An old friend of mine is about to leave us. This friend has been in poor health for some time, essentially on life support, but that comes to an abrupt end on Monday, Dec. 31.
Shorter University will be responsible for the operation of the property beginning in 2017. My old friend is named Norman, as in Georgia Baptist Conference Center-Norman Park.
The immediate cause of his passing is slow deterioration due to lack of use by Georgia Baptists. Most folks won’t even notice his passing, but Norman has been a major part of my life. If you’ll allow me, I’d like to share a few memories of how this friend has ministered to me.
Back in my youth days, I was part of a large youth choir – 70 or so – in Metro Atlanta. We regularly used both the Norman Park and Toccoa assemblies. I used to joke that Mr. Aaron Hess, our minister of music, took us to Toccoa to have fun and to Norman Park when he wanted us to work. That wasn’t exactly fair, but there weren’t as many options down South, although to this day I’ve still never set foot or paddle in that beautiful lake at Toccoa.
Going back to Norman Park, I guess I’d better confess a couple of transgressions first. That was the only place I ever “snuck” off and left the group. We had been warned not to cross US 319 for any reason, and had been told that if we did so and got caught, we would be sent home immediately at our parents’ expense. It was a really hot August, however, and my desire for an Icee overcame my usual obedience to rules. I carefully moved to the edge of the highway, didn’t see anyone from our group, and scurried across the street to the convenience store. Once inside, I asked the lady at the counter where the Icee machine was. She looked at me and replied, “We ain’t got no Icee machine!”
Now, there was an unforgettable object lesson on sin and temptation. No matter how strong the temptation, no matter how alluring the sin, it will always let you down in the end. Grace won that day, however, as I got back across the highway without discovery and resolved never to do that again.
The only other shady thing I did at Norman Park was done with permission. When Brand Hall was being renovated, it was gutted and lightless. We were down there on the night of a full moon, and several of the girls started calling it “haunted.” A friend named Ken and I hatched the idea to make it haunted, so with the cooperation of our ministers of youth and music, we sat down in the floor of our room to play Monopoly. The girls all came by to see if we wanted to go to the haunted house, but we said, “No … we have a game to play!”
The ministers took them the long way around, and as soon as they were out of sight, Ken and I grabbed a couple of sheets and a softball and took the shortcut to Brand Hall. As the group entered, we gave a few ghostly moans and then I rolled the softball down the stairs. With a vivid imagination in the dark, it sounded remarkably like someone unseen was clomping his way downward. We then shook our sheets and headed for the back door. I made it out cleanly, but Ken ran into another guy who promised not to tell on us. He didn’t, but when the girls got back and realized we could never have gotten that sweaty playing Monopoly, they figured out that we were the ghosts of Brand Hall.
In case you’re wondering, I had some great spiritual moments there, too. Norman Assembly was the first place I ever served as a chaperone, watching over the boys during Junior Music Camp. It was also my first foray into coaching, as I led the “Sharps” to a 3-2 victory over the “Flats” in softball.
I don’t know how many Bible studies I took part in down there, but it was a significant location in my spiritual growth and maturity. A friend of mine played the pipe organ a few times, and there was something mysterious and reverent about those swelling, vibrating tones.
Romance almost bloomed, as well. During that Junior Music Camp, an old friend of mine from Junior High School days and I teamed up with a couple of young ladies and had some old-fashioned, G-Rated times around the piano (Thank you, “Sing ‘n’ Celebrate”!) and I corresponded as a pen pal with one of the girls for a couple of years afterward (For those of you too young to remember, a “pen pal” was somebody you wrote emails to by means of a pen, paper, and a postage stamp).
I learned a lot at Norman Park, as well. I began my official Interfaith Witness Training there back in the 1980s with Miss Kate Ellen Gruver. I lost track of how many VBS training events I attended there, although the most memorable one was the incredible grounds decorations done by Bill Townes the year we had the “Truth Trackers” theme. I mean, where else would you find such a realistic archaeological dig onsite?
Discipleship Training has been a big part of my life, and I judged a lot of Bible Drills, Speakers’ Tournaments, and (now) Speakers’ Competitions at Norman Park. I even judged the State Speakers’ Tournament the year a young lady named Maria did such a wonderful job. I guess she liked Discipleship Training even more than I did, since she has worked in it with the GBC/GBMB for a number of years, now.
My first church was on the other side of Colquitt County, the location of the Assembly, and I could go almost free in those days, since CP paid almost all of our fees, and I just had a 20-mile commute to get there.
Of course, there were embarrassing moments along the way. That’s bound to happen when you spend enough time in any place. One of the funniest was back in the days when we didn’t lock the doors. Several folks from our association were on the VBS team, and when we came back from our Friday-night jaunt to Shoney’s in Moultrie, a lady from our church found a man asleep in her room. I went in on her behalf, picked up her luggage, and my wife and I helped her find an empty room. I don’t guess the poor guy ever knew what happened to the other fellow’s luggage during the night.
Once I became an associational missionary, I enjoyed the fact that every other year, we had our annual workshop at Norman Park. Due to the five-hour (or more) drive and the occasional threat of inclement weather, I didn’t always get to Toccoa, but I never missed a trip to Norman Park.
Before I go, I have to give a shout-out to the cooks and food staff. They’ve always had great meals, and until the Health Department made them stop serving homemade products, only my Mama ever made better pear preserves.
Finally, Norman Park was the site of my last official act as a pastor before becoming an associational missionary. I took a group from our church to Centri-Kid, and still have great memories of that week.
So, Norman, I’ll miss you, old friend. I guess if everybody else had been there as many times as I have, you’d have worn out by now. As long as my memories last, however, you’ll always have a warm place in my heart. I’d like to thank the Georgia Baptist Convention/Mission Board and Executive Committee for keeping ol’ Norman around as long as they did.
If I’m not guilty of trespassing, I’ll probably stop by and walk around a little the next time I pass through … even though they still don’t have an Icee machine at that convenience store.
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