Beloved camp integral to spiritual growth for current church leaders, and those yet to come
Every summer, Judy Halter takes a busload of elementary schoolers from Anna, Ill., to Lake Sallateeska Baptist Camp, where they spend a week learning about Jesus and what it means to tell other people about him.
She even got her commercial driver’s license so she could drive the bus. Halter understands well the value of investing in young lives.
“I was saved when I was six years old,” said Halter, a member of Anna Heights Baptist Church. “But finally, at eight or nine years old, after I came to Lake Sallateeska and the missionaries came and spoke to us, I finally got it. I understood the Great Commission, and that we were called to go, and not just stay when we follow Christ.
“And it was life-changing at that point for me.”
Halter’s “favorite place in the world” turns 75 this year. As Lake Sallateeska marks the milestone anniversary, children and students and adults across Illinois continue to stream to the IBSA-owned retreat. They go for the scenery, the activities, the friendships, and the opportunity to grow closer to Jesus and his mission.
“This place has housed missionaries. This place has birthed missionaries,” Halter said. “And hopefully it will continue to birth tomorrow’s missionaries and send them out into all the world as our Lord commanded.”
Volunteers completed much of the work during a recent round of renovations at Lake Sallateeska that included a new façade for the game room.
In 1928, Illinois Woman’s Missionary Union (WMU) began holding youth camps at a lake outside of Pinckneyville owned by Dr. F.B. Hiller. In 1942, WMU bought the 40-acre property for $4,800.
The camp was dedicated on July 7 of that year, and later renamed after a visiting missionary from Oklahoma explained the meaning of her name, “Sallateeska.” The word, which means “keep looking up,” gave the camp its name.
Over the past 75 years, the camp has expanded to 163 acres. Cabins on the campground can sleep 200 people, and the Sallateeska Inn, added in 2000, offers 16 rooms of hotel-style lodging. More recent renovations nearly doubled the size of the dining hall, among other improvements.
Long-time camp attenders and staff speak of the camp’s value as a retreat, a place to get away from distractions and get closer to God.
“I think the camp is a place where you can get away from your normal routine,” said Mark Lee, pastor of Beaucoup Baptist Church in Pinckneyville and a former manager of Lake Sallateeska. “You just get to come out here, and your thoughts are a little different, because you’re not thinking about everyday pressures, and everything that’s going on around you. And you can focus on the Lord, your relationship with him.
“You generally sit under preaching every night and teaching. There’s singing. There seems to be more freedom to worship sometimes here [for] kids. I think it just gets people away from that normal routine, and gives [them] an opportunity to get closer to God.”
For many campers who experienced a getaway at Sallateeska, the camp is where they first met Christ.
“I remember being a little girl, and for the first time going to camp being really, really nervous,” recalled Lyndee Joe. “That was the year when I was 10 years old that I was saved.”
Joe, who grew up at Chatham Baptist Church, later served at Lake Sallateeska as a counselor, a program manager, and a camp missionary. She guided others as they made the same commitments she made at camp. She remembered one such story of transformation that happened in Sallateeska’s swimming pool. A young girl came up to her and said, “I need Christ in my life.”
“And she was saved at that pool, right there on the spot,” Joe said. “She didn’t care that we were all swimming around and the kids were goofing off around her.”
Nate Adams attended Royal Ambassador (RA) Camp at Lake Sallateeska when he was eight or nine years old. “It was a week of transformation,” said IBSA’s executive director, who credits his church RA leader, Ray, with getting him to go to camp.
“It was all the things we had been talking about week after week—missions and spiritual growth and what it means to be a godly Christian boy and man,” Adams said. “And in that week at Lake Sallateeska, it all came together, and it was a time of spiritual change for me.
“And I think Lake Sallateeska has been a place of spiritual transformation for many, many, many people like that since then.”
Just the beginning
For many campers, the initial commitment to Christ made at camp is just the beginning. Philip Hall has managed Lake Sallateeska since 2008, but his experience with the camp started years ago. The son of an RA leader, Hall grew up going with his dad to take the big kids to camp.
When he became a big kid and camper himself, God used Sallateeska to confirm his call to ministry. Now, he’s deeply invested in running the camp in such a way that the next generation of pastors and missionaries and Sunday school teachers can hear from God while they’re at camp.
“I don’t get to be the one sharing the gospel every time,” Hall said. “I’m not necessarily the one preaching every time. But our ministry is just to clear the path of distractions. It’s the whole purpose that they come out to the country anyway.”
Lake Sallateeska is hallowed ground for those who have experienced a new understanding of God, and have sensed a call to join him in his mission. Judy Halter’s days as a camper sparked a missions calling that has taken her on short-term trips to Botswana, Jamaica, and the Dominican Republic. For Lyndee Joe, her time at Sallateeska has helped her come full circle in her walk with Christ—from meeting him, to learning to love his Word, to learning to share it with other people.
“We’re seeing people come from this camp who are giving their life to Christ, giving their life to go on the mission field,” said Joe, who served as an International Mission Board Journeyman missionary to South Africa. “We’re seeing people who are going to this camp as a child, and then turning around, getting to high school age and starting Christian clubs in their schools.
“I think [Lake Sallateeska] is vital in the life of Southern Baptists in the state of Illinois because it’s giving our students a passion for the gospel. And they’re taking that passion and they’re running with it.”
As the Lake Sallateeska team embarks on their next season of ministry, Hall said their goal is to continue the commitment and legacy that started 75 years ago.
“My hope for the future is that we just continue to hear from the Lord [and] be faithful with what we have. It’s a stewardship, a talent,” he said, referencing Jesus’s parable in Matthew 25.
“I truly hope, when my time is over, to pass on a facility and a ministry that’s better than it was when I got it, to the next runner, to carry out this race.”