Louisville, KY

Brian Frick, associate for Camp and Conference Ministries at Presbyterian Mission Agency has a story to tell about a disaster, a compassionate response and ultimately, transformation.

It began with a storm on Saturday, June 9, 2012. Lightning raced across the Colorado sky, igniting the High Park fire that burned for more than three weeks, destroying 259 homes and scorching 136 square miles of land in its path.

In the midst of the coming firestorm, two directors of camp and conference centers were having a conversation about their respective ministries. Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Maria Shupe of Highlands Camp and Retreat Center was visiting with her Lutheran (E.L.C.A.) friend Brad Abbott at Sky Ranch. Having just finished training their staffs, they were talking about another summer of camping ministry, and looking up at the smoke from the fire looming on the horizon.

Preparing to leave, Shupe said to Abbott, “Let me know if you need anything.”

The next morning, on Sunday, campers began to arrive at Sky Ranch. On Monday everything seemed to be OK — they were told they wouldn’t have to evacuate. But at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday, Abbott received these words from fire emergency officials: “You have one hour to get everyone out of camp.”

The Sky Ranch counselors and leadership staff scurried about, getting everyone on emergency buses that took them to Trinity Lutheran Church in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“Trinity and three other congregations fed and clothed them,” Frick said. “They even provided the counselors and staff with basic toiletries. The staff had been so frantic focused on caring for campers, they forgot to pack for themselves.”

That was when Abbott remembered Shupe’s words: “Let me know if you need anything.” Knowing that camp was just starting at Highlands, he hesitated to call, but then picked up the phone. In the ensuing conversation, Shupe invited him to hold Sky Ranch summer camp at Highlands. “It’s what we are called to do,” Shupe said. “We had the space; we knew we could find a way to run both camps side by side.”

“That decision is what the future of camp and conference ministry looks like,” exclaims Frick. “Not all of our centers will be asked to host another camp, but they all have gifts and resources that can be shared in ways that lift up the body of Christ in ways that strengthen each other’s ministries.”

Ironically — or was it providential? — the Bible study for Wednesday night when the Sky Ranch campers arrived was from Luke 11:5–8, the parable that tells the story of a friend awakening another friend at midnight, seeking provision of three loaves of bread. “That Scripture verse really set the tone for our campers to welcome the Sky Ranch campers,” Shupe said. “It really opened the door as our Presbyterian campers heard the word of a neighbor in need, and responded by living it out.”

Both Shupe and Abbott knew that running two camps at one site would be quite a feat. Overnight, Highlands doubled the number of campers, staff, food, programming, space needs, worship and more. “We assigned a staff member to work out those logistics,” said Shupe, “so that Brad and I could focus on communication and the needs of each camper.”  

“That’s how we made it work,” added Abbott. “Highlands sharing their resources with us, and our staffs working together, was never an issue.”

There were also financial implications to consider. For three weeks, Highlands fed and housed campers and staff they hadn’t prepared for. Sky Ranch paid for the food and housing they would normally provide for themselves, which didn’t cover all of the expenses. Abbott visited Highlands with checks totaling more than $40,000 from their insurance. “We won’t be able to repay all of the expenditures to host us,” he said, “but we are determined to do all we can to defray our costs.” Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and Lutheran Disaster Services  also provided a combined $13,000 to the camps.

“We all need to meet budget,” said Shupe, “but God has a way of making things work, if it’s what we are called to. In spite of the shortfall, we continue to be blessed by people donating to Highlands when they hear this story.”

Bear at Sky Ranch

Sky Ranch discovered bears leaving their ktichen when they returned after being evacuated from fire —Courtesy: Sky Ranch

While the fire did not cause any damage to Sky Ranch, roads to the camp were used as holding lines by firefighters, forcing closure of the camp for three weeks. When Abbott returned to Sky Ranch through the charred landscape, he was amazed to see the property green and untouched. But as he approached the lodge, he saw a bear climb out of the kitchen window and run away through a side door. The bears left behind a huge mess and extensive damage, including a busted water pipe that dumped 10,000 gallons of water into the lower lodge. 

“When we reopened on July 8, our summer theme was ‘Everyday Grace.’ Evacuating and relocating to Highlands gave us incredible examples of grace in action,” said Abbott. “We learned, while the place of Sky Ranch is important, we really are about relationships. Sky Ranch can happen anywhere. That’s a lesson we won’t soon forget.”

“Our staff was so grateful to experience firsthand what it means to be open and hospitable, even when it was inconvenient,” Shupe said.  

“I love telling these kinds of stories,” said Frick. “They inspire me to encourage our camp and conference centers to look beyond what has always been, to future ministry opportunities that always come our way in the midst of the storm of change.”