Friday, August 23, 2013

My First Church Camp Experience

Probably the best sunglasses ever invented. Ever. Have I mentioned I'm an X-Men fan?
Lots of people have lots of views about the modern Christian church. I've seen and read everything in our little community. Authors that make doe eyes at Christianity, calling spells prayers and encouraging new practitioners to think of Yahweh as an archetype alongside or in the same stead as various Pagan gods. Then there's the other extreme, the folks who believe Christianity is a plague on humanity, that it corrupts and causes war and the worst of humanity.

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.)

Arkansas?

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 whooping.

and hollering.

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,

Fire Lyte

5 comments:

  1. Wonderfully written! It made me reflect on my own time with the church. When for the longest time I felt so detached because I had this horrible, sinful secret, all the while wondering what the pastor's son looked like naked (what can I say? He was, and still is, cute!).

    Then came the day when I told my parents that I was gay. It didn't go over well, at first. They both had different reasons for not at all liking this new fact. For my mother, though, it was religious. At the time, we attended an evangelical church. One of those churches that has their own band that performed Christian Rock. Where several members of the congregation would seem to be in some sort of contest, wherein the person who's arms were reaching up highest wins. I swear I saw one of them on their tip-toes in full on sun salutation pose.

    I digress.

    My mother was a fairly prominent figure in that church, constantly helping with kitchen duties, nursery duties, and Sunday School. But her favorite event was Bible Study every Wednesday night.

    One of those nights, the group somehow got on the subject of homosexuality. Curious to see what everyone else would say, my mother simply listened. It became very clear, in a very short amount of time during the discussion, that everyone else was vehemently opposed to the idea of homosexuals. This shocked my mother, as she was under the impression that this church was more forward thinking than that (she had since come around to the fact of me being gay).

    It was that same night that my mother went online and found an open and affirming church for us to go to. By then, I'd already started down the road of bitter animosity towards the church, so I was a little more than apprehensive to go check this out with her.

    I endured the service well enough, not exactly happy having to adapt back to singing hymns. But then we went down to the reception hall for pastries and coffee. I was blown away by how many people came up to us and welcomed us, genuinely interested in what brought us there. I couldn't believe how easy it was to tell these Christian people that I was gay, and that we had had enough of being forced to choose. The reactions we got were even more astonishing. Not only did they accept us, but they applauded our bravery. My icy exterior melted in an instant, and I began to do what I thought was impossible. I enjoyed church again.

    I've since left my life as a Christian behind. I departed amicably, simply preferring the methods of the vast pagan cultures. Though I've chosen a different faith, I know that I will always be welcome in those halls and among those wonderful people.

    (Sorry that this pretty much became a blog within a blog, Fire Lyte! When my fingers meet keyboard, they tend to have a life of their own. Halfway through I wondered if I should stop, but decided that I already invested too much thought in it not to finish it. I totally understand if this is too long/spot-light stealing and you want to take this comment down. ^__-)

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  2. I don't see the church as being any different than any other cultural group/clan and so I see Christian tribes as having good and bad traits.

    Like watching a show I've seen before because humans do the same things over and over but in knew and different ways, and thus slowly evolve, I don't take Christian malpractices too personally. They're annoying but annoying things won't ever change if they didn't make someone annoyed enough to want to change them. It's how the balance of creation and destruction works.

    And this story... Your story. It's reminder that nothing is all good or all bad. The being in one place at one time is not the same as another place and another time. You story is a great reminder people can be different kind and great and accepting when other others ostracize, demean, and reject.

    Pagans can be as bad as Christians. As an atheist, I've seen it. Whenever I see you wagging a finger or pitchfork at the pagan community in such an intelligent and thoughtful way, it makes me want to come back but like your story, some communities are just that way at that place and that time. Instead I see it doing things over and over again, each time a little differently and doing just what Christians do - evolving. How? Dunno. Never can tell with evolution, you know (I mean have you seen the fanged deer?)

    By the way, after this camp how did your reputation change over all, if it did?

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  3. I am very glad that your experience with Church and camp were wonderful. I am happy that you found that people will like you even if the humans that share your zip code do not. You are a bright and amazing person, and I really love to read and listen to you; even when we disagree.

    But, there is always two sides. My time in church was horrid, and camp was worse. Like you I was a wanderer, no one understood my humor, nor did the teachers like the fact that I 'questioned' God. I was an outcast and made to know how worthless I am. At camp I was left to my own devices and no girls ever decided to hang out 'with that nerd'. I took all of the emotional abuse to heart and it still lingers today, a festering wound of self hate but great hatred towards the Church (I was raised Mormon, but really I hate them all). Needless to say I divorced the Church in a spectacularly scathing letter to Salt Lake City and closed meeting with the local Bishop.

    The couple of odd friends I have that are Christian are anomalies in my view. They actually care about people and go and do the things their Christ preached about loving your neighbor and doing good deeds. These people are a rare and treasured gem in the dross heap.

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  4. This is wonderful. I have a few experiences from church camp, having attended a Baptist church for quite a while. I can't say that I particularly enjoyed most of those occurrences. I was a weird kid who liked dark clothes and school. I was frequently called Goth by those who don't understand the sub-culture, but to be fair and honest, while I'm Goth-friendly, I am not Gothic. I have very fair skin and hair so dark it is almost black. I look horrible in pastels, but good in dark colors and jewel tones. Apparently as a child if you wear those you are Gothic and none of church going kids want to be your friend. Which was fine with me, because I knew what these kids did when not at camp and frankly I found the false piety extremely distasteful. One time, though, I went with a friend's youth group. I had a fantastic time because one of the guys that I went to high school with also went. He was also a bit alternative and while at school we hadn't gotten along, he being a grade higher and me being a nerd, we actually took the time to talk and he became one of my closest friends until I joined the Army after I graduated.
    I think church camp can be a great thing, but only if you let it.

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