By Paul Baxley
Twenty years have passed since I welcomed David Burroughs to Wingate University and invited him to consider hosting Passport Youth Camp on our campus. As Campus Minister, I showed him the space we could offer Passport, made some commitments about how we would host, answered questions about mission opportunities in the area and prayed that he and Colleen Burroughs would accept our invitation. Thankfully, they did. It was the beginning of a significant partnership between Passport and Wingate.
Months later, I welcomed the first Passport staff to Wingate. Then, I stood in the university parking lot as the church vans unloaded the first campers. Our days began early before morning celebration and ended after lights out. That summer was my first opportunity to witness the powerful ways the Holy Spirit used Passport to influence the lives, faith, vision and calling of young people. I also began to see how working on a Passport staff was a consequential part of the faith formation of new generations of pastors and lay leaders for congregations.
What I saw that summer led to future collaborations with David and Colleen. David joined several others and me in formulating Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond’s response to a Lilly Endowment request for grant proposals to encourage theological reflection among high school youth. When that grant was fully funded and I joined the staff of BTSR, David, Colleen and I became colleagues in the establishment and design of The Samuel Project. Several years later, Passport hosted a significant design experience in creating a grant proposal that essentially established what we now call CBF’s Young Baptist Ecosystem and the Youth Ministry Network.
During my years as pastor at First Baptist Athens, I saw first-hand the transforming impact Passport made on the lives of our youth and the health of our youth ministry. I had the opportunity several times to travel with our youth to Passport Choices as a chaperone, including in the final year the camp was held at Wingate, a decade after David and I had first met on that campus. As a parent, I have watched as my older daughters have been personally changed by their experiences in Passport camps for children and youth.
Now when I look across our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, I can see more clearly than ever the remarkable ways the Holy Spirit has used Passport to invite young people to substantial faith, create community among youth who attend different congregations, open the eyes of young people toward a global vision, help youth and young adults hear God’s calling for their lives, and have first encounters with the beautiful work of CBF field personnel.
Some Passport campers, and a larger number of Passport staffers, end up being students in CBF partner theological schools. Among the incredible number of younger and mid-career pastors in CBF life are many who either attended Passport growing up or served on Passport staffs. There are also many church staff ministers, including ministers of youth and ministers of children, who are alumni of Passport camps and Passport staff.
Our CBF field personnel, our CBF Global staff, and that of some of our states and regions, includes people for whom Passport was extremely formative. Our lay leaders in congregations also include many who came through the ministry of Passport. Because Passport has been central to our Fellowship for 27 years, its alumni span several generations! Our congregations are stronger, our Fellowship is stronger, younger and more vibrant, and our witness in the world is more compelling because of Passport’s unique ministry that is essential for our life together.
In these days I have also had a realization. Most Cooperative Baptists younger than me cannot remember a summer (much less a time) when Passport did not exist. It is that integral a part of the fabric of our Fellowship’s life.
Over the years, I have always been impressed by the vision, energy, innovation and commitment that Passport has demonstrated because of David and Colleen’s gifts and convictions. But the conversations we have shared in the past several weeks have been far and away the most difficult. It has been hard to watch Passport make the right and faithful decision that for the first time in their history, they cannot welcome campers in person this summer. I have seen both courage and grief at work as they have made this decision and shared it with our larger community. I affirm their decision and I also commend them for finding new and innovative ways to resource congregations in this unusual time.
Today I write to celebrate Passport’s unique place and impact not only in the life and fabric of our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but also in my life, family and ministry. I wonder: how has Passport shaped you, the faith of someone you love, or the strength of your congregation? How have you been touched?
In these unusual days, I hope you will join me in praying for Passport’s staff and for the more than 60 young adults who were going to spend their summers leading our children and youth in camps all over the United States but who now seek other opportunities.
I also write to ask you to join me in making a commitment to Passport’s future. This necessary decision to cancel this summer’s in-person camps is a loss for many of us in this summer. But it also means that Passport faces substantial financial challenges in sustaining their ministry until the day they can open camp again in the summer of 2021. Eighty percent of Passport’s annual $2.5-million budget comes from fees paid for summer camps, which this summer will not be received. Passport’s leadership is already making important decisions about how they can best absorb this loss and still be in a place to serve congregations and young people in the years ahead. I have promised to help them.
I will help them by praying for them. I will help them by being open to new collaborations. My family and I have already made a financial gift to a campaign launched this week by committed Passport alumni called (Be)cause. Because these staff and former campers have been so shaped by Passport, they have established a campaign to secure Passport’s future. Because our family shares that commitment, we have made a contribution to Passport that is equal to what we would have paid in fees for camp this summer and then some. Not all of us are in a position where we can each do the same as anyone else, especially in the midst of this pandemic. If you are willing to join me in supporting this campaign, you can make your donation here. If you do so, be sure to click the (Be)cause campaign button on that page.
I believe that if we all do what we can, we can be held through this quiet summer in a beautiful hope; a hope that when next summer comes vans will again arrive in parking lots, Bible studies will be taught, communities will be served, meaningful worship will be offered, faith will be formed, God’s call will be heard, global imaginations will be nurtured, congregations will be strengthened, new leaders will step forward, and further in the future than any of us can see now, our Fellowship will thrive.
(Be)cause that is a dream worthy of all of our prayers, our energies and our gifts, I will do all I can. Will you?
Rev. Dr. Paul Baxley serves as Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.