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Old-time camp meetin still going strong
Maerelle Daniel, left, talks with Sandra Buffington before a church service Wednesday at the Lebanon United Methodist Church campground as part of their annual camp meeting. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Wake up to the sound of children laughing, cows lowing and the smell of breakfast cooking a few tents away.

Good morning and welcome to camp meetin’.

The weeklong camp out is a summertime favorite for those who attend Lebanon United Methodist Church in Gillsville. Families return year after year for the church revival, and more than 350 have made the campground their home for the week. Some of this week’s attendees have been going more than 70 years. Several families are descendants of those who started the tradition in 1846, when farming families would gather for spiritual renewal while waiting to harvest crops.

"Almost everyone here has attended all their life," said Wilma Dale, wife of Pastor James Marshall Dale and descendent of the original Buffington family that established the campground. "Five generations are in this tent, and most of them have never missed a camp meeting."

Children attend an age-appropriate service each day, and entire families meet up for the 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. worship services before gathering for social events each night.

All the time in between is free for chatting, playing and eating. The center of the campground features a covered pavilion with three rows of 11 pews, hay under the feet and fans above. A wooden playground to the right boasts 11 swings and a slide, a sand pit with toy trucks and a horseshoe ring. Two volleyball nets and loveseat swings are scattered across the grounds, and the entire campsite is encircled by about 40 cabins, referred to as "tents" after the original construction.

"People arrange to be off work for this week," Jeannie Gillespie said as she talks with relatives on the front porch of her tent. "It’s a big reunion to see the people you don’t see all year."

Lebanon Methodist Church staff run the weeklong camp, but an evangelist, song leader and youth director join for the week for evening services and local pastors speak at each day’s morning service. The week is considered "very traditional" with formal hymns and traditional preaching, said Rev. Dale.

"Some folks could look at it all and think it’s a cult, but it’s just a very traditional camp meetin’," he said. "This ground highly promotes the Methodist tradition, and we’re just here hangin’ out."

Although camp meetings are mostly Methodist tradition, Lebanon Methodist Church welcomes Baptist attendees and speakers and makes the service inclusive of all denominations.

Although steeped in Methodist tradition, many of the camp meetings in this area often feature both Methodist and Baptist speakers and attendees. And this isn’t exactly your grandmama’s camp meeting.

The families began installing power in the cabins several years ago, and the newer ones now have air conditioning and outlets for televisions, video games and radios. Running water allows for full bathrooms and showers. About 120 children cover the campgrounds, spilling from inside the tents to outside on the playground.

"When it comes to Christmas or camp meetin’ as a favorite for my kids, you know what they’d pick? Camp meetin’," Gillespie laughed. "You know what they say about a week after Christmas is over? ‘How far away is camp meetin?’ That’s how much they look forward to this."

Donald Buffington, 67, has been attending the week his entire life and is a part of the family that originally donated the land and founded the week. His grandmother, Virginia Buffington, who lived to be 93, attended each year, and the entire family grew and began bringing children and grandchildren.

"I could say about 80 percent of the people here are related by kin. I attend three different churches in the area, and I wish they all had camp meeting," Buffington said. "You get revived, and it’s good for your soul. There are people you don’t see all through life except here at camp meeting."

Buffington’s grandson Trevor, 7, has attended several years and says he has fun each year.

"He told his brother the other day that he was looking forward to getting his perfect attendance T-shirt for months," said Donald Buffington’s wife, Wanda Buffington. A special service is held Saturday to wrap up the camp, and children are rewarded for their time at each day’s service.

The camp is governed by the Tent Holders Association, which includes a representative from each cabin. The association creates the events and determines which pastors will preach each day. Most attendees come from around Gainesville, but several families come back after moving to Atlanta.

"People from all walks of life and beliefs come and bring their different personalities," Dale said. "We all relax, have fun, learn, cry and say goodbye and go home."

Dale helped to build his cabin about 14 years ago but sees a new trend for housing.

"Younger people bring in campers or trailers, and that’s probably the idea for the future as these older buildings are eventually torn down and people are tired of not having screened in porches," he laughed. "They don’t tent like they used to tent."