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The summer of '71: Can we learn from the past?
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The summer of '71: Can we learn from the past?

By Darlene Warren

BIG SANDY, Texas--The early '70s were an interesting time to be a teenager. Within the Worldwide Church of God, membership was up, income was up, and prophetic interpretation was at an all-time high. I wasn't aware of any splits or schisms within the church in 1971. We were all pretty well galvanized by what we thought was an imminent catastrophic event that would bring this present age to a screeching halt.

Beyond what the church at that time was teaching, and anticipating, there were other reasons we were a little crazy back then. The United States was in the middle of a war that we as a government didn't know how to fight and that we as a people didn't know how to handle. It was a difficult time for Americans.

A haven for church youth

However, amid apocalyptic prophecies, college-campus rioting, antiwar demonstrations and public flag burnings, there existed an oasis we called simply summer camp. The Summer Educational Program (SEP) was its official name, and, from its modest beginning in the 1960s, down through the years for a few short weeks during the summer it became a haven for Church of God youth.

Orr, Minn., was the home base of an institution that would eventually establish camps in several countries. Orr was a tiny little town (I imagine it still is) in the North Woods of Minnesota. The camp wasn't located in town, though. It was even deeper into the woods than Orr, situated on beautiful Pelican Lake.

Camp property sold

The Worldwide Church of God recently sold the camp property, and the majority of the structures on the campgrounds have been razed to make room for private homes. Even after the radical changes that have taken place within the onetime-fundamentalist group, it saddens me to realize that there will be no haven, no sanctuary, no oasis for the next generation of young people when, undoubtedly, they will need it even more than those who came before.

I don't imagine camp in the early days was totally different from camp in the latter days, but there surely were some major alterations, and that was probably a good thing. Each generation is different, and, to be able to serve the needs of our youth, things must change.

During my time as a camper we were just happy to be there. We didn't know what the next year would bring. To discover there were others who believed the same things you did helped bind us together. I learned things that I know help me get through the tough times I sometimes face as an adult.

A learning experience

Back then not every camper got to experience the thrill of a week-long canoe trip. (I guess there was a shortage of personnel.) Of course, some campers would rather stay at camp and enjoy the comparable ease that came with indoor plumbing and nightly showers. (What could they have been thinking?)

Regardless of the lack of creature comforts, I learned some valuable lessons on that canoe trip. For one thing, canoes can glide faster across an open lake when everyone is pulling together than when you have to pull dead weight along. No one, in a time of need, appreciates a wimp. Just do what you have to do, and in the end there will be a long-needed rest and food you really appreciate.

Something else I learned on that canoe trip is that you don't have to like everybody you come in contact with, but you'd better learn how to work together for the sake of survival.

My children's experiences at camp were different from mine in many ways. In the latter years, SEP offered a wide range of activities that were not available in my day, and vice versa. While those in the '70s were cleaning up the property (piling up rocks) and hand-washing (albeit not on the rocks) our non-hand-washables (bedsheets, for instance), the kids in the '90s were learning all about television and radio broadcasting, and they actually had a laundry "department" to wash their clothes.

(We were obviously being prepared to survive in the great outdoors: Petra.)

They enjoyed windsurfing. We had to play water polo, a game with almost as much excitement and raucousness as a wild round of golf.

An unforgettable adventure

My stint at summer camp was an adventure I will never forget. It was similar to (and I don't mean this in a bad way) what I imagine boot camp would be like: You were rewarded for good behavior (favorable dorm-inspection results meant free, unscheduled time) and punished for bad behavior (letting the screen door slam shut behind you warranted swats from the counselor).

We did everything as a dorm. We ate together, slept together, marched to and from activities together and said our teary good-byes when the time came to go home.

Within seven years of the beginning of the demise of the Worldwide Church of God, what is left of that institution? Ambassador College Big Sandy is history, Bricket Wood is gone, the Pasadena campus is on the rocks, and now an institution that many considered to have played a significant role in their youth has been sold to real-estate developers.

Strangers and friends

What a waste. I feel sorry for those (like my grandchildren) who will never know what it's like to spend just a few short weeks working and playing with people who began the summer as strangers and ended up as fast friends.

Maybe if we can hold onto the lessons we've learned through this sad history of ours, it won't have been a waste after all. I feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to experience life in the backwoods of Minnesota in the summer of '71.

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