I remember the crying. Girls with mascara smeared across their faces, racing down the aisles of the tabernacle toward the preacher. Some went in pairs, clutching each other and whispering. The boys typically walked alone, proud and sure of themselves as they went down to inform a Falls Creek counselor of their decisions, whether it be to accept Jesus Christ as their Lord and savior, or to answer a call to missions. Or perhaps they felt like they had fallen off the bandwagon and taken up smoking or drinking, and they wanted to publicly declare that they were going to live their lives for Jesus once again. Campers and youth ministers applauded their decisions.
There I stood, 14 years old, watching hundreds of my peers have life-changing religious experiences, but all I could do was wonder why my eyes were completely dry and why God wasn’t speaking to me. If God was going to talk to anyone, it should have been me. I was the Baptist golden child: My grandfather on my father’s side is a Baptist minister and my late grandfather on my mother’s side was a Baptist music minister, who often sang at church revivals, with my grandmother accompanying him at the piano. My parents were raised in the church, going every time the doors were open and often staying after everyone else had left. My parents made it a priority to do the same when they started their own family. Summer camp at the Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center was a family tradition.
If you ask someone in Oklahoma to tell you about their time at Falls Creek, you’ll get a variety of responses. They might tell you about how they got saved at an altar call, how they got stung by a bee in evening tabernacle, or how they heard someone at their high school getting pregnant at the camp. Or how, like me, they felt more alienated and confused than euphoric. Whether Falls Creek was an annual event, a friend dragged you there, or you just knew someone who attended, most Oklahomans have heard of and have an opinion about the place affectionately referred to as “The Creek.”
Though Falls Creek is famous inside the state of Oklahoma, until recently it was doubtful that anyone outside the state knew of it. This all changed in 2009, when James Lankford, Falls Creek camp director, decided to run for Mary Fallin’s open seat in the U.S. House of Representatives after she announced she was running for governor. He took a chance by quitting his position at Falls Creek, one he’d held for 13 years, to run his campaign. Lankford had no prior political experience and was not from a political dynasty. He has said repeatedly in interviews that he took the chance to run simply because he felt called by God.
After a runoff in the primaries, Lankford was elected to run against Democrat Billy Coyle in 2010. Lankford, a political outsider, easily won with 62 percent of the votes for the 5th District. The victory put Falls Creek on the political radar.
Saved at Summer Camp
Unless you’re looking for it, you’ll drive right past Falls Creek. Amidst the Arbuckle Mountains and the thicket of trees that pepper the side of I-35 near Davis, Oklahoma, are acres of land that house the largest Christian youth encampment in the country.
Past the winding road and the entrance gate is a miniature civilization comprised of Oklahoma youths—around 50,000 of them—each summer.
Two men, William Durant (W.D.) Moorer and James Burley (J.B.) Rounds, established Falls Creek in 1917. Moorer and Rounds wanted to train leaders for the Baptist churches in Oklahoma through the Baptist Young Peoples Union (BYPU), a missionary association. As early as 1906, the BYPU appointed Moorer and Rounds to find a good location for the future camp. The men were looking for a location that was central to the state and one that would provide a serene, isolated area for the campers to worship.
“Rounds and Moorer first viewed the Falls Creek property in a photograph on a barbershop wall in Davis, Oklahoma. They were immediately attracted to the 160-acre parcel and agreed it was the place for the annual summer meetings of the Baptist Young People’s Union,” the Falls Creek website informs.
After getting their proposal approved at the BYPU Convention of 1916, Rounds and Moorer purchased the property for $1,200 from the Aetna Building and Loan Association of Topeka, Kansas.
The first official camp week was August 16–26, 1917, and the registration fee was just $1. Campers could either rent a tent and cot or bring their own. Campers accessed the camp by car, driving south from Oklahoma City, or took the train on the Santa Fe Railroad to Rayford and then paid a 10-cent fee to ferry across the Washita River. An estimated 273 campers went to Falls Creek that first year.
Though Rounds and Moorer were hoping for just one salvation that first camp meeting, 13 people made a decision that first summer. Within two decades, Falls Creek became one of the largest Baptist encampments in the world. Attendance grew rapidly every summer until 1943, when camp was canceled due to an infantile paralysis outbreak in the state. Camp was also canceled in 1944 and 1945 due to World War II.
After the war, attendance at Falls Creek surged once again, and a second week of camp was added in 1952 to accommodate the amount of campers. The camp then increased to three weeks in 1957, four weeks in 1967, and five weeks in 1976. In 1999 and 2000, James Lankford added the sixth and seventh weeks. Currently, there are eight weeks in the summer program.
The Evangelism Game
Lankford started working with the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma in student evangelism, working with churches and youth ministries in 1995. In 1996, the executive director asked him to direct Falls Creek. During Lankford’s tenure at Falls Creek, attendance numbers soared to more than 50,000 per summer. Also during his tenure, the Board of Directors for the BGCO approved a plan by the Falls Creek Strategic Planning Committee to build a 7,200-seat indoor conference center to replace the decades-old outdoor Moorer-Rounds Tabernacle, which seated 7,000. They presented the plan at the annual BGCO meeting and it was overwhelmingly approved.
The original Moorer-Rounds Tabernacle had undergone several transformations since it was built in 1929. The original steel-girded tabernacle cost $4,359.21 and was paid off in November 1929 using an unusual fundraising technique. According to the Baptist Messenger:
Thad Farmer, Sunday School secretary for Oklahoma Baptists, had the idea to use posters showing a train. Those who contributed nothing rode as hoboes; if you gave a small amount, you rode on the ‘Jim Crow’ car, and if you gave up around $25, you were entitled to Pullman privileges.
The Raymond A. Young tabernacle project, which was completed in 2007, cost about $30 million and the BGCO received thousands of donations from churches, individuals, corporations, and foundations.
Though the new tabernacle provides a physical snapshot of the change that occurred during Lankford’s time at Falls Creek, much of his time was spent getting teens interested in missions. Lankford was given the responsibility of recruiting missionaries to speak at Falls Creek in 1998. Missionaries had been speaking to campers since 1946, but it was originally the responsibility of the Women’s Missionary Union to recruit them. Once the job was Lankford’s, he decided to use a different strategy.
Traditionally, missionaries who were retired or those who were temporarily in the area were the ones who spoke to the teens, but Lankford started bringing in younger, active, and short-term missionaries to inspire campers. Sermons and lessons were geared toward sharing the gospel at school, at home with your family, and anywhere else you might go.
Lankford tried in every way possible to get campers involved in proselytizing, including something he called “The Evangelism Game.” According to a dissertation entitled The Evangelistic Contributions of Falls Creek Baptist Assembly of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma by Shane Scott Spannagel, Lankford introduced the game during the 2001 Friday morning service in place of a concert.
The idea was simple. No one in the room was “saved” except for 12 missionaries. These 12 missionaries would then share their faith with the rest of the congregation during the game.
“Every 90 seconds a ‘disaster’ would strike,” Spannagel writes. “For example, all people wearing yellow ‘died.’ If a person died and was fortunate enough to hear the gospel from one of the original missionaries or new converts, they went up to the choir loft or ‘Heaven.’ If a person had not heard the gospel, they went to ‘Hell’ at the back of the tabernacle.”
After 13 summers working as camp director of Falls Creek, Lankford decided to step down to make a run for office.
“I was always interested in issues. My mom was a librarian. We grew up around ideas, study, and research,” Lankford said in an interview. “I was in speech and debate in the fourth grade. I never ran for an office. I just wasn’t interested in the politics. I was interested in the idea side of things.”
Though he claims that Falls Creek wasn’t a preparation for his political career, it did hone his ability to work with people, he said.
Falls Creek also earned him name recognition. According to a report by the Daily Oklahoman, 41 percent of GOP primary voters have a connection to Falls Creek, as found in polling by Oklahoma City’s CMA Strategies.
“I don’t think I’m changing Falls Creek’s influence. I still don’t think Falls Creek is political,” Lankford said. “Eight to 10 percent of all teenagers in the state go to Falls Creek every summer. Adults go as sponsors. The impact comes with the quantity.”
Though Lankford is no longer associated with the BGCO or Falls Creek, his Christian beliefs are still a forefront of his politics.
“We cannot get so consumed with the task of legislating,” Lankford said, describing his chats with other religious legislators in a 2012 podcast interview with the Baptist Messenger. “We miss the mission of why we’re specifically here. It’s missional.”
Lankford has said he won’t compromise his morals or ethics for the sake of politics.
“[My beliefs] don’t interfere. They accelerate my responsibilities,” Lankford said. “I have every responsibility to stay who I am. The great frustration that the American people have is that politicians change when they go to Washington. I am a Christian. It deals with my ethics. It deals with my moral choices.”
A Mountain Top Experience
Today, Falls Creek is more popular than ever before. The camp has its own post office, water tower, and a couple of small stores that sell groceries and snacks to campers and staffers. It has become its own little city, an isolated teenage paradise away from the responsibilities of home.
Campers participate in group sports, swimming, hiking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities, but prayer, worship, and study are the main events at Falls Creek.
There is a lot of free time at Falls Creek in the afternoons, much of which becomes occupied with flings between campers and dates after tabernacle. The most famous Falls Creek courtship is the “Icee date.” The tradition goes that if you see someone cute, you ask him or her to meet you at the Icee stand after evening tabernacle. The practice of asking someone on an Icee date has become so commonplace that Falls Creek issued a “Jesus is my Icee date” parody t-shirt.
Growing up, I heard many Oklahomans refer to Falls Creek as “The Baptist Breeding Ground.” Some say it’s a joke about young girls getting pregnant at camp, but others say they’re referring to the heavy concentration of flirting that happens in the Arbuckle Mountains. At Falls Creek, sex still happens.
“After we met we went to tabernacle that night and the next couple of days. Thursday and Friday we started hooking up,” Matt Clifton, a former camper said about one of his camp encounters. “We went to a big forest that no one really walked through.”
The large area of Falls Creek and the hours of free time guaranteed time alone, which led to Clifton losing his virginity.
“Everyone has these raging hormones. They preached ‘don’t have sex before marriage,’ but [teenagers are] going to do it. There’s not enough supervision, and it’s a giant place. We outnumbered the sponsors,” he said. “There were way too many places to hide.”
Clifton said that not all Falls Creek campers had the same experience as he did, but it was there if you looked.
When asked why the camp is so successful, Dr. Anthony L. Jordan, executive director and treasurer for the BGCO responded, “The answer as to why Falls Creek continues to be successful year after year is simply prayer. God has blessed us because of His goodness and the prayers of His people.”
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 22, December 1, 2014.