A Brief History of the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association (Camp Agapé)

Compiled by Lavinia Wingert, Agapé Camp Director, November 2008

Agapé is a story of faith.  It is a story of God’s people seeking to do His will through outdoor ministry.  Throughout the story, there is a great sense of thanksgiving for the blessing of doing God’s work.

The ministry – now called Agapé – began with a desire to provide children and youth a special opportunity to spend a few days in an outdoor setting where relationships with God and others would grow.  Before the incorporation of the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association, congregations of the Ohio River Valley and Northwest PA Conferences of the Eastern district of the American Lutheran Church organized camping programs – called “Camp Pa-Oh-WVa” – at Raccoon State Park.  The future of this camping program was established by the incorporation of the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association (OVLBCA) on May 22, 1961.

Bylaws were written and approved by the Ohio River Valley Conference on October 10, 1961.  At this same meeting, the following were elected to the first OVLBCA Board:  Pr. Earl Key, Pr. Phillip Rohrbacher, Pr. Ted Grotjohn, Pr, Leonard Schultz, Pr, Marvin Ackerman, Pr. Lester Polenz, Miss Susan Sapp, Mrs. Elaine Rude and Mr. Stewart McVicker.  At their first board meeting on November 15, 1961, Pr. Marvin Ackerman was elected to the presidency of the board.  At that time, camp properties (including recreation equipment, craft materials, mattresses and a flag pole) were stored at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bower Hill Road, at Lutheran Service Society (LSS) and at Raccoon State Park.  Pr. Lester Polenz was appointed to be the first Director of Bible Camps.  It was announced that the camp was a member of both the Lutheran Bible Camp Association and the American Camping Association.  Three committees were established:  Camp Program to run the summer camping program at Raccoon State Park,  Future Site Procurement to find a permanent site for the ministry, and Finance to raise funds for development of the site.

In June of 1963, the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association approved a motion on inclusivity at the camp.  It was resolved that “we will endeavor to reach out to all communities and encourage all youngsters to attend Bible Camp.”  In the years that followed, intentional efforts were made to bring campers from inner city settings to camp and to include children with special needs.  As a result, friendships were built at camp that would not have been otherwise possible.

Many properties were considered before the Site Procurement Committee learned of a beautiful farm near Hickory in Washington County, PA.  This 221 acre property was purchased from Mr. James McGugin in 1964 for $9,000.  An adjoining parcel of 73.6 acres (formerly part of the McGugin farm) was purchased from the Locq family in 1967 for $18,500.   Mortgages for these properties were satisfied in 1979 and 1980.

To develop their new site and program, the OVLBCA Board sought the advice of Jerry Manlove, the director at Koinonia in New York.  A Master Plan for the new camp facility was prepared by Art Harrison.  Both Mr. Manlove and Mr. Harrison met with board members many times over several years to provide guidance and to help set priorities.  It was agreed that the new site should be used as soon as possible while recognizing that the complete Master Plan would require several years to complete.  The total cost of the Master Plan was projected at $820,500.

Meanwhile, as the board made plans for the future, outdoor ministry was carried out each summer at Raccoon State Park and later at Tomlinson Run State Park.  Campers were blessed by these experiences, but looked forward to camping at the new site near Hickory, PA.  In 1966, senior high campers were the first to camp at the new site.  Also in 1966, eight junior counselors traveled to Koinonia for training.  Four senior counselors from Koinonia were employed with one of them – Maynard Atik – serving as Camp Director for the summer of 1966.  A Name-the-Camp contest was conducted that year.  The final choice was AGAPE (not Camp Agapé).

In 1967, three aluminum canoes were purchased and the Camp Director for 1967, Alan Tobey, reported on the importance of canoe trips (to Pymatuming Lake and the Youghiogheny River that year).  He described Agapé as a model of the way things can be when life is based on love, beauty, service and friendship.  Pr. Cliff Wood, the Camp Director in 1968, wrote that “campers learned to overcome the tribulations of home sickness, bad weather, and minor inconveniences in a way which will help them to rise above the hardships they will face in life.”  In 1969, Pr. Wood was hired as the part-time Camp Director at Agapé. Each camp week – at Agapé or Tomlinson - was staffed by volunteers, both clergy and lay, as well as by paid counselors, cooks and nurses.  By 1970, A-frames were being constructed and all age groups camped at Agapé.

From the time of its acquisition, many improvements were made to the land and to the existing buildings on the property.  The farmhouse (McGugin’s Inn) was upgraded to provide for year-round retreats, summer staff housing, an infirmary and a camp kitchen.  The Locq home was upgraded to serve as the camp manager’s residence.  Plans for both a swimming pool and a pond were being discussed.  Martha Burns, chairman for retreats, reported that in 1970, 22 different churches and groups (507 individuals) used McGugin’s Inn for retreats.  Ruth Brosky, chairman for the family camp, reported that many families used the family camping area while working on projects at camp, including clearing new family campsites and constructing  the camp’s hay wagon in 1971 under the leadership of Mr. and Mrs. Amundson.

In July of 1971, the LSS asked the Agapé Board to release Pr. Cliff Wood as the camp’s part-time director.  The minutes record, “It is truly with deep regret we accepted this resignation from a faithful and beloved leader.”  In September, Pr. Wood wrote, “Serving Agapé has been an experience I shall cherish throughout my life.  In the camp setting where we work, study, eat, sleep and play together, relationships become extremely meaningful.  Frustrations are minimized by these relationships of Christian love.”  In December of 1971, the Agapé Board voted to call Dave Thoreson from El Camino Pines, a Lutheran camp in California, to be Agapé’s new Camp Director.  In his first year at Agapé (1972), Mr. Thoreson met with nearly every pastor of the Ohio River Valley and Northwest PA Conferences in order to discover the needs of the congregations in this area.  He attended several conferences in order to be a better resource to Agapé in its program and development.

After his first summer at Agapé, Mr. Thoreson wrote, “Agapé has a future that is only limited by our imagination and commitment to a camping ministry.  We have been an important part of the parish ministry and can continue to provide people with something that brings a new and different dimension to what can happen in a parish.  We all need to support our camp if it is to grow, not by just providing more facilities but by exposing our youth . . . to the gospel through the same means that God chose, through his Word and through the Word becoming flesh, through people – through his staff.  We occupy a very valuable piece of land here at Agapé and must plan very carefully and thoughtfully for its wise development and use.”

While the program at Agapé was on firm ground, the Master Plan for development of the site faced great hurdles – mostly financial.  In September of 1971, detailed estimates were presented for a swimming pool ($82,390), a Bathhouse ($66,630), a Dining Hall and Kitchen ($165,000), a Family Camp Washhouse ($33,640) and a Duplex Living Unit ($14,845).  Many volunteers had helped to prepare the property for the Master Plan and many congregations had responded to the appeal for funds to develop the new camp.  The limited funds received were used primarily to pay for the development plan, for architect’s and engineering fees, for the fund appeal, for mortgage payments, and for necessary infrastructure costs, including roads, water, sewage, and electricity,   Donor enthusiasm waned as the funds received provided for these initial needs but were not sufficient to build the visible structures that were anticipated.

In 1973, a team of four outdoor ministry experts visited Agapé and made many observations and recommendations, including the following:

  • You need to bring pastors and congregations together – perhaps a comfortable retreat center is the answer.
  • Facilities bother the adults, but not the kids.
  • Provide programming for the family campers.
  • You have a tremendous land resource.
  • Campers must go to other kids and “sell” Agapé.
  • You need to have a small lake.
  • Your strongest point is your relationship to youth.

The board members were also reminded of words from the Master Plan:  “This is the hope, the vision . . . that through a constant, careful and justifiable program of land development, the highest order of priority can be served . . . that of guaranteeing the preservation of our natural heritage . . . for the high calling of the development of human resources to their fullest created potential.”

One member of the team of visitors, Armond Paulson, a camp director from Greenbay, Wisconsin, wrote the following to the Agapé Board:  “As I spent time with you, I became continually more aware of one fact, Agapé is a people ministry filled with persons who are committed and gutsy.  Time and again I felt the commitment, concern and caring by persons about an idea and a dream - Agapé … dedication often in the face of adversity, pressures and problems.  I felt no lack of resolve.  Christ calls us to make these kinds of commitments to ministry and to each other.  You have a strong inner core.  It is however too small.  One of your major challenges before you is to widen your base to make room for and include more people who are or could be just as interested and concerned.  Develop plans that allow people to get involved at a level where they enjoy it and are comfortable.”

A successful example of such involvement by volunteers in 1973 was the construction of a large picnic shelter near McGugin’s Inn under the leadership of Merle Emeigh, a member of Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dormont.

The Agapé Board recognized the need for improved ongoing communications between the camp and association congregations.  Board members agreed, “We must go to the congregations, speak to councils and find an ambassador through whom the camp can share information.”  The Agapé Board spent much time prioritizing goals in order to implement many of the recommendations of the visitation team.

At the same time, Dave Thoreson and his staff conducted a summer program in 1973 in which campers were allowed to experience life together and through the help and guidance of counselors and pastors to identify experiences both positive and negative and to deal with them.  Campers were allowed to make decisions about what to eat, what they would study and what their recreation would be with the goal of exploring how God wants us to care for one another and His creation.

In 1974, the pond was completed, renovations were accomplished at the director’s residence and at McGugin’s Inn and plans were developed for a multi-purpose retreat center.  The Facilities Committee reported:  “Drawings and sketches of the cedar building will be available at the Annual Association Meeting.  Thus far we have spent no money in getting drawings and sketches, only time and energy.”  (No further mention of this building could be found in the minutes of the Agapé Board.)

In 1975, the Board President, Roger Hardy, reported on the ongoing cooperative efforts between Lutherlyn and Agapé.  “Representatives from Agapé’s board and from Lutherlyn’s camp committee met a few times throughout the year.  We decided to meet about 2 or 3 times per year to keep in contact with each other . . . to become more aware of each other as camps and how we can share ideas with each other.”  In the same year, the Executive Director, Dave Thoreson, reported, ”This summer Agapé was visited for accreditation by the American Camping Association.  I am very proud that we scored a 97% in the evaluation and will be accredited by this group.  I think it is a reflection of the outstanding camping program we have at Agapé.”  Also in 1975, the first rock climbing camp session was led by Pr. Keith Grill.

In 1976, Dave Thoreson resigned as the Executive Director of Agapé.  John Hushman was hired in 1977 to be the new Executive Director.  Mr. Hushman wrote, “Upon arriving at the camp on April 1st, we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of little detail things that needed to be done.  We give thanks to God for the patience of the Board and love shown by the many who helped us through our first summer.   Summer is the busiest time for a Director and very time consuming.  We had youth of all ages, colors and backgrounds.  God’s creation is truly alive at Agapé.  Agapé is love!  Love is to be shared!  Many hours of my time are spent sharing with groups within our churches about Agapé.”  During this time of transition, the committees of the Agapé Board were commended by Rev. Jim Lutz, President of the Board, for their “continuing fantastic and conscientious functioning.”  During this period, construction of the Maintenance Building (Pole Barn) was completed in 1976 and construction of the Shower House was begun in 1977.

In 1978, a report of the Program Committee included the following:  “Cooking out was a highlight of the program this summer.  It helped develop family unity as well as develop outdoor skills.  Campfires were a highlight of the day.  It really builds counselors’ self-confidence as leaders; it is always fun to watch counselors grow into positive Christian leaders during a summer.  Farm animals (goats, geese and ducks) were cared for by the  campers, a first experience for many youth.  For many children, this was the high point of the camp.  Super Adults (senior citizens) were invited to come anytime during the summer.  The experience of youth and Supers being together at camp is very rewarding.”  The 1978 Annual Report also described the “inter-grouping process going on to break down prejudices between young and old, rich and poor, and minority and white populations.”  Above all, it was affirmed that “Christ be the center of all that we do and say.”

In 1979, Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church in Dormont agreed to spearhead the construction of a retreat facility near Family Camp.  It was reported that “the proposed 28’ X 44’ building, completely built, assembled, finished, delivered and set up on our foundation will cost $28,000.”  During this same year, the Shower House was completed.  John Hushman wrote, “We had a staff that was innovative, and had a desire to serve Christ in a real way.   It was because of them that many children felt the love of Christ become real in their lives.  Watching them and helping them to see Christ come alive was a very exciting experience for me.  It was rewarding to see so many campers return from previous year; to see youth from our congregations sharing with unchurched youth; and finally to see real strides made toward overcoming racism among our youth.”

In 1980, the Personnel and Communications Committee wrote, “Here is a glimpse of some of our dreams for the 1980s:  1. Change from primarily a summer camp to a four season camp.  2. Offer weekend programs.  3. Develop and offer resource programs focusing on family communication, spiritual refreshment, varieties of recreational activities, and activities geared to the affairs of plain living.”  The theme for the summer of 1980 was “God’s Rainbow Family” and the campers included children, youth, adults and super adults, as well as mentally retarded guests of all colors and economic backgrounds.  John and Diane Hushman wrote, ”As our facilities continue to improve, our vision as to goals with our youth continues to grow!”

The retreat house was ready for use on June 6, 1981.  On June 20, the house was dedicated and named Bethany House.  A group of men from Bethany Evangelical Lutheran Church, Dormont, committed to paying the full cost of the project!  Also in 1981, John Hushman resigned with “thanks to all of you who have supported us in our ministry these past five years.  There is no place like people.”

In March of 1982, Dean Hauge was called to be the new Camp Director at Agapé.  In May, plans were made to move an above-ground pool to Agapé.  In July, Mr. Hauge proposed that a portion of camp property be sold in order to pay off the camp’s debts and to obtain operating capital.  In December of 1982, Dean Hauge wrote, ”These past few months have been a time for Agapé Ministries to celebrate the beginning of a new era of activity, involvement and prayers.  It has also been a time to look ahead at the future of this ministry with the light of Christ shining brightly as it did on the eve of His birth.”

Many financial difficulties faced Agapé at this time.  In February of 1983, Dean Hauge wrote that the ministry needs $3,000 per month just to exist and $4,000 is needed to prepare for the summer camping season.  In order to reduce costs, Dean Hauge became a part-time director.  In hopes of increasing the number of campers, a decision was made in March 1983 to reduce the fee for children of unemployed families to $30 per week.  In June, a letter to pastors of the Northwest PA and Ohio River Valley Conferences explained the reasons behind the camp’s financial problems, including the failure (perhaps during the transition between two directors) to apply for tax exemption.  In June, Les Elliot, the Council President at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Bower Hill Road, wrote “Let us not fail now!  Our young people need Camp Agapé, and we are responsible to resolve its problems. We cannot abandon the camp nor our commitment.  We are seeking the cooperation of the Conferences, the Board, and the congregations of the association to resolve this situation to the glory of God and to the continuation of Agapé Ministries.”

As of July, 1983, Agapé still owed over $6,000 to the local school district for 1982 taxes, but the camp had received full exemption status for 1983 and the years following!   At a special meeting of the OVLBCA on July 30, 1983, approval was given to the Agapé Board to negotiate a sale of a portion of the camp property.  On August 10, 1983, the Agapé Board approved the sale of approximately 30 acres to the Pichora family.  It was agreed that the net proceeds of about $24,500 would be used to pay off back taxes and various loans.

Even in the midst of financial concerns, the tradition of providing a decidedly Christian emphasis and relationship-building experiences for youth from our churches and from various inner city programs remained strong.  In November, Bishop Harold Jansen visited the camp and wrote to the congregations of the two conferences.   His letter ends with the following:  “In all, I came away with the feeling that while there was work to be done, it will be worth the effort.  There is a fine Board, an excellent staff person in Dean Hauge, and a lovely and useful site.  I hope you continue to have a part in shaping this promising ministry.”

Financial difficulties continued to plague the Agapé Board and the Director, Dean Hauge.  In  1985, he found it necessary to resign and leave Agapé.  Many loans were still due, including debts of about $12,000 to Dean and Rosie Hauge.  An immediate appeal to congregations resulted in sufficient contributions to satisfy the debt to the Hauges.  A loan was sought from the Mission Loan Fund of the ALC and the request was acted on favorably due to the anticipated receipt of a bequest that was in probate.  It was decided by the Association that Agapé must operate with volunteer staff only.  A study of the camp’s needs and future viability was established jointly by the two conferences.

Pastors volunteered to lead individual weeks of camp with staffing by other volunteers.  Some weeks of camp were organized by members of urban congregations in Pittsburgh and Steubenville to serve children in their local communities.  Other weeks that were Board-sponsored primarily served children of Lutheran congregations

In 1986, the Ohio Valley Lutheran Bible Camp Association decided to seek affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and with the SWPA Synod of the ELCA.  In June of 1987, at its Constituting Convention, the SWPA Synod accepted the affiliation of the ORVBCA (Camp Agapé) as a church camp of the synod.   When the ELCA was formed in January of 1988, Camp Agapé was included in the budget of the SWPA Synod.  Also, a majority of the members of the Agapé Board were elected by the SWPA Synod.  This financial support and representation on the Agapé Board has continued to the present.

With the financial support of the SWPA Synod, the Agapé Board began the cautious process of hiring part-time staff.  While the budget was tight, the Agapé Board did not take out any loans for staffing or other operating expenses.  The purchase of a tractor did require a short-term loan which was paid off diligently and on time.

As the financial picture became more secure, a new attempt at building a Retreat Center was proposed by Merle Emeigh.  Drawings were prepared by a local log home builder and a fund appeal was launched.  While about $50,000 was received to Build the Dream, the estimated cost of the building increased from about $100,000 to over $200,000.  A piece of land in Mercer County was donated to the building fund that, when sold, increased the fund by another $50,000.  Since this was still not nearly enough to Build the Dream, the money was invested in mutual funds through Allegheny Investments and with the ELCA Mission Investment Fund.  When the market dropped, the Agapé Board committed to keeping the funds invested until they regained their value.

In 1994, the camp was again evaluated by American Camping Association (ACA) visitors and became an Approved Site of the ACA.  Subsequent visits led to full accreditation.  To the present day, Agapé continues to maintain its status as an Accredited Camp of the ACA (now called the American Camp Association).

During the late 1990s, a major gift of land and the selective harvesting of timber from Agapé woodlands produced funds that were used for many needed improvements to the camp property.  Bible Camp Lane was upgraded and better equipment was purchased for property maintenance.  Improvements to McGugin’s Inn included a large extension to the kitchen, new bathrooms on the first floor, a ramp for handicapped accessibility and a separate room for healthcare.  Also, it was finally feasible to construct a beautiful in-ground swimming pool that continues to serve campers as an important part of their daily recreation at camp.

In 2001, Thomas Reddinger was hired as the Summer Program Director with the Board President serving as Executive Director.  Mr. Reddinger used his experience at Camp Nawakwa to manage an excellent camping program for five years at Agapé.  One of his innovations was Fall Foliage Day which continues to provide fun and fellowship annually for campers, staff and other friends of Agapé.   He also scheduled Community Swim Days on Saturdays to encourage neighbors to use the Agapé pool and to introduce them to the camp.   Mr. Reddinger was promoted to the position of part-time Camp Director and served through 2005 when he returned to Nawakwa.   During the summers of 2006 and 2007, Lawrence Coss provided strong leadership to Agapé as the Summer Program Director with oversight by Lavinia Wingert, volunteer Camp Director.  In 2008, Dr. Wingert was hired as the part-time year-round Agapé Camp Director.

In 2004, the Agapé Board made a bold programmatic change to focus on children who were struggling in school with reading and math.  Providing a literacy program in a residential camp setting is quite unusual.  We know of only two other camps - both Presbyterian – that are doing one week of literacy camp each year.   At Agapé, literacy is the major emphasis of 5 weeks of summer camp with 2 weeks that include other learning, but not literacy.  Our reading materials were written by Dr. Bill Kofmehl of Christian Literacy Associates and our math materials have been selected by Pr. Dennis Orsen.  All the reading and math teachers are volunteers, while the paid staff has included the program director or camp director, counselors, lifeguards, cook and nurse.

Remarkably, campers using the reading materials gain on average one grade in reading skill during one week at Camp Agapé – as determined by a standard test administered at the beginning and end of each week.  This average gain of one grade level in one week at camp has been consistent through five years (2004 – 2008) of literacy programs at Agapé.  The high level of attention and support provided by our teachers has been significant in the success of this program.  We are grateful to be able to change children’s lives in this way while providing them with the fun of camp and the opportunity to grow in their relationships with God and others.

During this period of forming a viable literacy program, many other developments converged to allow Camp Agapé to look again at the dream of building a retreat center.  During Pr. Ann Smith’s time as President of the Board, negotiations began with a natural gas company interested in developing resources under our camp property.  With great caution, Agapé entered into a lease agreement and now receives royalties from five gas wells - three on Agapé property and two on adjacent properties that are part of the same unit with Agapé.

Conversations began with an architect, Ron Robson, to design a retreat center that would be constructed in phases.  Also, our current Board President, Pr. Dennis Orsen, had conversed for several years with Mission Builders, an ELCA organization of committed Lutherans who construct churches and buildings for other Lutheran organizations.  Working at minimum wage, their help would bring down the cost of constructing a retreat center.  With invested gifts that had regained their value, the resource of natural gas, the assistance of the Mission Builders and a short-term loan from the Mission Investment Fund (taken to finish the project for immediate use), Camp Agapé was able to construct a beautiful new building that can be used for meals, day retreats and classroom space during the summer camping season.  The blessing of five retired Mission Builder couples coming to Camp Agapé in their RVs, working in partnership with the Agapé Building Committee and many volunteers, including our neighbors, has been a totally incredible gift.  The skills of the Mission Builders and their friendship to us in this shared endeavor have been awesome.  The building has been named the Agapé Retreat and Learning Center and was dedicated to our Lord’s service on November 16, 2008, with Bishop Kurt Kusserow officiating.

Looking back at the history of Camp Agapé reminds us of the enormous commitment shown by many congregations, volunteers, donors and staff members to carry out the mission of sharing God’s love, Agapé.   We are reminded of thousands of children and adults who have been touched by the beauty of the land and the Christian experience at Agapé.  We are struck by the ongoing power of the commitment – made even before the property was purchased – to be a ministry that would “reach out to all communities.”   We are grateful for our affiliation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and with the SWPA Synod of the ELCA.  As a member of the American Camp Association and Lutheran Outdoors Ministries, Agapé enjoys the mutual support of many other camps in North America.  God’s steadfast support for Agapé through times of difficulty and times of celebration have emboldened its supporters to carry on, to seek His will always, and to serve Him in this ministry and in all that we do.

Thanks be to God!  Amen!

Directors of Agape
Pastor Clifford Wood
Part Time Camp Director
1969 - 1971
Dave Thoreson
Executive Director
1972-1976
John Hushman
Executive Director
1977-1981
Dean Hauge
Executive Director
1982-1985
Thomas Reddinger
Camp Director
2003-2005
Dr. Lavinia Wingert
Camp Director
2006 - Present