|Probably the best sunglasses ever invented. Ever. Have I mentioned I'm an X-Men fan?|
Many people have noted over the years that I have an almost maniacal need to see both sides of an issue, to force the point of the Devil - be his best advocate, if you will.
Recently, for whatever reason, I found myself remembering an experience I had at church camp. It is one of the reasons that I have a deep affection and love for the church, one of the reasons I take it a bit personally when I hear such awful blanket statements about the church.
So, if you'll bear with me, I'd like to share my story...
Back when I was a newly minted teenager, I was still living in one of the smallest towns in Texas. We had a population of 585 - according to census data from my senior year, so, at the time of this telling, we had far fewer. For that population we had, at my last count, 9 Baptist churches that served the community. Nine. Nueve. The thing that 7 ate. Needless to say, it was a community steeped in a very specific kind of faith. The church that I grew up in was the largest of the 9, though, (and I may be mistaken here), it was eventually overtaken by a church with a much younger audience.
I was not well-liked by any means. By, really, anyone. This was not only my most awkward phase in life, but it was the loneliest. I did not have any group that I could call my own. Sure, I was part of the theatre troupe, but they weren't my friends. They weren't there for me when the most popular of our class decided that I was ripe for the teasing. I was growing far too fast into a body that wasn't catching up. I looked stretched and gaunt. 6' 6" and 145lbs. I was a giant stick bug with a thick mop of dirty blonde hair.
I had body image issues like you'd never believe. I was struggling with my burgeoning sexual confusion. I believed my own press, that is to say I believed what everyone said about me. I'd taken it to heart. I probably spent more time at home crying than I did doing anything else.
Summer camps weren't something that most families could either afford or, generally speaking, do. But, the church, every year, took kids to a summertime church camp at a Christian university in...I want to say Oklahoma. (But, I might be confusing the state with band camp, which happened every year at Beaver's Bend national park. Quick note: if you ever go to Beaver's Bend, do NOT go swimming in a skimpy bathing suit. And, only go swimming if it is scorching hot outside. The water is colder than ice, so cold that you never really get used to it enough to comfortably splash about.)
Anyways...not the point.
My parents gave me the opportunity to go to a few different summer camps. My favorite was the two summers I spent at drama camp in San Marcos, Tx, and it was because I loved that camp experience so much I acquiesced when my parents asked if I'd go to church camp. Their thinking was that maybe I'd actually make some friends in my home town, rather than phone and email friends that I saw once a year that lived hundreds of miles away.
We piled in vans and took tiny bags and were carted off to church camp in the middle of some serious heat.
Upon arriving I realized something almost straight away. There was a whole lot less time with my church group than I thought there would be. You see, I was the kind of guy in school that nobody wanted in their group. If we were playing dodgeball, I wouldn't just be picked last, I wouldn't be picked at all because then one team would be one person larger than the other team. I'd be score keeper or given PE credit for bleacher riding. The kind of kid that, when the entire class got to go to Six Flags theme park, would wander off because no buddy group really wanted me with them. And, while others would get in trouble for that behavior, mine just seemed to go unnoticed. Suffice to say, I was used to taking any opportunity possible to break away from the group and enjoy the time alone. It was good for me, and the hometown group didn't want me with them anyways, so nobody cared.
Good thing I never got kidnapped, because...boy...would I sound like an ass right now.
Church camp was supposed to be your church group spending lots of time with each other doing Bible study and talking about Bible study and attending Bible study with all the other church youth groups twice a day and a strange activity time with all the church groups where you were supposed to play sports-ish style games...because Jesus. But, by the second day, I had found that I could slip away, like the social wraith that I was, during those group bonding times. Neither the pastor nor youth director nor any of the adult chaperones noticed, and if they did they didn't say anything.
I spent that time, at first, wandering around, reading...watching other groups play games...aimlessly walking the college grounds. I'd ponder what life would be like after graduation, even if I ended up going to a Christian college - which wasn't out of the question at that time. But, then, this social creature instinct inside me took over. I began talking to people. And...they talked back...and seemed to genuinely like me.
By my third day at camp, I was full-out spending my time with a hodge podge of other group's members. Lunches, break times, activity periods, all of it was with a rapidly growing group of people whom I'd never met before, but felt like old friends. There were pranks. Some new friends and I changed the Mabee Fine Arts center to the Fine Farts center with the help of a cut out paper 'F'. Ahh... Maturity.
Side note: One of those two girls that changed the center's name later became the first person I came out to. And the first friend I took to a gay bar. And she was a preacher's daughter, which ended up explaining a lot about her.
That camp was where I first learned the Cups song/routine/clapping on a cup thing that was recently made famous by the movie Pitch Perfect. Yes, it existed before last summer. There's a whole second part that they don't do in the movie. Wouldn't you like to know what it is.
There was a photographer who would roam the grounds during the day's activities taking candid shots of the various campers that would become a slide show during the evening's praise and worship gathering. Usually this took the first 15-20 minutes of big group time, to allow for stragglers, but everyone usually showed up on time or early to see if they would be in that night's show. When a picture came up, the youth group that kid or kids belonged to would cheer and scream and make a very big deal for 2 seconds until the image changed. It was fun. It became a thing.
Now this story turns into an 80s movie. It was the last night of camp, and I'd just sat through our youth's obligatory Bible study session where we saw one guy break down in tears because he masturbated and liked it and that was a horrible, terrible sin and God was mad at him and we must all be terribly disappointed in him and then he apologized to his parents who were sitting right there. It was awkward. I was sitting with my youth group in the giant auditorium awaiting that night's parting message from the grand high poobah. And then the slideshow started.
And we were all watching in hushed mumbles. Every now and then a cheer going up from different parts of the auditorium. Then it happened. My picture came up. Just me. I wasn't standing with any group. Just a skinny, brace-faced kid with blonde spikey hair.
And the auditorium erupted in cheers.
and 'That guy is THE MAN' ing.
and I cried all of the tears of happiness ever while the rest of the members of my youth group looked on
in utter and complete confusion.
One girl even asked "Why would they cheer for him?" And I told her that just because my small town didn't like me, didn't mean I was worthless, and that these people were my friends. Yes, all of these people. I'd like to say that I had some awesome and witty rejoinder for her, but I didn't. I sank into my seat, beaming with a giddy, twisted, guilty pleasure. I knew these people that I shared a van and a zip code with weren't ever going to get me. They were never going to be the people that would give me a standing ovation or laugh at my jokes or cut letters out to change sign names. They wouldn't help me set up traffic cones around the side walk to mark the scene of the invisible man's murder. They were never, ever going to get me, like me, accept me, appreciate me, include me, or love me.
It was at my first church camp experience that I realized that life was going to be better. That I was going to get out of my small town, and that, when I did, I would be okay. The world would be waiting for me. Cheering. Erupting. An endless noise wall of love and acceptance.
It didn't matter who I loved or how I dressed. I was funny and smart and willing to talk to people...and that was what it was about. No condemnation. No judgment. No fire and brimstone.
The next generation is coming. It's here. We're taking control of the world. There is hope. And whether you thought the church was a plague or a paradise, I have found it to be evolving. Changing. Look at our new Pope. Look at the strides in equality being made. Look to the young people, because they are not their parents or grandparents, and they don't deserve to be saddled with that baggage, with your baggage.
Love and Lyte,