Family, fellowship and faith

Jul. 10, 2014 @ 04:42 PM

For a week every summer, the faithful gather at Pleasant Grove Camp Ground in Mineral Springs, as they have done for more than 180 years. Some come from nearby and others travel farther—from Tennessee, Virginia, Georgia, Colorado, even California—to spend time devoted to family, food and faith. They describe this place as a refuge, a retreat, a place of memories, and home.

In the early 1800s, a group of Methodists chose this grove as a location for religious meetings. Families who lived on farms wanted to worship together but were great distances apart. A simple wooded, open-air shelter, the “arbor,” was erected for worship services. Later, in the 1850s, a Methodist church was also built on the site. The arbor still stands and has undergone renovations over the years, including a major one in 2008, but its core frame is the original from the 1830 build. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Those who originally attended camp meetings constructed “tents” made of poles or logs. Before the Civil War, there were more than 200 tents on the site, with fireplaces for cooking and hand-made candles for light. Although those first tents are long gone, and the structures that stand in their places today are much less primitive, the name stuck. Here, the regulars use “tent” as both a noun and a verb, as in, “The Robinson family tents two down from us.” Today, eighty-nine tents circle the grove, facing inward toward the arbor. Inside the safety of the circle, children swing, and play games like volleyball and corn hole.

Stepping into the camp ground, one experiences a different world, a simpler, slower time. Very few tents have televisions or internet access, and people like it that way. The faces are warm and welcoming, and the food and conversation flow freely. There is no particular place to be, no rush hour traffic. That leaves plenty of time to rest and nurture relationships with one another and with the Creator.

Everyone has a story

Family roots run deep here. Nearly everyone is “related by either blood or marriage,” says Gabriella Rink. Her sister-in-law, Melissa Plyler, adds, “It’s like a big family reunion.” Their family’s tent is number 52, the Penegar tent. Built in the 1940s to replace an earlier tent on the site, it has a sawdust floor like the one before it.

 The McGuirt family, in tent 24, tells of a great-grandfather who rode his horse nearly five miles from the nearby town of Waxhaw to attend the camp meetings in days gone by. He supposedly hitched that horse to a post on the spot where the family’s tent now stands. “I’ve been coming to camp meetings for 68 years,” says Anne McGuirt Stewart. The family holds a reunion on Little Sunday, and nearly 50 members attended this year, including Anne’s nephew Jonathan McGuirt, a Union Power journey line technician.

The Robinson family in tent 26 boasts one of the newest structures, a tent built last year to replace one constructed in 1944. Dennis Robinson saved some wood from the ’44 tent to frame pictures of ancestors who worshipped here before him. A large frame holds a local newspaper clipping from the ’70s that depicts camp ground activities and his grandfather, who owned tent 25, next door. The Robinsons use their tent for special occasions year-round, such as holidays. “The young people come here with their families, and they’re hooked for life. They grow up and bring their own families,” Robinson says. And the cycle continues.

Gail Schwab doesn’t stay in a tent, but she’s been involved with the camp meetings for 27 years. She works in “The Stand,” a two-story cement block building on the site that serves as a snack shack of sorts during camp meeting week. Campers can buy everything from cheeseburgers to ice cream, and the kitchen is open until 10:00   p.m. nightly. Gail’s daughter-in-law and granddaughter help her keep bellies full and customers smiling. “There isn’t much profit in it,” she says. “I do it because I enjoy it. I’ve seen kids grow up and have kids of their own. I’ll keep coming back as long as they want me to and the Good Lord’s willing.”

A focus on faith

This has always been a community centered on a thriving faith. Camp Meeting 2013 was no different. It began with three services on July 21, or “Little Sunday,” and ended on July 28, “Big Sunday.” Each weekday, local ministers held morning and evening services, and there was a morning children’s program with Bible time and activities. This year’s projects included creating art for placemats that will be used by inmates at the Troy Women’s Prison. The nightly services drew between 500-600, including campers and locals. All were welcome to attend services, and while those that came hailed from different denominational backgrounds, they were unified in purpose.

“Big Sunday” began with services at 11 a.m. and was big indeed—the grounds were packed with between 1,500 and 2,000 people. Many families had reunions, laughing and catching up over delicious lunches. Then it was time for some to pack up and say goodbye to this idyllic world until next July. Others tarried until after the 6 p.m. closing service, postponing their return to the real world as long as possible.

“There are a few other camp grounds across the state similar to ours,” says Bob Winchester, one of Pleasant Grove’s nine trustees. “But we like to think ours is special,” he winked. Bob would know. He’s been coming here for more than 80 years. To him and many others, this place is a little preview of heaven. Their hymn seems to echo in the empty arbor after everyone has gone, “The Way of the Cross Leads Home.”