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In the Florida wilds, they taught others about God
Above the mantel in A.T. and Doris Brown’s living room is a painting a friend did of the river that ran through the church camp they used to run in Florida.
The painting, by Ruth Armstrong, depicts a wild sort of place, with swampy embankments of hanging moss and trees hanging over the Alafia River. To people used to the Swannanoa and French Broad rivers, the scene in the Browns’ Black Mountain home can seem a little intimidating. But to A.T. and Doris, it looks like heaven, a place where people can – and have - come to know God.
Outdoor Christian education is “worship in a different setting,” A.T. said recently, sitting near the painting in a recliner close to his wife. He’s not the preacher type, he said, but he can convey the wonder of God he sees when he’s outside. Through his eyes and the softness of his voice, campers of all ages could open their eyes to the wonders of creation. The wind in the trees, the currents in the river, the fire ants nearby and the golden web spiders in the branches – they form a community not unlike ours, he’d tell them.
Put your ear to the ground, he’d suggest. If you listen, you’ll hear the heartbeat of the universe.
“What you’re really hearing is your own” heartbeat, A.T., a tall man still handsome at 92, said as Doris, 88, watched him from her own recliner. “I just slowed them down enough to listen. Camp is a good place to talk. It’s a good place to find your place in the universe.”
A.T. opened Cedarkirk, a camp in Lithia, Florida not far from Tampa, in 1970. He had already been a camp director, of Glenkirk, an integrated Christian camp in Gainesville, Virginia near Washington, D.C., during the 1960s. The Browns’ nine-and-a-half years there were “very eventful,” he said, partly because of the times. In 1968, many of his older campers and some of his staff joined marchers in the Poor People’s March on Washington, D.C.
Glenkirk hosted lots of inner city kids whose tuition was paid by area high school students who worked odd jobs to raise the money. It was money well spent, A.T. said.
“To see those children adapt and be out in the woods,” he said, starting a thought he didn’t complete. “We would have a candlelight service on the last night of camp. The kids and the counselors were surrounded by candles on paper plates, like their light was going out into the world. The kids didn’t want to leave.”
In 1969, Westminster Presbytery in central Florida asked the Browns if they would consider moving to Florida to find and open a camp there. They agreed, and off they went. They looked at dozens of sites before they found 140 acres on the Alafia River.
The site had all kinds of cedars, oaks and plants that might engage the interest of young campers. It was “perfect,” A.T. said. He described that portion of the Alafia as “the type of river with palm trees that you might see a man with very little clothes on swinging on a vine, like Tarzan.”
Development on the camp – Cedarkirk (literally, “church in the cedars”) - started in 1970. At first there was tent camping only. The other buildings were canvas tents. Campers helped cut trails to the river. The Browns lived in a trailer on site. Doris organized the menus, ordered the food and registered the campers. In an unofficial part of her duties, she mothered homesick campers. She comforted the wives of harried pastors.
“She’s a good listener,” A.T. said as Doris smiled at him. “She’s very loving and very good one-on-one.”
A.T. was more hands-on, telling stories by the campfire, leading big circle dances. He’d have campers walk up to trees to look at them closely – the bark, the branches, the leaves – to see how all the parts fit together and how the trees fit the terrain. He’d suggest the campers listen to the crickets on a path in the woods.
He’d have them lie on their backs on the ballfield at night, looking up at the stars. “And the leader would say a prayer, and the kids would think about the stars and the planets and how God created us just a little lower than angels,” he said. “The universe is a teacher.”
The camp was successful in enrolling young and older campers in part because of the things it did to attract them. On Saturdays in October, A.T. invited junior and high school students from regional churches to build rafts and race them down the river. “Some of the contraptions were really something,” he said, recalling one built from four tractor-trailer tire inner tubes lashed together. Racers from a few dozen churches showed up.
He added chariot races in which campers served as horses to run quarter-mile lengths of the mile-long path around the camp. He introduced river jousting that had campers in canoes paddling toward each other, armed with bamboo poles tipped with pillows. “They would try to push each other out of the river, which succeeded very well,” he said, laughing.
About 1974, a year or two after the lodge had been built, the camp built cabins for its campers and grouped them in a way that reinforced the camp’s mission to promote study, worship, fellowship and service. A.T. wrote much of the study curriculum himself.
After a couple of decades of work and the rearing of three sons, the Browns left Florida to be closer to their grandsons in Kentucky, then soon moved to Greensboro. They retired to Black Mountain in 2006 because they had gotten to know it through the Presbyterian Church’s association with Montreat (their oldest son Chuck is director of the William Brearley House in Montreat). Members of Black Mountain Presbyterian Church, they used to be more involved in the community than they are now. A.T. used to tutor at Williams and Black Mountain elementary schools, and Doris used to volunteer at the Kiwanis Thrift Shop in Black Mountain.
Now they don’t get out so much. Married for 62 years, they spend a lot of time talking sweetly with each other, if a recent visit is any indication. They seem happy with the way their lives turned out.
“When you get close to the end of your life and you ask yourself the question, did you make a difference, Doris and I can say yes, we did,” A.T. said. “We’re thankful we did what we did.”