ARDMORE, Okla. (BP)–For years they came. They sat on hard, wooden benches with no room to stretch their legs. They sweated as the summer Oklahoma heat relentlessly pressed into their bodies. They raised their voices in praise to God. Some tried to sleep. Some listened intently as God’s Word was proclaimed beneath the huge, open-air tabernacle. They walked the narrow, uneven aisles, making their way to the altar where they gave their lives to God, where they told Him they would be His for service anywhere in the world. Their lives and their eternities were forever changed.
But this time, they came to remember, to say thank you to God for their spiritual experiences, for those decisions that changed the course of their lives, that gave them meaning, joy, peace and fulfillment. They still sat on those hard, wooden benches, they still lifted their voices in praise to God, and they still heard God’s Word proclaimed from the platform where so many of His servants have preached.
The Falls Creek Homecoming Celebration Labor Day Weekend was Sept. 5-6, and Baptists came from across Oklahoma to celebrate all God has done under the massive tabernacle that dominates the center of the Arbuckle Mountain campgrounds. It was the final worship service in the 75-year-old tabernacle that holds so many memories. In May the historical structure will be leveled to make way for a new, enclosed, air-conditioned and heated facility that will serve future generations of campers.
This weekend was about the past, the amazing history of the camp founded by J.B. Rounds and W.D. Moorer in 1917. But it was also about the future, about continuing the great tradition that no other camp in the world has known.
“Will those who come behind us find us faithful?” Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma Executive Director Anthony Jordan asked as he challenged the 4,000 people seated under the tabernacle for the last, historical worship service.
Referring to the American Olympic runners who failed to win a medal in Athens because they had trouble passing the baton from one runner to the next, Jordan said, “Don’t let me miss the handoff to pass the baton to a new generation.”
He noted that the history of Falls Creek is astonishing and can only be described as the special hand of Almighty God.
“We stand on the shoulders of those in whom God was able to do a mighty work,” he said.
Jordan said there are several reasons God has blessed Falls Creek. One is because generations before were careful to honor God.
“This tabernacle is nothing more than steel and wood, but God has chosen to meet with Oklahoma Baptists here. Why?” he asked.
First, he said, is because Falls Creek is a place of praise.
“God inhabits the praise of His people,” Jordan said. “Tell me any place on the face of God’s green earth where there have been more praises going up to God than this place.”
It is also the “most prayed place,” he said.
“There are churches all over Oklahoma lifting up Falls Creek,” he said. “God has chosen to answer the prayers of His people.”
And, Jordan said, God is in love with people.
“The genius of Falls Creek is we aren’t some pristine place where you can’t come if you have rings in your nose, ears or other places I don’t want to think about, or if you have purple, green or blue hair,” he said. “We don’t push people away, but welcome them because God will transform their lives. It’s the people place to come and meet God.”
And finally, Jordan said, Falls Creek has been faithful in putting a priority on the proclamation of the Word of God.
“We aren’t interested in people who tell stories, but who will open the Book and declare the unsearchable truth of God,” he said.
Jordan concluded that Oklahoma Baptists must respond to the dream God has given and build something for the future.
“Aren’t you glad the generations before us didn’t say, ‘This tent was good enough for us, it will be good enough for the next generation,'” Jordan said. “When Jesus comes, I am going to look Him in the face and say, ‘You placed in my responsibility one of the crown jewels of the earth, and I can say I have been faithful to what You called me to do.”
Special guests for the weekend festivities were John and Uldine Bisagno, who recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.
Bisagno, one of Falls Creek’s most popular preachers and the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Houston, said he was saved and called to the ministry at Falls Creek in a span of five minutes.
Bisagno recalled that God told the leaders of the Israelites to take 12 stones from the Jordan River to build an altar to remember their crossing into the Promised Land.
“I think you should consider taking 43 pieces (representing Oklahoma’s 43 associations) of this tabernacle, whether it be brick or stones, as a reminder to future generations what God did in this place,” Bisagno said.
God has not worked through additions, he noted, but multiplications in Falls Creek decisions. Bisagno said he figures that with all the decisions made at the camp and with those people serving in ministry positions, more than 100 million people have been saved because of what has happened at Falls Creek.
“How could I, as an 18-year-old boy, know because of Falls Creek I would be invited to preach around the world and a young man would be saved who is now pastor of the third largest church in Florida, others who are pastors of the largest church in North Carolina and the largest church in Nebraska?” Bisagno asked. “How could I know, because of my ministry, which began at Falls Creek, that Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, would give his life to Christian service, that the wives of Morris Chapman, president of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, [and] Tony Evans, one of the most powerful black preachers in the nation, would be saved? How do you project what God is going to do with a life?”
Bisagno said as he has traveled the world’s mission fields, he has been told that 30 percent of the missionaries on the field said they were saved or called to missions at Falls Creek.
“When you leave this place,” Bisagno said, “take a scoop of dirt and place it in a clear jar, or pick up a rock and place it on your mantle, and when your children and grandchildren ask about it, you tell them it is from Falls Creek Baptist Assembly, a place where God changed the world.”
The final worship service was directed by Bill Green, the BGCO’s associate executive director who has led music at Falls Creek the last 14 years, and was filled with Falls Creek favorites, including Falls Creek’s signature hymn “Saved, Saved,” which the audience sang with gusto. Other favorites included the Falls Creek orchestra with “I’ll Fly Away,” the 300-voice choir singing a “Blessed Assurance” medley, the congregation leading out with B.B. McKinney’s “Glorious Is Thy Name” and E.M. Bartlett’s “Victory In Jesus.”
Jean Neighbors, who lives at the Madill Baptist Retirement Village, played “Amazing Grace” on the piano, the same way she did when she accompanied McKinney at the Creek in 1928. Then former Falls Creek music director Glenn Boyd led the congregation in singing the hymn.
William G. Tanner, retired executive director of the BGCO, led in prayer, praising God for the part “of history we are today and will be a part of again in the near future.”
The two-hour service ended with the nearly full tabernacle praising God with “How Great Thou Art” and “To God Be the Glory.”
Earlier in the weekend, during two two-and-a-half-hour services, 14 Oklahoma pastors preached 10-minute sermons in the tabernacle as several musical groups performed between messages. For all of those preachers, Falls Creek has a special place in their lives, most of them either saved or called to ministry there.
Rex Haymaker, bivocational pastor of Seward Road Baptist Church in Guthrie, said he dreamed about the message he would preach at Falls Creek since he was a 13-year-old boy.
Randall Christy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Stonewall, said he surrendered to preach at age 14, when Bisagno was preaching at Falls Creek.
Paul Koonce, director of missions for the Washington-Osage Association, said for the last 38 years, Falls Creek has been his Bethel, a place where God showed Himself to him and commissioned him.
“I’ve known I could always come back to Falls Creek, and God would speak to my heart and I would feel His presence here,” Koonce said.
Mike Butler, pastor of First Baptist Church in Inola, told the crowd he was at Falls Creek to thank Jesus because 30 years ago as a rebellious Catholic boy who had been kicked out of his house, God spoke to him, cleansed him and set him free.
Del Buckmaster, student minister at Timothy Baptist Church in Muskogee, said he gave his heart and life to Jesus and surrendered to the ministry at Falls Creek in 1989.
Justin Ford, pastor of Sharon Baptist Church in Chickasha, said growing up in a Methodist church, he never heard the Gospel until he was invited by a friend to Falls Creek and someone invested in his life.
Also preaching were pastors Dave Bryan, Chisholm Heights Baptist Church in Mustang; Doyle Pryor, First Baptist Church in Sapulpa; Jimmy Reed, Turpin Baptist Church in Turpin; Randy Robertson, First Baptist Church in Anadarko; Randy Golden, Corbett Baptist Church in Lexington; Bill Barnett, Indian Nations Baptist Church in Seminole; Cody Deevers, Velma Baptist Church in Velma; and Wade Burleson, Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid.
The weekend was also filled with recreational activities including swimming in the creek and water games, a ropes course, paddle boats, fishing, kids’ crafts along with children’s and preschool activities and archery.
Oklahoma’s Disaster Relief crew served meals of chicken and ham before packing up to head to Florida to help victims of Hurricane Frances.
Also, three historical markers at Price Falls, the site of B.B. McKinney’s cabin, and Boulder Springs (formerly Devil’s Bathtub) were unveiled by Marlin Hawkins, BGCO historical director.
For the early birds, a Labor Day Sunrise Service was conducted by Craig Etheridge, pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, and Rodney Briggs, music minister at First Baptist Church in McAlester, at the Harry K. Dodd Prayer Garden at the top of a mountain overlooking the Falls Creek grounds.
In wrapping up the weekend, Green said, “This is the culmination of the greatest times we’ve experienced at Falls Creek.”