Learning to pray at a summer camp 70 years ago

In January 1949, Billy Graham (right) presents the charter for a local Youth for Christ organization to 17-year-old Leighton Ford in Chatham, Ontario.
In January 1949, Billy Graham (right) presents the charter for a local Youth for Christ organization to 17-year-old Leighton Ford in Chatham, Ontario. Courtesy of Leighton Ford

In these hot, heavy and humid days of summer, I’d like to be back for a bit in Ontario, Canada, where I grew up.

I relished the long, cool, northern summer evenings, when it would stay light until 10 o’clock or later. We lived on the edge of a park, and I could stay up late watching softball games or listening to the kiltie band play on Sunday nights. But at home all was not well.

One long ago summer was not an easy time for our small family. My mother was deeply devout, and deeply troubled. She had left home in early January, simply disappeared. Later we learned she had gone to Winnipeg and lived in disguise under an assumed name, haunted by various fears. Dad worked all day and most nights at our jewelry store. It had been a lonely year for me as a 14-year old.

Mom came back in late spring, but tension remained. What saved that summer for me was a youth week at the Blue Water conference center nearby. It was a nondescript place, with cinder block buildings, a roughed-out softball diamond and primitive cabins. The only beauty was the deep blue of the river flowing by.

I went dutifully to the sessions, expecting to be bored. The speaker was old (or seemed so to me) with piercing blue eyes and flowing white hair like a Norse prophet, and a gravelly voice. I was not impressed with his topic – praying in the morning – until he told us how he prayed.

“I am very restless,” he said, “so when I pray I don’t kneel, sit down or stand. I walk up and down.” Hmm, I thought, you can pray and get exercise. “I pray out loud,” he went on, “so my mind doesn’t wander. And I read a verse from the Psalms and turn it into a prayer and that gives me fresh words.”

That got my attention. Early the next morning I took a big Bible my mother had given me and walked into a nearby woods. Hoping no one was watching I walked up and down as he did. Opened my Bible to the Psalms. Made one of the sentences into a prayer.

I don’t remember which passage it was. I do remember that God became very real to me. He seemed to understand my lonely, 14-year old heart, and to offer his presence and direction.

Several years ago I drove back to that spot. The old place is ramshackle now, with overgrown grass and burned-down shacks. The woods where I prayed were much smaller than I remembered. But I recalled how that morning prayer in that nondescript place made a difference and became part of my life.

That summer week I learned to pray. That fall I started to lead. A man came to our hometown to start a branch of the Canadian Youth Fellowship, a movement to inspire young people to follow Christ. He appointed me as president, assuming because I was tall I was 17. When he found I was only 14 he must have nearly had a heart attack! But he stuck with me, advised me, became a mentor to me, sent speakers our way. One of them was a youthful Carolinian, Billy Graham, who in turn became a guide, and then a brother-in-law to me.

Years later I told the speaker of that summer week, Evon Hedley, what his talk meant to me. “At Blue Water?” he exclaimed. “I didn’t think anything resulted from there.”

This month many of our youth will be going to summer camp – church camp, Y camps, music and sports camps. Who knows what encounters they may have with God? What counselor or fireside speaker will touch their young hearts and minds?

So I relate my story hoping it will inspire us, grandparents, parents and others, to pray that this summer our young ones will learn to talk with the Lord, who knows their names, understands their stories, and perhaps has a calling for their lives.

Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.