BUENA VISTA, Colo. (BP) — The red raft bobs up and down, then picks up speed down the rushing river in the Rocky Mountains. Everyone onboard readies for the first rapid as the guide gives last-minute instructions.
The raft suddenly dips, drops and then twists, getting everyone onboard excited except Tommy, the laid-back guide sitting at the back. The more whitewater they encounter the bigger Tommy’s smile.
This area outside Buena Vista, Colo., is one of the world’s best whitewater destinations. Darting along the rushing water is “life” for Tommy and other self-proclaimed “river rats.”
By the end of the trip, Tommy has everyone on the raft laughing. The trio, Tami Elsey, Barry Sutherland and Katie Dillon, invite the guide to join them for dinner at Mountain Heights Baptist Church. Others in their mission team from Kansas also invite their guides as well.
The guides smile in acknowledgement. They know Mountain Heights well — every Monday is “church meal” night when the small congregation opens its doors to the river guides to get a homemade meal and a hot shower. Mountain Heights has been reaching out to the river guides for 25 years.
“This is a big whitewater rafting industry area,” Dan Ehlers explains. He and his wife Nancy have been involved with the ministry for 20 years. “Back when we first started this, rafting companies didn’t take good care of their guides — there was no place to shower, guides got paid by tips, no fresh water.
“Mountain View opened the church and prepared a once-a-week hot meal. We took a big water tank out to their campgrounds. We eventually built showers on the church grounds,” Ehler says. “This was our way of showing Jesus’ love. We simply met a need.”
Pastor Joe Chambers, an avid outdoorsman himself, explains that rafters have their own way of living and doing things. It’s a way of life that can often ostracize them from the surrounding community of retirees, professionals and tourists. Many pitch a tent or live in their cars. Their goal is to spend as much time on the Arkansas River as possible. Hygiene is not always a top priority.
“They aren’t homeless,” Chambers says. “They are seasonal workers and aren’t paid a lot. They eat a lot of ramen noodles and will do anything to be on the river. They care about the environment. They kind of live like hippies.”
The makeup of Mountain Heights, Ehler notes, is exactly the opposite. The church is made up of mostly retirees. The key to the ministry’s longevity, he says, is loving the guides as they are.
The guides are not people who normally attend church. With a chuckle Chambers adds, “There’s something about an 85-year-old grandmother serving you a meal and then sitting down to talk that helps these 20-somethings feel comfortable, open up and just talk.”
They don’t expect the guides to attend worship, since Sundays are the busiest day for taking tourists down the river. The church’s key goal, the pastor says, is to plant Gospel seeds and to show the unconditional love and kindness of Christ.
Chambers classifies the guide community as “post-Christian,” meaning that most have only been to church for funerals or weddings. They don’t have a basic understanding of God or the Bible. To them, it’s just a book that older people read.
“Our starting point … has to be a common experience that they can relate to,” Chambers says, admitting it’s a different way of ministering than when he was trained in the ’80s. “We start by showing them that people on the river matter to Jesus, so they matter to us.
“We are the Gospel seed planters. At some point in their life, there’s going to be a crisis. We want them to remember a church that was kind to them and feel comfortable seeking out another church or Christian. We pray the seeds we plant will be watered.”
Volunteers & prayer
It takes a big team of volunteers to make the ministry work. Volunteers from the church and surrounding community do everything from making desserts to rolling napkins to cleanup. This season, the average attendance has been around 120 guides. The season started slow because of the late spring snows in the area. In years past, as many as 188 have shown up for a meal and shower.
While food might be a way to someone’s heart, Mountain View’s volunteers spend a lot of their time chatting with the guides. All of the conversations eventually lead to asking if there are any prayer requests.
“Asking if there is anything we can pray about leads to God-centered conversations. It gives us a chance to talk each week with that guide to see how God is answering the prayer and what’s happening in their life,” Chambers says. “We are trying to be a consistent presence and we can see the guides get excited about knowing this kindness of Christ.”
Part of that consistency involves a yearly visit from Blue Valley Baptist Church in Overland Park, Kan., which sends a team of volunteers to hang out and “spoil” the guides for a week each year.
The Kansans start by taking rafting trips with all of the companies along the river to meet new guides and rekindle friendships from the previous year as the volunteers invite and spread the word about activities for the week.
The Blue Valley team prepares a meal every night and offers some kind of entertainment such as a volleyball tournament or a trivia night. The activities allow both churches to spend more time with the guides, naturally opening up Gospel conversations that start with a simple prayer request.
This is the third year for the churches to partner and the longevity is starting to yield benefits. Jonathan Lock, Blue Valley’s minister to adults, remembers the first year he took a team and how the guides were hesitant and reserved.
“This third year back, they realized that we really do care. It’s a big difference. They are willingly sharing their lives with us now,” Lock says. “We want to build relationships with them and help them understand what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
The two churches work in tandem. While Mountain View is the church that builds the initial relationship and keeps it going from week to week, the Blue Valley team has more freedom to share the Gospel.
“If Joe [Chambers] tried to shove the Gospel down their throat every Monday, the guides would all stop coming,” Lock says. “But with us, they know it’s a special week. Mountain View’s relationship with the guides makes it possible for us to be very clear about why we are there. We want them to know who Jesus is.
“Our goal is to start watering the seeds of the Gospel that Mountain View plants.”