An Adirondack institution known for its evangelical summer camps and Bible school, Word of Life turns 75 on Schroon Lake
By Chloe Bennett
Travelers on Route 9 through Warren and Essex counties pass multiple signs for Word of Life Fellowship Inc. properties scattered along the shores of Schroon Lake. They may be unaware they are spotting evidence of a global enterprise, with satellites in 80 countries, a burgeoning balance sheet and a sustainable business model.
After a one-mile boat ride from the west side of Schroon Lake, guests are greeted with a sign: “Welcome to Word of Life Island, Holding Forth the Word of Life, Phil. 2:16.” It’s a 50-acre island in the middle of a clear Adirondack lake for sports and recreation, fun and play, prayer and Bible study. The camp is in its 75th year and is a weeklong home to 2,500 youths each summer, as long as they abide by a long-standing code of conduct.
The Bible camps host summer programs for families with infants and children from ages 6 to 18. Some campers continue to the organization’s college, the Word of Life Bible Institute, which offers a 2-year certificate program with the ability to transfer college credit to Davis College, a Broome County school absorbed into WOL’s Pottersville campus, for a bachelor’s degree. As of 2022, the base cost of the Bible Institute is $20,000 a year.
On Saturday, July 23, Word of Life hosted an open house, with tours of The Island, for the public from 10 a.m. to noon to celebrate its 75th year. Word of Life’s summer camps were founded by two evangelists, Jack Wyrtzen and Harry Bollback, in 1946 after purchasing Clark Island for $25,000 which would be just over $395,000 in 2022. John Nelson, the executive assistant to president Don Lough, said the island’s owners were initially looking for $125,000, but Wyrtzen’s charismatic personality won the sellers over.
“He was just one of these people that when you met him and talked with him, you felt like you became his friend,” Nelson, who has been with Word of Life for 40 years, said.
Camp as a cornerstone
Word of Life has a camp and Bible college on the Gulf coast in Florida, just over 40 miles north of Tampa, hosting the largest population of campers with 3,700 children. The Island in Schroon Lake hosts around 2,500 high schoolers on average, each coming for one of the program’s eight weeks of camp. This year, the Island’s activities run from late June to mid-August.
The camp is equal parts pray and play – with hours of free time during the day and worship sessions and quiet reflection periods in the mornings and evenings. Campers on The Island start their days with breakfast followed by a “Bible hour,” when a speaker teaches scripture to an audience of campers. Group activities and lunch follow, leading to an afternoon of recreation. Teenagers on The island are not without choices of play – their games of volleyball in the sand are played under a zipline and next to several water sport options – and they are under the watch of counselors playing and worshiping alongside them.
One week on The Island costs $429 this year, and it’s the first summer program since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down youth programs in 2020. Word of Life provides scholarships, Nelson said, depending on students’ financial needs.
Along with a paid staff including groundskeepers and chefs, the camp has unpaid counselors who lead a group of campers through the week. As Bible Institute students, counselors earn college credit for their internship work on The Island. Counselor Lilliana Pertell, 20 said she was originally going to attend a state school, but she chose to enroll in the Bible Institute and work as a counselor on The Island after graduating from high school in Northville.
“Really it is my heart and my calling to serve people and to show people the love of Christ and that is more important to me than literally anything else in the world,” she said.
Bonfires and devotionals are regular rituals on The Island, where Ester Moura, 27, said she enjoys playing guitar and singing while campers make their verbal commitments. Moura left her job as a travel agent in Spain to attend the Bible Institute. Although some of her family did not support her decision to move to the states for Word of Life, Moura said she has never felt happier.
“Maybe I’m not living in the same apartment,” she said. “I can’t afford a car right now and all these different things. But I’m actually finally, it wasn’t even happy, because happiness is based on circumstances, it was joy.”
Moura, who earned a bachelor’s degree in Spain, said she wants to enroll in an online master’s program in biblical language studies after finishing the Bible Institute program.
A low-profile organization
It’s possible the organization remains unknown to some in the area because of its location behind trees and a lake, but its presence shows elsewhere.
“Even now, when you look at the size of their facility and the number of students they have at the Bible Institute and the number of campers that come up each summer, and all the programs that they put on, they’re a well-kept secret,” said Craig Leggett, town of Chester supervisor. Leggett grew up in the area and sometimes used Word of Life’s basketball court in the 1970s. “You might say they do not have that high of a profile, but when you look around, you definitely notice the positive impact that they’ve had on the community through the years,” Leggett added.
A growing enterprise
As a religious non-profit organization, Word of Life does not pay property taxes on its 375 acres in Schroon Lake and the Town of Chester. But it does give annual funds to the communities in lieu of tax payments, totaling over $170,000 for both in 2021, Nelson said. It also contributes special district taxes, according to Leggett, which go to fund essentials like the Pottersville Volunteer Fire Department.
This spring, Word of Life sold its lodge and conference center for $4.2 million. The funds, Nelson said, will be put away for future projects. Don Lough, president and CEO of Word of Life Fellowship, said the organization does not have a shortage of investment opportunities along the properties. As of 2020, Word of Life had $85.6 million in net assets and funds total, according to IRS filings.
Lough also said the sale of the lodge caused some concern in the community that WOL was breaking camp in the region. That is not the case, he said. Its headquarters are still located in Pottersville.
“It’s the beginning of a whole new era,” Lough said.
Ban on homosexuality
Upon arrival, campers are offered a verbal agreement to adhere to The Island’s code of conduct. Among standard rules for minors prohibiting drinking or smoking, the camp stresses the importance of purity and refraining from gay relationships.
“You read scripture, it talks about homosexuality as a sin. I know that’s not the popular viewpoint. We’re not here to condemn people,” Nelson said.
Word of Life is transparent with its beliefs against gay relationships and marriage, listing it at the end of a series of beliefs pulled from the Bible on its public website and student handbook. The organization interprets the Bible’s teachings literally, as most evangelical churches do. According to the National Association of Evangelicals, the book is the highest authority of the practice.
“Some people would say we’re homophobic,” Nelson said of Word of Life. “We don’t hate people who use that lifestyle, but we don’t agree with it.”
That position is part of what drove former volunteer, Max Tang, 25, from Christianity altogether. Tang, who has changed her name since her time at WOL, grew up in a New Jersey Baptist church and attended The Pines, another WOL camp on Schroon Lake, with her parents and twin brother as a child. She said she began questioning her religion after filling out an application to volunteer at The Pines in high school in the early 2010s. The form called for information about the applicant’s journey with Christianity and sexual immorality, including gay thoughts. Around then, Tang said, she knew she was queer, but was not ready to come out.
“If you answered yes, then you were supposed to explain, and I remember checking yes and explaining because I felt guilty and they still accepted me,” she said.
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Tang said she enjoyed going to The Pines because of rituals like the weekly bonfires where campers were encouraged to declare their commitment to God. But volunteering for several weeks gave her a different perspective and the charm of camping eventually wore off. Tang had plans to attend the Bible Institute and become a missionary but chose a four-year program in Massachusetts instead. “It’s an amazing feeling to be standing with a group of people, looking over a lake, all singing together, and feel like you’re part of something,” Tang said.
“Those things I would like to experience, but I wouldn’t like to have to struggle so much within this prison of belief,” she added.
The future of Word of Life
The Island at Word of Life has seen many celebrities with Christian backgrounds and ties since its opening. Some speakers include astronaut James Irwin, football coach Tom Landry, basketball players Julius Erving and Bobby Jones, and others. Word of Life’s main speaker in 2022 is Tim Tebow, who along with playing for the National Football League, is outspoken about his Christian beliefs.
In the 1970s, singer and conservative activist Anita Bryant spoke on campus, prompting nearby residents to protest, according to Nelson. Bryant led campaigns opposing LGBT+ efforts in Florida around the same time she visited Word of Life.
After decades of summer camps and Bible study, Word of Life plans to stay mostly the same. The properties may receive renovations or rearrangements but the organization plans to continue operating under God and scripture. There is a succession plan in place, said Lough, 57, the son of the Word of Life lodge’s former manager. But right now he is focused on nurturing tomorrow’s evangelists.
“It may sound a little trite, but it really has very little to do with us and everything to do with God and what he’s called us to do,” Lough said of Word of Life’s first 75 years.
“And I think as we raise up a new generation of leaders… with that same passion, that same understanding, I think that the future’s very bright, whether it’s 10 years from now or 75 years from now.”