2016-07-27
Gatlinburg, Tenn., Aug. 21---The words don't seem to fit together---"resort missionary." Aren't missionaries supposed to work in remote, impoverished lands?

Not the Rev. Bill Black. For 21 years he and his wife, Cindy, have tilled the mission field of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, Tenn., a traffic-clogged community of motels, golf courses and outlet malls where millions of people spend their vacations. The ministry has grown as the area has prospered.

Theirs is one of dozens of resort ministries, from Lake Tahoe to Hilton Head, conducted under the sponsorship of the Alpharetta-based North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention. A resort is "a unique community," said the Rev. Jeff Wagner, manager of the board's special ministries unit. "You've got to do things differently. You have a lot of young people come in, and a lot of retired people. You have a lot of people come in to do low-paying jobs in a community where everything costs a lot of money. Ministry in that setting is a challenge."

Black is used to jokes about how much he suffers for his faith. He often tends his flock from his black Mustang convertible, taking every opportunity to cut through mountain roads under canopies of trees beside trickling streams. On weekdays, he makes the rounds of campgrounds, shops and amusements where a staff of clergy, college students and volunteer church groups ministers among the tourists. On summer Sundays, he preaches in short-sleeved shirts and sandals. In the winter, he holds church services on the slopes of Gatlinburg's ski resort. "The world comes to us"

Black, 48, grew up in Swainsboro and graduated from Emory University and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His wife is a Dublin native and a graduate of Georgia Southern University. Both did summer mission work as students and say they are called by God to this ministry. "This is where we were supposed to be," said Cindy Black. "Everything we had done prepared us for this," said Bill Black.

As for the comparison to international missionaries who travel to the farthest reaches of the planet, he said, "My congregation is 10 million people a year from all over the world. The world comes to us."

On a Sunday in June at 7:30 a.m., Black drove his convertible to the dormitory of about a dozen college students employed by the ministry for the summer. They gathered in a living room filled with donated castoff furniture to hear announcements and pray. At Black's request, a student read Scripture from the Gospel of John in which Jesus asks a disciple, "Do you love me?"

"As we deal with people in the campgrounds, on the parkway and in the shops, over and over they are asking, 'Do you love me?' " Black told his band of bleary-eyed workers. "The children in the day camps, the people in the village--they want to know if they are loved. This morning the good news you carry to them is Jesus' answer: 'You are loved.' "

They scattered in singles and pairs to conduct 16 worship services in campgrounds. A chaplain who is part of the ministry was doing three at Dollywood amusement park. And volunteers from local churches held seven others in vacation locations under the sponsorship of Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries. The ministry, headed by the Blacks, is a collaboration of the Sevier County Baptist Association, Tennessee Baptist Convention and North American Mission Board.

Under a wooden pavilion built by church volunteers at Crazy Horse Campground & RV Resort, Anna Smith, 17, of Ocean City, Md., greeted campers as they came to sit around picnic tables for worship. Outside bicycles stood in a row as their riders occupied nearby swings and seesaws. Under Anna's leadership, worshippers from Charlotte and Cincinnati, Louisiana and South Carolina sang "Amazing Grace" and "Love Lifted Me."

Then Westly Roach, 22, from Rabun County gave a sermon about God's grace. "It's given to us though we are undeserving and weak and human," he told the congregation of about 25 souls. Louise Armes, who comes from Leesville, La., to work at the campground each summer with her husband, Tivis, attends this service almost every week. "You can come here as you are and be yourself," she said.

The service was the second of the day for Anna and Westly. When they had sung "Jesus Loves Me" and closed with a benediction, they packed their hymnals into the ministry's old red van and headed to a third service, at Outdoor Resorts of America.

At the "Cadillac of campgrounds," as they have nicknamed it, people own lots of recreational vehicles that cost more than some nearby permanent homes. Participants in the service greeted each other by name as they filed into the resort's clubhouse, air-conditioned and set with folding chairs. This Sunday, assisted by some students, including Westly and Anna, Bill Black delivered a message of Christian identity. "It's in belonging to God that we find our worth," he told a crowd of about 80 people.

Afterward, back at the dorm, Black and his staff gathered for lunch and an evaluation session. One service had no congregation. Others had dozens of worshippers. But Black does not count success by numbers. "You have answered the question for the people God brought to you today," he told his young staff. "Do you love me?"

The staff will spend the rest of the week in other forms of ministry. They'll conduct day camps for children, coffeehouses for teenagers and family fun evenings for anyone who wants to come. Some will perform on the streets of Gatlinburg. And some will work jobs at water slides and amusement parks as a different form of witness.

Anna is one of the youngest staff members, but her poise belies her age. "So much of ministry is relational," she said. "To sit down and talk with kids makes a big difference."

Supervising church leaders of tomorrow like Anna is an important part of Black's job, he said. "What we try to do is bring together the people God has called here, train them, equip them, and then turn them loose to do what God has called them to do." Every day he asks what went right, what went wrong and how the ministry can improve."For some of them, this is one summer in a college career," he said. "For others, it's a step in a calling or a pilgrimage where they will go into full-time ministry. Working here helps all of them see they are to be ministers in whatever their vocation."

He has a string of stories about young people who found their vocation or their life's partner at Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries, and about vacationers and workers who found faith through the work of the ministry.

A father came to know Christ through the students dealing with his difficult son at day camp. Through a young woman's flute music, an older man reconnected with the faith he abandoned after the death of his child.

A skier who said his life was in a mess prayed for salvation halfway down a slope. International workers in Gatlinburg received Scriptures in their own language through the inspiration of a Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries summer worker. And just days ago a would-be pickpocket confessed his intentions to a volunteer church worker and prayed for forgiveness.

The college students come and go each year. About 600 church volunteers spend even less time each year--usually only a week at a time. But the Blacks stay on their mountain watching seasons and generations come and go. "The fancy theological term is 'incarnational,' " said Wagner of the North American Mission Board. "They're doing ministry where people are."

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