By Debbie Eisenbise
Every year in mid-November, those engaged and interested in Church of the Brethren outdoor ministries gather for a conference and retreat. Camp managers, administrators, program coordinators, board members, and those who love and support outdoor ministries come together for a week of sharing, learning, and enjoying each other’s company, and of course, the great outdoors.
The Church of the Brethren Outdoor Ministries Association (OMA) organizes and sponsors this event. Each year it is held at a different camp or conference center. This year’s OMA Conference and Retreat was held from Nov. 15-19 at Shepherd’s Spring Outdoor Ministry and Retreat Center in Sharpsburg, Md. The theme for the week was “Seeds of Change: Multicultural Diversity and Stewardship in Outdoor Ministry.”
More than 60 people attended from throughout the country representing over two-thirds of our Brethren camps. Ann Cornell, Shepherd’s Spring administrator and chair of the 2015 Retreat Committee, commented, “This is where camps come together to talk about their work and connect with the wider church, and where the wider church comes to learn about the ministries of the camps.”
Phillip Lilienthal, founder of Global Camps Africa, an organization dedicated to helping AIDS-affected youth in South Africa, gave two keynote addresses. In June 2013, Lilenthal was awarded the prestigious Sargent Shriver Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service by the Peace Corps. Staff at Shepherd’s Spring came to know of his efforts and contributed to his ministry through a summer camp offering. He talked about camp offering opportunities for education, inspiration, and transformation, and challenged Brethren camps to reach out beyond their borders.
Shepherd’s Spring itself is an example of a local camp making global connections having partnered with Heifer Project International to establish a Heifer Global Village on site. This offers hundreds of children from throughout the region an opportunity to learn what it is like to live in a village in Guatemala, Mozambique, Thailand, or Kenya, or a home in impoverished Appalachia, or a tent in a refugee camp. In addition to the traditional homes constructed on site, Shepherd’s Spring cultivates a large garden of crops from those areas, and raises livestock: chickens, turkeys, ducks, goats, rabbits, and alpacas. Tours of the Global Village, and a field trip to local Harper’s Ferry and the Antietam Civil War Battlefield, with a time of worship in the Dunker Church there, were highlights of the retreat.
Other opportunities included workshops, crafts, worship, and a folk concert featuring local musicians. An additional keynote address shared by Congregational Life Ministry staff Debbie Eisenbise and Gimbiya Kettering, led to a lively discussion about what both camps and congregations have to gain through developing a closer, deeper relationship based on shared values and an appreciation of diverse gifts and views.
The Outdoor Ministries Association held their annual meeting, affirming leadership for the group, discussing opportunities to engage the wider church at Annual Conference, honoring long-time volunteers and staff, and hearing progress reports on projects funded through Environmental Grants.
All Church of the Brethren camps and congregations are invited to join the Outdoor Ministries Association. OMA members are encouraged to study and live out the recommendations offered in the 1991 Annual Conference Paper: “Creation: Called to Care.” Environmental Grants are made available to members to help fund local projects. Congregations and camps have used these grants to create worm composting bins, an open-air green house, organic community gardens, environmental study trails, and more.
Next year’s Outdoor Ministries Association Conference and Retreat is scheduled for Nov. 13-17, 2016, and will be hosted at Camp Ithiel in Gotha, Fla.
-- Debbie Eisenbise is director of Intergenerational Ministries for the Church of the Brethren, serving on the staff of Congregational Life Ministries. For more about the denomination's Outdoor Ministries Association go to www.oma-cob.org .