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The Bannerman legacy in Christian recreation

During the early years after their marriage in Hopewell, Va., in 1948, Glenn and Evelyn Butterworth Bannerman were significantly influenced by parish ministers, educators and Christian conference leaders who opened nurturing windows of creativity, affirmed their spiritual gifts and graces, and helped set the Bannermans on a vocational partnership leading to generative and pioneering national and international contributions in the field of Christian education and recreation. From the beginning of their inspiring pilgrimage in the ministry of religion and play, Glenn has served as a magnetic and bigger-than-life force at the forefront, while Evelyn’s backbone organizational skills have been indispensable.


With a degree in recreation from Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University), Glenn headed municipal recreation departments in Burlington and Whiteville, N.C., from 1951 to 1954, while also serving as recreation coordinator for his Methodist young adult conference and as president of the N.C. Methodist young adults. After one year in a Duke Divinity School master’s degree program, where he was urged toward traditional parish ministry, Glenn determined that he was being called to the field of Christian education and recreation. When Glenn visited the General Assembly’s Training School in Richmond, Va. (renamed Presbyterian School of Christian Education in 1959), President Charles E. S. Kraemer and Dean Patrick H. Carmichael welcomed him enthusiastically.


That watershed meeting,” says Glenn, “was like walking into heaven. Both affirmed the integrity of my call.” Kraemer and faculty members Rachel Henderlite, Sara Little and Josephine Newbury were so impressed by Glenn’s promise for innovative recreation leadership that, near the end of his three-year degree program, 1955-1957, he was offered a three-year appointment to develop a curriculum in recreation and outdoor education.


That led to 33 years of remarkable service, where he was promoted to a tenured professorship, and from where Glenn and Evelyn (and eventually even their children) itinerated as groundbreaking leaders in the field of Christian recreation, throughout the United States and in many nations abroad.


From his home base at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education (PSCE) and in recreation/education seminars, congregations, conferences and presentations across the nation, the magnetic, 6-foot-3-inch, Paul Bunyan-like Bannerman offered unifying and barrier-breaking opportunities to diverse and intergenerational groups, through his bridge-building experiments in theology and play.


Teaching in a summer doctoral program at San Francisco Theological Seminary, which included many international participants, Glenn innocently assigned a Japanese member and a Korean member to collaborate in one of several study groups. When the Japanese student informed Glenn that he would need to drop the class, because it would be impossible to work with the Korean student, Bannerman challenged him to remain in the course and to try to discover the Gospel and the possibility of reconciliation in his partnership with a person who had been identified as a historic enemy. The student reluctantly stayed; and on the night of the final barn dance celebration, his family and his Korean partner’s family made party hats for all entering participants. The two families bonded throughout the event. At least for them, Christian recreation had led to acceptance and a breakdown of decades of mutual animosity and prejudice.


Another crucial forum for Bannerman’s burgeoning influence and eventual preeminence in Christian recreation circles was his deep and long-standing relationship with the well-known Montreat Conference Center, nestled in the exquisite Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and cherished as a national gem of its kind among Presbyterians and ecumenical churches. Productive collaboration with educator and recreation expert Robert E. Fakkema, who had founded the annual Recreation Workshop in 1956, brought Glenn into that dynamic seedbed in its third year.


The annual Recreation Workshop eventually moved to the Montreat Conference Center, where Glenn has served its staff, plans and programs for over half a century. In 1957, Glenn filled in as a last-minute substitute for leading recreation at Montreat’s Christian Education Leadership School, and also the Young Adult Conference, which led to his popular presence at numerous Montreat conferences across the decades. The Recreation Workshop greatly influenced generations of Christian educators and ministers from many cooperative denominations. Evelyn Bannerman labored as the workshop’s registrar/treasurer for 22 years.


With Glenn teaching at a Presbyterian theological school and at national Presbyterian conferences, the Bannermans felt led to the Presbyterian fold where, in Glenn’s words, “the doors were opened to our ministry, again and again.” Over a span of three summers, 1964-1966, Glenn, youths and adult sponsors from 24 congregations designed and created the Montreat Campground Ministry. In 1968, he joined Dr. Larry Wilson’s Montreat summer recreation program, where they redeveloped the community Fourth of July celebration, transformed the renowned Friday Barn Dance into a landmark intergenerational experience, and, two years later, at Evelyn’s suggestion, brought in the Stoney Creek Boys as the Barn Dance’s official house band, a tradition which continues to this day.


Throughout the intense years of America’s Civil Rights Era, Glenn Bannerman uniquely nurtured PSCE’s constituents and Richmond’s Northside community as a trusted, sensitive and courageous provider of interracial bridges of reconciliation through the winsome ministry of recreation. To a city whose recreation facilities were segregated, Glenn engagingly presented a different angle of vision. He suggested to PSCE’s President Kraemer: “We have the facilities, the students and the will; let’s design an inclusive community recreation program here on our campus.” PSCE could be a role model for the city; and PSCE students could receive field education credits for their leadership, as they applied their courses to crying community needs.


Thus, PSCE established an integrated after-school latchkey program for children and youths, which included a roller skating rink, a snack bar and a multifaceted game room. Other integrated and admission-free offerings involved a Saturday night youth center, family nights, a creative arts shop, an international cooking class, international youth dances, with global music, and international dancing for the larger community. Bannerman’s Youth Dancers, grades 7-12, presented folk dances in retirement centers, nursing homes, hospitals, penal institutions and shopping malls. On June 18, 1968, when Dr. Kraemer offered the PSCE campus, dorms, kitchen, grounds and recreation facilities to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s weary participants in the Poor People’s March en route to Washington, D. C., Bannerman already had an adaptable and person-centered recreation infrastructure in place, which helped assure that the school’s residents, staff and supporters could extend the welcome of Christ to hundreds of guest marchers through the fellowship and theology of play.


In subsequent years, the Bannermans and their four children clogged and led folk and big circle dances throughout the United States and in parts of Canada. As a result of a Bannerman family clogging performance at a Pittsburgh Folk Life Festival, the U. S. State Department invited them to present their special talents on an extended ambassadorial tour of nine Central and South American nations in 1975.


In 1989, his retirement year from PSCE, the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators honored Glenn as Educator of the Year. St. Andrews College in Laurinburg, N.C., presented him the Margaret Bowen Award for “Distinguished Service to Christian Education.” San Antonio College and the National Folk Organization recognized Glenn for exceptional leadership in recreation and the preservation of folk dance.


At that time, both he and others lifted up Evelyn’s own invaluable offerings to their partnership in ministry. They had met as sixth- and seventh-graders; and today their recreation vision and activities continue, in many venues, at ages 84 and 85. Throughout their exemplary journey, they have graciously confessed their beliefs that recreation and the theology of play wonderfully nourish our rejoicing in the Lord, our enjoyment of being together unpretentiously, and our hope for acceptance and reconciliation through the “inclusivity of human relationships.”


We are their debtors.


DEAN K. THOMPSON is retired president and professor of ministry emeritus, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.