Advent Christians in the News: Christianity Today Highlights the Advent Christian Village
This past Sunday I spent my afternoon flipping through articles in the latest print edition of Christianity Today (I try to keep my Sundays low-tech). This issue’s theme is “Saving Retirement”, featuring articles that reconsider how we live out our twilight years as Christians, prompting readers to consider the extent to which we’ve been captured by the fantasies of our society (Vacation to the Grave!). A non-AC friend had mentioned something to me about having possibly noticed a reference to an Advent Christian retirement community, but this still did not forgo my surprise when I came across a complete write-up on the Advent Christian Village at Dowling Park in an article is entitled, “Florida’s Oldest Place to Grow Old”. Unfortunately, it can only be read in full online if you are a subscriber to Christianity Today.
The following excerpts capture the extent to which author Jeff Neely goes in describing the Advent Christian Village:
Advent Christian Village, which dates its first retirees to 1914, may in fact be the oldest retirement community in the United States. It owes its existence to Thomas Dowling, a Florida timber magnate, who in 1905 attended a revival led by Advent Christian preacher John A. Cargile and converted to Christianity. A few years later Dowling’s local pastor in Live Oak, Florida, persuaded Dowling to donate 120 acres of his large land holdings to the denomination to be developed into an educational and religious camp. Dowling died shortly after and the camp fizzled, but in 1913 Dowling’s pastor opened the American Advent Christian Home and Orphanage on the parcel, inspired by a terminally ill widow who had contacted him looking for a Christian orphanage where her two sons could be raised. Dowling’s widow was one of three women appointed to oversee the new ministry.
While the orphanage constituted half of the ministry, the church also wanted the wooded refuge along the Suwannee to serve as a place of respite for aging clergy. In 1914, a few months after the first children came to Dowling Park, the first retirees arrived, establishing a culture of young and old living and working together. In 1922, the orphanage and “Home for the Aged” began a Christmas tradition, still continued today, where seniors and eventually hundreds of people from as far away as Philadelphia came to enjoy Christmas dinner at Dowling Park and present every child with a gift. In the early 1930s the Present Truth Messenger described children helping shell peas and stem berries from the community’s garden, calling them part of “a large family” with seniors “teaching the young how to count or say their A, B, C’s.” Institutional care for children would continue at the village for another six decades, supported by a denominational benevolent fund and by child sponsorships through local Advent Christian congregations.
Getting to the theme of the issue, a Christian philosophy of retirement, Neely looks upon the Advent Christian Village as an example of what a fruitful Christian retirement community might look like:
At Dowling Park, however, part of the draw for residents goes beyond spiritual amenities and is rooted in the community’s heritage of intergenerational ministry. Hinrichs estimates that the village served “into the thousands” of orphans through its residential program for children. Public policy shifts in the mid-1990s led the community to shutter its orphanage and shift into foster care instead, opening licensed foster homes where village residents interacted with the youth and the youth worked various jobs in the community.
Government funding cutbacks led to the closure of that program in 2002, but the village still regularly hosts an adventure camp for children in the foster care system. Camp activities include canoeing on the river, a scavenger hunt, and a ceramics class led by seniors living at the village. High school juniors and seniors identified by teachers or other adults as showing leadership potential take part in a leadership development program hosted by the organization. And Advent Christian Village is launching a program targeting overlooked young leaders, where high school students will meet with an older mentor monthly and, upon completion, will receive a scholarship for college or trade school.
As Advent Christians, we are often brutally aware of our shortcomings and are apt to feel discouraged when we look around the block at what other denominations are accomplishing. Yet here we have an instance of Advent Christians leading the way and setting the standard! (And for a long time might I add!) While we certainly don’t want to be satisfied with a thriving retirement community as our sole virtue, it should encourage us to see what is possible. Though small, our size offers us an opportunity to quickly renew a spirit of innovation when it comes to church practice. Given the recent shifts that have occurred just over the past year in alignment with the Strategic Plan, it wouldn’t surprise me if we one day return to the pages of Christianity Today with some new stories to tell.