For stargazers, there is no worse enemy than light pollution. Even in Mississippi, where trees outnumber people, opportunities for unadulterated views of the heavens are dwindling — except at a place where religion and science coexist.
Home to more than 30 telescopes, the Rainwater Observatory and Planetarium in rural Choctaw County is a support ministry for French Camp Academy and an education and research center for students, stargazers and the public.
Observatory director Edwin Faughn gestures to a map of the country’s light pollution and points out a dark spot in the center of Mississippi, where French Camp is located.
“It’s not even totally dark anymore. We had a Dollar General pop up about seven miles down the road. One store destroyed the northeastern sky with a shaft of light,” Faughn said, noting that he went all the way to the corporate president to get the store to install light shields over the sign.
Since the observatory’s first telescope was installed on a hill donated by the Rainwater family in the summer of 1985, the facility has attracted researchers and stargazers from around the world.
During the annual Midsouth Stargaze and Astronomy Conference in April, enthusiasts come from as far away as Florida, Arkansas and California to enjoy a pristine view of the Milky Way and lectures by people like William Keel, a galaxy researcher from The University of Alabama.
“He used Hubble to make a discovery about a week before he was scheduled to speak here (in 2014),” Faughn said. “I was watching the news and he was on BBC, NBC, CBS and (I was) thinking, ‘French Camp? Is he going to make it?’ It turns out he and his wife both love it here.”
Faughn came to French Camp for years as a researcher with Memphis’ Pink Palace Family of Museums before being offered a full-time position in 2009.
“I’m a very social person and when I moved here it was like, ‘What am I going to do?’” Faughn said. “It’s easy to forget (that) when you see the look on a kid’s face when they see the rings of Saturn for the first time.”
Faughn regularly hosts field trips and scout troops at the facility. Thousands of people tour the grounds, including during a free public forum the second Friday of each month.
“We had people from 11 countries represented at the public forum a few weeks ago,” Faughn said.
A religious mission
For more than 100 years, the seclusion of French Camp — located halfway between Jackson and Tupelo on the Natchez Trace — has helped the eponymous academy become a haven for children from broken homes to become whole.
French Camp Academy is described as “a community within a community.” The delineation between the 900-acre campus and the one-mile-radius town of approximately 170 residents blurs like the green leaves whizzing past car windows along the Trace.
Mississippi 413 cuts through the heart of the community, where a post office and volunteer fire station sit next to an academy-operated bed and breakfast, one of six support ministries that help the academy with its mission of educating students in a Christian setting and giving them hands-on work experience.
The school is home to 280 students, 125 of which are full-time boarding students who arrive on campus via personal referral from Mississippi and the country.
“They’re kids that come out of abusive situations; some of them are being used to sell crystal meth; you name it,” said Lance Ragsdale, academy vice president of development. “They come to French Camp and seem to thrive and grow.”
We have to step back and realize that we’re a tiny speck cruising around a star that is moving around billions of other stars and galaxies.
Observatory director Edwin Faughn
Once students reach the seventh grade, they enter after-school work programs around campus and town. Every nine weeks, students rotate between a variety of trades. Students will do everything from edit radio ads on the school’s 1000-watt WFCA radio station, work with the equine program, learn graphic design and, of course, volunteer at the observatory.
Ninety percent of the academy’s graduates enroll in college. Starting in June, the academy grounds will host more than 1,000 summer campers at the Camp of the Rising Son.
Many of the academy’s staff live in dorms and houses on campus.
“It’s a supportive community that is relationship-driven,” Ragsdale said. “We live, work and worship together. We’ve lived in places that are more detached, and there are benefits. We don’t always have our privacy, but there is value that we like.”
Ragsdale and his wife, a trained concert pianist who works in the academy’s music department, adopted their daughter Sarabeth not long after moving to French Camp 14 years ago.
“I can’t speak into all of the facets in my daughter’s life, but we live in a community with core values. I can trust others to speak truth into her life.”
Showing ‘what is out there’
The relationship between the academy’s religious mission and the observatory’s scientific research are dissonant, but only on the surface.
“(Science and religion) are each studying two different realms of the same creation, both showing truth,” Faughn said, admitting that he was an atheist growing up.
“We have to step back and realize that we’re a tiny speck cruising around a star that is moving around billions of other stars and galaxies. I do my best to steer clear (of controversy) and I feel called to show what is out there and what I perceive as what God created.”