by Garry Graham MA, MPH, LMHC, CASAC
Member of Ephesus SDA Church
Every five years, Pathfinders ages 9 to 16, descend on OshKosh, Wisconsin, for the International Pathfinder Camporee. This year’s event will take place from August 12-17, 2019 as an effort to evangelize the youth. “The main focus is to celebrate the amazing organization called Pathfinders, the local church and its leaders, as well as highlighting the importance of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” said Pastor Ron Whitehead, director of the Center for Youth Evangelism. Philip Wesley, pastor of Emmanuel SDA Church in Providence (Rhode Island) and Mount Olive SDA Church in New London (Connecticut), has served as a youth leader and associate youth director for Northeastern Conference while attending OshKosh. He thinks that an event like OshKosh is important for Adventist youth.
“Camaraderie is awesome,” Wesley said. “You can meet youth from all over, not only just the USA but we have several that come from overseas as well. They’re meeting people from different places and they’re exchanging pins. Every evening is an awesome play and spiritual gathering.” Wesley said that this event provides skill building and character building exercises for the youth. One of the main features at OshKosh is the march and also the drum core. They have drum core competitions. Wesley thinks that this event grows Pathfinders and encourages youth to join. “It inspires more kids to be Pathfinders,” Wesley said. “When they see other kids in uniform and they want to inspire to be that, they start getting involved and start making waves. The goal is to grow Pathfinders in each church community.”
The purpose of Pathfinders as an Adventist organization is multifold. “Pathfinders is building of your character, building of your skills and building of your spiritual growth to reinforce Christ in your life in a way where they are actively involved in the Word of God not just by status but by action as well,” Wesley said. “They also learn to be disciplined in the Word (The Holy Bible).”
The International Pathfinder Camporee was the brainchild of Whitehead and the Center for Youth Evangelism in Michigan. He worked in tandem with the North American Division (NAD) and the Lake Union Conference. At first, it was a labor of love. “No one would give us cash to start the event or advertise,” said Whitehead. “This was in 1994, so the main form of communication had to do with a DVD or a brochure and the church organization didn’t offer us any cash. They said, ‘You’re welcome to do it. You just have to find your own money.’” God inspired Pastor Ron Whitehead to create the International Pathfinder Camporee. He took over the event in 1994 and established the International Camporee in Red Rocks, Colorado. After advertising through word of mouth, at least 12,300 people showed up for the first camporee. It was confirmation that he followed God’s lead years prior.
“I would wake up at night with the impression that I had over and over that we’re in Middle America and we can do it invitational to the West Coast, East Coast and Canada,” Whitehead said. “I talked to my wife and she said “You’re crazy. It’s not a great idea.” But she came around and I talked to a lot of lay people I work with…I was youth director at the time. I went to my officer, president. He said, “You can do it. You can work two jobs but we’re not going to be able to support it financially.” I understood that so we talked about mortgaging our home, whatever was necessary to get some cash to start the adventure of offering this invitation to all of North America and the world.”
The Pathfinders International Camporee takes place every five years. After the event outgrew its original location in Red Rocks, Colorado, they moved to OshKosh, Wisconsin. The current site is a facility in Wisconsin where the world’s largest airplane show takes place. “We thought that might be the place because it’s so flat, nice and has great grass,” Whitehead said. “They have over 100,000 people come to their airshow event. So we thought maybe we could double the numbers we had at Red Rocks. So that’s why we moved to OshKosh, because of the property.”
Since moving to OshKosh, the camporee had more than doubled its attendance record—starting with 22,000 and increasing steadily over the years to the point where there were a little over 55,000 attendees at the last camporee in 2014. Attendees signed up through the event website, www.camporee.org, then went in there and purchased their tickets. This camporee is a six-night event. The opening night is Tuesday night. It closes Saturday night. But before they close the event, they gather to worship on Sabbath. “On Saturday morning, we have a giant worship service,” said Whitehead. “We have one of the largest stages built in the world. It takes five to six or seven days to put it up with sound support. Every 10 years, we have a brand new designed stage. So this Camporee 2019 in August, there will be a brand new stage. It’s going to be a great Camporee stage.”
Roger Wade, the Mid-American Union Youth Director and supporter of the International Pathfinder Camporee, described the activities available for the Pathfinders in OshKosh. He said that it includes a “myriad of stuff that they can learn, opportunities to learn sign language and blacksmithing.” They will learn about culture and people of other lands and the takeaway is priceless. “The biggest take away for the youth particularly in the Seventh-day Adventist Church is that they are not the only ones,” said Wade. “Many of our kids are part of programs, ministries and churches that are in small, rural America and when they come to that event, they’re able to see people from around the world. So, they realize they are not the only ones who are going through what they’re going through.”
According to Pastor Whitehead, about 1,000 people work to make this event happen. “The core staff to put together the camporee is over 120 people,” said Whitehead. “The extended staff –beyond the core staff – are called “down line directors” are almost 1,000 people including Admissions, Security, Cooks, Audio/Visual people, film crews, newspaper editors and writers.” Whitehead explained what it takes to coordinate such a massive event.
“We have what’s called ‘down line directors.’ There are seven different down line and under each under each down line is hundreds of volunteer staff,” he said. “It’s quite an operation. We rely on the down line leaders to build the coordinators beneath them and then the coordinators find people to join them to take care of lost and found…Everything it takes to run a city, that’s what we have, about 50,000 people—I think we’re the seventh or eighth largest city in the state of Wisconsin for that week. I meet with basically eight different people and their associates, which makes about 16 people total and we can manage the whole city.”
The Adventist Church supports this event by the local church level. The membership supports the kids’ fundraisers and their travel needs, their equipment needs and help with staffing. At the conference level, the next tier up, they try to put activities and honors together that Pathfinders can participate in and join in. At the union level, they typically help organize the camping and organize the conferences within their territory to be successful as far as lay out and camping design. The North American Division (NAD) and General Conference provide resource staff for help running different activities or different special projects such as the NAD Children’s Ministry Department helping with the staff/children village. Children ages four to eight can go to the Braveheart Village where they’ll be taken care of all day. NAD Ministerial Department helps with the baptisms. The North American Division Stewardship Department is giving Bibles away to every Pathfinder baptized at the camporee.
Every night, different unions offer baptisms from 6:00 to 6:45 p.m. Different unions and different world divisions have baptisms. One time, they had over 600 baptisms. Whitehead said that they’re praying for over 1,000 at this year’s camporee. “We want to help the kids to connect to their Best Friend Jesus (Christ)—that’s the bottom line,” said Whitehead.
The registration cost is $32.50 a day for six days—that includes all the daytime activities, all your camping support, your 24/7 security and medical, as well as the evening program. “Everybody brings their own tents or RVs and they set up at their assigned place for their union and they have shower houses a walk away,” said Whitehead. “There are restrooms and a water system that they can get their water from. Most people are in RVs and tents. I’d say 90 percent are in tents and 10 percent are in RVs.” This year’s camporee has more international participation than in previous years.
“Typically, around 60 to 70 international countries; this camporee will have over 100 countries represented from around the world. Mainland China, Cuba, we have some kids coming from Dubai,” said Whitehead. Whitehead shared what he thinks will be the most exciting part of this camporee. “The theme is called ‘Chosen.’ It’s on the life of David,” he said. “David is a young man who was chosen by God to lead God’s people as the King of Israel. He was supposed to lead his people. But if you study his life, he had one shining moment when he brought down a giant but the rest of his life, he had struggles like we have struggles. But every time he was down and out, he kept coming back to God.”
Whitehead said that though King David sinned and made mistakes, he kept returning to God, asking forgiveness and for protection from his enemies. Whitehead thinks this is a story filled with teachable moments for youth. “The young people have to understand God chose them too but we have to choose back,” he said. “To be chosen is one thing but if we don’t choose back, we haven’t found the blessing that’s in being chosen. So, we’re hoping that through this camporee, we can remind the young people that no matter where life takes you, no matter the highs or the lows, just keep choosing God. So, that’s the theme and the focus of this camporee—to help that generation always choose God.”
“I think people will see God through this event in the worship moments,” Whitehead said. “Let’s say you’re a 12-year-old and you’re worshipping with tens of thousands of other kids your age, I think there’s an energy transfer and a settling that takes place when you see so many people your age who are on fire for God.” Buddy Griffith IV, a student at Oakwood University, is pursuing a career in acting. He plans to attend the camporee in OshKosh where he has a very special role to fulfill. “So, for the camporee, I will be in the cast for the nighttime production of . I’ll be playing Jonathan, which is King Saul’s son and David’s best friend,” he said. “The thing I look forward to the most is agreeing to the task that God assigned me to do because I am a firm believer that way back in 2014, when they released a promo video about how God has chosen me just like He has chosen you, that God had put in His plan that He wanted to make a vessel out of me for His glory. So to be able to actually portray Jonathan and show God’s glory through my character, that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”
Griffith IV explained why this event is special to him. “If anyone has been to OshKosh, they can tell you hands-down that it’s arguably one of the best weeks of their life,” he said. “The friendships and the activities that you’re doing and the worshipping together…it’s more than just a co-ed Boy and Girl Scouts, it’s worshipping and I would like to think that’s somehow related to how we’re going to be worshipping when we get into Heaven, all together and just having a great time.”
OshKosh has its own brand and the tickets for this year’s event sold out seven months in advance. “There’s nothing in the Adventist Church that sells out seven months in advance except OshKosh does—all the international ticket sold out December 5, 2018,” Whitehead said. “All the North American Division tickets sold out February 8, 2019. So that kind of tells you for those who’ve heard about it and attended it, how special it is for them and that’s why they buy these tickets well in advance.”
Wade shared his thoughts on how he hopes this event will impact the young people. “I hope that our young people take advantage of this opportunity and that it helps them to when they go back to their local communities they aspire to be a change agent,” he said. “Just like David had the courage to stand up to Goliath, these kids will go back to their communities and stand up to the bad stuff in society—racism, sexism and all the stuff that keeps humanity down— they’ll be able to stand up and have the courage that God will place within them to make a difference.”
For more information about this event and the stage play based on the theme “Chosen,” visit www.makingofdaniel.com, where you can see behind the scenes of the work that goes into producing the evening Bible story production. More information about the camporee can also be found at https://www.camporee.org.