“What is man that you are mindful of him?”
Few people would list Charles Mix County, South Dakota, as an American vacation paradise. There’s just not much happenin’. Like much of the Great Plains, it has a museum-like quality because the landscape of abandoned farms on its hills suggests a far livelier past than present.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark were there, following the Missouri River that is western border of its 110-mile expanse. Should you happen to follow the trail, you may something of a ghost town, a nearly abandoned settlement named, simply, Academy.
One day in 1892, a pioneer preacher named Rev. L. E. Camfield and a friend were out among the sod-busters of Charles Mix, collecting donations for the education of black children down South. When they tallied the purse at the end of the day, they were thrilled: they had $20.
Here’s what they thought. If a couple hundred dirt poor prairie farmers and ranchers could come up with that kind of money for needy kids hundreds of miles away, shouldn’t it be possible to create, right there in Charles Mix, an academic institution which would serve their own children in the best possible way?
Camfield said he’d try, and just a year later, Ward Academy opened its doors to 23 students. In a few years, the place had admirable facilities and close to 150 enrolled.
The Rev. Mr. Camfield was a Christian, a dreamer, and deeply committed to the cause of Christian higher education. For a time, this educational jewel on the Great Plains of South Dakota must have seemed, in its hustle and bustle, an answer to prayer.
Today all that school has is a relatively good paint job. It old chapel is big and sits up high on a knoll as if still proclaiming the absolute importance of education. But it hasn’t seen a student in years. It’s a sepia-tone tintype of itself.
Out front is a stone memorial to the Rev. Mr. Camfield, to his diligence, his vision, and his commitment. Behind that memorial is a building that, quite honestly, looks ready to be torched. It’s Shelley’s “Ozymandius” come to
this significant difference: Camfield
was no swaggering despot. He was, instead, a firm believer and a tireless
advocate of Christian education.
To me, someone who’s spent his whole life in Christian higher education, there’s something chilling about Academy, South Dakota. So much good was there at its birth, and it likely served its students well. I think I would have liked Camfield, a firebrand for quality education in the Christian tradition.
But Academy, South Dakota, reminds me that even when we believe we’re in His service, our best may not amount to a hill of beans. Academy is no more. What’s left is little more than a ghost town. In the cosmic scheme of things, we are just what the singer says we are in Psalm 8—not much.
But once again, here’s the miracle. He loves us. That’s the essence of this great old Psalm. Even though our best is sometimes bountifully silly, He loves us. That’s the realization that knocks David’s sandy socks right from out of his sandals.
Think of the heavens, then think of us—just so many field mice. But he loves us. He honestly does. And that makes all the difference for time and eternity.