Timothy H. Gregson
Jesus once said to his disciples, "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while" (Mark 6:31 nasb). The disciples had just returned from a preaching tour and were weary. They needed time for reflection, but found themselves in a congested and busy place. How they needed to be alone with their Lord and be renewed in his grace! Jesus' call to his disciples would soon lead them to a fuller discovery of the sufficiency of his grace than they had anticipated, for they would witness the feeding of five thousand in that "lonely place."
The inspiration for the Machen Retreat and Conference Center (MRCC) is the realization that late twentieth-century Christians are so beset with pressures, temptations, and distractions that they hardly have time or opportunity for spiritual rest and renewal. Secular humanism and corruption have so permeated every facet of society that God's people desperately need to come and rest with Christ for a while in order to restore their appreciation of the sufficiency of his grace and to renew his commission to the church.
For this reason, the opening words of the Program and Plan of MRCC read, "The Orthodox Presbyterian Church is at an exciting crossroads and has before it a tremendous opportunity to minister to the denomination as well as other Christian ministries. The Machen Retreat and Conference Center (MRCC) is intended to be a place set apart from the distraction of everyday life so that God's 'called-out ones' may have opportunity to withdraw from the influences of the world in order to seek spiritual renewal in the Lord."
The "called-out ones" are the saintsthat is, Christians. The first called-out one for this ministry was marked by God with a compelling vision to rediscover the faith of his fathers. He is Paul Cunningham of McDowell, Virginia. Born in Framingham, Massachusetts, he moved with his family to this area in 1952 at the age of twelve. After serving in the military, he returned to McDowell to start a telephone service for the region, and in 1972 he bought land there.
During this period of his life, he and his wife, Jane, infrequently attended the McDowell Presbyterian Church (PCUSA). About seven or eight years ago, it entered Paul's heart to seek out his family roots. Returning to Massachusetts, he traced his ancestors back to an 1850 census of St. John, New Brunswick. He discovered that they were Scottish Covenanter Presbyterians. He learned of their devout lives and courageous convictions that drove them to emigrate first from Scotland and then from Ireland to America, and of their faithful service in the church at St. John.
Paul was convicted of the Spirit: how far he had departed from the historical Christian faith! Soon after this, Paul drove through Bridgewater, Virginia, on one of his regular business trips. Passing a sign that read "Covenant Presbyterian Church PCA" outside the Blue Ridge Christian Schoolbuilding, he stopped and inquired about the church. But he was referred to my wife, Cindy Gregson, a music teacher there. Cindy directed Paul to me, and Paul and Jane began visiting Berea OPC in Dayton, Virginia. Their hearts resounded to the glorious doctrines of grace. The second Sunday they attended, the Lord's Supper was celebrated. With tears in their eyes, Paul and Jane declared, "That's my church!"
Soon after they became members, Paul came to talk to me. He said, "You know, I've been thinking. I've got a lot of land in McDowell. Is there any way we could donate land to start a Christian camp or conference? I want the Reformed faith to grow up again in the area."
To appreciate Paul Cunningham's vision of MRCC, we need to return to Highland County in western Virginia. There in a long, broad valley that runs north and south are a number of small towns and villages. During the eighteenth century, many Covenanters settled in this area and established Presbyterian churches. But in recent decades things changed. Arminianism and modernism crept into the valley. Many old families moved out of the area, leaving many Presbyterian churches virtually vacant.
There now remains only one established Presbyterian church in the area, and it is a liberal one. The other churches were allowed to go to ruin by the local presbytery. Today there is not one organized and thriving congregation remaining that bears witness to the Reformed faith. Yet there remains a handful of devout followers who continue to meet in isolated, aging church buildings or who have joined charismatic groups just to hear the Word. Like the acorns that drop from the mighty oak, these have been enduring a long, cold winter, waiting to sprout anew in a more hospitable environment.
So with love and zeal for the Reformed faith, Paul and Jane have been traveling more than an hour each way every Sunday to worship. Now Paul, being sensitive to the deadening forces of the modern world, wants to revive the spirit that moved our fathers, not only in McDowell, but throughout the OPC and beyond. From Berea OPC, Mr. Cunningham's offer went on to the denominational Committee on Christian Education. From there it was adopted by the Presbytery of the Mid-Atlantic,which established the Retreat Operating Committee to oversee MRCC's construction and programs.
Meanwhile, Paul began scouring the area for other camps from which he might gain further understanding of the nature of the project. Others in the McDowell area began to catch the vision. Neighbors cooperated in making available their adjoining property as it might be needed for thoroughfare. Blackwell Engineering,a Christian business in nearby Harrisonburg, were eager to see the project become a reality, and they offered to survey and landscape at rock-bottom cost. Kitchen equipment was offered at a fraction of the cost by a nearby restaurant that went out of business. The door of opportunity seemed to be swinging so wide open that one could hardly keep from falling through it.
The Cunninghams own about three hundred acres of some of the most beautiful land in Virginia. As you look over the land, you can appreciate how contagious this vision has become. The land is located about thirty-five miles from Interstate 81, between two ranges of mountains. Forested hills rise up on one side of open fields, and others drop down to a rushing river. An underground spring leads to a subterranean hollow, and many caverns can be explored there. Wildlife is abundant, and the night skies display the majesty of God.
About fifteen acres have been set aside for specific partial clearing, terracing, and construction, while the whole three hundred acres are available for activities. The topography welcomes both a hilltop camping area for young people and a flat plain for a family lodge. These things have already been explored, and specific building plans are already under way. While the land on the hilltop is being cleared for several cabins, lumber is being made from on-site timber, prepared by a portable sawmill in Paul Cunningham's shed. At the same time, a shelter is being built that will become the central meeting place and eating lodge. An electric line has already been laid, and a well has been dug.
An engraved wooden sign will greet you as you enter the gate, and a newly constructed rustic bridge will carry you over a brook to the campsites. In the years to come, a separate lodge will be constructed for worship and family conferences. These accommodations are designed to be suitable for counseling and training seminars, Christian couples' retreats, church outings, and camping for all ages. Meanwhile, Paul has been laboring on an old two-story farmhouse and has completely restored it with facilities for up to eighteen people. It is already available and has been put to use by congregations, work groups, and families, with the hospitality of Paul and Jane making each visitor feel welcome.
How can this be afforded? That is part of the wonder of this vision. God has put it in the hearts of many neighbors, local residents, and, yes, Orthodox Presbyterians to contribute money and materials generously. The Committee on Christian Education has contributed $36,000 to the project. Volunteer labor has been pouring in from churches and from the SOWERS (Servants On Wheels Ever Ready), a national group of committed Christians out of Oregon, who offer free and experienced labor to all churches (except those who belong to the National Council or the World Council of Churches). When you consider the total cost of such a project and the support it has already received, it looks more like a gift than an expense. But, having made a remarkable start, we now require the generous support of Orthodox Presbyterians from all over, for this is an Orthodox Presbyterian mission.
But MRCC is not merely a future conference site. It is a ministry first. As a haven removed from the pressures and temptations of secular society, its purpose is spiritual renewal through the Word of God in a location that provides a wide variety of opportunities. This ministry has already begun! As of this writing, the summer schedule is nearly full to August for work teams and church-sponsored retreats. A full-time director is envisioned for the future, who will organize year-round retreats, summer camping for all ages, and church seminars and conferences to address many spiritual needs.
The vision that God placed on the heart of Paul Cunningham has already been caught by others and promoted. The "called-out ones" are invited: "Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while." Be renewed in the undistilled riches of God's grace. As Elijah was driven to Mt. Horeb, as John the Baptist was driven into the wilderness to be with the wild beasts, as the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, and as Paul journeyed into Arabia after his conversion, so the saints today periodically need to be renewed away from the hustle and bustle of ordinary life.
Mr. Gregson is the pastor of Berea OPC in Dayton, Virginia. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 1998.