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Camping with God


Summer in the United States is a time for swimming at the beach, hiking in the mountains -- and for thousands of people, getting closer to God. They do this at so-called "camp meetings." These are outdoor religious revivals that usually last for several days. The practice dates back to the 18th century, and camp meetings today are still serving many of the same functions they did more than 200 years ago.

America's historical landscape is dotted with prominent and charismatic religious leaders. The Methodist itinerant preacher George Whitefield, for example, captured the attention of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, who admired the minister's "well-tuned voice."

In the 19th century, evangelist Dwight Moody was said to have preached to more than 100 million people - among them, Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant. And more recently, the Reverend Billy Graham drew nearly 250,000 to a camp meeting in a New York City park last month.

Here in the mountains of rural Pennsylvania, about 80,000 people have gathered to hear the words of Dan Owens, who has been described by Christianity Today magazine as one of the world's 50 most "up-and-coming" evangelists.

"I gotta confess today, I don't relate very well with the great Apostle Paul," Reverend Owens plainly tells the crowd. "I mean, he was a single guy; I'm a married guy. And he was very intelligent, the Apostle Paul, and I'm not. He was an orator, he was a statesman, he was an evangelist, he was an amazing man - and I don't always relate to him. But when it comes to the disciples of Jesus, then I relate to those guys."

In the early 1800s, many Americans -especially those on the frontier -- lived too far away from town to attend church on a regular basis. Camp meetings -- or what are sometimes referred to as "summer revivals" -- were a special opportunity for them to get together and remind themselves of what it meant to be Christian.

Nowadays, it is fairly easy for Americans to get to a church, regardless of where they live. But according to Reverend Harry Thomas, who has been organizing this revival in Pennsylvania since 1979, American Christians today - particularly the young ones - live an isolated life on a different kind of frontier. "People get, for lack of a better term, 'revived,'" he says, when talking about his camp meeting. "They come here, they say, 'Wow, there's 70,000 young kids here, worshipping God. You know, this encourages me when I'm back at my high school, and there's only three of us that have any relationship with God at all.'"

Modern-day camp meetings are not all that different from the ones that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. The crowds have gotten a little bigger, perhaps, thanks to the microphones and speakers -- although, believe it or not, George Whitefield actually preached in the 1740s to crowds that were as big as 30,000.

The climax of any camp meeting is something known as an "altar call." After a preacher like Dan Owens has reminded his listeners of Christianity's most basic beliefs, he will often call upon people in the audience to "re-dedicate" themselves to Christ. "I'd like to lead you in a time of rededication this morning," he announces, before beginning a group prayer that asks Jesus to forgive the audience for getting distracted from God sometimes by the daily routine of life.

As the amens die down, Dan Owens asks those in the audience who have re-dedicated themselves to raise their hands. "Wave them across back and forth," he tells them. "Praise the Lord. Hallelujah. Heaven rejoices." He then directs the audience to a prayer tent. "I would ask you even right now to leave where you're standing and let's just go over to the prayer tent to pray. We've got some stuff we want to give you, some literature we want to give you."

As hundreds of people head over to the prayer tent, dozens of ministers are there to meet them. Speaking about the future, a minister tells a young woman who has walked up to him, "You're gonna say to yourself, 'Is this real? Did this really happen? Did this commitment really matter to me?'" The woman nods as he advises her. "That's when you need to get your Bible," the minister says.

A few of the people participating in the altar call are new to the Christian faith --not that they are coming from some other faith tradition; they just have not had much exposure to religion at all. They came to the revival with a friend, perhaps, just to see what it was all about.

But the overwhelming majority of people in the prayer tent are like Andy Figueroa, 18, who belongs to a church in Puerto Rico. "You know, I had given my life to Christ before. But I would like to start over new," he says. "It just feels really great to recommit my life and to ask God for forgiveness for getting caught up in other things, like - I don't know -- school or girlfriends. All that stuff that sometimes tends to take your focus away."

Regaining one's focus is ultimately what a camp meeting is all about. For Andy Figueroa in 2005, schoolwork and girlfriends distract him from his faith. In the 1880s, when Dwight Moody was preaching, most of the teenaged boys in the audience probably had the same problem. And even the late, great George Whitefield admitted to being a "romance-reader" who engaged in "filthy talking" before he sought out the fellowship of other Christians and gained inspiration from them.

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