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Cottonwood Pass Bible Conference Celebrates 100 Years

July 27, 2022

During the COVID-19 pandemic, churches in Classis Red Mesa of the Christian Reformed Church in North America had to forgo celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Cottonwood Pass Bible Conference. For many members of CRC congregations in New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, it was quite a change to have to skip the event held high in a cool, forested region of the Chuska Mountains until they could go again this year.

Although officially this was the 102nd year of the conference, the organizers handed out T-shirts marking the 100-year anniversary of the event, said Sharon Jim, chair of the committee that puts on the conference.

“The conference is an important tradition for families,” said Jim. “We heard testimonies from people who have been going to the conference since their youth.”

Since the Bible camp began meeting there long before CRC missionaries began working in New Mexico, no one is quite sure when the first Bible camp meeting was held – perhaps as far back as the mid-1800s. Tracing back to the first of the continuous gatherings drawing CRC members, many Navajos and other Native Americans from the tribal lands in New Mexico and Arizona say records of the camp meeting go back to 1920.

Overshadowing this year’s conference, however, were concerns that this could – for various reasons – be the final year of the conference, Jim added.

“Although this year’s conference was a success, we’re not quite sure what the future holds,” said Jim. “We’re going year by year. But hearing the stories of how going to the camp has changed so many lives puts validity into continuing.”

In addition, the group’s lease on the land will expire in 2028, she added, so they will need to negotiate maintaining the lease if the conference is to continue past that time.

Debra Chee, pastor of Fort Wingate CRC, said Cottonwood Pass Bible Conference is located about 11 miles west going up the mountain from Sheepsprings, N.Mex.

After making the ascent, “there are two miles of dirt road that everyone endures, including large rocks, ruts, and mud holes. It's the rainy season, so we also contend with the mud in places,” she said.

“Once you get to the site, you are in the ponderosa pines, those huge giants that stand as silent testimonies to God's handiwork amid scrub oak and pinion trees. It’s a very majestic, peaceful place to worship!”

Running July 9-17, this year’s conference drew about 200-300 people as the count varied from day to day. Some stayed in the campground, and others came up for the daily sessions that included talks, Bible studies, and activities for children. This year’s theme, “Standing Firm in the Armor of God,” was based on Ephesians 6:10-20.

In this passage, the apostle Paul describes the armor of God as the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes with the readiness that comes with the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit of God. Preachers spoke each day about a different piece of armor. Gary Hoeksema, a pastor in Red Mesa, said he preached about the sword of the Spirit and borrowed a 52-inch-long sword to illustrate his talk.

Sharon Jim, who began attending the camp conference while she was in high school, thinks of the event as reminiscent of the early church, as described in the book of Acts. It is a gathering of like-minded people who share their lives and hearts in worshiping the one God.

“It is a joyful time of community with people you know and often haven’t seen for a long time,” said Jim. “Many of us were camping together, and we handed out prayer cards to those who wanted to go on a prayer walk in the morning.”

The persons in attendance at this year’s centennial celebration ranged in age from infancy to over 90 years. Alice Sandoval, who is in her mid-nineties and has been attending the conference nearly every year of her life, grew up in a family that tended sheep on a plot of land near the camp.

“I remember we used to walk over to the camp,” said Sandoval, who now lives in the community of Naschitti, about 45 miles north of Gallup, N.Mex. “My dad was one of the first converts” who came to the Christian faith during a session at the camp.

Many of Sandoval’s friends and family who spent time at the camp each summer have passed away, she said – and that makes her sad – and yet she is still grateful to attend the conference, breathing the fresh, crisp air in the mountain pass and to hear the talks. In addition, she said, this year she saw younger people who once came with their parents but now attended with children of their own – a great delight to her.

“This is where I first heard about the real God. Before I first started coming, I didn’t know that much about God or what the Bible is about,” said Sandoval, who has seven children and seven great-grandchildren.

When she attends the camp, she is often filled with gratitude, she said, for the many CRC pastors who came to this area to establish churches and other ministries. She can easily list off their names.

“There is a living history of many pastors coming here from Michigan to teach us how to be strong in the Lord,” she said. “I’m so glad they came out here to the desert to teach us.”

Debra Chee has been attending the conference for over 30 years. “I remember one conference when our daughter was still an infant,” she said. “Another time I remember is when our two boys played ‘king of the rock’ with some other children who were attending, and one of our sons fell off the rock. He had a big goose egg on his forehead for a while!”

During the past 15 years, she said, there has also been a concession stand that most people flock to after the evening service. “The smell of fry bread and corn stew is enticingly delicious and hard to resist!” she said.

Based on the theme from Ephesians 6, she said, her church made banners to display the different parts of spiritual armor that the pastors, Bible study, and children's leaders discussed.

Chee especially appreciated the prayer walk that took place at 7 a.m. every morning. “We asked people to write out prayer requests that we would take on our walk to pray over. We also learned 12 names for God in Hebrew that we focused on as we walked. For example, Jehovah Jireh is God our provider, and Jehovah Rapha is God our healer.”

Also, it is always a meaningful part of the conference, she said,  to visit the site where fresh spring water runs continually from a pipe a little ways from the camp.

“Every day I would stop there and let the water run through my fingers and declare that God's living water would heal and change our lives. I think another meaningful part is that we were doing this together -- we all had the same goal, praying to see God's power in people's lives,” she said.

Rev. Jim Kuiper of Rehoboth (N.Mex.) CRC spent the entire nine days at the camp this year, wanting to immerse himself more fully in the gathering, he said. He also helped to put the tents up and take them down.

He was there for times of peaceful prayer and periods of listening to the talks.

He also had the opportunity to preach on the second to last day of the conference. Aiming to reflect on what had been said before, he explained, “I spoke about the different pieces of armor and how they are all about shalom (or peace).”

Kuiper preached about how we put on the pieces of armor to help us do God’s work in the most terrible situations. “God gives us the armor to have peace,” Kuiper said.

“For instance, we can pick up the sword of Spirit. I think we in the CRC have not paid enough attention to the work of the Spirit,” he said.

As best he could, he said, he took a position of humility, seeing himself as a guest and accepting the hospitality of Native peoples attending the event.

Every evening, he said, he would stroll through the camp, listening to the soft murmur of people talking and laughing in groups outside their tents.

When a group greeted him with a wave, he would step over and spend time talking with them. Not serious talk necessarily – just talking with members of the “communion of saints,” he said. They joked, told stories, and enjoyed some quiet moments together.

“We got to know one another. It really was a beautiful thing. It was much more than spending a few minutes trying to get to know one another after church,” he said.

In an article published in the Sept. 23, 1977, issue of The Banner, Rev. Rolf Veenstra said of that year’s event at Cottonwood, “The accommodations and physical facilities [set up with tents] remind one of the weeklong Feast of the Tabernacles that the Israelites enjoyed. There are no permanent buildings; when the conference concludes, nothing remains except the quiet pine trees and needle-carpeted ground.”