The Army & The Chosen

Campers and visitors will have the opportunity to experience first-hand how people would have lived in biblical times, that typically wouldn’t be possible without a trip to the other side of the world. by David Reardon
The Army & The Chosen

When COVID-19 shut just about everything down, both Camp Hoblitzelle in Midlothian, TX, and “The Chosen,” the international hit show dramatizing the lives of Jesus and his followers, were put into tight spots. At camp, there was going to be an unknowable amount of time before campers could return for the summer, and it was difficult to rent out their facilities for groups or events.

The team behind “The Chosen” was looking for a new place to film that was suited to their specific needs, and the varying qualities of potential properties and requirements for the cast and crew’s convenience made for an exhausting search. Then one of God’s coincidences happened. One of the camp staff members who had been able to stay on during the COVID-induced lull also happened to be one of the donors of the crowd-funded series. They saw a social media post inquiring about potential filming locations, and brought it to camp director Casey Bilbrey, who asked them to reach out on the camp’s behalf, not expecting much to come of it.

A couple of producers made plans to visit, including creator and director Dallas Jenkins, also not expecting any results, but unwilling to leave any stone unturned. When they got to Hoblitzelle, Bilbrey took them on a tour of the campgrounds that children and young adults enjoy year to year. At first, it didn’t seem like it was going to be a good fit. The team wasn’t particularly inspired by anything Casey had shown them, and were ready to leave, when Casey told them, “That wasn’t even half of our land.”

Casey then took them out behind the main campgrounds, where there are hundreds of acres of open fields that were rarely used. Jenkins almost immediately hopped out of the golf cart and made a frame with his fingers, already picturing a shot of an upcoming episode against the landscape of Hoblitzelle’s backlot. He and the other producers had a shared epiphany at that moment, and after touring for another 30 minutes and only seeing a portion of what would be available to them, it was “a done deal.”

The Chosen

After the chance meeting that never would have happened were it not for COVID-19, the production of “The Chosen” entered a multi-year lease with Camp Hoblitzelle to establish their new home base. This new partnership included the construction of a 30,000 square-foot state-of-the-art sound stage and a permanent historically accurate recreation of the biblical town Capernaum (still unofficially named at the time of writing, but jokingly referred to as “Faux-pernaum”) where Fort Tejas, built in 1971, used to be. To honor the history of Camp Hoblitzelle and the fort, every piece of wood torn down from Fort Tejas was used in the construction of the Capernaum set. Other spots around the campgrounds have also proven useful for recreating scenes in ancient Rome and various biblical locations.

Hoblitzelle’s campgrounds have already been proven to be incredibly useful and versatile, still early in the partnership between the show and The Salvation Army. An episode of season three features the famous Feeding of the 5,000, where Jesus took a meager offering of five loaves of bread and two fish and multiplied it to feed the masses that had come to hear him preach. The significant story is meant to be a focal point in season three. It was a massive event and undertaking for “The Chosen” to accomplish, but they didn’t want to take any shortcuts.

The Chosen

Over the course of a few days, over 12,000 donors and their family members as young as 7 weeks and up to 91 years old from all 50 states and 36 countries traveled in groups to Camp Hoblitzelle in biblical garb of their own design (following instructions provided by the show’s team) to be extras for the ambitious scene. Upon arrival, they found that a portion of the land that had been provided for “The Chosen” was converted into a festival space, complete with large eating tents, a concert stage with giant screens and speakers, an air-conditioned merchandise tent, and even a pair of bouncy castles. Unique memorabilia covered with logos for the event and the #F5K (feeding of the 5,000) hashtag, which could be used to share photos of the experience on social media, were available for extras to purchase. There were also tents providing food, water and sunscreen.

On the stage, waiting extras were treated to musical performances from Big Daddy Weave, the Bonner Family, and more. Matthew Nelson and Dan Haseltine also took the stage to perform the popular song from the series,

“Trouble.” Dallas Jenkins later came out to greet the fans and thank them for their participation, as well as to encourage them about the significance of the show and reiterate the goal of reaching one billion people with the Gospel as presented in the series.

The groups spent most of their day on set in this festival/staging area before being positioned in front of the camera in groups of about 1,000. They performed alongside the main cast for a couple of hours before returning to the staging area and allowing another group to take their place. At the end of each day, all present extras were brought to the set for a shot where everyone would be on camera, providing the incredible scope of the story that the show aimed to capture.

The event proved to be a success, and the idea has been floated to host an annual gathering of fans and donors of “The Chosen” at the site, although nothing has been confirmed at this time.

The Chosen

The partnership cultivated between The Salvation Army and “The Chosen” will have lasting effects on both parties. The series is planned to be seven seasons long, and while parts of the remaining seasons will need to be filmed at other locations, the show has set up a new home at Camp Hoblitzelle. They’ve made a sizeable investment into creating facilities at camp to ensure production will continue there, but they will not be the only crew using what’s been built. The team of “The Chosen” has generously donated the sound stage and all the sets that’ve been built for the show to Camp Hoblitzelle. With the prevalence of green screen technology, entire movies could be filmed in the indoor studio spaces provided. The plan is to open the facilities to be rented out to other productions when not in use by

“The Chosen.” And hopefully, if the viewership of “The Chosen” continues to grow, and the demand for high-quality Christian content is proven, Out of Order Studios can continue to partner with Camp Hoblitzelle after the series is done, building on the friendship that has already developed between the producers and the camp.

The space will also be made available to aspiring filmmakers. This year, Camp Hoblitzelle held its first film conservatory in partnership with producers of “The Chosen,” a weeklong camp for young artists to have a professional film experience with the sound stage and equipment provided by the show’s team.

As for the historically accurate sets, such as Capernaum, Bilbrey says they will be a useful tool for education. “We [will] utilize those structures for Salvation Army events and programs with adults, officers, counselors, or men’s and women’s camps, ARC, it goes on and on,” he says. Campers and visitors will have the opportunity to tour the city and experience first-hand how people would have lived in biblical times. They’ll be able to see the Bible come to life in a way that typically wouldn’t be possible without a trip to the other side of the world. The Capernaum set is surprisingly realistic and includes functioning water features, cafes, and more, all at Hoblitzelle’s request, to achieve the most authentic learning and ministry experience possible.

The Chosen

Bilbrey was very excited about the potential that this partnership and the donated facilities hold for future camp ministry. “Everything at camp that we put resources towards, whether it’s grounds or buildings or people or programs, if we’re going to channel resources that way, it’s got to have a purpose. It has to have a mission. It has to transform lives.” Things like this are just the beginning, and there will be many ministry opportunities to come afforded by the relationship between the Army and “The Chosen.”