LINDEN — For more than 100 years, Royal Ambassadors (RAs) has been a missions education program for boys that includes RA racers, camping and related activities.
In the early 1970s, a small group of men in West Tennessee put together an event that would provide missions education in an outdoor setting and an opportunity for fathers and sons to share quality time together.
The “camporee” was held at Camp Cordova, owned by the Shelby County Baptist Association. The event was moved to Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center in 2008.
Over the past 50 years, the name, the location and leadership have changed but the commitment to the purpose and the event has remained strong. The number of attendees for the three-day weekend event ranged from a few hundred to more than 1,100 at the highest point. What began as churches around Memphis participating has grown to include churches from across Tennessee and other states.
More than 100 volunteers give their time annually to make sure the RA Camporee runs smoothly. Total volunteer hours for the one weekend exceed over 5,000 hours and that does not account for days and weeks of preparation.
Through the 50 years, volunteers who first came as RAs and church RA leaders became the volunteers who run the many different challenge events. A rough survey of only 28 of the over 100 volunteers supporting the 2022 RA Camporee, held Oct. 21-23, accounted for more than 700 combined years of service.
When asked about his favorite memory, Don Downs, volunteer for Trinity Baptist Church, Cordova, replied, “Every year brings a different flavor. One year a Crusader completed the compass course perfectly. No one has made it since.”
Most of the early leaders have either passed away or are no longer able to serve but that same commitment continues year after year as new volunteers come forward.
When asked what his role was in the camporee years ago, Kenny Rains, former Tennessee RA director and retired pastor replied, “We did whatever Herschel told us to do.” Wells served for many years as volunteer chairman of the RA Camporee Committee.
David Shelton, Faith Baptist Church, Bartlett, has served as “Trader Joe,” a guide, storyteller and bugler for the weekend, when asked his favorite part of the Camporee, he said he enjoys “seeing boys spend time with their fathers and watching kids who have never camped pulled away from distractions.”
And of course, there are the campers. The central purpose of the camporee is to help boys become dedicated Christ followers. Through the activities of the weekend, boys and men have the opportunity to learn their role in sharing Christ around the world and learn about the outdoors.
As one leader said, “Without the boys, there would be no camporee.” One camper said the camporee “means everything to me.”
Adam Shelton, grown son of David (“Trader Joe”) and who attended as a boy was drawn to the 50th anniversary. “I just wanted to be here. I had to turn down two other activities to be here.”
When asked what has been memorable to him through the years, Mike Freeman, of Whitten Memorial Baptist Church, Memphis, and current RA Camporee committee chairman said, “Seeing leaders who were once kids attending the camporee, lives changed for boys and men and boys and men excited and focused on each other, spending the day and the weekend together.”
It seems everyone who attended the camporee on any given year came away with a new memory and a story or two. The blending of camping with worship and missions education sets up a unique opportunity for life-changing experiences.
It is possible to say that even today thousands of lives of young men, their fathers and families have been impacted directly by what just a few men began 50 years ago. What a legacy!
The RA Camporee held in Tennessee is one of the last remaining events of its kind held anywhere in the country. It is planned and coordinated by Mid-South RAs, a network of Royal Ambassador leaders, in cooperation with Tennessee WMU.
This year it received recognition from both the Tennessee WMU and national WMU for 50 years of ministry.
The support of the Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions helps ensure that future generations of sons and fathers have at least one weekend a year to spend time together outdoors. B&R — Bearden is a former RA and retired staff member from the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. To read more about the RA Camporee, including more about its history, highlights and information about next year’s camp, visit www.racamporee.org.