HEARTLAND | Meredith Flynn
The three-year-old sleeping in Leroy Burnett’s lap hardly stirred as he talked at a lunch table at Light of Christ Church. Burnett and his wife are in East St. Louis with their fellow Campers on Mission to work on a variety of projects in this hulking building on the corner of Cleveland Avenue and 16th Street. But during lunch, Pastor Barnicio Cureton’s daughter, Chloe, has found a comfortable spot for a nap.
“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Irma Burnett told her husband.
It’s a far cry from what Burnett was doing a few hours ago—affixing new lettering above an entryway in the church’s courtyard. The Campers came here ready to fix an electrical issue in the kitchen, add new signage outside and inside the building, pour a sidewalk to the parking lot, and complete various other projects. Plus, prepare all their meals and drive back and forth every day from the Collinsville church where they’re parked for the week.
“There’s no way this group of old people can get this done,” said Jan Kragness, who, with her husband, Don, is a regular volunteer with the Campers. “But one way or another…”
Judging from the projects they took on here, it does indeed “get done.”
They show up
Campers on Mission got its start in Illinois in 1975, when charter members formed the state’s chapter of a national Southern Baptist fellowship of campers. Irma Burnett’s parents were involved from the beginning, and Leroy traveled with them to projects during the 1980’s. The Burnetts, who are members of First Baptist Church in Morton, have been steady participants with the Campers since 2002, Leroy said.
The group, comprised of volunteers from around the state, hold annual work weeks at the Baptist Children’s Home in Carmi and IBSA’s camps in northern and southern Illinois. Usually, they’re at Streator in the spring and Lake Sallateeska in the fall. But due to a scheduling change this year, the Campers worked at the southern Illinois camp last October and this April, meaning they played a key role in Sallateeska’s extensive renovation campaign.
“During those two trips, they helped tear down the old camp store and game room; they helped frame a front porch on the dining hall; they helped insulate the new dining area; and helped put some of the log siding on,” said Camp Manager Philip Hall.
“Overall, they’ve been a phenomenal help for us in our ministry here over the past year.”
The Campers also help local churches with building or improvement projects, like this one at Light of Christ. Earlier this year, they installed siding at Beaucoup Baptist Church in Pinckneyville. “Usually all we ask is a place to park our camper, have water and electricity,” said Leroy Burnett, who serves as the group’s project coordinator.
The group generally works from April to September, while the weather is RV-friendly. But bringing a camper isn’t a requirement; churches often allow the volunteers to use their facilities while they serve there or nearby. Most of the volunteers are retired, but not everyone. The official roll of 30 to 40 Campers on Mission includes two bivocational pastors and a married couple in their 20s, Burnett said.
When Gary and Karen Watson were first exploring what they would need to do to join Campers on Mission, the response was, “Just show up,” Karen remembered. Standing in the gym at the church, she talked about the group’s camaraderie, which she experienced first-hand after her open heart surgery last year. The Campers were among the first to minister to her family after the surgery, Watson said. “That gives me goose bumps.”
Later on this afternoon in East St. Louis, Watson goes on a back-to-school shopping trip for two boys living at the homeless shelter housed at the church. A few weeks later, she and Gary helped deliver bunk beds for the boys, who were sharing a twin bed.
Whatever it takes to share the light of Christ.