excellence; do your best to provide a quality camping experience. I’ll tell you what a friend once told me: if you intend to operate a camp in the name of Jesus Christ, make it a first-rate organization because there are already too many second-rate organizations operating in His name.”