What I Experienced at West Middlesex

the welcome sign at the entrance to the West Middlesex campground

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a couple of days of the camp meeting at West Middlesex, Pennsylvania. This was the 107th annual gathering of the National Association of the Church of God, and it was my first time to visit this area and attend services on “Zion’s Hill.”

Zion’s Hill is the name given to the hill on which the campground sits. Zion is a biblical reference to Jerusalem, the holy city of God. You can get a sense, just from the name, how people view this place and value the experiences that generations of Christians have shared there. I heard people use the phrase “sacred ground” multiple times during my visit.

Getting to the campground is a pilgrimage, in more ways than one. West Middlesex is in extreme western Pennsylvania, and the campground is a few miles outside of that town. From our hotel room, I drove through the forested Appalachian foothills along winding roads, which were barely wide enough for two vehicles and were not painted with lane markings. Finally, a clearing appeared along Campground Road, and I pulled into a spacious and beautiful area. Past a large and neatly mowed field of grass stands the sanctuary, a large white brick building. Beyond the sanctuary, further up the hill, I saw a number of houses and cabins where people live during the week of the camp meeting.

the sanctuary on Zion’s Hill

One important thing to understand about West Middlesex and the National Association is that this camp meeting is predominantly attended by African-American Christians in the Church of God. It’s been that way since their first gathering on Zion’s Hill in the early 1900s. We have a great deal of racial and ethnic diversity in the Church of God, more than in many other denominations, but we don’t always visit each other’s spaces. One of the preachers last week said, “We have too many separate spaces in the Church of God.”

We don’t always make the effort to see things from others’ perspectives, to worship in other styles, to experience being in the minority. (I say this from the point of view of a white man who lives in a 98%+ white county in central Michigan).

So I went, and I experienced lots of warmth, welcoming smiles, pleasant conversations, and joyful connections. I arrived alone but was glad to run into many people I’ve met in various places in the past.

I attended three worship services on Zion’s Hill before traveling onward. Much of what I experienced was familiar to me from other African-American worship services I’ve attended. Also, many of the songs we sang were quite familiar – old Church of God standards like “I’m Going On” and “In the Light of God.” But some things were new to me: The role of the chairperson, who actively directs or emcees the service from one element to the next. The offering time, when everyone who gives an offering marches up to the front to drop their gifts in the offering buckets. The ministers’ procession on Thursday night, when all ordained ministers are honored as they process into the sanctuary and sit in the very front pews.

a worship service inside the sanctuary

But one thing in particular stood out to me. It’s something I’ve read in books and heard in talks about African-American worship and probably seen before, but it’s beautiful to observe afresh:

People often sway from side to side in absolute unison with each other while they are singing. Not always, but often, and usually in response to the choir’s movements on the platform. It’s a way for these fellow Christians to embody their unity in worship. With every step they take, they are supporting others and are supported by others who are taking the exact same steps. They carry the messages of hope, sorrow, joy, peace, comfort within their bodies. That embodied sense of connection with each other shines through powerfully in how the people sway – even people who come from different parts of the country and may not know each other very well. The sense of embodiment reaches back through generations of believers who have swayed to the same music in that exact same space. This is a crucial component of African-American Christian worship which developed and grew through the horrors of slavery and the injustices of racial discrimination. This type of embodied corporate worship is something that I, as a white person with a white church background, simply do not have in my cultural vocabulary. It is something I deeply appreciate about the brief time I spent on Zion’s Hill last week.

gathering for the annual Ministers’ Photograph

On Thursday evening, before processing into the worship service, all the ordained ministers gathered near a large church bell for the annual ministers’ photograph. I stood at the back of the group because of my height, and as I stood there, I thought about the generations of pastors, chaplains, ministers, preachers, and servants who have stood there in the past. I am grateful for this first visit to West Middlesex and for the connections I made there. I have every intention of visiting again in the future – hopefully with more first-time visitors, too.

WOW!!  Powerful, Incredible, Spirit–Filled, Fun, InTune with God, Jesus!  Words cannot describe the 2014 Nashville International Youth Convention and the experience that 10 kids and 4 counselors had this summer (along with over 5,000 others).  We came back touched by Jesus, grounded in our faith, changed people and ready to serve our Lord.  We desire to not only be a good youth group but a GREAT Youth Ministry, being disciples in our daily walk, serving our community and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. The stories & experiences will be talked about through the next few months and remembered in our daily lives. We will be sharing with you soon about all we experienced and participated in.  Everything went just as planned, our hotel stays, Mammoth Cave, our incredible worship services, classes, our Change the World service project, the Indianapolis Zoo, downtown Indianapolis, the Spaghetti Factory, and what a place for the convention – the Gaylord Opryland Resort.  God blessed us with the funds to go, the experience and mostly His love.  Thank you to everyone who played any role in making this happen.  It was incredible and God blessed IYC.  
We followed that experience with our “Day @ the Beach” @ Ludington State Park last Sunday as we were blessed again!  It was a BEAUTIFUL DAY on Lake Michigan for the Mt. Haley Youth Ministry! Rained all the way there – then the skies parted and the sun shone until 4:00 then we departed and rained all the way home. God Was GOOD! Enjoyed Cops & Donuts, picnic, and fun on the beach! Great Day!

We are NOT having Sunday night youth throughout August.  However, we will be beginning the new school year on Sunday, September 7th for all youth – new 6th graders through one year after graduation. New 2014-2015 Parental Medical/Permission Release Forms will be mailed to each family during August.  We need to know for sure the new 6th graders entering the youth ministry in September, so please let us know who they are.  Also, Pastor David and Pastor Jerry will be meeting with the Young Youth parents this month as they make the transition into Sunday night youth.  We will be contacting you soon.  Although we have no Sunday night youth, we are having Sunday School classes for Young Youth (with Ron Hyde) and the “Tough Questions With God” class (with Pastor Jerry) at 10:00 AM each Sunday.

We have had the planning meeting in Detroit with the Center for Student Missions (CSM) for our mission trip to Detroit on the weekend of August 22-24.  We currently have nine signed up to participate and we can accept 5 more people (high school – college) up until Wednesday, August 6th.  If you are interested, please contact Pastor Jerry ASAP.  Plans include working at a food bank, helping with a clothing agency and serving supper at a homeless food kitchen.  We will probably share meals at a “Soul Food” restaurant, a  “Polish” restaurant and a “Mexicana” restaurant, all located in Detroit ethnic neighborhoods. Plus on Sunday morning, we will worship and attend the Hope Community Church on East Jefferson Avenue in Detroit.  We have many Spirit-filled and serving opportunities on this weekend.  We were chosen as one of three groups to help “pilot” a mission trip in Detroit as CSM expands to another US city.  God has blessed us with experience-based opportunities.

Our Winter Retreat isn’t until January, but it will be here sooner than we think.  Taking a little break from fundraising, however, we will have our annual “Mum” Sale in September along with some yard work opportunities.  We have greatly appreciated all the support we received the past few months in earning our way to IYC and the Detroit CSM.  We will have another “Garage Sale” next April and we thank you for all your contributions; however, we ask you to “save them” until next April. Connie and I have been receiving things already for next April – which we appreciate – but we are fearful for their well-being with storing them in the church’s garage (rodents & mildew), because we do not have space available in our home.  So, I am trying to kindly trying to say “Thank You,” but keep your treasures for us until April!

The Youth topics and curriculum for Sunday nights & mornings in the Fall has not been decided yet, but with IYC and student input we have some great ideas in the hopper.  Most of all we want to help our kids experience God, to equip them to live as disciples, and to send them out to serve the community and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with their family and friends.

We encourage you to attend the services and events of the St. Louis Camp Meeting being held Thursday, August 7th through Friday, August 15th. Worship Service is every evening at 7:00 PM with Evangelist and Song Evangelist, Dr. Jeff and Joanie Frymire. Children, Youth and Adult activities are planned each day.  Come and join us for “Camp Meeting!”

Parents and church, your prayers, support and encouragement are greatly appreciated and we look forward every week to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with our students through interaction, study, fellowship and relationship.  Thank you for sharing your son or daughter and our congregation for holding the youth up in PRAYER.

Love God, Love People! 

Pastor Jerry