Three of the four Gospels tell us Jesus went into the wilderness specifically to be tempted by the Devil for 40 days.
More than one summer, I journeyed to Panfork Baptist Encampment for just a few days in the wilderness near Wellington not planning to be tempted, but that’s how it sometimes turned out. And like so many kids from the Panhandle, the summer church camp experience provided me with multiple opportunities to get things right with the Lord before school started in the fall.
Panfork is one of several Christian camps that sprang up across the area in the 20th century to inoculate kids against the influences of growing secularity. Anywhere with a muddy watering hole and a hidden canyon would do. The idea was to drop kids out in the fullness of God’s creation, even if it was a mite drouthy at times, feed them a steady diet of fish sticks and Bible lessons and hope by the end of the week that something took.
Church camp is rooted in the summer camp movement of the late 19th century when America became increasingly industrialized and more urban, cutting kids off from the great outdoors. Protestant Christians already had embraced pastoral settings for tent revivals known as camp meetings where backslidden disciples could make a fresh start. Church camps that proliferated in the Panhandle were a bit of both, and by the 1940s and 1950s, attending a church camp became a summer ritual for many area kids.
Every denomination had their spot. For the Methodists it was Ceta Canyon near Wayside, with the Disciples of Christ next door at Ceta Glen. The Baptists in the Amarillo area had High Plains Assembly northwest of Canyon. Panfork opened in 1947 on the grounds of the old Wellington Country Club as a joint venture between the Panhandle and North Fork Baptist associations representing towns in the eastern Panhandle. Most participating churches built and maintained their own cabins, with some of the wealthier churches putting up some pretty decent accommodations. Wellington, decidedly not wealthy, provided a back-to-the-basics experience in an ancient hostel at the summit of a sun-baked slope seething with grasshoppers. But there was a sleeping porch that wasn’t half-bad.
While we had both boys and girls at Panfork’s youth camp, we couldn’t participate in certain activities together, notably swimming. In fact, everyone had to wrap towels around their legs on the way to the pool so as not to present a temptation. I don’t think the sight of my legs, wrapped or otherwise, had much effect on anyone in 1982 and still don’t, but by Day 2 at youth camp I had paired up with a feisty little blonde from Clarendon who seemed to think I was at least funny.
At some point in the daily schedule there was free time to buy snacks at the canteen or maybe a Sandi Patty or Dallas Holm cassette in the camp gift shop. The Clarendon girl suggested we take a nature walk instead, and I managed to get my first open-mouthed kiss down on the banks of the Salt Fork of the Red River. I was thrilled, but obviously she wasn’t because on Day Three she was holding hands in worship with a boy from Memphis who was just as skinny as I was, but probably a better kisser. Those Memphis kids were pretty worldly. I think I rededicated my life to the Lord that evening as a result of this rejection.
Looking back, I’m amazed adult counselors would choose to spend a week with adolescents who mostly were thinking about nature hikes and not much else. Little kids were likely even worse. After my third grade year I went to an all-boys camp at Panfork and our minister of music was one of the adult guides. All I recall were mournful groans from the direction of Bro. Charles’ cot that first night, possibly because we were engaged in flatulence competitions into the wee hours (there’s nothing in the Bible that explicitly prohibits that, by the way). The next day his wife came to get him and he didn’t come back.
The aforementioned church camps are still a thing, though slightly less rustic than before. They’ve rolled with society’s ever-changing needs, often rebranding themselves as retreat centers with ropes courses and the like to supplement income from ongoing youth programs. But somewhere in a hidden canyon near a stream that has likely run dry by now, the sun still burns just the same, the bugs still bite and Jesus, ever so patient, softly and tenderly calls over the tumult just as always.