Rural Church Centers Encourage Reflection


by Frances Stebbins

With summer upon us, it’s a good time to visit one of the several conference centers maintained nearby by churches to encourage spiritual reflection in adults as well as outdoor recreation in children and youth. Although these rural shrines are usually a financial drag on the regional bodies that own them –and some have closed for that reason–several others remain open.

I recently had an opportunity to visit two of these centers, Craig Springs Camp and Conference Center owned by the Virginia Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the Phoebe Needles Center, a ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. I’ve also been several times to Camp Bethel of the Church of the Brethren in Botetourt County, Camp Alta Mons owned by United Methodists near Shawsville and Jubilee Acres, The Rescue Mission’s retreat  at the foot of Catawba Mountain..

Fifty years ago such centers were growing in popularity with many religious groups as the population of young people swelled and there were fewer technological toys to occupy them. At the same time several old resorts where people from the hot flatlands  used to come to enjoy mineral spring waters in the mountains became available for sale. Both the Disciples and the Methodist retreat centers have this origin. The Episcopal center in the western mountainous part of Franklin County was once an elementary school built of native stone which served children who could not otherwise get an education.

These nearby centers complement more elaborate complexes such as Massanetta, Eagle Eyrie and Roslyn where accommodations are more like those of modern motels and where older church members, as well as camping children, can be comfortable for overnight stays.

The Disciples of Christ state facility deep in Craig County off Route 311 used to be known as Craig Healing Springs. The old spring in a picturesque gazebo is still there along with lodging places dating to the 19th Century. There are many old cottages too, some of which are maintained by congregations throughout the Virginia region; they are good places for family reunions and adult retreats. A few couples have married there.

The Disciples from throughout the state were out in force at the old resort the first week in June to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the church’s acquiring the more than 450 acres of mountain land with the run-down buildings. Today many of the structures are still there, evoking a by-gone era. but much improved. The church keeps the camp open only from June through August, for its size and upkeep in the remote area take constant work which is mostly accomplished during weekends by volunteers and local young persons paid minimum wages.

It’s a vehicle for outreach as well as outdoor education for  children, its manager Alisha Bennett told me. The region sponsors camps for people with intellectual disabilities and for those who could not afford the fun of the experience.Despite the work and the cost the churches have affirmed the worth of the camp, at least for the present,

At the other end of the Roanoke area, between Callaway and Ferrum in Franklin County, the Phoebe Needles Center offers a year-round monthly program for senior adults as well as camping for teens and children during the summer months. The old stone school building will be renovated in the future to make it more comfortable for those who can’t climb steps, but in the meantime a lodge with view of the mountains, a dining room and meeting hall is well suited to day programs.Summer campers sleep in a new dormitory.

The program for older people–around 55 and up–includes a speaker at 10 a.m. followed by lunch from noon to 1. Food is an excellent buffet.

I was blessed on my visits to both Craig and Franklin with beautiful sunny days making the short trips to the country a pleasure in themselves. At the Episcopal center I heard three local  writers describe and read from their work. One, Dan Smith, an editor and now author of five paperbacks, was my colleague 25 years ago at the Roanoke daily paper. The other two, Becky Mushko and Sally Rosevere, are active writers of retirement age who live in the Smith Mountain Lake area. They belong to a writers’ club, critique each other’s work and pass on tips to getting regional work of fiction and non-fiction published.

As a lifeling writer myself–though chiefly seen in newspapers–I found informative the authors’ comments on the commercial side of writing. If a big commercial publisher isn’t interested in your work –and the competition is far more fierce than amateurs and beginners imagine–there are plenty of ways to get it distributed on your own.You’ll have to spend your own money though, and some “vanity publishers”–those you pay to put your work in an attractive format for others to buy–are not all honest. Serious reviewers,such as those who work for major newspapers and magazines, don’t even consider self-published work. I, like many other writers, learned this long ago.

But the three who enlightened about 50 of us at the relaxing center in the mountains enjoy their community of other aspirants and have achieved their own success. Folk tales, childrens’ stories, mysteries and memoirs from their fingers please their friends, families and often a wider readership.

Despite changing needs, the church centers are still a valuable resource in our area.