GALLANT, Ala. — Camp Sumatanga has meant Bible stories and softball games for generations of Methodist families. Young and old alike come to the old church retreat for renewal in its quiet coves and chapels.
Today, though, the 1,700-acre retreat is in danger of shutting down.
Nestled in the Appalachian foothills, it’s among hundreds of church camps nationwide that are on the critical list. Years of declining usage and the recession have forced administrators to consider closing or cutting services.
The president of the Christian Camp and Conference Association, Bob Kobielush, said dozens of camps nationwide ceased operating in the last three years, and this could be the last summer for many more.
“I think this fall through Christmas we will see as many as 10 to 15 percent of camps decide they no longer can continue operating,” said Kobielush, whose organization has about 950 member camps. He estimates there are about 3,000 church-affiliated camps nationwide.
Leaders say Camp Sumatanga, operated by the United Methodist Church in north Alabama, could close at the end of the summer without $300,000 to make up a budget deficit. The possibility worries longtime visitors like Carol Glover, of Trussville.
Glover, 47, fondly recalls summers at the camp as a youth, and her 7-year-old son Kent now enjoys hiking there. Glover’s ties to Sumatanga run still deeper: Her 70-year-old mother, Anita Alldredege, helped raise money to build Sumatanga when she was young.
“The feeling of godliness is everywhere at Camp Sumatanga. It’s so peaceful, quiet and beautiful,” said Glover. “You can really feel God’s presence.”
Not enough people are sharing in the experience to make the camp economically viable, however.
“What we offer here is quiet, a place to be quiet,” said the Rev. Bob Murray, a former banker who has worked as director at Sumatanga for 18 months. “Not everyone values that as much as they once did.”
Construction began in 1948 at Sumatanga, located about 55 miles northeast of Birmingham. Religious camps were being built all over the country around the same time as World War II veterans started families and Christian churches flourished.
“There was a period of huge growth,” said Kobielush, who estimated that as many as 70 percent of the nation’s church camps were built in the late ’40s and 1950s.
The Baby Boom turned into a bust for the camps, though, and many began losing visitors as religious denominations began contracting, TV replaced the campfire and kids’ schedules were filled with Little League practices, music lessons and dance recitals. Declining revenues meant renovations and repairs never happened at many camps as they aged, Kobielush said.
Rather than relying solely on summer youth camps for revenue when bills had to be paid yearround, many camps built nice retreat centers to lure adults for church conferences and other gatherings.
At Sumatanga, the summer camp program for children and youth is healthy, leaders say. The money problems are linked mainly to sparse usage by adults and groups during the rest of the year.
Other U.S. church camps are having a tough year, too.
In Minnesota last month, directors of a 50-year-old United Church of Christ camp, Pilgrim Point, voted to close after summer because of declining use and the collapse of financial markets, which slashed its income from endowments. Supporters hope to save the camp through fundraising, but its future is cloudy.
Presbyterians in West Virginia this year formed a nonprofit group to support Bluestone Camp & Retreat, which also was threatened with closure.
The situation is brighter at Lake Yale Baptist Conference Center, located in central Florida, but the camp is facing an operating deficit this year, said director Don Sawyer.
“The economy is affecting everyone,” said Sawyer, president of the Southern Baptist Camping Association. “The larger (camps) may have to do some cutbacks and find ways to streamline things, but I don’t think they’re in danger of closing.”
No one knew how bad things had gotten at Sumatanga until recently.
A study that began last year after Murray’s appointment revealed a $300,000 annual budget deficit and a 30 percent drop in visitors since 2000. When the economy worsened, both churches and other groups quit coming as often, making the situation worse.
With a new business manager and the camp’s first-ever marketing director in place, managers at Camp Sumatanga are trying to improve services, renovate facilities and increase reservations, particularly at its modern, 62-room retreat center.
They’re also overseeing a long-term capital campaign and an emergency fundraising drive that has brought in $125,000 just to keep the doors open beyond summer.
“Every bit of money that comes in buys us a little more time,” said marketing director Bart Styes, who is preparing to move to a job in a Birmingham-area church while searching for a replacement at the camp. “Ultimately this money is a Band-Aid; it’s not fixing the problem. We’ve got to get more people here.”
Rebecca Anne Renshaw Brooks, 33, is pulling for the old camp. A resident now of Washington state, she grew up in Alabama and has fond memories of what it meant to her as a youth.
“I was an outcast, a loner in school,” she said. “But when you’re at camp, it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what you look like, or anything else that plagues kids day to day. We all come together as one in that place.”