In between songs, they laughed and joked with their fellow Christians, excited to partake in worship with their friends. The children, part of a group of 185 children, volunteers and teachers, gathered as part of the daily activities of the annual Youth Camp.
It is a familiar sight every June and July: Possum Trot Road bursts to life as it plays host to members of the North Alabama Congregational Holiness Church. The winding road doesn’t usually get much traffic. When an unfamiliar car drives down the road, most residents pause and take note: A younger man will stop tending to the chickens and roosters running free in his front yard; an older woman will set down her watering can. There isn’t much out there, at the foot of the Appalachians, except lush landscapes, clean air and friendly people: the perfect place to retreat for worship.
It is a tradition almost long-forgotten. Most people take vacations now; these people take time off to gather in the name of God. Together, during service, they forget about schedules, about time frames and appointments.
“It’s about what the Spirit of the Lord wants you to do,” said Henry Puckett, as he removed his straw hat and combed his hair back. “If people want to sing, or testify, they are welcome to. Out here, I’ve gotten used to just going with the flow.”
Puckett, 67, was preparing to mow the lawn at a church just down the road from the campground — the Plainview Congregational Holiness Church — one of the 29 churches that make up the North Alabama District and attend events onsite.
“I don’t mind working out here in this heat,” Puckett said. “I’m trying to get the grass cut before Sunday service so that it looks nice.”
That same care is visible on the campgrounds. The grounds are first visible around the bend of a curb, just off of Possum Trot. Small wood and brick cabins line paved driveways that curve around tall shade trees. The grounds, donated in 1932 by Sister Rosa Downey, once held only a large, open-air tabernacle and tents pitched by campers for worship. Over the years, the church began to build cabins, which were eventually sold to church members who frequented the site. Today, the cabins remain nestled in with boys’ and girls’ dorms built to house the visiting youth.
This year, Youth Camp began on Father’s Day, June 17, and concluded on Thursday, June 21, after an evening of worship.
Over the course of five days, campers came together in the name of God.
“Youth Camp provides a time when young folks can learn more about Jesus and grow up to be respectable adults,” said the Rev. Mark Willingham, superintendent of the North Alabama District of the Congregational Holiness Church. “Our main goal is that they come to know Jesus as their Savior.”
The children arrive from each of the Holiness’ 29 churches in North Alabama and parts of Georgia. Each morning, they begin their day at 8 a.m. with devotion before breakfast. The day continues with music classes, two different worship periods and recreation time with their fellow campers. This year’s theme, “Final Destination 2012,” reminds campers that their actions on earth will impact their own personal route.
“At the end of our life, we will be in either heaven or hell,” said Willingham. “Our goal is heaven — but there are two options.”
God’s message reverberates through every action taken on the campground, beginning with the preaching of welcome and acceptance.
“Any denomination is welcome,” said Dara Cole, the youth director. “When they come here, they might learn our ways, but it’s really about learning God’s way.”
Cole, who has been the youth director since September 2011, said Youth Camp provides a perfect opportunity for the children to bond over the worship of God.
“We want them to understand they can bring God into their life; to understand that it does not need to be hard to be a Christian. They can serve, have fun and be in order. The staff here plants the seeds of devotion that in years to come, we will see grow and mature.”
Most of those seeds have taken root: many of the children return year after year.
“I just love it,” said Kelly John, 22, who has attended Youth Camp since the year she was born. “I feel the powerful move of God here.”
This year marks her third year as a camp teacher.
“When I came here as a student, I concentrated mainly on myself,” John said. “Now as a teacher, I concentrate on trying to get the kids closer to God and make the right decisions.”
The younger children seem to be following along the right path.
“I like to come here to see my friends and fellowship with them,” D.J. Strickland, 13, said. This year marks his ninth year of attendance.
“My favorite part is the singing and the services,” Strickland said. “I love singing. It’s fun.”
Andrea Ponder, 12, agrees. She has attended the camp for the past two years along with her two brothers and sister.
“This is probably the best camp I have ever gone to,” said Ponder. “This year has been really good so far. I like the drama classes during choir and the services.”
In July, area adults congregate as well, during what is known as Camp Meeting.
The weeklong retreat allows worshipers to return to a focus on their spirituality. The setting promotes a sense of simplicity that is appreciated by church members all over.
“Out here, we used to go to bed with the chickens,” said Puckett, “back before we had TVs and radios. When they flew up into their coops, we knew it was time to go to bed. Then, we’d wake with the roosters. Out here, it’s a good place to live.”
This year, Camp Meeting is celebrating its 80th reunion. Willingham said about 150 adults are expected to sleep on the campground for the weeklong event, which kicks off on Friday. During the evening services, however, Willingham said he is expecting a crowd of at least 400.
In the end, both Youth Camp and Camp Meeting have a single goal.
“It’s a time to come together,” said Willingham, “a time to be strengthened and encouraged by our Savior.”