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Ventura County Religion

'Come as You Are' Attitude Draws Thousands to Rustic Christian Camp

Religion: Rancho del Rey in the Ojai Valley offers everything from weeklong retreats to nature walks and a special wedding site.

January 31, 1998|BRENDA LOREE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Going to church Sunday mornings is probably not the dress-up affair it once was. Still, the hiking boots, flannel shirts and backpacks encountered at the Rancho del Rey Christian Camp's Sunday service would be considered casual even by '90s standards.

But that is the way the camp's minister likes it.

"It's definitely a 'come as you are' rustic setting," said Tom Hatcher, chaplain and director of the 130-acre Ojai Valley camp.

Even Hatcher's credentials seem to fit the outdoorsy nature of the compound north of Oak View, which offers everything from weeklong Christian retreats to nature walks to a prayer gazebo for weddings.

"My background is Christian ministry and construction," Hatcher said as he described the huge property he oversees, which boasts an amphitheater, camping meadow, ranch house that can sleep 30, playing fields and various dining and seminar halls.

Once an ancient Chumash habitation, the land became part of the old Rancho Santa Ana in 1870. In 1980, it was sold by the Feraud family to a nondenominational Ventura County consortium headed by Hollis Allen of Ventura's Community Presbyterian Church.

"They wanted to establish a retreat center in Ventura County," Hatcher explained, adding that the search committee was originally looking for something more modest: "They never dreamed of this [130-acre] magnitude. They collected money for four years for the down payment."

The nonprofit center is governed by a board of directors from various churches throughout Ventura County.

Last year, 14,000 people, mostly Ventura County residents, used the retreat grounds for everything from seminars, camping, weddings and environmental education programs to simple barbecues.

In December, two supporters of Rancho del Rey--Tom Lasalle of Casitas Springs and Carol Thomas of Ventura--decided to underwrite the cost of lighting a 16-foot-tall cross on a hill overlooking the Burnham Road camp.

"You can see it from Highway 33, Lake Casitas and throughout the Ojai Valley," Hatcher said. "It's light-sensitive and comes on at dusk. It's inspirational."

Dorothy Hudson and her husband, Carroll, retired from managing the retreat a year ago. "It's been a joy seeing people from all denominations come for relaxation and prayer over the years," Hudson said.

"It's such a beautiful place for weddings. Since it's nondenominational, it's introduced a lot of people to Rancho del Rey who otherwise wouldn't know anything about it."

Hatcher said that more than 1,600 Chumash artifacts, such as beads, tools and bowls, have been collected from the grounds over the years and are being stored at Moorpark College until a facility to display them can be built.

For more information about renting facilities or the 9 a.m. "come as you are" Sunday church service, call Rancho del Rey at 649-3356.

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