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Outdoor enthusiast reaches youth with extreme sports

GLENCOE, Ala. (BP)–Descending a mile and a half into the earth, the group of Baptist youth sat down on the floor of the cave to catch their breath. The lights on top of their heads illuminated the dark passages that crawled through the cavern like a labyrinth. One by one each headlamp flickered off, and the darkness crept upon them. As the last light went out, the blackness consumed the group. The youth could not even see their own hands in front of their faces.
“This is what hell is like,” whispered Joe Brothers, a member of First Baptist Church, Glencoe, Ala., and cave guide for the group. “Jesus says in John 8:12 that ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’ Anyone can have the light that Jesus provides in a dark world, if they are only willing,” Brothers explained.
“It is as easy to get Jesus as it is to turn that light on, on your head,” said 13-year-old Mandy Davis of Paden Baptist Church, Gadsden, Ala. “But people would rather walk in the dark,” she said after sharing her fear that she might have to find her own way out of Blowing Rock Cave, Scottsboro, Ala.
Brothers, who has been taking youth and Royal Ambassadors (RAs) on caving, hiking, rappelling and climbing expeditions for nearly 30 years, uses the experiences to teach kids about God and overcoming obstacles. “I don’t have the gift of teaching Sunday school, which I think is harder, but this is something I enjoy doing, and God has given me a love for it,” said Brothers, who began camping and rappelling as a Boy Scout.
“These kids cannot stand out here and not know that there is a God,” Brothers said while tying down ropes on the edge of a cliff overlooking miles of countryside.
Brothers claims the outdoor experiences build self-esteem and character in the youth.
“A lot of times these kids get picked on for being in church,” he said. “But going on these climbing and caving trips is exciting and ‘cool’ to them and to their peers.”
It also brings new kids to church and provides opportunities for them to hear the gospel, he noted.
At 21, Brothers got his first opportunity to lead a group of RAs at his church on an expedition. With his previous experience in the Marine Corps and his years as a Boy Scout, he knew what tools he could use to teach them to be responsible, selfless and God-fearing.
“We do activities that promote teamwork all the time,” said Brothers, who takes 30-40 youth each year on a three-day camping and skill course event he calls Camp Monsoon. These challenges combine caving, navigation, rappelling and climbing that create an atmosphere of teamwork for the youth.
“We have activities you can’t think through by yourself but only with the help of others,” he said. “These are not just camps for fun, but we have the whole event planned out with challenges that help them grow and see the Lord in nature around them.”
“This camp is great,” said Jessica Houston, 16, a member of First Baptist Church, Glencoe. “You can have fun being a Christian. I think Joe really expresses God’s love and his love for us with these camps,” she said.
It is important for teenagers to have role models like Brothers, Houston added. Ralph Nunn, a member of White’s Chapel Baptist-CrossPoint Community Church, Gadsden, Ala., and an assistant on many of Brothers’ excursions, has seen youth grow through Brothers’ desire to love and teach them. “I have seen kids that have gone from being totally introverted to outgoing and confident because of the opportunity Joe gives them.”
Brothers said participants don’t have to be a “super athlete” to be involved in caving or climbing. They just have to be willing to concentrate and learn, he said.
“No one should ever get involved [caving, climbing or rappelling] without a very experienced guide being alongside them,” Brothers noted. “Books are great to cover basics, but until you are out there doing it, you never know what situation will arise.”
While the activities are dangerous, Brothers has managed to keep his groups free of major accidents in the 28 years he has led youth expeditions. He has seen nothing more than a few scraped knees and minor bruises happen to some of the youth.
“I always back up and even double back up most everything I am doing,” he said. “You can never be too careful.”
Still, there have been some harrowing experiences for Brothers. He described one incident when he was in a cave several miles underground and entered a passageway with thin air. It was difficult to breathe or concentrate, he said. But with teamwork and prayer, the group made it through the difficult area. Another frightening time came when Brothers’ daughter, Jill, fell 15 feet while rock climbing.
“That was scary,” said Jill, a sophomore at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. But it didn’t stop the father-daughter rock-climbing team. “I love the feeling I get and the sense of accomplishment it gives me,” she said.
Brothers leads his outdoor excursions year-round and works with the Alabama State Board of Missions in organizing groups for the activities. For more information, contact Brothers at (256) 494-9581.

Harrell is a graphic artist and writer with The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.

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  • Rex Harrell