Heaven on Earth


In John Denver’s ode to country living, Country Roads, it speaks of West Virginia life and the beauty of its people. Yesterday we drove our daughter, Stefani, to just such a place. Sandwiched between the mountains of West Virginia and the Birch River is a place many in the state would consider “all most heaven” and for good reason. Camp Cowen is both rustic and beautiful with the cabins covered by a canopy of sixty, eighty and hundred foot trees that may have been around when West Virginia became a state. As I watched the families bringing their children, I began to notice something in the faces of the adults. They looked around with growing smiles and longing looks as if they had come home. I was fascinated by the Cowen mystique since I had never gone to church camp as a child. Adults joined in with the children and they played bean bag toss. Others greeted other adults as long ago relationship of a by-gone day.

I asked Rob Ely, Director of Discipleship, Camping, and Youth about this. Though this title is well deserved for the years of work he had given to Cowen and youth across the state, he is as much a kid as his charges for the week. When he smiles, it is infectious and inviting. Dick Clark has been called the eternal teenager but they have never met Rob Ely. While most ministers his age are settling into pastorates, he is still running around the camp in shorts, shirt, and sneakers. As he greets the children who have come back year after year, Rob calls them by name. While the title is listed on the web page for the camp, words like a coach, friend, encourager and lover of God are written across his countenance. When asked if any of the adults volunteering this week had once been children here, he advised me many had and said they were “giving back”.

Giving back to God

Susie, this week’s director also added she found Christ here as a child and coming back yearly she developed a relationship with people across the state who hold her in Christian accountability to the ideal of Cowen and prayed for her as well for this week. She further added that as she enters the gates into Cowen she feels the presence of God. Our daughter’s counselors greeted each child in the cabin, helped them get settled and began learning their names. One was Emily, a married twenty-one-year-old college student at Concord who is seeking to enter medical school. She left her husband for the week to serve with little girls because she too had found Christ here and over the years knew this was a place of ministry for her.

We left for Cowen yesterday morning at 8 AM and returned from a four hundred mile plus trek about 10 PM. Thinking about this post all the way home I realized the “giving back” was not out of obligation or debt but a profound commitment to share the same Christ with other children just as it had happened to them. For the parents who journeyed long and for churches who make this a priority, the “giving back” may one day bear much fruit. My good friend Tom Smell has a picture of him when he was a few months old in the arms of a missionary at Camp Cowen, and if it pays off for Stefani as it has done for Tom, Susie, Emily, Rob and unknown thousands of people who have entered the gates of Cowen, then we have shown her a bit of “almost heaven”.