Ah, the peace and quiet of the great outdoors. With restrictions lifted since the lengthy COVID-19 clamp down 2½ years ago, campers are flocking again to America’s campgrounds. And a pair of Assemblies of God chaplains are there to meet them.
Endorsed chaplains Donald F. Sitter and Milton E. Dykes answered God’s unique call to minister to people in parks. Both chaplains love camping. Both love the community that forms around a warm, inviting campfire. And both are drawn to the lost and hurting they sometimes find there.
Sitter and Dykes followed different paths to their current calling. Sitter, 46, completed Global University ministerial studies in 2020 and received his ordination in May. He began ministering in 2014, distributing food and clothing to needy people in downtown Erie, Pennsylvania.
After his licensing in 2017, Sitter joined the Chaplains in the Park program at Pymatuning State Park in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. Along with other chaplains from various denominations Sitter endeavors to be a “presence in the park,” making himself available to meet spiritual needs. With his wife, Heather, 49, he is available Friday through Sunday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Dykes, 72, graduated from Southeastern University in 1971 and received his ordination 1974. He went on to pastor seven churches in the AG, spending the past 20 years as senior pastor of Lineage Church in Jacksonville, Florida. After he retired in February, he and his wife, Wanda, 69, headed out to minister to those in campgrounds. Dykes started the organization Campfire Chaplains, and after acquiring a 36-foot motor home, he and Wanda hit the road.
The openness and friendliness of people, so organic to campgrounds, make these natural places to share the Lord. Sitter says many visitors at Pymatuning are unchurched, or don’t go to church on a regular basis. But they often open up to a park chaplain, seeking a compassionate ear to hear their problems.
“It's a good time to reach out to people who may not step into a church building,” he says. “We may be the only ministers they talk to.”
Unlike Sitter and his family, who have stayed for five summers at Pymatuning, Milton and Wanda have traveled to a number of state, national, and private parks. They have connected with travelers tired of the daily grind, even to the point of selling their houses and living in motor homes.
“We have found people in unbelievable moments where there was need, and we have prayed with them,” Dykes says. More than once, he has heard a sojourner utter, God sent you to me.
Altar calls are not allowed in public parks, but that doesn’t stop the Holy Spirit from reaching the hearts of campers through these chaplains. Sitter recalls one Sunday morning at Pymatuning when he preached a sermon using doughnuts to illustrate addictions. A woman attending the service had been trying to quit smoking. Through that simple sermon, God convicted her of an addiction to cigarettes. She hasn’t smoked since.
“We can make a difference in a person's life here, maybe speak a little bit of life to them,” Sitter says.
Dykes says that the nonthreatening atmosphere of a park puts guests at ease. Many come for fun and leave transformed. One way this happens is through the story he and Wanda share how God brought them together 13 years ago after the sense of loss when their first spouses died.
“People are hurting today,” says Dykes. “We're living in a fractured world, and in camping, they're trying to get away from the hurt. But the hurt is still there.”
With Labor Day over, Sitter returns to his off-season ministry of filling the pulpit in various churches. But come next Memorial Day, Donald and Heather will pack up and head to Pymatuning, meeting campers needing a compassionate ear and ministerial presence.
Milton and Wanda still take to the road, seeking God for which park to visit next. They look forward to how God will change lives.
“We have found effective ministry just connecting with people,” Dykes says. “We're reaching the lost one S'more at a time.”
TOP PHOTO: Milton and Wanda Dykes minister at campgrounds after decades of church ministry.
Bottom PHOTO: Heather and Donald Sitter provide a presence in Pennsylvania parks.