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In Yosemite, students & prof weigh doctrine of creation

YOSEMITE, Calif. (BP)–Rosy, puffy clouds hung like Sunday bonnets over the eastern peaks of Yosemite National Park in the setting western sun. The flat rock outcropping was marked with long shallow gashes that invited weary bodies to rest, lean back against rock pillows, soak in the sunset. A still coolness lay on the air like a bracing cup of water, spurring pleasant shivers, another layer of clothing and anticipation of the warm close confines of the sleeping bag.

It was Friday evening, Aug. 2, on the northeast side of Tuolumne Peak, Yosemite, California. Twelve people were gathering, some toting mats, for one final night of worship and reflection on their weeklong backpacking excursion into the wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas.

It was the last full day of class.

“The Doctrine of Creation” may or may not sound like an exciting, life-changing topic to study intensively for one week. But throw in a 40-pound backpack, vigilance against brown bears, weary feet, spectacular sunrises and sunsets and overlooks, a couple of campfires, swims in glacier-fed lakes, and chicken noodle soup at 10,000 feet elevation, and “the Doctrine of Creation” becomes deeply personal and life-changing in one short week.

“This has been a spiritual growth spurt for me,” said Patrick Norris, one of nine students who made the trek. “It has been such a blessing, just to be out here. I live in Orange County, which has a real shortage of trees and an overabundance of smog and traffic. It has been a reward to be here this week; I can’t say that enough.”

“The Doctrine of Creation” is a two-credit-hour course offered by Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in partnership with 52.7 Adventure, a California Southern Baptist wilderness program based near Yosemite National Park. Students from any of Golden Gate’s five regional campuses may register for the course, which is limited to no more than 12 students due to the park’s wilderness regulations.

Kon Yang, professor of Old Testament studies at the seminary’s Pacific Northwest campus, teaches the course, using one-hour lectures each night of the trek, a morning devotion, and questions to provoke thinking throughout each day’s hike. He requires a response paper to a textbook before the actual trip and a follow-up project afterward. Most of the learning, though, according to the students, takes place in the actual experience of the trip.

“You never get to meet people like this in the classroom,” Carlos Herrera, a student from the Mill Valley campus, said. “Here we’ve all struggled together, learned together, lived together, and it’s been such a learning experience to do all that together.”

Added Scott Brown, from the Southern California campus, “Out here we’ve been transparent with each other whether we wanted to be or not. You can’t hide anything when there are no separate rooms. We have to bring in and maintain and promote a good attitude here. It’s high stress — the tough hikes, the heavy packs, no shower for a week, being with the same people for a week, in dirt. I understand now why part of our grade for the class is based on our participation level and our attitude throughout the week. My personal attitude is actually important for the whole team.”

Michelle Biggs shared how she felt God speaking to her on the trail each day as she prayed — for strength to take the next uphill step, for patience with her own and others’ fatigue, for God to teach her through the experience.

Each day Yang would give the group a question to ponder as they hiked that day, such as, “Why do we feel closer to God here?”

Jeff Jones, from the Mill Valley campus, answered, “Because it’s simple here. In ‘man’s’ world things are complicated. Here it’s simple; there’s a lot less to distract you from seeing or thinking about God.”

Brown took Jones’ answer further. “You can blame the manmade distractions, and there’s truth in that, they do distract and make it harder to see God. But I think it’s also a matter of bringing God closer into my everyday life, inviting him to be with me in the traffic and deadlines and pressures we face back in ‘civilization.'”

The week includes two days at a campground, where students can acclimate to the high altitude (usually about 8,000 feet), begin to get acquainted with each other, learn the basics of wilderness travel and etiquette and go rock climbing and rappelling. The backpacking trek lasts five days and includes daily hikes of various length and elevation change, usually parking at a different wilderness campsite each evening.

The group is divided into smaller groups which share cooking, gear-carrying and worship leading responsibilities throughout the week. At least two guides from the 52.7 Adventure outfit are with the class the whole week, providing backpacking and wilderness expertise. All gear and food is included in the trek’s fee, which students pay in addition to tuition.

For many of the students who take the class each year, it is their first experience wilderness backpacking. Learning to live without a shower, without fresh food, without access to telephones or television or the Internet or even a paved road is all part of the immersion experience of creation.

“I really enjoy getting the students out in the backcountry,” said Steve Hughes, director of 52.7 Adventure, which takes numerous small groups into the Yosemite wilderness each summer to build witnessing relationships with non-believers who work in the park. “I get to teach them some pretty extensive wilderness education, I get to interact with people who are in ministry and studying for ministry, I get to hear some of the theological side of the experience. Mostly what I love, though, is seeing them gain such a sense of accomplishment and enjoyment out of the week. That’s a real blessing to me.”

Yang has taught the course for four summers; he inherited the class from theology professor Stan Nelson, who had led the class, with Hughes’s outfit, since 1991.

Despite their aching feet, unwashed hair and a rather monotonous diet of pasta and snacks, feedback from the team was unanimously positive. Biggs’ comments were echoed with a chorus of agreement: “This week has been a reward and a gift from God. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: WORSHIPPING IN YOSEMITE, CAMP CONTEST and THREESOME.

    About the Author

  • Amanda Phifer