Across the UCC: Gods's great outdoors - UCC style

Across the UCC: Gods's great outdoors - UCC style

August 31, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

New Hampshire camp offers 'mountain-top experience'

Sometimes people visit The Horton Center on Pine Mountain, N.H., a UCC camp owned by the New Hampshire Conference and say, "Where's the water?"

Yes, admits program director Mike Simons, most camps do have a beach or a lake. But Horton Center offers something completely different: a mountain-top experience. Horton Center sets on 100 acres, saddled by the northern and southern peak of Pine Mountain, with an altitude of 2440 feet.

"Our outdoor chapel's cross is perched on a cliff, about 200 feet tall. Beyond that is the [Mt. Washington] Valley and nothing else. It's one of the most dramatic and breathtaking places that I've ever experienced."

Besides rock climbing on real rocks ("No fiberglass, plywood or bolts here," Simons says), and one night of sleeping under the stars on one of the overlook ledges, he says the camp's model of education, called Unit Camping, is something that really lends itself to making a week at camp quite an experience.

Simons says a majority of their groups of campers derive from a single local church.

"They come together, register together, and experience the week and the growth and the forming and storming that goes on in group development in a Christian camping context," explains Simons. "Then they're able to return at the end of the week and take those lessons and experiences back to the local church."

"It's been really interesting for me to see how this place molds future church leaders," says Debbie Gline Allen, commissioned minister of Christian Education at First Parish Congregational UCC in East Derry, N.H.

Allen first came to Horton Center as a backpacker in 1974. Since then, she's remained involved in outdoor ministry by serving on Horton Center's staff, or being a unit leader with her local church. This summer, she's at the camp with her two children.

Allen's been working diligently on compiling the camp's oral history, collecting stories from people who were around at the camp's inception in the 1950s.

"When I was here as a college student, I was going to be a music teacher in public schools," says Allen. "But things happen. Life happens! And I decided that really wasn't going to work for me."

That's when Allen said things started falling into place. "It was a natural thing for me to focus on becoming a minister of Christian Education. I literally have to say that the reason why I am where I am now is because of this place."

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In Idaho, campers experience 'life-changing' outdoor ministry

Randy Crowe and his wife, the Rev. Linda Crowe, know how profound family camp can be. Twenty-four years ago, they took a break from their hectic life-he was the vice president of a grocery company in Seattle, she was a graphic designer-to revisit Camp N-Sid-Sen, a UCC camp they both attended as youths.

N-Sid-Sen, perched on the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene in northern Idaho quickly took hold of the Crowes' hearts. It led to both of them deciding to change careers and leave their jobs to focus on ministry.

Linda is the pastor of Veradale UCC in Spokane Valley, Wash., some 55 miles from N-Sid-Sen, where Randy lives year-round as the camp's managing director. The happily married couple endures the long-distance relationship spanning two states because both are doing ministry that they love.

"Outdoor ministry is one of the unsung strengths of the church," says Crowe. "Folks that experience God in the out-of-doors for a week at camp . it really is transforming. Whether it's a youth camp, family camp or a junior high aqua camp, it's just life-changing," he says.

And not just for the kids.

"If structured properly, the experience for the adults is every bit as important or more so as they share their faith with the kids," says Crowe. "When lay folk and pastors spend a week sharing their faith with kids, having an opportunity to really articulate their faith, it makes a huge difference in people's lives."

The setting of N-Sid-Sen offers opportunities for many different forms of camp to take place: For instance, Crowe dreams of resurrecting the HIV-AIDS patient Family camp that N-Sid-Sen hosted for 10 years, before much of its critical federal funding got cut. "I still remember when [the patients] came, they were very tentative the first time or two," he says. "At that time, they weren't welcome very many places. We likened it to modern- day leprosy. That was a very powerful camp."

Crowe sees incredible potential in a new camping experience that N-Sid-Sen hosted this year, called Camp To Belong. The camp is for foster children, reuniting siblings for a week at camp who have been placed in separate foster care facilities.

"It fits in so well with what I feel like our ministry is," says Crowe.

"These kids are deeply wounded," he says. "It's powerful to be together in this kind of environment where everything is taken care of: good food, good shelter, and nurturing adults."

But family camp remains at the center of N-Sid-Sen's incredible ministry.

"In today's society, when we're pulled in so many directions, I think it's incredibly important to have this kind of experience for families to spend a week together, just recreating in God's creation," says Crowe. "And really, really being together."

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If we'd just go camping, 'we could come together as a church'

The Rev. C.L. (Curly) Stumb finally gets a chance to sit down.

In the midst of the busy summer months at the UCC's Johns River Valley Camp, nestled in the foothills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge, the executive director of the camp has just completed a rigorous day that includes hosting officials from the American Camping Association. Every three years, a delegation visits the camp as part of its accreditation process.

Taking out a few moments, Stumb retraces his ministry, which started in local parishes.

"Even in general ministry, I was involved in the camp," he says, mentioning his stints on the Outdoor Ministry Task Force and the Johns River Valley Camp Board. "There was a red thread that led me here, going back to my first year in ministry when a neighboring pastor invited me to come as a counselor at the camp."

In the past 20 years as the camp's director, Stumb has seen church camp become more competitive, since there are so many opportunities available now in the summer months.

"We offer more outdoor ministry experiences than we were doing 20 years ago," he says. "We have a canoe program, and we do a number of offsite trips and experiences."

"Just yesterday, we had a group bicycle down the Virginia Creeper Trail," he says. The trail, on a former rail bed alongside a stream in a serene forest setting is a 17-mile trek that is suitable for most any cyclist, since it is all downhill.

Stumb says that Outdoor Ministry is so unique because it engages people in community the way that no other type of ministry can offer.

"Just last summer," Stumb comments, "I had a staff person talk to me about some of the conflict going on in the church right now. She made the comment, 'If we could get everybody to come and spend some time at camp this summer, I think we could truly come together as a church.' I think that was so profound," says Stumb. "That conversation has stuck with me."

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