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Inward bound

Three would-be adventurers in beatup hard hats and kneepads studied a cave entrance hardly big enough for a raccoon.

"We have to fit in that hole?" a heavy young woman asked nervously, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm having breathing attacks," said another, biting her lower lip.

"Now it's time to face your fears," leader Doug Garner said.

Between gasps of breath, each caver said a small prayer. Garner, 34, promised the Lord was with them. Then Ashlee Saylor, 19, shouted below, "Okay get the butter ready. I'm coming down!"

The prayers were not coincidental. Outfits such as Garner's Going the Distance Adventure Ministry are creating weekend getaways that combine prayer and Fear Factor. Since 1996, Garner has been turning Christians into weekend bungee jumpers, rock climbers and skiers.

Forty-one people, most of whom are college students and belong to First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks in Largo, recently attended "Ignite," a weekend campout at the Ocala National Forest that included spelunking the 35-foot-deep White Cliff Cave. It was one of more than 50 adventure events since 2002, double the number from the previous five years.

"Going the Distance" means never giving up on your faith, Garner said.

The cave

With headlamps on, each caver plunged 8 feet into the cave, one at a time. Their first sign of trouble was a chasm with a 12-foot drop into weathered rocks. To cross, cavers arched their backs on one wall and placed their feet on the other wall, slowly inching along.

Nine-year cave-guide veteran Susan Kettles reminded them to "keep three points of contact with your body at all times." That's easier said than done on slippery orange clay.

Jeanette Lepore, a physical therapist, scuba dives in underwater caves and rafts on whitewater, but nothing prepared her for White Cliff. "It's small, and I don't like the (tight space). I've never had issues before . . . I don't know what's wrong with me," Lepore said as she waited for others to cross the chasm.

Once across, cavers crawled on their bellies with chins in the mud, making their way through grimy tunnels. To test the darkness of the cave, they turned off their headlamps.

"I can't see my hand in front of my face" a voice said.

A Bible story came to mind for Jason Motte, 20, as he squirmed forward on his belly. "Remember that Genesis story when God took away Satan's legs and made him a snake?" he asked. He got a few laughs, but his companions were too busy watching out for snakes to reply.

Three hours after descending into White Cliff, the tunnelers were awed by the stream of sunlight at the end of the cavern.

"The light at the end of the tunnel _ how ironic," said Motte, now filthy in orange clay and gravel but glad to be almost out.

Spiritual bonding

Above ground, Ashley Giacobbe peered across Mill Dam Lake, fascinated by its beauty. Despite the heavy fog, she could see the reflection of Cypress trees on the water, something resembling images on Rocky Mountain postcards.

"It's one of those perfect moments," Giacobbe said while she read Bible passages. Giacobbe is camping to connect with God. "You feel closer to God and feel more serenity," she said.

Giacobbe, 21, a nursing student at St. Petersburg College, joined her boyfriend on the trip. She met Kevin Starner, 21, who's in the Army, through church. They have been inseparable since August.

Garner said romance is not unusual during the adventure retreats. "One married couple conceived on a trip, and we've had others that met and got married," he said. He is now planning a married-couples church program.

Jennifer Flow, an eight-year National Guard veteran, tagged along with her best friend, Christina Murray, to strengthen their friendship as well as grow spiritually. Murray, 21, a relatively new churchgoer, said she felt closer to God through the caving because it helped her deal with her claustrophobia.

However, both Flow and Murray said the trip was less spiritual than they expected. "In our age group, spiritual structure is what we need most," Murray said.

But Garner says the natural setting is a spiritual experience. "We have a lot of man-made things at home, but outdoors we see a testimony of a creator," he said. "God is the ultimate consuming fire. If you separate the logs, the fire goes out _ like us."

Back at camp

When Going the Distance calls its fall retreat "Ignite," it's accurate. After serving pizza rolls for dinner and singing Christian songs around the campfire, leaders surprised the campers by lighting a half dozen fountain fireworks. And yes, in the campfire.

Boom, sizzle, screech! The campfire fire now roared with a volcano of purple, green and white sparks.

"This has got to be illegal," a voice said with a laugh.

The fire set the tone for Garner's fireside minisermon. He relayed a Bible story about a three characters, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who ignored a decree from King Nebuchadnezzar. When granted a second chance to worship the king or die, the men still refused and were thrown into a blazing furnace. However, the men walked away from the fire unscorched. The Bible credits God for saving them because of their faith, Garner said.

Garner challenged his young audience to be spiritually active. "God gives us difficulty in our lives because the whole world is watching," he told the campers. "We want to be in the fire and taste difficulty, for people can see we worship the one true God. Run toward the fire and he will reveal himself."

After the fire was extinguished, the campers stumbled to their tents. There would be pool football the next day.

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