Robert E. Lee Hall towers over the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly campground on Black Mountain, North Carolina. Eight majestic white columns buoy the entrance that is fronted by eight long, wide steps ascending to the wooden platform porch where dozens of green wooden rocking chairs are spread out across the deck.
“The things that have happened there, the lives that have been changed; it’s a powerful place,” said Lance Shealy, Fellowship of Christian Athletes summer camp director at Black Mountain. “It’s the reason why we continue to hold camp there today. It’s because of the legacy and impact that place has had.”
The porch at Lee Hall overlooks the north side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is said on a clear day you can sit in a rocking chair and see the mountaintops, a sign of God’s amazing handiwork and beauty.
“It’s just a special place,” added Shealy. “Unless you’ve been there and experienced it … words don’t do it justice. You wouldn’t have enough paper – or pages in the [FCA] Magazine – to describe it. You need a magazine dedicated to that to do it.”
Over the years the rockers have become a signature of Black Mountain. The forest green chairs are an open invitation to every guest, local resident and staff employee; a location countless Fellowship of Christian Athlete speakers, coaches, athletes and parents point too as the place where their lives changed or a lifelong friendship was born.
“The rocking chairs on the front porch of Lee Hall are the trademark of Black Mountain, North Carolina,” said longtime FCA supporter Albert Long. “I met one of my closest friends, Ken Smith, right there, sitting in those rocking chairs at Black Mountain.”
There’s a story Charlie Miller, a former director at Black Mountain, tells. During the winter, when the camps were quiet and a chill was in the air, Dr. Billy Graham, who lives just a few miles away, would pull his car up to the front steps of Lee Hall, park his car, walk up the steps, sit down in a rocking chair, study his Bible and pray.
“Billy knew he’d be close to God up there,” said Wayne Atcheson.
Atcheson arrived at Black Mountain the first Sunday of June 1964, opening day of the first-ever FCA camp in the North Carolina mountains. A would-be reporter, Atcheson spent the next week recording his experience in a small 4×6 black notebook he brought with him to the conference.
“I wrote down everything that moved,” he said.
The entire FCA leadership staff including Executive Director James Jeffrey, Dick Harp, Bill Krisher, Ron Morris, Lauren Young, Don Lash and more than 500 campers and 150 coaches were in attendance. On the eve of the first camp they poured into College Hall to hear Army head football coach Paul Dietzel.
“It’s a challenge to be a Christian and a challenge to be an athlete,” Dietzel said. “However, the real challenge is to be both. When you become an athlete, you have a responsibility. You have responsibility to be a good example with the ability God gave you.”
Atcheson was floored by Dietzel’s message. Throughout the week he listened and wrote, and wrote and listened, as coaches and athletes shared their testimonies. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing, or hearing.
“I’d never heard a college athlete give a testimony before,” said Atcheson. “I was just sitting back spellbound. I was so impressed that a boy that you saw on television playing for Georgia or LSU was up their witnessing. This was all new to everybody.”
Each morning FCA campers woke at 6:30 a.m. to a recording of “Carolina in the Morning” followed by breakfast, worship, huddles, Dogpatch Olympics (a competitive skills test), lunch, more worship and huddles, dinner and quality time – on the porch, sitting in those rocking chairs.
“You can sit up there and feel that all is well with the world,” said Atcheson. “You’d never have a more peaceful place where you could look over the mountains; no horns blowing, no hustle and bustle. You’d just like to stay there for the rest of your life.”
In between “Carolina in the Morning” and the bugle, FCA campers heard then University of South Carolina head basketball coach Frank McGuire spoke, Don Shinnick of the Baltimore Colts and Minnesota Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton spoke and led drills.
“I thought, ‘my goodness, here’s an All-Pro quarterback right here talking about the love of God, the love of Christ,’” said Atcheson.
The experience transformed Atcheson’s life. In 1965 he went to work at FCA’s national offices in Kansas. He was the eighth man on staff at the time (the organization now employs 1,200 members of staff). He left FCA in 1971 but later authored Impact for Christ, chronicling the first 30 years of FCA history. Today, Atcheson serves in ministry relations as the historian for the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I found the guys I had been looking for all my life,” Atcheson recorded in his notebook.
“I thought when I got to Black Mountain, North Carolina it was the nearest thing I’d experienced on earth what Heaven must be like,” Atcheson said. “There was just a real sadness when you had to leave. You just thought you’d never experience anything like this again in your life.”
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes held its first national camp in 1956 at Estes Park, Colorado. The event drew 256 athletes and coaches attending. Four years later, in 1960, a second camp was launched at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, followed by Henderson Harbor, New York and then Black Mountain’s first camp in 1964. By the end of the decade FCA had organized 16 national camps, boasting more than 7,000 attendees. By 1978, coaches and athletes from across the country were attending camps at 32 different FCA sites, doubling its number from a decade earlier.
In 1979, FCA Black Mountain launched its first girl’s camp. Throughout the 80s, the multi-sport camp drew coaches and athletes from Illinois, Texas, Indianapolis, Michigan, Georgia, Indiana, Maryland, Florida, North and South Carolina and Ohio.
Kim Boyce, the area director for Volusia County & Sanford, Florida, attended her first camp at Black Mountain in 1981. “The very first year I went there, I came away thinking, ‘if this was even a taste of what heaven is like …’” she said, pausing to catch her breath through tears, before saying “… it was just very special.”
She joined the FCA staff as a full-time employee in July 1995 as an area representative in Orlando, Florida followed by stints in Thomasville, Georgia and Atlanta, Georgia. She has since returned to Florida, but almost never missed a summer camp at Black Mountain, attending 33 of the 35 girl’s camps including last year’s 35th anniversary celebration. During her time in the mountains of North Carolina Boyce has witnessed the power of prayer and the Holy Spirit at work in people’s lives.
“We had a girl who came to us one year from Louisiana; the most homesick girl I’ve ever talked to,” said Boyce. “She begged and pleaded with her mom to come pick her up the first night. It was a 24-hour drive. She finally went to sleep. The next day I saw her after competition and she had a smile on her face. She was loving camp. It was a 180-degree turnaround.”
The following year the young girl returned to Black Mountain – with her mother, who served as a chaperon.
“Her mom went to coach’s camp and accepted Christ,” said Boyce. “She came up to me and thanked me for how we took care of her daughter the year before and what an impact the camp made on her life. The girl’s mom wanted to come back and experience coach’s camp because of how it impacted her daughter.”
Last year also marked Boyce’s final year as camp director. During camp last year the girls thought of a way to say “thank you” to their leader. The team of girls convinced the people at Lee Hall to give Boyce one of those coveted rocking chairs as a gift. Across the slats on the back of the chair they painted a message:
NOTHING COULD BE FINER …
GIRLS FCA, BLACK MTN, NC
WE LOVE YOU KIM
Although she is no longer director of the Black Mountain camp, she can always go back. The rocking chair now sits in her living room. Sometimes she will just sit and rock and think of the friendships, the relationships, her faith and her time at Black Mountain FCA summer camp.
This June marks the 50th Anniversary of FCA summer camps at Black Mountain, North Carolina. Shealy, who also serves as FCA area director for Northwest North Carolina, is busy preparing the celebration; the staff at Lee Hall is busy cleaning and refurbishing the rocking chairs. It won’t be long before the guests will arrive, the coaches will coach, the athletes will compete in the summer sun, all sharing a single goal: To honor and glorify Jesus Christ through athletic performance.
“It’s really helping young men compete in light of the gospel,” he added. “We talk about that, but what we want to do is show them how to compete; where Christ is at the center of your goals, your motivation and how you define winning.”
FCA Competitor’s Camp will open June 23 at YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. The competitor’s camp is designed to teach the character qualities you will need to compete at your highest level. Every coach is looking for an athlete who has the inner strength and spirit of a champion.
Since its inception, Black Mountain FCA has also expanded and evolved. With athletic preparation now a central focus in today’s culture, FCA camps are placing more emphasis on filling the spiritual need. Shealy said FCA Black Mountain will combine athletic skill development with an emphasis on teamwork, trust and faith.
“God does have a plan for you through sport,” he said. “He wants to use you for the purpose of redemption, not for selfish purposes or how culture defines winning and success.”
The theme is “All In” at FCA Black Mountain 2014. According to the official Anniversary program, the goal is defined: “When an athlete is ‘All In’, body, mind and spirit, there are no limits on what he can accomplish. Every thought, word and action is to glorify the Savior.”
Shealy knows this because, he too, lived it. His first memory of Black Mountain was the summer of 1973 seeing Mike Kolen, the six-foot-two, 220 pound linebacker and defensive back Tim Foley, members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, at camp. Shealy — the boy — was awestruck.
“All the guys that you’ve watched, and read about, it was like walking onto the sports page,” said Shealy. “Guys were sharing their faith and explaining why it was important to them. This was before ESPN. These were your heroes. These guys were huddle leaders and investing into young people and sport. There was nothing else out there like that at the time.”
Nationally, FCA camps continued to grow. In 1987, the organization hosted 34 national summer camps, and by 1995, attendance exceeded 13,000 across the country. As of 2011, FCA Camp Ministry reported more than 350 camps and 50,000 campers annually.
The numbers are impressive, but they only tell part of the story. “Only God can measure the conversion experiences, commitments made, vocational callings heard, lifelong friendships and relationships that have resulted, and the fruit that continues to be born from this holy ground,” Atcheson wrote in one of his final entries.
This June the celebration begins – again – as it does every year; athletes and coaches from across the country will converge on YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly for FCA summer camp. New and familiar faces will arrive, competitive spirit will swell, a summer breeze will sweep across the deck at Lee Hall where a rocking chair, rocks.