- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009


Camp Sumatanga has meant Bible stories and softball games for generations of Methodist families. Young and old alike come to the old church retreat for renewal in its quiet coves and chapels.

Today, though, the 1,700-acre retreat is in danger of shutting down.

Nestled in the Appalachian foothills, it’s among hundreds of church camps nationwide that are on the critical list. Years of declining usage and the recession have forced administrators to consider closing or cutting services.

The president of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, Bob Kobielush, said dozens of camps nationwide ceased operating in the past three years, and this could be the last summer for many more.

“I think this fall through Christmas we will see as many as 10 to 15 percent of camps decide they no longer can continue operating,” said Mr. Kobielush, whose organization has about 950 member camps. He estimates there are about 3,000 church-affiliated camps nationwide.

Leaders say Camp Suma-tanga, operated by the United Methodist Church in northern Alabama, could close at the end of the summer without $300,000 to make up a budget deficit. The possibility worries longtime visitors such as Carol Glover of Trussville.

Mrs. Glover, 47, fondly recalls summers at the camp as a youth, and her 7-year-old son, Kent, now enjoys hiking there. And Mrs. Glover’s ties to Sumatanga run deeper still: Her 70-year-old mother, Anita Alldredege, helped raise money to build Sumatanga when she was young.

“The feeling of godliness is everywhere at Camp Suma-tanga. It’s so peaceful, quiet and beautiful,” Mrs. Glover said. “You can really feel God’s presence.”

But not enough people are sharing in the experience to make the camp economically viable.

“What we offer here is quiet, a place to be quiet,” said the Rev. Bob Murray, a former banker who has been director at Sumatanga for 18 months. “Not everyone values that as much as they once did.”

Construction began in 1948 at Sumatanga, located about 55 miles northeast of Birmingham. At the time, religious camps were being built all over the country as World War II veterans started families and Christian churches flourished.

“There was a period of huge growth,” said Mr. Kobielush, who estimated that as many as 70 percent of the nation’s church camps were built in the late 1940s and 1950s.

The baby boom turned into a bust for the camps, though, and many began losing visitors as religious denominations began contracting, TV replaced the campfire and youngsters’ schedules were filled with Little League practices, music lessons and dance recitals. Declining revenue meant renovations and repairs weren’t made, Mr. Kobielush said.

Rather than relying solely on summer youth camps for revenue when bills had to be paid year-round, many camps built retreat centers to lure adults for church conferences and other gatherings.

At Sumatanga, the summer camp program for children and youth is healthy, leaders say. The money problems are linked mainly to little usage by adults and groups during the rest of the year.

Other U.S. church camps are having a tough year, too.

In Minnesota last month, directors of a 50-year-old United Church of Christ camp, Pilgrim Point, voted to close after summer because of declining use and the collapse of financial markets, which slashed its income from endowments. Supporters hope to save the camp through fundraising, but its future is cloudy.

Presbyterians in West Virginia this year formed a nonprofit group to support Bluestone Camp & Retreat, which also was threatened with closure.

The situation is brighter at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center in central Florida, but the camp is facing an operating deficit this year, said Director Don Sawyer.

“The economy is affecting everyone,” said Mr. Sawyer, president of the Southern Baptist Camping Association. “The larger [camps] may have to do some cutbacks and find ways to streamline things, but I don’t think they’re in danger of closing.”

No one knew how bad things had become at Sumatanga until recently.

A study that began last year after Mr. Murray’s appointment revealed a $300,000 annual budget deficit and a 30 percent drop in visitors since 2000. When the economy worsened, both churches and other groups quit coming as often, making the situation worse.

With a new business manager and the camp’s first marketing director in place, managers at Camp Sumatanga are trying to improve services, renovate facilities and increase reservations, particularly at its modern, 62-room retreat center.

They are also overseeing a long-term capital campaign and an emergency fundraising drive that has brought in $125,000 just to keep the doors open beyond summer.

“Every bit of money that comes in buys us a little more time,” said marketing director Bart Styes, who is preparing to move to a job in a Birmingham-area church while searching for a replacement at the camp. “Ultimately this money is a Band-Aid; it’s not fixing the problem. We’ve got to get more people here.”

Rebecca Anne Renshaw Brooks, 33, is pulling for the old camp. The Washington state resident grew up in Alabama and has fond memories of what it meant to her as a youth.

“I was an outcast, a loner in school,” she said. “But when you’re at camp, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you look like, or anything else that plagues kids day today. We all come together as one in that place.”

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