August 31, 2009
By Lane Murphy
Line Camp connects students with many facets of our University, but visiting the birthplace of Baylor, where it spent 40 years, is perhaps the centerpiece of the week. It's a powerful trip back in time to Baylor's roots in Independence, Texas, a tiny hamlet 30 minutes south of College Station. In recent years, Baylor has embraced its birthplace with renewed vigor, and Line Camp reconnects the new generation to those of yesteryear, beginning when Texas was its own country. I was fortunate enough to tag along with the Class of 2013 on my first trip to Independence. After my experience that night, it certainly won't be my last. Below are a few highlights from the trip.
Our caravan of buses heaves up to the doors of First Baptist Church Independence, the oldest continuously active Baptist church in the state, which, appropriately, also houses the Texas Baptist Historical Museum. The church hasn't closed its doors since opening in August 1839, 170 years ago. Its early years intertwine with Baylor's, when the president of the University also served as the church's pastor. The 208 Line Campers dine on savory chicken under the welcome shade of live oaks, becoming engulfed in the history of the place. They won't leave here the same.
Inside the oldest Baptist church in Texas, amid original furniture and mementos from early Texas Baptist history, the evening sun pours through the brightly colored Belgian stained glass, blanketing the students under patchworks of light. The students sit attentively in 157-year-old pews, where Sam Houston's initials are carved, still marking his regular seat. Now that's what I call Baptist tradition.
Pastor Butch Strickland tells old tales of Independence--when it was called the Athens of Texas, built on seven hills; of how Rufus C. Burleson baptized Sam Houston here in 1854; of when a thief attempted to take the 250-pound, solid brass chandelier still hanging in the center of the church, only to get away with just one of the chandelier's twelve lamps. "We just say we got rid of Judas."
Strickland explains what life was like for Baylor's original students-- of how the once co-ed school was divided so that the men's campus stood on Windmill Hill across a little creek from Academy Hill, where the female students resided.
"No one knows Independence Creek by that name. The boys named it the Jordan River, because they said if they could get across it to where the girls were, they'd be in the Promised Land. If you ran across a Baylor boy during that time, you always checked his feet to see if they were muddy."
As she has done for several years at Line Camp, Lanella Spinks Gray, BA '54, relates her own Baylor story. Gray is the only Baylor alumna residing in Independence.
"Little did I realize what an impact on the rest of my life Baylor would be," reflects Gray. "My Baylor story is very much like many Baylor stories. I met my husband there. When I show anyone around campus, I show people some of the memorable places on campus, like the spot where a tree once stood in front of Burleson Hall. Back then, Burleson was a dormitory, and that's where I lived as a senior. It was often called Last Chance Hall. Tom would see me to the door, and then he'd go lean on that tree until I stuck my head out of my first floor window and said one last goodnight."
Oohs and aahs everywhere. The girls in the crowd swoon with delight. Wisely, some of the young men take mental notes.
"Some will be big, some small, but I promise, at Baylor you will have memories that last a lifetime."
When she is finished, a meandering line of students stops to thank Gray for speaking to the group. One of the student leaders tells her, "I've heard your story nine times, and I tear up every time."
At dusk, the students explore the historical markers and foundations of the men's campus on Windmill Hill. Assistant dean of Student Learning and Engagement, Rishi Sriram, BA '01, MSED '03, tells the story of the October 8, 1840 meeting of R.E.B. Baylor, James Huckins and William Tryon, which was the first Baptist meeting in Texas. "Robert Baylor was an avowed atheist," says Sriram. "He came to know Jesus Christ when he was 46. And it impacted him so much that he said, 'If we are going to start a university, I want it to be one that incorporates what these other universities are missing. I want it to truly integrate faith and understanding. My life has been radically changed, and we can create a university that changes the lives of students for generations to come.'"
Dusk fades to darkness as we pass single file through the iron gate to Academy Hill. Lumenarias line the path up the gently sloping incline, beckoning us forward to the four stone columns, bathed in light, aproned by six giant green and gold banners--BAYLOR spelled out in block letters. A vision beautiful by any measure: exponentially so for a Baylor alumnus. Not a word passes among us. Our soles whisper, shuffling along the asphalt.
A single guitar player strums into the still night as we gather beneath the columns, the last standing monument to Baylor at Independence. Years ago, resourceful residents carried away stones from the other crumbling buildings to use for edifices of their own. These four pillars, one for each decade of Baylor's time in Independence, here still stand. A steady, peaceful breeze begins to blow, swirling our two hundred voices worshiping in unison up past the pillars, into the starry heavens beyond. This time, this place, has an unmistakable sacredness about it. We stand transfixed in the moment.
When the final refrain ends, one by one, each student passes through the picket fence, around behind the columns, finding a long greeting line of the camp small group leaders, all upperclassmen, there to celebrate each new Bear. As the freshmen don their Line jerseys for the very first time, each one is met with a chorus of heartfelt hugs and handshakes. Visibly moved, the leaders pause to pray for the Class of 2013.
Passing through the columns, where four decades of Baylor students walked so long ago, some of the freshmen bear wide smiles; many shed tears of joy. They are now officially part of something very special--part of the 164-year-old Baylor story.
"I feel so changed," one young man utters to himself.
He is taking his place among the more than 115,000 living alumni who have come before him. Welcome to the Baylor Line.