Midway through the summer of 1967, I was dismissed from my summer job and sent home. I was 17 years old. Home was St. Louis, and my parents drove from there to the mountains of North Carolina to retrieve me from the disgrace I had brought upon myself.
My infraction? I had led a staff rebellion against the director, written a letter to his supervisor in another state, and left the unsent letter in the desk of the clothing store I operated as my assigned responsibility. The letter was discovered, of course; and I was summoned before the director.
In this way, my second summer on the staff of the camp came to an inglorious end. That was my last experience at Ridgecrest Camp for Boys and, it turned out, at any of the activities or operations connected the Ridgecrest Baptist Conference Center.
All that came to mind this week when I read the news: the Baptists are selling the entire operation including conference center and camps. It made me sad.
They created the summer conference center in 1907. It was patterned after the highly successful Chautauqua Institution in southwestern New York. Thirty years after saying goodbye to Ridgecrest and while serving as a pastor in Pittsburgh, I discovered Chautauqua. Summer after summer we packed up our kids and headed north to spend delightful and inspirational weeks reading, listening, praying, walking, singing, and meeting all sort of wonderful people. One summer we took a weeklong course in sailing…on Lake Chautauqua, of course.
But that was later, long after my eight successive years in the mountains outside of Ashville, North Carolina.
We went to Ridgecrest, first, for Sunday School week, just our family of six. Dad was a minister of education, and this fit neatly with his job assignments. We were there with thousands of people—all white, of course, all churched, and all Baptists. We sang Baptist songs, heard Baptist sermons, and prayed Baptist prayers. Even the ice cream at the Nibble Nook had a Baptist flavor to it. It was a flavor I liked and, for the most part, have kept it as part of my spiritual diet ever since.
A few years later, we chartered a bus, filled it with young people, and drove from Murray, Kentucky, through Tennessee, and over the mountains into what we all thought was the promised land of religion—Ridgecrest. We did that for at least four years—the remainder of our family sojourn in Murray—but, I promise you, it filled up my soul like it was a century or more.
I remember the preaching, the singing, the sitting in the balcony—the top row of the balcony from which, one inspirational night, I walked the long way to the altar to announce my call to the ministry. I wonder how many of us who made ministers of the gospel were sent in that direction by what we saw and heard and felt in that summertime sanctuary.
Of course, there was more than religion; there was romance, and I had my share of that each and every summer. Some of the girls I remember, some I do not; I doubt any of them remember me. All of us remember the Prayer Garden, that quiet, lonely place that functioned for much more than finding our way to God.
In those days, the meals were served family style; we mostly ate with people we did not know. The old man who ran the place always picked up the microphone and spoke a prayer. Seems I recall us singing something before he prayed. Is that right?
It was at Ridgecrest that I first felt delight in the things of God, first opened my heart to all that Jesus could be to a person, first fell in love with the pursuit of holiness. It was at Ridgecrest that the direction of my life was set; from that, I have never wavered, for which I am grateful to God.
Not even that summer camp dismissal, so rude and so right, has dimmed the bright light of Ridgecrest in my memory. For more than a half century, the gospel flame fanned into fierceness during those mountaintop meetings has burned bright in my spirit. What more can I say?
Glory to God. Glory to God. Glory to God.