Mar 29, 2017

Trail Life Offers Scouting Alternative with a ‘Christian Underpinning’

Reporting Texas

Young members of Trail Life USA, a conservative Christian alternative to the Boy Scouts, tell ghost stories with flashlights while camping at Inks Lake State Park. John Flynn/Reporting Texas

Smoke from a lively campfire rose into a velvet-black Texas sky teeming with stars. A few boys in light green uniforms gathered at a picnic table, assembling s’mores with the marshmallows they’d just toasted while others punctuated the serene air at Inks Lake State Park with shouts and laughter as they played Ghost in the Graveyard.

“I think it gives them a wider-perspective view of life—of the world as well, to be outdoors,” said Ceasar Sanchez, 48, a University of Texas alumnus who works in executive communications and is a father of one of the campers.

On that chilly Friday evening in February, sons and fathers from Austin-based Troop TX-155 were enjoying a favorite pastime of scouting: camping. Those families, like thousands of others around the country, belong to Trail Life USA, a Christian values-infused “adventure organization” headquartered in South Carolina that says interest in membership is spiking.

Trail Life USA CEO Mark Hancock, in a Feb. 21 email to Trail Life leaders, directly attributed the Boy Scouts’ Jan. 30 policy change inviting transgender youth to join to a “tremendous increase in the number of inquiries” into Trail Life. Hancock said the nonprofit had to promote some part-time staff to full-time positions to handle the surge in online traffic.

“In fact, our website achieved a historic number of visitors,” wrote Hancock. “So many it nearly crashed us!”

In the week after the Boy Scouts announcement, Trail Life reported it received over 2,000 new Facebook likes, up 4 percent, and 1,385 requests to start or join a troop. Its motto, Walk Worthy, instructs followers to “live a life worthy of the Lord.”

Affiliated with Austin’s Park Hills Baptist Church, Troop TX-155 started in 2014 with 20 father and son members, according to Carl Camera, a software developer and the troop’s committee chair. Today, there are nine dads and 18 boys, ages eight through 18.

John Stemberger, a Florida lawyer and Eagle Scout, founded Trail Life USA in 2013, the same year Boy Scouts formally opened participation by openly gay youth. Since then, Trail Life says, it has attracted about 26,000 members nationwide and around 700 troops, both up by roughly one-third from two years ago.

Stemberger has had a long history in politics. As president of the Florida Family Policy Council, he successfully campaigned in 2008 to change Florida’s constitution to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.

Camera, 54, describes Trail Life meetings and camp-outs as generally “indistinguishable” from Boy Scouts events. Trailmen advance through programs from Foxes at kindergarten age up to the Guidon Unit as young adults, earning Trail Badges along the way in areas called Frontiers, such as Life Skills, Outdoor Skills and Values. The top rank in Trail Life is the Freedom Award. Like the Boy Scouts’ Eagle Scout rank, it is typically is earned by a member’s 18th birthday.

A young scout in Trail Life USA, a conservative Christian alternative to Boy Scouts, prepares a s’more during a campout at Inks Lake State Park. John Flynn/ Reporting Texas

During the weekend at Inks Lake, Trailmen hiked through the park, guided by their compasses, cooked a meal in a Dutch oven and organized a campsite cleanup at the end of their stay.

“It looks and acts like Boy Scouts, but it has a Christian underpinning,” said Camera about Trail Life. His troop is open to non-Christian fathers and sons, but per Trail Life policy, their adult leaders are required to sign a Trinitarian (the union of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) statement of faith. Adult members do not need to sign the statement.

“We pray to Jesus at our meetings,” he said.

Trail Life’s membership page states that it accepts boys “irrespective of religion, race (and) national origin” whose parents seek a program that emphasizes values such as leadership and “moral purity.”

Charles Mead, director of marketing for the Boy Scouts of America Capitol Area Council, said Boy Scouts also emphasizes belief in a higher power and reaches out to all faiths, adding that Scouts can earn religious awards.

After a two-year drop  during 2013-14, membership in Central Texas-area Boy Scouts began to rebound, ending last year with over 22,000 members in all programs. Nationally, over 2.3 million youths took part in Boy Scouts in 2015, down 12 percent from two years ago, according to the organization’s annual report of the treasurer. Despite the decline, Scouts achieved their “highest number of total volunteer hours” ever in the past five years, said Effie Delimarkos, communications director for Boy Scouts of America.
Becoming a Trailman means living a journey that is “established on timeless values derived from the Bible,” according to the Trail Life website. Working against those values, as Hancock wrote in an open letter dated Jan. 31, is the Boy Scouts’ acceptance of gay and transgender members, which he believes could leave “boys psychologically, spiritually and possibly physically scarred” and could lead to “compromising situations on outings.”

Criticism from the right had been swift following the Boy Scouts’ announcement. On his website, Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes questioned how Boy Scouts could “teach ethics and morals when its adult leaders can’t muster the courage to stand morally straight in the face of militant gender revolutionaries.” He encouraged his audience to check out Trail Life as an alternative.

At the campsite, fathers from Troop TX-155 strongly defended Trail Life’s stance on gay and transgender people, invoking what they describe as the Bible’s call in 2 Corinthians for Christians to distance themselves from sinners until they renounce their wrongdoing and accept Christ.

“I would no sooner have someone come model alcoholism to boys around a campfire than I would come and preach to them the virtues of homosexuality,” said Rodney Bowling, a geneticist and third-year member of the  TX-155 troop.

Mead said the Boy Scouts doesn’t “model heterosexual conduct any more than it would homosexual conduct.” Scouting volunteers are trained to show empathy toward young people who have questions about their sexuality, he said, and to direct those conversations to their families or religious leaders.

Troop TX-155 dad Colin MacAlpine, a business director for a global supply chain, said he realizes that others will call the organization’s statements intolerant, but said the reaction is “essentially being intolerant of intolerance.”

An Eagle Scout, Bowling, 39, had carried on the tradition by later becoming a scoutmaster and participating in Cub Scouts with his sons. When the Boy Scouts announced it would welcome gay members. Bowling said he “saw the writing on the wall” and decided to leave. His sponsoring church – he declined to identify it — subsequently canceled its Boy Scouts troop charter, later re-forming it under the Trail Life banner. Two years later, Boy Scouts further changed its policy to accept adult leaders without regard to sexual orientation.

“I don’t want it to be painted that we are not welcoming,” said MacAlpine, 41, who stressed that Trail Life is not a “one-policy” organization. “There’s nothing in Trail Life policy saying that homosexuals are not welcome.”

MacAlpine said his troop would accept a gay participant but would let the boy know that what he was doing “was not according to the design that God set for us.”

A boy who identifies with the opposite gender would not likely confide that to a Trail Life leader, Camera said.

“I don’t think that boys want to talk about that stuff,” said Camera. “You know what they want to talk about? Bugs. And snakes. And bats. And exploring caves.”

With the 9 p.m. lights-out approaching, younger Trailmen were sitting on the floor of a small tent, laughing and trying to imagine how they could all stay overnight in the cramped quarters. The boys, most of whom are home-schooled and consider each other best friends, shouted “awesome!” and “it’s super-great!” when asked what they thought of Trail Life. In a larger nearby tent, teenage Trailmen playing blackjack with chips only – no cash — paused their game. With extreme courtesy, a boy named Elijah looked up and said, “Hello. Nice to meet you.”

Outside, their fathers, who had discovered a parallel scouting universe that they say better suits their morals, mused on the starry heavens.

“Everything we see is just our galaxy, but we know there are millions of galaxies out there,” said Camera, peering up at the night sky.