Storm-hit Camp Joy offers faith so youth might dig free of sin’s rubble

Tim Walterbach, left, Camp Joy director, talks with Ace Stafford, youth director, at a fundraiser Saturday.

“If you don’t have Christ, your life is without a compass. If you don’t have Christ, you don’t live. You merely exist.”

— Rev. Jeremy Roberts, Highland Park Baptist church

The poor man lives in an eternal present, from moment to moment. If he has a sense of the future, it is something that is dictated by fate and outside of his control. He is someone to whom things occur, and only rarely one who makes things happen.

“Impulse governs his behavior, either because he cannot discipline himself to sacrifice a present for a future satisfaction or because he has no sense of the future,” writes Edward C. Banfield in a classic book. “He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot use immediately he considers valueless. His bodily needs (especially for sex) and his taste for ‘action’ take precedence over everything else — and certainly over any work routine.”

So writes Edward Banfield in The Unheavenly City Revisited, an update of his original 1970 book in which the sociologist examines the pathologies of poverty, inner city crime and gangs.

Poor children reared in evil habits?

The sin problem that Mr. Banfield describes in academic terms with ivory tower-accepted proofs is one that leapfrogs from a current generation to the new. The children reared by abandoned minority women in poor neighborhoods, if not enlightened by the gospel, follow the same pattern of selfishness, violence and covetousness. The influence toward vice is all the stronger if a child has older siblings ensnared by gang rituals, drug profits, vehicular pretentions and ornamental  swag such as F$200 sneakers.

Christianity makes claims about the world that crash headlong into hedonism and the idol of the impulsive moment among residents of U.S. housing projects of Chattanooga. The obvious fount of these claims is the Lord’s Day pulpit where the Word is faithfully preached. A lesser fount includes church and ministries such as Camp Joy, a facility in Harrison that seeks in summertime to draw poor children into the radiance of the gospel.

Operators of the camp that held a fundraiser today feel blessed. But they also have a sense of desperation. The director, Tim Walterbach, and his wife, Ronna, are stepping out “in faith” to run the facility. Camp Joy was blasted by tornado winds in March and lost more than two-thirds of its capacity. It once could accommodate 300 souls, but has fallen on hard times. The price of a new dorm is F$395,000. Holes in walls. Holes in budget.

But the mother church’s desires to serve through Camp Joy are strong.

“Probably the big thing is that we don’t want to be a generic youth camp but have creative ways to reach out to children so some weeks we’ll have special camp just for special needs kids,” says Rev. Jeremy Roberts, pastor at Highland Park. “We’ll have horses to help autistic children learn more effectively. Other weeks we’ll have skateboard camps. Other weeks we’ll have extreme camps where we’ll have an emphasis kids getting to play paintball. Were trying to expand the camp so we can reach different sets of children with the gospel.”

Camp Joy makes painful restart

Christianity has been remarkable for centuries for its desires to bring improvement in the lives of others. Not external improvements, or imposed ones. But those that arise from within. Christianity starts with self-improvement grounded on an awareness of God’s law, man’s fall, personal repentance and a reformation of the soul toward holiness, labor, service, industry and innovation.

An all-encompassing faith drives Christianity to bring the message to individuals, old and young.

Mr. Roberts hopes the camp will expand to let high schools have training camps at the camp, hosted in the dorms with cooking done by camp staff. Highland Park Baptist plans to move to a hilltop overlooking Camp Joy.

Jeremy Roberts

I mention Mr. Banfield’s thesis to Tim Walterbach, Camp Joy’s director, and propose that the gospel claims a solution. He agrees.

“There’s a verse in the Psalms that comes to mind. Those who hate me love death. Jesus came to give life and to give it more abundantly. And in Christ, if you can introduce [young people] through sharing like Jesus did, to incarnate among them, to live where they’re at, to show you’re there for them no matter, when they act up, when they’re doing right, you’re there, immovable, just as God is with us; they begin to walk in wisdom and they begin to get all the blessings of wisdom: Life, and peace, and wealth, and all the things that Proverbs promises to those who live according to his ways. And we’ve seen life changed around because of that.”

What the state can’t offer, Christianity does

Mr. Walterbach says the element of personal and biblical transformation is missing from humanistic and statist forms of charity and welfare.

Is the camp is an assault on the short-term framework of existence that Mr. Banfield describes in The Unheavenly City? I ask. “That’s right. I cannot control the outside events of the world, beyond being salt and light. But here, we can create ‘thy kingdom come, on earth, as it is in heaven.’ When you get these young men and young women into an atmosphere of love, and righteousness, mercy and truth in a balance, you create a little slice of heaven, and you begin to transform a culture.

“That’s what the government can’t do. It can’t change a person’s soul. It can’t change who they are. You can have all the government programs and all the goodwill in combatting — of the gang-related problems. The reason those kids are in gangs is because ultimately they are seeking love; they are seeking identity, they are seeking protection, they are seeking resources. And we’ve got to be that for them.

“We are a ministry of the Church,” Mr. Walterbach says. “And there is no greater calling, no higher  good, what James talks about in James 1:27, ‘Pure religion and undefiled before God is to visit the fatherless.’ If you look that word up, ‘visit’ — it means to get to know. I take it to make a plan, to have a plan for these kids’ lives. We can’t affect everything. But we can create a culture here that’s what a kid’s looking for; it can be found right here.”

Is Camp Joy just going after stragglers? What about heads of households — the children’s families? “There’s an equation in a parent’s mind,” Mr. Walterbach said. “If you love my kid, ergo, you love me. I have found when we can help a single parent, a mother whose teenage child is uncontrollable, and he comes home transformed, we’ve helped her. And they come along, and they start helping, and they’re more open to the local church coming and helping, and bringing them along, so they see Jesus as the answer.”

Camp’s glory days still ahead?

Though Camp Joy has fallen into a bad state, donors have been generous. During the fundraiser today that involved more than 50 people, bulldozers rumbled about outside. Mr. Walterbach hopes God will bless his efforts just as He did at the organization’s founding.

For decades Camp Joy has been a Chattanooga fixture. It was launched in 1946 by fundamentalist Baptist minister Dr. Lee Roberson of Highland Park Baptist church near Chickamauga Lake in Harrison on land purchased for F$3,000 at a TVA auction. Though Dr. Roberson gave an acceptable bid, apparently the only one, he didn’t have the money and begged leave to have 30 days in which to raise it. “Where God guides, He provides,” as he often said. Donations covered the amount, and TVA later allowed the camp use of 20 additional acres.

The camp website says more than 128,000 children have passed through, with more than 28,000 souls converted. From among the boys who attended, 1,700 became ministers. In 2011 1,260 children had attended, with nearly four of five receiving full scholarships.

Largely unscathed from the March tornado was the skating rink. The camp is on Hunter Road in Harrison.