Oh, Heavenly Days

Story Jan Swoope | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

For 51 weeks of the year, the tranquil woods of Tabernacle Campground are home to curious birds and squirrels. They live among the tall pines and oaks, keeping watch over a gentle rise known as the “hill of the Lord.” But for one week every summer, the rural retreat blooms into life when the Tabernacle faithful return for an old-fashioned, week-long camp meeting.

Editorial photo of Tabernacle Camp Meeting by Whitten Sabbatini

As they have done each summer for 185 years, the members of Tabernacle United Methodist Church flock to their ancient campground for a celebration of faith, family and food.

The phenomenon dates back 185 years, to 1828, when Robert Henry and Burrell Joyner happened to meet while out hunting. Their families became fast friends and got together every year for worship and fellowship. It was the start of a tradition that would withstand wars, fires and the Great Depression.

This annual homecoming takes place on the outskirts of Columbus, on the grounds of Tabernacle United Methodist Church, just a mile east of the Alabama
state line in Ethelsville.

Families no longer arrive in wagons or by horseback, leading mules loaded down with pots, pans and live chickens. These days, they come in cars, trucks and even a few motor homes.

They don’t sleep in actual tents any more, but the permanent, primitive cabins surrounding the central open-air worship pavilion called the Brush Arbor are still referred to as “tents” by those in the know. It’s a habit, as well as a tribute to the past.

The camp meeting is a non-denominational, multi-generational revival and family reunion in one, open to everyone. Worship services take place three times each day, when camp-goers who have set up temporary households, along with those who can get away from town for even a couple of hours, come together in the Brush Arbor to reconnect with faith and family in a bond as old as time.

Frances Lawrence has earned the right to call herself the “oldest chick on the hill.” At 94, she has “never missed a one” and still makes homemade rolls every day of camp meeting.

“Miss Frances,” as she’s known, has been an alert eyewitness to more than half of the campground’s near two-century history. She remembers the first summer with electricity, in 1939, and when a wagon would roll through the campground selling fresh beef for 10 cents a pound. Roast was 5 cents. “I came to my first one even before I was actually born,” she says proudly. “I’ve been coming 94 years and don’t need to stop now.”

Editorial photo of Tabernacle Camp Meeting by Whitten Sabbatini

As her mother did before her, Anne Prickett Taylor blows the conch shell that calls camp-goers to morning, afternoon and evening worship services held daily.

Ann Prickett Taylor is another of several who are happy to say they’ve never missed a camp meeting in their lifetime. The energetic 80-year-old lives in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Her footfalls make no sound on the sawdust floor of her family’s rustic cabin, passed down through generations. She paces the breezeway, making note of chores to be done to get it ready for this summer’s meeting when it will house up to 16 people. There are always spiderwebs to eradicate, shelves to wash down and stoves and four refrigerators to clean. Floral curtains serve as doors for the many bedrooms. Insulated wiring intertwines overhead. They fuel the bare light bulbs and, most importantly, multiple fans that will see everyone through a week of Mississippi summer in the country.

The camp meeting is rooted in traditions. One is the call of the conch shell to daily services, hearkening back to the days when a ram’s horn was blown. The honor falls to Taylor, who blows a cherished shell that has been in her family for as long as she can remember; it’s been in her family for more than 100 years.
“My mother blew it until she wasn’t able to,” Taylor explains. “I value it very highly, to know that it was hers, and now it’s mine. I just see it as a legacy to pass on.”

While camp meeting accommodations may lack some creature comforts, there is nothing missing when it comes to good eating. Taylor’s grown grandkids even joke they keep coming back for the four basic food groups — chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, homemade biscuits and pot roast.

Most cabins have a big, communal dining area, where friends are as likely to share the table as family members at any given meal.

Editorial photo of Tabernacle Camp Meeting by Whitten Sabbatini

Music is a major part of gatherings at the Brush Arbor. Linda Duston, holding a hymnal, stands for a song.

In between three daily worship services, ball games, scavenger hunts, the ritual walk to the state line, a watermelon-eating contest and community-wide potluck dinner and ice cream social, folks convene on front “porches” — usually sawdust plots in front of their cabins, with plenty of chairs, swings and, of course, cooling fans. “It’s kind of an outdoor community,” says Taylor. “You go to your porch; you visit next door or across the way.”

And then, there are the kids’ Campground Olympics, complete with a mighty tug-of-war for campground supremacy and prized medals. In 8-year-old Maggie Sansing’s opinion, “The Olympics are the best! The grown-ups have all these fun things for us, like a water slide. But the most fun is learning about God.”
Maggie’s little brother, 6-year-old Hays, is an Olympian, too, but gets as much enjoyment from catching frogs at night with his friends. They’re good for chasing girls.

Their parents, Lauri Sharp Sansing and Ashley Sansing, are 36 and 38, respectively. They’re part of the next generation that will guide the camp meeting’s future. Both have busy careers; Lauri is nursing director at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. Ashley is a project manager and estimator with APAC.

Editorial photo of Tabernacle Camp Meeting by Whitten Sabbatini

Hays Sansing, in shark swim trunks, and Solomon Smith give it all they’ve got to cheer teammates to the finish line during the Campground Olympics water relay.

Like her grandmother and mother before her, Lauri was raised as a camp meeting kid. She wants the same for her children. “Out there, you’re away from the busyness of the world, to enjoy God’s nature and peace and get his word in a time when life seems to have us just rushing back and forth,” she shares. Many camp-goers return from distant locales each summer to let their children experience what they did, she adds. “It’s a hidden treasure so many people aren’t aware of.”

She encourages visitors from any denomination to come see what it’s all about. “We welcome everyone. Some come from Catholic families, some from Baptist and Methodist and Presbyterian, but the point is for everybody to get together to spend time in fellowship. It’s just an awesome time,” she remarks.

Like many who work, it’s difficult for her husband, Ashley, to attend daytime camp activities, but he makes a point of spending every night there in the family cabin. He didn’t grow up coming to camp meeting, but he’s a convert now.
“At first, until I married Lauri, I really didn’t understand it — like putting up

Editorial photo of Tabernacle Camp Meeting by Whitten Sabbatini

Sam Smith, wearing No. 58, takes a breath during the watermelon-eating contest at the 2012 Tabernacle Camp Meeting in Ethelsville, Ala.

with all that heat, and you just about have to climb a tree for cell service,” he smiles. “But now I look forward to it. It’s so peaceful, and the preachers they bring in are wonderful. I like watching my kids grow up there, just like Lauri did.”

The couple sees the camp meeting’s destiny as bright. “As long as I’m living, it will never stop; it’s that important,” vows Lauri, who chairs this summer’s 185th anniversary meeting July 27 through August 4. That commitment, shared by so many others, will keep the faithful coming back to the “hill of the Lord” for generations to come.

“Some people wonder why we do it,” the 94-year-old Lawrence says, “but old habits die hard, and it’s just part of our way of life.”