Camping isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about church—unless it’s Camping Sunday, which is Feb. 25.
This year, United Methodist churches across the Florida Conference are celebrating the 70th anniversary of Warren Willis Camp, located in Fruitland Park. It was the first of four conference camps established as sacred outdoor space that has since touched the lives of generations of young people and the young at heart.
|In a scrapbook memory, these youth are cooling off in Lake Griffin at Warren Willis. In later years, a swimming pool would be added. 2018 marks the 70th anniversary of the camp's founding.|
“The camping ministry remains a powerful way to offer young people good Christian role models amid God’s natural wonders,” says Tanner Smith, program hospitality coordinator for Warren Willis and the Life Enrichment Center.
He calls Camping Sunday a way to get children and their parents excited about the possibilities.
“It is very important for us to be able to tell the story and empower churches to send children and youth and adults to our camps,” said Mike Standifer, director of camps and retreats for the Florida Conference.
The Florida Conference offers not only summer camps for some 4,000 kids each year, but also keeps its camps open year-round, so individual churches or groups can enjoy the facilities.
When the camp ministries started in earnest, it was during a time when such camps for kids were just taking off in the 1940s, Standifer said.
“They really just felt the spirit leading them to create this ministry with young people,” he said. Eventually, instead of hopping from one state park to another or using Florida Southern College, the conference decided it needed its own facility.
During the first year at Warren Willis, there were far more would-be campers than room to house them. By the second year, in 1949, church members and friends helped double the size of the camp to host 500.
In the late 1980s, the conference started a program called Claim the Flame to raise money to build eight new cabins at Warren Willis and install air conditioning and indoor bathrooms. In 1992, they were up and running.
“In terms of our overall goal, we want young people who come to camp during the summer to either create a relationship with Jesus for the first time or strengthen the relationship they already have,” Standifer said. “How we do camp, itself, hasn’t changed a whole lot. We still have worship, we sing, play games and learn skills.
“We still hire college students to be counselors that we call the leadership team,” he said.
“A lot of what campers get is through interactions with a really amazing staff of awesome young people, great Christian role models,” Smith added.
“At camp, those staffers may be the first young people that sit down and listen to them, having fun and making jokes with them throughout the week,” he said. “That does amazing things for confidence, having an awesome role model preaching and praying with them.”
Standifer says it’s a place where they can focus on relationships with other people and with Christ, away from distractions.
|This image shows a long-ago group posing under the summer sun in South Florida. They had just selected a site for what later became Riverside Camp and Retreat Center.|
“It’s all about the idea of retreat,” Smith said. “In the Bible, we learned that Jesus and others spent time with God in the wilderness. That active isolation, that intentional moment of separation allowed them to grow closer to God when they were able to walk away from everything else.”
The same applies to the Methodist camps, he said.
Smith went on to paint an outdoor picture of how each camp offers its own unique experience in nature.
“LaBelle is very scrubby, right on the edge of the Everglades,” he said. “In Central Florida, the camps are on wetlands. We are on a peninsula with a view of Lake Griffin and can canoe and fish. We see sunrise on one side of the lake and sunset on the other side. In North Florida, it’s a little more (like) a Georgia forest with big, beautiful pine trees and long walking paths.”
Smith added that nature and nature care are a fundamental part of all the camps.
“The idea of separation is more amplified when connecting with God through His creation,” he said. “Sitting out on a bench in a field by yourself for a few hours is a powerful way to connect with God.”
--Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.
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