This summer will not be the first time that the Rev. Hal Brady has preached at the Salem Camp Meeting in Covington, Ga., but it has been many years. He is looking forward to returning.
"I was there a couple of times," Brady said. "I enjoyed it immensely. It is special, marvelous fellowship."
The 186th Salem Camp Meeting will be July 11-18. The first was held in 1828 at the Salem Camp Ground and it has taken place there every year since except for a couple during the Civil War. The campground is on the National Historic Register.
"It is a historic place. A lot of people love that campground. Some families have invested a great deal of their lives at the Salem Camp Meeting celebrating the word of God," Brady said.
Brady, who lives in Atlanta, finished 14 years as pastor at St. Luke United Methodist Church in Columbus in June 2011 and now runs Hal Brady Ministries in which he delivers his messages of faith on television, a website and Facebook.
The 75-year-old Brady will be leading the camp's first Sunday morning service at 11 a.m. Pastors leading the other morning and evening services during the week will be the Rev. Alice Rogers, the senior pastor at Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church in Decatur, Ga.; and the Rev. Leslie Holmes, a professor at Erskine Theological Seminary in Columbia, S.C., as well as the Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
Many other religious leaders also will be involved, as will several church choirs.
"The camp gets great support from churches," Brady said.
For 100 years, Salem was a Methodist institution, although never officially part of the church.
The event is interdenominational and free to the public. There is no registration required, but if one wishes to eat dinner at the Salem Hotel a reservation is needed.
Two years ago, a pavilion was built that includes a place to play shuffleboard.
Activities, including faith classes and sports, go on throughout the day. During the week, services in the tabernacle, built in 1854, are at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.
A schedule of events and other information may be found at the camp website, www.salemcampmeeting.org.
Sam Ramsey, 75, owns a furniture store in Covington. His family has been involved with the camp meeting since the beginning. For 50 years, he has been the program chairman of the Salem Camp Meeting, a job his great-grandfather, grandfather and father had before him.
"It is an unbelievable experience that is hard to describe," Ramsey said of the camp meeting, one of the oldest of its kind in the country. "I feel like it is as close to Heaven on Earth as you can be."
He expects about 8,000 people from around the country to attend.
Some participants stay in the Salem Hotel built in 1939. It has 22 rooms, a dining room that seats 125 and a wrap-around porch on which people sit in rocking chairs. Others coming for more than a day stay in nearby hotels or in a recreational vehicle hooked up on the site. Some families who have been attending for a long time stay in 28 cabins called "tents," some of which date back to 1840.
"This is like a revival and a family reunion rolled into one," Ramsey said.
According to camp meeting literature, in pioneer days, families in surrounding counties would put their provisions in a wagon, tie the cow to the back and head to Salem for their one vacation of the year.
Before the tabernacle was constructed, there was simply a cleared space with a stage lit by bonfire. Logs were used for benches. People used to sleep in or under their wagons. Some people used wagon sheets as tents. Back then, the camp meeting was during the time right before harvest.
"It used to be in August, but we had to move it to an earlier time because school starts so early now," Ramsey said.