Published September 25, 2008
WADSWORTH, Ohio — The rains came.
Not for 40 days and 40 nights, but for 40 steady minutes, which turned the winding, dirt road leading to the Sharon Center Holiness Camp into mud and then caused it to flood.
Not good for the opening weekend of camp meeting.
For more than 100 years, the faithful have converged on these 17 acres of woods about 15 miles southwest of Akron to rest and recharge their spiritual batteries through daily worship and Bible study.
They are not alone.
Ohio is a hotbed of nondenominational Holiness camps, the remnants of rustic frontier Christianity. Their names derive from their location (such as Sharon Center and Sebring) and from the Bible. Sychar, in Mount Vernon, refers to the town in Samaria where Jesus spoke with a Samaritan woman; Peniel, over the Ohio border in Conneautville, Pa., is named for the spot where Jacob wrestled with God.
Today, these meetings, or “encampments” as they are called, face steep challenges in a world that values instant excitement and creature comforts.
How do you persuade families to spend up to 10 days living in a cottage or dorm room without air conditioning, using outdoor restrooms, and eating cafeteria food in a noisy dining hall?
Add to that the restrictions that some camp associations place on campers – from discouraging cell phones and iPods to banning pets and shorts above the knee – and camp meetings can be a tough sell.
So why go?
For many people, camp meeting is part religious revival, part family reunion.
Esther Blanks first attended Sharon Camp when she was 7. She’s now 78 and lives in Dover, an hour’s drive away, but she returns each summer. So do her five sons and their families.
She sits on the sagging bed in her one-room cabin and pulls her royal blue sweater close to her body. Blanks doesn’t like the damp, cool, atypical weather. Usually the sun shines during camp meeting.
It did, she says, when she was a teenager in the 1940s.
“The big thing we youth did was walk up to Sharon Center and go around the town’s circle,” Blanks says, her face dissolving into a broad smile. “All 40 of us.”
“We’d walk into the cemetery [across from the camp], and the boys would climb behind the stones and scare us. Then we’d go back to the dining hall and get ice cream.”
She laughs again. She thinks today’s young people would find that boring.
Camp association presidents say more people – especially young people – are seeking a place of solace, peace, and comfort. And they are willing to turn off their cell phones and not check email, read the newspaper, or watch television to find it.
“We’re seeing a slow growth,” says Charles Nutt, president of Sebring Camp Meeting, which had nearly 350 people at one evening service, including 65 youngsters in its program, in July. “It’s consistent.”
Camp Sychar averaged 430 at evening services, including 100 youths, at its meeting, which ended earlier this month. “We’re seeing more families, especially families with young children,” says Gary Campbell, who is president of the camp meeting. “I don’t think it will ever be like the 1940s and 1950s (when people spilled out of the 1,000-seat main tabernacle), but it is increasing.”
Dan Segool, president of the Peniel Holiness Association, believes the greater interest as evidenced at his camp in July – more than 200 people at weekend evening services, including 40 youths – is tied to societal change.
“We live in a troubled world,” he says. “People are looking for answers. Our camp, as well as other [Holiness] camps, represents that ‘shelter in a time of storm.’”
Rest, however, is just one part of the experience.
Camp also is work.
“In the Holiness tradition, we believe that God always has more for you: more to learn, more to teach you, more ways to make you like Jesus,” Segool says. “We are continually being challenged by the spirit. At camp, we allow God to show us what is in our hearts and what are the things we need to deal with.”
So campers attend up to three worship services a day and take part in Bible study and other programs geared toward children, teens, or adults.
Nutt, a fund-raising consultant for faith-based nonprofit groups, and Campbell, a retired United Methodist minister, both attended their respective camps as children. Segool, a vice president and small-business specialist with Chase Bank, did not. He married a woman whose family came to Peniel each summer. He soon became part of the camp.
And saw that it was in trouble.
“If you had come here 10 years ago, you would have thought we wouldn’t be around much longer,” he says. “But the Lord had other plans.”
Janet Fillmore writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
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