By Lynda Natali
"Who can tell me something about George Washington Carver?" asked Joe Scott, a senior at Tuskegee University. Several members of Troop 303 from Columbus, Ga., volunteer to answer, but 11-year-old James Funk is picked.
James recounts how Carver, a long-time Tuskegee faculty member and pioneering scientist, "came up with 300 uses for the peanut - and he taught farmers to rotate crops, so they don't wear out the soil."
"You know your stuff, James," Scott said, as he prepared to lead them on a tour of the historic college founded more than 100 years ago by African American educator Booker T. Washington.
A few minutes earlier Troop 303 and about 350 other Scouts had gathered in Tuskegee University Chapel, where they were welcomed to this small, eastern Alabama town located across the border from Georgia.
The chapel was a fitting site to begin the day, because the Scouts had come for the Chattahoochee Council's seventh annual Duty to God and Country Retreat.
The weekend event combines a special focus on citizenship and history with an emphasis on the Scout Oath's pledge of "duty to God."
From a modest inaugural event attended by about a hundred Scouts, the retreat has evolved into a weekend full of Scouting activities, with more than 350 campers participating.
Looking for a way to expose Scouts to the importance of spirituality, Fred Sieg, along with his wife, Connie, helped begin the annual Duty to God and Country Retreat. For the past three years, he has been in charge of overseeing the popular event.
Sieg is the son of the late Marlin S. Sieg, whose professional Scouting career included 27 years serving as an assistant director of the national Cub Scout Division. An Eagle Scout and Vietnam veteran, Fred has been involved in leadership positions with Scouting since the early 1970s. Throughout this time, he has been recognized with more than a dozen awards, including the Silver Beaver, which he received in 1979.
Sieg explained that the retreat's duty to God element was designed with a dual purpose in mind - to provide a way to remind Scouts about the importance spirituality plays in their lives and to encourage earning religious emblems.
To that end, the schedule includes a nondenominational religious service and an opportunity for each Scout to learn more about earning the religious emblem available from his particular church or denomination.
The retreat "helps the Scouts to focus on their duty to God," said Sieg, and also helps adult participants who "are trying to grow in faith with the kids."
Focus on "duty to country" is provided by the retreat's location, always a site of historical significance no more than two hours from the council service center in Columbus.
The first retreat was held at Westville, a re-created, mid-19th century village. Other locations included the Franklin D. Roosevelt State Park and Little White House State Historic Site at Warm Springs; and Andersonville National Historic Site and Cemetery, the Civil War prisoner of war camp at which 33,000 Union solders were held by the Confederates in a stockade built for 10,000.
The 1998 retreat featured historical sites at Tuskegee University, including Moton Field, the home of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen of World War II fame.
During the day, the Scouts toured the 4,700-acre campus of one of the nation's best-known, historically black colleges or universities. Their visit included stops at the home of Booker T. Washington and the George Washington Carver Museum.
Washington was the first head of the Tuskegee school and served more than 30 years in that role. Carver, whose research developed many uses for agriculture products like peanuts, served as a faculty member from 1896 until his death in 1943. Both men are buried on the university campus.
The schedule also provided time to to work on two merit badges, American Cultures and American Heritage. And the Scouts participated in a special flag retirement ceremony arranged by Sieg. They observed the proper way (by burning) to dispose of a worn or damaged American flag - in this case, a flag that had been torn during military operations in Bosnia.
At night the Scouts set up camp on the grounds of the airfield, where they explored the hangar and examined some aircraft.
What had been just a small airfield and aging hangar facility then came to life when Col. R. J. Lewis, U.S.A.F., retired, who oversees operations at Moton Field, shared inspiring stories about the Tuskegee Airmen with the Scouts. They also saw a motion picture about the airmen and then actually met a few of the celebrated fliers in person.
As if all of this weren't enough, Saturday evening included a religious service and songfest, at which information about the religious emblems programs was made available to the Scouts.
"When you can tie religion, history, and Scouting together, it is a powerful thing," said senior district executive Terry Herrod, after the 20 Scouts he brought with him completed their first day at the retreat. "It is really a great experience."
And providing such a variety of coordinated activities is a key reason the retreat is a success, explained organizer Connie Sieg, who with husband, Fred, is a principal player in getting the annual event off without a hitch.
"We are learning as we go," she admitted, noting that the evening religious service along with the emblems presentation, while central to the weekend, are just one part of the total experience.
If there is a "secret" to the weekend's success, Connie Sieg said, it is a strong organizing group - in this case, the council's Religious Relationships Committee. The committee includes several local clergy from area churches and meets regularly throughout the year.
To those who envision organizing a similar event, Connie's advice is simple: "Find people who can take the ball and run with it."
Thanks to the committee's hard work, the Tuskegee event went off smoothly. By the time of the Saturday-night religious service, the 360 retreat-goers seemed to be coming together as a group.
Filling the wooden seats in the university's brick chapel, the Scouts and their leaders - of different ages, ethnic background, and religious denominations - clapped and sang "Give Me That Old-Time Religion" - which, the music director explained, was a "religious folk song."
After a motivational sermon by an area minister who used references to Disney's "The Lion King" to emphasize responsibility and duty, the Scouts were inspired to take up a special collection for the university.
Pulling wallets from their uniforms and loose change from their pockets, they enthusiastically dropped the money into a collection plate that was passed up and down the rows of pews.
Following the service, many Scouts lingered around a display table containing information about the religious emblems programs.
James Shambley, 15, from Troop 30 in Auburn, Ala., said this was his third Duty to God and Country Retreat. And now, he admitted, he was going to start working toward earning the Baptist God and Church religious emblem.
An admitted history buff, James said he especially enjoyed the tours of campus earlier in the day. But he had come to appreciate more and more the significance and meaning of earning the religious emblem of his faith.
"Scouts who have earned one are really looked up to," he noted. "It is not easy - but I know I am going to earn mine." S
Freelance writer Lynda Natali lives in Savannah, Ga.
Tuskegee University and Moton Field
The Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, later Tuskegee University, was founded in 1881, under the leadership of outstanding African American educator Booker T. Washington. The school began with 30 students who studied crafts, agriculture, and other skills in a shack and an old church. At the time of his death, in 1915, the school had 100 buildings, 1,500 students, and 200 faculty members teaching 38 trades and professions.
Following Washington's death, the school moved away from its vocational emphasis to include college degree granting programs.
Today the campus, which has been designated a National Historic Landmark, includes nearly 5,000 students, faculty, and staff.
Among its many distinctions, the university is the nation's largest producer of African American aerospace engineers and military officers.
For more information, write to Tuskegee University, Tuskegee Institute, AL 36088, or check the school's Web site, http://www.tusk.edu
Moton Field, located on the outskirts of Tuskegee, is the historic home of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American aviators to fly combat missions for what was then the U.S. Army Air Force.
Besides their heroics in World War II, the airmen also performed another important role - they helped to break down racial barriers in the armed services.
The airfield, which includes the old brick hangar where the airmen trained, recently received funding to become a national historic site. Plans call for a complete renovation of the historic landmark.
The Religious Emblems Programs
The religious emblems are not Scouting awards. They are presented by individual faith groups to Scouts who complete requirements developed by the faith group.
The programs include more than 70 medals and represent faiths ranging from Roman Catholic (Ad Altare Dei) to Islamic (In the Name of God) to Hindu (Dharma) to Zoroastrian (Good Life). Scouts earn the award by completing a course that is designed and administered by their particular religious institution and approved by the BSA National Religious Relationships Committee.
In 1998, more than 92,000 religious emblems were awarded nationwide.
The Chattahoochee Council, which includes about 15 counties straddling the Georgia/Alabama border, awards approximately 100 emblems each year during a special ceremony held just for the occasion.
The Duty to God and Country Retreat plays a pivotal role in this accomplishment, according to senior district executive David Gregory, an ordained minister who has been involved with the event since it began.
"The weekend alerts many Scouts to the fact that the emblems exist," he said, "and then helps to motivate and inspire them to earn one."
A sampling of the actual medals for youth can be found in Chapter 17 of the latest (11th) edition of The Boy Scout Handbook.
On the youth or adult Scout uniform, the award, when earned as a youth, is indicated by a silver square knot insignia on a purple background, worn above the left shirt pocket.
Many faiths also have a religious awards program for adult leaders. In most cases, these medals are not earned by a Scouter but are awarded via nomination by an outside party in recognition of a leader's dedicated service to youth. On the Scout uniform, recognition for having received an adult award is indicated above the left shirt pocket by a purple square knot insignia on a silver background.
For additional information on religious emblems, contact your local council service center or the Relationships Division, S226, Boy Scouts of America, P.O. Box 152079, 1325 W. Walnut Hill Ln., Irving, TX 75015-2079. Information is also available on the BSA Web site: http://www.scouting.org/awards/religious/
Tips for Organizing a Retreat
Organizers of the Duty to God and Country Retreat offer these tips for others considering a similar event:
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