Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!” Genesis 28:16-17
They say smell is the sense most associated with memory. Familiar smells conjure up places, events and feelings from our past or make us think of loved ones. Imagine you’re in a deep wooded area and that smell of the forest wafts into your nostrils. That’s the smell of Camp Berean. Throughout my life, since my first visit to the camp at the age of five, that fragrance of the trees and leaves, with a hint of campfire, is my return to Bethel – the House of God.
My earliest memories of church were at Berean Gospel Temple in inner-city Indianapolis. Though I was only eight when we left, I can still picture that building and imagine the sound of Pastor Porter’s booming voice with its natural echo that came from his powerful vocal chords as if he were speaking through a coffee can and into a megaphone. Though his message was always pleading and inviting, I often fell asleep to the sound, laying my head in my mother’s lap, napping in the pew at the age of three. The old building was hot in the summer, but the ladies always wore their hats anyway, fanning away the summer heat with those old paper fans with the wooden handles. The sanctuary had a wrap-around balcony where we frequently sat near the sound booth where my dad would help with running who-knows-what of microphones and reel-to-reel tape recorders.
Mom was a Bible teacher. It was a role she took very seriously. Often I would tag along as she went to gatherings with the other teachers at church. They would create visual aids to go along with the Bible stories they taught in Sunday School, Junior Church and neighborhood Bible clubs. I have such a fondness for flannelgraph, the scenery and movable figures that illustrate the stories. My mother and her cohorts honed their skills, making the pages of the Bible come to life as they told the stories and manipulated the figures to stir our imaginations.
When I was five years old, Mom said “yes” to an invitation to teach Bible classes at Camp Berean for one of the weeks in the summer of 1962. Because I was too young to be an official camper, I stayed with my mom at one of the on-site houses. My older siblings were in the cabins with the rest of the campers.
To think of so many children coming to the campgrounds and learning about Jesus gives me a warm feeling in my soul. I have bits of memory about little details. We would gather around the flagpole by the lake in the morning and start the day with prayer and devotion. In the dining hall, every meal began with prayer and everyone saying together, “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God. 1 Corinthians 10:31” There were fun activities like boating, swimming, tether ball, nature hikes, horseback riding and craft time. I can still picture the little lanyards we made from flat, plastic strings. Every day, there was a Bible class and in the evening there was preaching in an open air auditorium.
On our final night of camp that week, we all gathered around a huge bonfire and the speaker delivered a sermon about Barabbas. But before he got up to speak, there was a time of testimony. Several people stood up and talked about how God had worked in their lives. I remember one specific testimony – a counselor stood up and said, “I was younger than most of you when I came to know the Lord. I was five years old at the time.” I immediately looked up at my mom and whispered, “I’m five years old!” She patted my knee in agreement. As the preacher delivered his message, he explained how Barabbas and Jesus were presented to the people as Pontius Pilate offered to release one of them as was the custom. Barabbas was a criminal who deserved to die. Jesus was the pure and sinless Son of God. The people yelled, “Give us Barabbas!” When Pilate asked, “What should I do with Jesus?” they said, “Crucify him!”
I couldn’t help but notice how much my name sounded like Barabbas. Though I was only five, I realized that I, like Barabbas, was a sinner. When the invitation was given, I rose from my seat and stood in a crowd of taller-than-me campers. We had all responded to the invitation to trust in Jesus as our Savior. Mom came up and pulled me to the side, kneeling down with me and talking to me about how to pray to receive the gift of salvation. Kneeling on the other side of me was Mrs. Rheeling, my Junior Church teacher, who I know mentored my mom as a teacher. I prayed and asked God to save me and make me His child. I was baptized some time later back at our church in Indianapolis by our pastor, Dr. Ford Porter.
This year, my daughter had a sweet and wonderful idea for my big 60th birthday, to revisit places from my childhood. On the day before my birthday, she and my daughter-in-law and all three of my granddaughters traveled with me around Indianapolis to various landmarks and houses where I had lived. My husband, Bob, asked me what I wanted to do on my actual birthday. Without hesitation, I said, “I want to go to Camp Berean.” I wasn’t even sure where it was, so I texted my brother Andy and asked. Bob and I got up on Sunday morning, my birthday, and headed to Martinsville. I wasn’t sure what we’d find. The camp had closed many years ago, but it was still listed on the map. As we pulled into the main drive, a woman was blowing leaves in the front yard of the first house, so we pulled up to talk as she was turning off the blower. “Is this Camp Berean?” I asked. She smiled and said “Yes!” though both of us knew the camp days were long gone. I explained it was my birthday and that we were visiting meaningful places from my childhood, so she graciously agreed to let us explore the grounds and take pictures. She even snapped a photo of the two of us as we toured the ruins.
I guess it’s true that Time is the fourth dimension. Here I found myself, 55 years in the future, scouring that sacred ground for the exact spot where I heard the Gospel and felt the Spirit tugging at my heart. I reflected on a lifetime of (albeit imperfectly) following Christ my Savior. I owe everything to Him for putting me in that place at that time to be birthed as His child.
Everyone who knows the Lord has a “Bethel.” A place and point in time when the Lord reached down, grabbed their heart and drew them to Himself. For me, that most sacred of places is Camp Berean. “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you!”
Then let us arise and go up to Bethel; and I will make an altar there to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me in the way which I have gone.” (Genesis 35:3)
|This isn't the original flagpole, but the same spot where we started the day.|
|All that's still standing of the auditorium is the fireplace.|
|Several houses are still on the property and are home to several generations of the current owners.|
|You might call this a log cabin.|
Close up of where the auditorium used to be. Those are stacks of limestone sitting on the old foundation. The original fireplace is still in the background.
|This slide is from the original playground.|
|This chicken coop sits on the foundation of one of the cabins.|
|This shower house was surrounded by cabins where campers stayed.|
|Inside the shower house roof.|
|This may be the spot of the sermon around the campfire.|