Photo: The Rev. Norman Williams, a 2011 chaplain at Philmont Scout Ranch, hands New Testament to Scouts attending a Protestant worship service
A United Methodist clergyman reports on his summer as a chaplain at the New Mexico Scout camp
By Norman O. Williams
The Philmont experience was awesome.
During the first two weeks of staff training, we received an overwhelming amount of information, and I wondered if I had taken on more than I was prepared to execute.
There are over 1,000 mostly college age staff, and some 22,000 Boy Scouts and their adult advisers annually visit the ranch to hike and hike and hike.
Approximately 400 Scouts arrive and depart each day, and each day some 5,000 campers are in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains surrounding Philmont. College-age staff are in charge of the various camps and provide programs for the Scouts as they pass through.
My first duty was a week at the health lodge. Since it was the week before campers arrived, staff members were the only occupants of the hospital. While there were only a few cases, I did run to a Taos hospital to visit a senior staff member with pneumonia.
At the beginning of a trek, one ranger hurt his shoulder and was unable to carry a pack and had to be reassigned to another position. He was quite upset because he had been training for two years to be a ranger.
The second week I was assigned to the Philmont Training Center. The center trains adults who want to become council members or leaders, scoutmasters, and cub leaders. In the center, I explained the role of chaplains and spoke about the “Duty to God” award. On Sunday, I was asked to lead an inter-faith worship service. It was difficult to conduct the service as I had to be careful not to offend non-Christians.
The third week was the most exciting week of my tour as I got to cover the back country.
I was issued a 4 wheel-drive Chevy Suburban to use on scenic and rough logging roads through the mountains. Participants in the television program “Hazardous Journeys” would be envious.
I made pastoral calls on back country staff members and campers and provided rides for people into and out of the mountains. During the week I hauled people, mail and trash over 350 miles at speeds never exceeding 30 miles per hour.
One camp, Apache Springs, is 20 miles from base camp and it takes two hours to get there. I would have paid to get to drive the roads that seemed to be straight up and straight down. It was such fun.
The fourth week I was assigned to logistics. The radio room receives all kinds of messages and some require special attention from the chaplain. I delivered two death messages to participants in the back country. These were unpleasant assignments; but my time in the Navy prepared me well. Some days on logistics were relatively quiet and others very busy.
During the fourth week I was also responsible for camp headquarters, which gave me time to get acquainted with the folks in the various offices and areas that I had not been able to visit previously.
People in base camp do an outstanding job of keeping everything running smoothly. They are responsible for welcoming and registering campers, providing medical checkups, checking equipment, assigning rangers, arranging transportation, assigning housing and providing meals. It is a momentous task to keep that kind of organization running smoothly.
Evening worship services
Each evening at 7 p.m. chaplains are responsible for faith-specific worship services. From 150 to 260 campers attend the daily Protestant service. Unlike the services at camporees, and council camps, Protestant services are the same as Scouts would experience in their home churches.
I was very informal in leading the services. I let the campers know that church does not have to be stodgy. I had them sing lively choruses, and I injected a bit of humor. Sometimes it worked. God wants us to have a good time in His presence.
During worship services, I also handed out backpacking New Testaments, a most gracious ministry to young people. United Methodist Men sent 3,600 copies to be given to the campers. I told the United Methodist Scouts to go home and express their appreciation to the United Methodist Men in their churches.
I was unprepared for the number of sermons that I was asked to deliver. Early in my tour, I called my wife and asked her to send a few folders of sermons. Otherwise I would have had to spend every spare minute working on messages.
Scouts from Alaska and the Middle East State of Qatar attended a Saturday service at the Cimarroncito Chapel. It was terrific that Scouts came from opposite sides of the earth came together to worship God in the mountains of Philmont.
I only regret that I did not know about the Philmont chaplaincy program until this year. For the past 12 years of retirement I could have been contributing to this ministry.
If the opportunity arises next year, and if I am up to it, I will be better prepared.