They came to California from every state in the Union—from Maine to Oregon and everywhere in between—and many landed at Christian Encounter Ranch. It was the early ‘70s and most were unkempt, “aromatic” hitchhikers: girls in bell-bottom pants, Beatle-haired guys, and guitar-strummin’ folk singers— and no one knew quite what to make of the unbridled young hippies. They were in the midst of a revolution, seekers of freedom and excitement, rejecting everything conventional and valued by their parents.
But God was ready for them! He had stirred a desire deep in the hearts of Paul and Anita Cecil and Tom and Barbara Salter a few years earlier, and they had begun the process of purchasing the land the Ranch currently sits on. The early years were wild and unpredictable. Only a rutted dirt road led to the property, there were no neighbors, utilities were non-existent, and the acreage was devoid of buildings. A couple of mobile homes were purchased. Several cabins of recycled materials went up for additional staff, and the hippies came in droves in response to the founders’ prayer, “God, send those You want to be here.” Young people in legal trouble, gang members, con artists, demonized folks, and kids just looking for a meal and a place to lay their heads arrived. The nomads lived for a time in the staff homes and their many problems soon became evident. But so did the power of God’s love and His ability to change lives working through imperfect people.
That was the beginning. Over the years the problems of the youth culture have changed significantly and what was effective before no longer is in many instances. Christian Encounter has had to be wisely flexible in changing to meet the needs. But much remains the same. God is the supplier of all we need. God is the source of our strength. God is the One who brings wholeness to broken people. And that restoring to wholeness transforms not just the one restored, but it is manifest in generations to come. We get to see the children and grandchildren of those who came years ago and we are filled with gratitude and awe!
The young people coming to Christian Encounter today are not carefree groupies looking for adventure and pleasure. Most are deeply wounded, depressed, angry, skeptical, non-communicative, anxious or fearful. Childhood traumas have wreaked havoc in many of them. Jesus tells us that there are grave consequences for anyone who would cause a child to lose faith in Him. He also says that the heavenly Father does not want any of these little ones to be lost. At Christian Encounter we are committed to going after the lost sheep.
Recently we celebrated our Ranch high school graduation. One of the founders, Tom Salter, was in the audience. I asked him what he was thinking and feeling 49 years after he and Barbara came with the vision and dream of what God could do with the Ranch. He said, “Everything is so organized now: paved roads instead of dirt, buildings instead of mobile units; a comprehensive program of counseling, high school education, and discipleship; a family atmosphere fostered by numerous interns. We had the vision in the beginning, but the developed ministry is beyond anything we did. Far beyond! We were like an acorn, then a vulnerable sapling. But this has grown into a mighty, majestic oak whose extensive canopy offers protection and strength to an entire community. That’s the before and after. It’s amazing. I’m humbled to have had a part in the beginning.”
Marion Parker arrived at Christian Encounter in 1976 and served on staff alongside her husband, Jim, for 37 years. Marion is currently on the Board of Directors.