On a mild evening last summer, with every one of the 73 red chairs filled, and people spilling out of the chapel, sitting on the grassy hillside, farther and farther away, Steven Reeve had a brief conversation.
“Lord,” he said, “we gotta have a new building, but we don’t have any money.”
The conversation went further, but first a word about faith. In his essay “Immortality,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.” Or maybe some illumination from Hebrews in the New Testament: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
So, there was a too-small chapel, the great, gaping unknown and Reeve in conversation with God.
“I sensed the Lord saying, ‘You’ve got a tractor, get to work,’ ” Reeve recalled, and so that’s what he did.
Mountaintop Retreat had that tractor and a supply of diesel, and last September Reeve started digging, moving yards and yards of dirt that surrounded the chapel, a task that took more than a month. How much dirt? Reeve holds his hand about chest height to demonstrate: That much.
Now, gearing up for spring and summer seasons at the 35-acre Ouray County camp located about 15 miles southeast of Montrose, the new chapel is quickly heading toward completion — built almost entirely by the man most people call Brother Steve.
“It’s been a walk of faith,” said Reeve, 67, though some days, as he built through the winter, it was a hunched-inward hustle through the biting wind and snow.
But maybe a bit of background about this place and this man is necessary. Mountaintop Retreat (mountaintopretreat.com) has existed in one form or another since 1946, when it began as Ouray Faith Bible Camp in a town park. Summer Bible camps were held in the park until the 1960s, when they were moved to a ranch on the Little Cimarron River near Montrose.
From 1974 to 1982, the summer Bible camps were held at a rented camp facility near Cedaredge, though in 1978 the volunteer board had raised enough money to buy 35 acres in Ouray County abutting the Uncompahgre National Forest.
By 1983, enough facilities had been completed on that land to begin having summer camps there, and the nondenominational camp has been in steady use for youth summer camps, retreats, meetings and family reunions since then.
It’s a lovely spot, at about 8,000 feet and heading into the Ponderosa pine and aspen, with stunning views of the San Juan Mountains from the hilltops. Summer camps there are not just for devotion, but for disc golf and basketball and hikes of discovery across U.S. Forest Service land, accessed by a gate at the back of the property.
It’s God’s country, for those inclined to think so, which Reeve was not when he first heard the position of program director and camp caretaker was open.
Reeve, who was born in Valentine, Nebraska, and grew up on a ranch near Faith, South Dakota, was more inclined to northern latitudes, and to working with cattle and living in the sweeping, wind-blown expanse of prairie and mountain.
Plus, to be honest, he had a history of trying to avoid the things he knew in his heart he was supposed to do. After serving as a welder in the U.S. Navy from 1968 to 1972, he came home and married his wife, Vicky, that same year.
He’d grown up in church and came to his devotion in his teens, and as an adult had a feeling that he was supposed to go into ministry. But he didn’t want to, so when there was no room for him and Vicky on the family ranch in South Dakota, they went to Washington state, where he worked as a shipyard welder.
By 1975, he owned a construction business with a partner, learning the craft by being the kind of person who “if I’m seeing someone doing something, I ask how did you do that? Why did you do it that way?”
By 1980, with skyrocketing interest rates tanking the construction industry, he said, and the feeling that he should be in ministry something he couldn’t avoid, there was no more “running away from the Lord.”
He and Vicky, who have been partners in ministry from the start, and their two sons, Jason and Ryan, moved to Three Hills, Alberta, Canada, to attend Prairie College (prairie.edu). After graduating in 1984, Reeve became a Bible teacher and dean of students at Sunshine Bible Academy in Miller, South Dakota.
Soon thereafter, he and Vicky became American Missionary Fellowship (now InFaith) missionaries, and spent 10 years in western Montana, planting and administering churches and conducting vacation Bible schools.
In 1991, he heard that the ministry at Mountaintop Retreat would be coming open. First thought: Not interested. And that thought guided him for three years. He’d never lived that far south and had no intention of doing so.
Then, in 1994 and on his way to a conference in Westcliffe, he figured he’d veer through Montrose to check out Mountaintop Retreat.
“The whole drive home the Lord was saying, you need to take that ministry,” he recalled.
In the first week of October that same year, he and Vicky got in their truck, drove to Montrose and looked at the place. Vicky immediately thought it was great, her husband still gave it a skeptically raised eyebrow.
Upon meeting with the Mountaintop Retreat board members and being asked what he thought, Reeve informed him the place needed a lot of work, but OK, he’d give it 10 years. He and Vicky drove back to Montana, sold their house in a day, and were driving through Delta on the way to their new home on Halloween.
At his second meeting with the board, Reeve told them what he planned to do. It involved a lot of tearing down old buildings, bolstering and adding to the ones that were sound enough, building new ones and landscaping, in addition to the work of ministry and facilitating camps.
Though short- and long-term volunteers helped, most of the work fell to Reeve, but within 10 years he’d done everything he’d told the board he would. So, he committed to another 10, because there was more work to do.
That decade passed as well, and with close to 200 youth passing through every summer, as well as groups of adults as the camp’s scope expanded and Reeve opened it to year-round use, “Brother Steve” became a fixture in the lives of many. One lady who came to the camp as a girl asked him to marry her and her husband, which Reeve did when she was 27. Will Spence, now a board member, grew up coming to the camp and volunteered enough as an adult that Reeve said Spence should probably help direct the place.
About the time the Reeves began thinking about retiring and maybe heading back north, a lady showed up on their Montrose doorstep on Jan. 4, 2011, holding a 4-month-old baby. It’s your grandson, she told them, and he’s been abandoned. Would they take him?
Like it was even a question, so they figured they should stay put because they had young Cash, who they’ve since adopted, to think about now.
Reeve continued his 20-mile daily commute to Mountaintop Retreat, this time with Cash by his side. Which is a circuitous path to that moment last summer, when he knew that the old chapel was too small and too unsound, but there was almost no money to do anything about it.
He moved that dirt and then…
“I said, OK Lord, we don’t have any money,” he recalled. There actually was a little money, just enough to buy the lumber and rebar to form the concrete floor, so that’s what he did. Then once again: “OK Lord, we don’t have any money,” and for real this time.
Now, here’s the part that people may not believe, that strains credulity for those not inclined to believe in miracles, but gospel truth it’s what happened: That night, a check for $5,000 arrived in the mail, Reeve said. It was sent by people on the East Coast who’d previously visited the camp and supported its vision.
So, that got the concrete in, poured around the existing foundation of the original chapel. Then, once again, no money. Again, believe it or don’t, but it’s what happened, that night a check for $20,000 arrived in the mail, Reeve said, this time sent by a man on the West Coast who supported the camp’s mission.
And it happened one more time, a check for $5,000 just when the coffers were almost empty.
“You’re standing on a miracle,” Reeve said simply on a recent afternoon.
A friend donated 6 x 6 beams for the walls, but the checks that arrived just in time paid for the rest, and Reeve worked through the winter. Two volunteers helped him set the roof trusses — he stood on the roof of the old chapel, which he built around, to set them — and then he demolished the previous chapel, taking the scrap out through the open walls he’d raised.
It’s not fancy, with chipboard walls and a concrete floor, but the new chapel has huge cargo doors on tracks that can be opened to the summer breezes, or closed if it is being used in winter. It has space for many more chairs than the 73 currently pushed against the far wall. Where the money for more chairs will come from is still a big question mark.
Spending so many days by himself, with his hands at work but his mind roaming over ideas and visions for the place, Reeve can clearly see what it might be. He pictures a large, mobile fireplace in the center of the room for winter evenings.
He pictures bands or worship teams unloading their equipment directly to the front of the chapel through the cargo doors there.
He sees the Gospel shared, families strengthened, faith found and grown — none of which requires gold-leaf ceilings or marble floors, but just space to breathe at a chapel in the forest, in the clear air, in the pristine expanse of prayers answered.