Behind the Creek: Operating the largest Christian camp in the world
by Mason Phillips
DAVIS—In this week’s visit to Falls Creek, I decided to go for an overnight stay so I could rise early enough for breakfast and visit with a few staff members and volunteers.
As I stirred my coffee, courtesy of the dining room staff, I sat down to a table full of unfamiliar faces. I began asking around about one man in particular—James Swain, conference centers director. I wanted to hear their perspective on how he does his job. I did not tell them I was writing a story, but nevertheless, their answers were nothing but positive. All they could say was how great he was.
“The lines of communication are almost always available . . .,” “. . . he’s one of the easiest men to get to if you need him. . .,” and so on and so forth. Younger members of the staff continuously told me that he’s simply an awesome guy.
As we sat there amidst the healthy spread of hearty breakfast items, Swain appeared at the microphone to address the staff. He told a short story about a fairly important person visiting the camp. I knew he wasn’t talking about me; in fact, he was telling of a visit from Anthony Jordan, executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO). He told the story because it ended with Jordan saying he was pleased with the attitude of the staff.
Swain went on to tell the staff how very proud he was of them, and he encouraged them to never give up. Even though I’m not personally a member of the Falls Creek staff, I left with a little more of a skip in my step. After a word of prayer, he dismissed everyone and they scurried off to their daily missions.
After the room cleared out, I kept a strong line of sight on Swain so I could have a word with him. He shook my hand and said he’d sit down with me after he filled his coffee mug. Once we sat down, it was as if we’d known each other for years. His warm nature made me feel right at home at that cafeteria table. Once I started (with) some questions, he had plenty to tell me about.
Swain is in his second year as director there at the Creek, and he has already encountered a tremendous amount of work. When I asked him about how living there on campus affected his family, he told me how it brought them so much closer. He and his wife, Julie, along with their two kids were sharing a small space, and he felt closer to them through that experience. He went on to tell me that Falls Creek has had its surprises for him, but he still loves it.
Some of his favorite things to do are to greet people in front of the tabernacle and help them find the inscribed brick paver they purchased or the seat inside they dedicated to help pay for the tabernacle. As rare as the opportunity to go to an evening service is for Swain, he told me how much of an encouragement it is for him to go and see the numerous lives being changed for Christ.
That morning, we cruised by the tabernacle, and watched many of those students arriving for morning service. I asked him where we would be going and what he would normally be doing during the morning hours. He replied that some mornings are spent in the office while students are in class, but most mornings are spent out with the campers. He often stops at the WestEnd Café, where the sponsors-only morning hours are an opportunity to meet with the adult guests and sponsors.
After treating me to an iced coffee, he talked about how valuable the time with sponsors is for developing relationships with leaders. These relationships are critical for healthy cooperation with church partners. It looked like he was very successful, since it seemed like he knew everyone in the café.
The director of Falls Creek has a long to-do list. It is not always fun in the sun. Not only does he work for the camp in the heat of the summer, but also year-round. Falls Creek campgrounds are often used as a center for conferences throughout the seasons, and Swain is the man on the radio making sure everyone ends up where they belong.
If I ever find myself face to face with any camp staff member, there is always one go to question I make sure to ask: what is your mission? Last week, chef Don Brown said his mission is to serve his staff. When I asked Swain, he told me this: “The mission of the BGCO is to develop a partnership with the churches in our state. I think mine is the same thing. We have hundreds of churches in our state. The majority of them only know one camp, and that’s Falls Creek. And that’s a partnership not easily divided.”
If you want to go even further Behind the Creek, you can do so on Twitter by following @BehindtheCreek. Also, keep your eyes peeled for special web video blogs of my visits at www.youtube.com/BehindtheCreek.
Mason Phillips is Falls Creek correspondent for the Baptist Messenger.