The bond of AACS/ICS family conferences
by Henry de Jong
It’s been said that “youth is wasted on the young.” That would, of course, be the rueful observation of someone older (and wiser?) — someone lacking recourse to the freedoms, opportunities, fitness and energy that once belonged to them, in pursuit of ideals and ambitions and sensibilities that they have, more recently, acquired. But we also have a sense that the freedoms and follies and expeditions of our youth were really good gifts, of enduring value.
Over a lifetime of push and pull between ideals and realism, fancy and fact, highs and lows, we keep looking back in search of the gifts that mark our legacy. The path from youth to an older age may seem disjointed or crooked, dreams may go unfulfilled and regret comes knocking, but, when we mull things over, there are always jewels to find amongst the detritus.
For me, there’s a string of pearls stretching back from 1991 all the way to 1970. The first AACS (now ICS) August long weekend Family Conference was held in Niagara (Fort Erie) fifty years ago this summer. Along with the ever-increasing number of families taking advantage of the improved camping options, I attended as many of these as I could (bar trekking through Europe and getting married). It seems a bit surreal that I am contemplating any kind of 50th anniversary that involves me, but there’s no getting around it. I was fourteen when my family started going and I was all in. By the time of the last Niagara Conference, my own family was complete and I was more preoccupied with putting bread on the table than with the shimmering Kingdom.
During the bright times. those weekends were highlights of our year. Among my peers — children of immigrants, cutting their teeth on Kuyperian sirloin at AACS Conferences — they stand out as formative events, eagerly awaited, and left behind with some regret. Who knows, really, how much spiritual and emotional development got packed into those three days, over the years. There was so much to digest. Among all the youths and singles and couples, I would not have been the only one to wander away to the river in the heat of the day or the darkness of night, thoughts mulling, to watch the mighty Niagara sweep irrepressibly by. Those were the days.
From our vantage today, the seventies seem thoroughly Canadian/American and we remember ourselves as being fully established in that culture. But for perspective, we should note that the distance between 2020 and 1970 is fifty years, whereas there are only seventeen between 1970 and 1953. This marks the movement of Kuyperians through this first Niagara conference and beyond as a youthful venture. My parents were nineteen and twenty-one when they, like so many around that time, began their Canadian immigration adventure in 1953. This was a good age — perhaps the best age — for them to make the move. Then, after their toddling and adolescent years as Canadians, by 1970 they were emerging into the increasingly active, young-adult phase of their citizenship in the New World — with all the practiced energy and bravado of their first emigration. When certain AACS leaders were characterized as ‘young Turks’, this was not just a reference to their biological age.
The early conferences were radical, both in thought and operation, as befits any good, youthful ‘startup’. Practically speaking, I’m not sure they really wanted or expected the deluge of children, but the parents, with more than a decade of family camping experience under their belts (In those days only the Europeans camped), thought nothing of taking them along. The result was an inter-generational melange that is seldom seen outside of churches. Yes, there were children’s programs, but the gamut got together for a great deal of the time. It was already unusual that ordinary, working people were invited to philosophy lectures, let alone that fourteen year-olds, like me, were also attending. There was no patronizing, and we all, to the extent we could not understand, still ‘got it’ by osmosis.
There was some pretty heavy stuff being thrown around in lectures and seminars. It’s fascinating, now, to read reports of these speeches and discussions. From criticism of the ‘American way of life’, to the rejection of unlimited growth, to the call to care for the environment — conference themes seem remarkably prescient fifty years later. Thought ran deep here — the conference was not an echo chamber or a billboard for facebook memes. Disagreements were shared and discussions spilled out of the halls onto the lawns and well into the campfire hours. Being part of this, especially for youngsters, made for a profound appreciation of possibilities.
But it was the worship services that stirred the most. The very fact that all the people, who had been tinkering with the nuts and bolts of philosophical constructs, were gathering for worship testified that life is religion. And the religion we got was exuberantly pious, stretching on for hours, with endless singing to the accompaniment of guitars and drums. Most would see nothing like it the rest of the year. It was way ahead of the times and its repercussions echoed far and wide.
For a whole generation, people came together for this weekend of re-creation, tilling their hearts and minds for seeds of hope and responsibility, to bear sphere trees, both mundane and exotic, personal and corporate, durable and short-lived. That garden is gone now, but its seeds are still being carried by the Wind. To have a hand (sticky with watermelon) in the fellowship of believers settling down-to-earth in a jostle of tents and trailers, meal preps and dining, to and froing through sweltering heat and heavy downpours, hour upon hour in session and hall — this was a gift that has been held high and treasured within to this day.
We would be hard-pressed to recreate these conference years now, in our era of online distancing. Perhaps its success, then, was in the confluence of cultural cohesion, the AACS, Niagara Christian College grounds and Miller’s Creek Campground — a happy accident that defies duplication. Could we be this bold again? Would we ever feel as young? Were we too idealistic, too naive? Could we ever go so Dutch again? Where is Kuyper and the Kingdom even playing now, anyway?
Movements like this have happened before and will happen again, differently of course, but with the same force. For this time, the AACS/ICS family conferences fed on the youthful verve of young and old alike, and now, after all these years, the aging conferees, like their once-youthful selves, can still proclaim, in their hearts and minds, that the Kingdom is coming.