Before television evangelists, with their electronic razzle-dazzle, multimillion-dollar budgets and sizzling sex scandals, there were camp meetings. Usually, they were simple, open-air, tent affairs.
This rustic religious tradition survives just a few miles from the congested I-270 corridor, on a country road outside the Montgomery County community of Damascus.
As the organizers put it in their brochure: "Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus. You can meet him there too . . . . "
Or as James R. Cochran, 64, a school maintenance employe from Boonesboro, Md., said, "While other people go to the shores and some to the mountains, I go to Damascus Camp Meeting. This is my vacation."
The camp began in 1931 in a tent in a grove of trees owned by William Beall, a local farmer. It was known then as Beall's Grove Camp Meeting. A wooden "tabernacle" replaced the tent in 1935, and, over time, 47 tiny cabins and other buildings were added.
Beall later donated the land to the camp meeting, specifying in the deed that the grove be used for a camp meeting for two weeks each August. The 56th annual camp meeting began last week with high hopes and a low, $16,000 budget. It ends Sunday.
An estimated 2,000 camp meetings are held by church groups around the country each year, but few are in the Washington area. The Damascus participants, many of whom attend the gathering with their families every year, said they find a spiritual fulfillment in the simple life that the meeting offers. Its greatest appeal, they said, is the opportunity for fellowship with other Christians who share their strong religious faith.
The worshipers come mostly from Maryland and nearby states. Those who can, mostly the retired and the teen-agers, live in the simple one-room cottages and dormitories without air conditioning, television or indoor plumbing. The fare is cheap: $2 a night, $5 with paneled interior.
Those who can't stay on the 18-acre grounds, mostly families with young children and working adults, attend the night or weekend services.
Then the lawn between the trees becomes a huge parking lot for big American cars -- Chryslers, Pontiacs, Fords andChevys -- and a few pickups. There are no yuppie cars -- Volvos, Mercedes or BMWs. This is American Gothic, a Norman Rockwell tableau of the country.
The camp meeting is nondenominational and operated by the nonprofit Montgomery County Interdominational Holiness Association of Maryland. It is run by officers and directors selected by members of the corporation, but its services are open to the public.
"Praise the Lord!" Pastor Ed Jones said in greeting a reporter visiting the camp on opening day last week. Jones, who is a regular at the meeting, ministers to a congregation in a small town outside Cumberland. It's a "poke and plumb town," his wife Naomi said. "You poke your nose in it, you're plumb out of it."
Ed Jones, 63, is a former Western Maryland Railway yard worker from Hagerstown who found God in 1955 on the midnight-to-8 "cat-eye" shift.
On days off, Jones drove down to spruce up the camp. He and his wife are now among those faithful who have "adopted" a cottage, which he has insulated, paneled and adorned with 50-cent blinds from Goodwill and which they regularly occupy each August. He calls it "the Waldorf-Astoria."
The Rev. C. Winfield Hall, 67, a semiretired Methodist minister whose roots are in Southern Maryland, is the camp meeting president.
But Dr. Clayton S. Luce, formerly of Bel Air, Md., is "Mr. Camp Meeting," according to Jones. Luce, 83, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been here every summer since 1936, when he and his wife Emma Beth came to preach and play the piano. He ran the show for years, hauled World War II air warden cottages from Conowingo Dam in Northern Maryland and an old school bus body from Georgia, which now serves as the campground candy store.
Officially retired, he still preaches and polices the grounds on a small tractor. "I was president for 25 years," he said. "Now I'm the janitor."
Porch-sitting is a favorite camp meeting pastime for Evelyn Edmundson, Mabel Badders and Cora Seitz, who seem to go and sit everywhere together. "We all three are widows," Edmundson said. "I live alone. I love to be with people, and this way it's a great time."
The teen-agers find fellowship in the drafty dorms, on the small basketball court, at the youth pavilion, the snack bar, where candy costs as little as two cents, or the bookstore, where "inspirational pencils" for sale carry messages such as "I can't bear to be without Jesus."
"If they didn't have Diet Coke, I'd have to bring my own," said Michelle McDonald, 15, fresh from performing arts camp in Ohio and a resident of nearby Mount Airy, Md. This is her fourth year at the camp meeting. "Last year, I lost six pounds. Some of the food is pretty good, but some is pretty bad."
"Ooh, gross," said Rochelle Toney, 12, the Jones' granddaughter.
"Two years ago, I lost 10 pounds, but I'm a picky eater," said Kimberly Deal, 16, who belongs to Jones' church. "This is a nice place to get away from your parents." She said she likes the "sharing" where teen-agers discuss topics "likewhat kind of problems you're having with your family."
At supper, franks and beans were served and seating was unassigned. The youngsters sat together, ate quickly and left. The midsummer weather was so unusually good, only in the low 80s with low humidity, that the diners gave thanks for it and looked forward to a large evening crowd.
The first night's service attracted about 150, including some families with strollers, toddlers and infants, and about 10 ordained ministers. The worshipers were fewer than in previous years, according to Luce. But on Sunday, the camp meeting attracted about 300 worshipers, and 80 were at breakfast Monday.
On Thursday night, the guest evangelist, Delbert Rose of Jackson, Miss., was no fire and brimstone preacher. The congregation sat through his sermon quietly and did not linger long afterward. "Low key but clear," Bernie Beall said politely.
Between supper and the service, a smaller group gathered on wooden benches arranged in a ring for more spirited prayer. The dozen or so worshipers, led by octogenarian Luce, were all up in years. They thanked God they were there.
"I love this spot," said Gordon Hall, formerly of Harwood, Md., and now of Fort Lauderdale, where he recently retired. "I'm glad I have the time now to come. I don't have to worry because I'm in His hands."
From a paperbound hymn book, dated 1945, they sang, "Every day with Jesus is sweeter than the day before." Luce said it was his favorite. "I hope they sing that at my funeral," he said.
"A lot of people say, 'Yes, I want to go to heaven, but not tomorrow,' " Luce said. "Somebody asked me today if I was going to go to heaven. I said I already got my ticket bought."
"Amen," several said.
"In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore," they sang.
"I'm glad we sang 'In the Sweet By and By,' " said Ellen Culp, 77, who lives in the senior citizens section of Boone's Mobile (home) Estates in Lothian, Md. "It's better by and by, better further on. I got the forward look. I live in the future. Damascus is preparing us for it."