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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Four families from the Northern Hills…
DEADWOOD, S.D. — Revving engines of Harleys, Yamahas and Kawasakis are the first clue you’re getting close to Black Hills Bible Camp.
For a half-century, the youth and family camp has brought together members of Churches of Christ during the same week as the world-famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
“It’s a little piece of heaven,” said Dustri Brown, 33, who met her future husband, Lance, at the Bible camp when she was 9 and he was 8. “You’re singing and praising God. The worldly things don’t matter. It’s the joy of being together with fellow Christians.”
Mount RushmoreEach August, the motorcycle rally attracts an estimated 500,000 people to the southwestern region of South Dakota — and thousands of bikers cruise U.S. Highway 385 near the turnoff for the camp.
About 15 minutes south of Deadwood — around the time you see a green sign that says Mount Rushmore is 39 miles away — you reach a gravel road shrouded by yellow pines that stretch 80 to 100 feet high.
Four miles of bumpy twists and turns inside the Black Hills National Forest lead you past an outdoor swimming hole, over a little bridge and — finally — to the kitchen, the chapel and the wooden cabins that serve as the weeklong home for nearly 200 Christians from the Dakotas and nine other states.
From the campers, you hear conflicting stories about why Black Hills Bible Camp always coincides with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Bikers on U.S. Highway 385 pass the gravel road leading to Black Hills Bible Camp. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Some say the camp started as a way to provide a wholesome activity for young Christians during a time of drinking and debauchery. Others say it’s simply a convenient week for church members — young and old — to get away.
“This is just a crazy week. You get nothing done anyway,” Jerry Savage said of the motorcycle activity that deluges this mostly rural state where normally you can drive for hours and see nothing but cattle, sunflowers and golden fields.
Savage helped direct Black Hills Bible Camp for more than a dozen years while serving as minister for the Northern Hills Church of Christ in nearby Spearfish, S.D.
While living in the area, Savage and his wife, La Von, rented out their home to tattooed, leather-jacket-clad bikers while at camp. The Northern Hills church, meanwhile, opened its doors to Jesus-loving bikers.
“You see them, and you think Hells Angels,” Savage said. “But really, they’re lawyers and doctors and guys just wanting to live a little differently for the week.”
Now, Savage preaches for the League Street Church of Christ in Sulphur Springs, Texas. But he and his wife still make a regular pilgrimage to the Black Hills — drawn by close-knit Christians who keep the faith despite serving in mostly small, isolated congregations.
“These people are really strong spiritually,” he said. “They are really dedicated. You’ve got to be, up here.”
Bikers visit Mount Rushmore, the iconic national memorial where the faces of four U.S. presidents are carved into granite, during the recent Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
WILDFIRES AND MOUNTAIN LIONS
At the campground, the roar of the motorcycles fades into a soft rumble.
Much easier to hear is the sound of the rushing wind through the pine needles and the voices of Christians who gather inside the chapel — and outside at a fire pit — to sing praises to God.
“I heard a weird, howling noise down at the campfire last year,” said Austin Powers, 29, Dustri Brown’s younger brother and a longtime camp attendee who now brings his wife, Breann, and 6-year-old son, Riley. “Maybe it was Bigfoot. Or it could have been crazy bikers in the woods.”
Lance and Dustri Brown, with daughters Evahri and Eyiah, first met as children attending Black Hills Bible Camp. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Overnight, fire watch volunteers are necessary because of drought conditions and the need to warn campers if a spark erupts. While taking her turn at that duty, Rose Volden said she can see deer eyes glowing and hear owls hooting.
“There are mountain lions out here,” said Volden, a member of the 41st Street Church of Christ in Sioux Falls, S.D., on the other side of the state. “I don’t want to meet one.”
Holden and fellow camper Norma Hamm serve as bunkhouse inspectors, making sure beds are made and floors swept in the young people’s living spaces. They give awards for the cleanest cabins and make up silly songs to keep the mood light.
Campers exchange hugs during a morning chapel session. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)Volden was baptized at Black Hills Bible Camp in 1998 — the first year she came at the invitation of a friend, Betty Johnson, a fellow member of the 41st Street church. Volden studied the Bible with minister Randy Hayes, a longtime Black Hills camper from Imperial, Neb., and was immersed under the stars.
If enough rain falls to ease wildfire concerns, camp leaders light a bonfire for the late-night singing.
No one worries about a cell phone ringing during the praise time. That’s because phone service disappears along the gravel road.
“It’s cool weather and no distractions,” said Frank Powers, 79, grandfather of Dustri Brown and Austin Powers and the oldest of four generations of his Kansas family who make the camp their second home. “You see all your friends that show up again, and you’ve got a whole year to catch up on.”
Black Hills Bible Camp began in 1968. The first year, attendance totaled 116. Campers paid $15.50 each to spend a week at Camp Old Broadaxe in Nemo, S.D. (This year, the price tag was $170.)
Albert Harty serves as Black Hills Bible Camp’s historian. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)In 1972, the event moved to Camp Mallo in Four Corners, Wyo. Mallo served as the campground for three-plus decades, except for 1978 to 1980 when a fire caused by lightning burned down the main lodge. During those three years, Cedar Canyon Camp in Rapid City, S.D., housed the Bible camp. The number of campers hit 271 in 1996. (This year, attendance was closer to 175.)
In 2005, organizers began leasing the current campsite from an organization called Kinship Mountain Ministries. This year marked the 11th year at the Kinship site — and the 49th year overall. Next summer, a golden anniversary celebration/reunion with the theme “Come Home” is planned.
Albert Harty, who wears black suspenders and a John Deere cap, serves as Black Hills Bible Camp’s historian.
Harty first came to the Bible camp in 1972 after a minister named Phil Potter introduced him to Jesus. Potter, who preached for the Sturgis Church of Christ, directed the camp in its early years and enlisted Harty’s help.
“When I was a new Christian, this was the most important event outside of worship and fellowship of the church I had been involved in,” said Harty, who works in construction and preaches for the eight-member Twin Cities Church of Christ in nearby Lead, S.D.
PANCAKES, EGGS — AND BIBLE TALK
By 7:25 a.m., the kitchen crew is already busy at work, flipping 350 pancakes and cracking open 24 dozen eggs.
Debra Hardison, a Northern Hills church member, pours glasses of orange juice, grape juice and water.
Camp director Silas Fitzsimmons rings the bell for the morning devotional. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)For Hardison, Black Hills Bible Camp has been a tradition since 1983. Her three children, now adults, grew up at the camp.
“When you’re out here and there’s not a lot of churches around — not a lot of Christian kids — this is what they need,” she said.
Todd and Jennifer Alpers have brought their children — Luke, 17; Sam, 15; and Anna, 10 — for the last nine years. For Todd Alpers, a member of the Stafford Church of Christ in Kansas, the best part is casual time spent visiting with fellow Christians.
“It’s a life-changing experience just to share everybody’s stories. Everybody is sitting around with their Bible open,” said Alpers, who loves discussing the Scriptures with campers such as Calvin Chapman, preacher for the Church of Christ in Faith, S.D.
At 8 a.m., camp director Silas Fitzsimmons rings the bell by the kitchen. That signals that it’s time for the devotional before breakfast.
“The thing that is unique is that it’s both a youth camp and a family camp. It’s intergenerational,” said Fitzsimmons, campus minister for the Northern Hills church. “You have all these students doing activities, and the adults are right there with them.”
Campers gather for a morning devotional at Black Hills Bible Camp. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
‘YOU SEE JESUS ALL OVER THE CAMP’
Steve Tucker, the camp board’s president, said he likes the secluded atmosphere.
Tucker and his wife, Rachel, own a farm along the Nebraska-Colorado border and drive 30-plus miles to worship with the Ogallala Church of Christ in Nebraska. They have four children: Michael, 20; Tyler, 13; Kylie, 12; and Trevyn, 8. The entire family looks forward to camp.
“You see people laughing like they’ve never laughed before,” Steve Tucker said. “You see people serving like they’ve never served before. … You see Jesus all over the camp — all the time.”
Steve Tucker, pictured with wife Rachel, serves as the camp board’s president. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
Caleb Renken, 15, a member of the Sioux Center Church of Christ in Iowa, said he enjoys the “flour war” at the end of camp as well as the opportunities to sing crazy, wacky songs throughout the week.
“I love it here,” Renken said. “It’s hard to put it into words. … You can express yourself spiritually and emotionally without being judged by anyone.”
Brianna HuotBrianna Huot, 17, a member of the Vermillion Church of Christ in South Dakota, said she likes the camp’s zipline and the morning chapel assembly.
“You get to know people and make new friends,” Huot said. “From my perspective, it’s just really beautiful to hear all the singing and voices coming together.”
Year after year, Harty witnesses the spiritual growth of children who enjoy games, crafts, swimming and, yes, lots of Bible study and worship. He has watched many grow up and return with their own children and even their grandchildren. Each summer brings new baptisms in the camp pond.
“It’s absolutely an encouraging and unifying event,” Harty said. “We all get together and renew our Christian ties and friendships. There is nothing that has kept me from serving and attending the Bible camp.”
William Lewis reads his Bible during a quiet moment at Black Hills Bible Camp. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)
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