“Do you know how to pray?”
I do. I’ve seen it multiple times a week at church and at the dinner table at home. Several times a day I would pray on my own for God to save my immortal soul from burning in Hell for the rest of eternity because of a minor infraction I had been taught would damn me. I knew how to pray.
“Yes.” I responded.
“You see, when you pray it’s like speaking to God,” the youth pastor began. He had practiced this. He wanted to teach me how to pray. He wanted the feather in his cap of converting a child like me to the ways of his church. He would talk about how a young brown child sat alone, looking lost, until he came along and showed him how to speak to God. A man would sternly nod. A woman would touch her chest while tears fell.
“All you have to do,” he continued, “is close your eyes and think the words that you would like to say to God. If someone you love is sick you can ask him to heal them. If you’re having trouble at school you can ask God for knowledge to help you. If you ask him to let Jesus into your heart you can be cleaned of all your sin.”
I was eleven years old.
I was at the notorious Jesus Camp.
What this man did not know, and failed to ask, was that this was my third year attending the camp. In previous years the attendance at my church was significant. However, the pastor felt it was time to move on. And move he did, with his two sons, one of them my best friend.
With that pastor gone, attendance dwindled. It fell to the point where I was the only child who wanted to go to the Lakewood Park Bible Camp, the proper name for Jesus Camp. Truth be told, the only reason I had wanted to go was to see my friend again.
The new pastor put in a few phone calls and found that another church in a neighboring town would be sending a youth group to the camp. They would pick me up and bring me home as they passed through my town.
If you’ve seen the documentary “Jesus Camp” I’m sure you have an idea as to what my experience was like. If you haven’t, you should watch it anyway. It’s interesting.
In my time at the camp things were not as militant as the documentary made things seem. This was in 1994, pre-9/11 of course. The camp was run by a kind, happy guy whose name I’ll leave out.
I imagine that the camp wasn’t much different from other camps. It lasted about a week. Maybe five days? Kids attended by age groups. (In the documentary, it appears to me that everyone all sort of shows up at once.) You were put on a team and your team earned points by how well you did in a lot of made up, cobbled-together events, some might call sports. Those events lasted through most of the mornings and afternoons. Sometimes you could hang out on the playground or play on the dilapidated mini-golf course.
Boys and girls lived in separate quarters, naturally. The girls generally lived in a large dorm-like building. Boys stayed in “cabins,” which were basically tiny hotel rooms with a few beds. Showers and bathrooms were in a separate building. Of course we were discouraged from being near one another’s living areas, though I remember once feeling excited and slightly dangerous being outside a side door of the girls’ building with a group of three other boys. I also vaguely remember a girl in the square of the boys’ cabins.
I don’t know how much craziness the other kids got up to. I remember my friend, we’ll call him Dave, and his new friends, and I having pillow fights, goofing off when we should have been sleeping. I remember one evening one of Dave’s new friends wrestled, pinned him, put his thumb over his mouth and, ever so gently, kiss his thumb. With the upbringing we were receiving at that very exact moment, this left the rest of us weirded out and stunned. (I later found this guy on Facebook and discovered he is open about his sexuality and I’m happy for the guy.)
Socially, I really only made friends with the people Dave knew but I still managed to find myself spending time alone with one girl, another friend of Dave’s. We never made physical contact and only kept in touch just a little (expensive long distance calls were still a thing back then) so that was the closest I’d ever gotten to a camp girlfriend.
Of course we had counselors. They would talk to us about our lives, our faith, as well as their own. One evening everyone sat with their bibles out and we were asked “What is your favorite verse from the bible?”
One of the answers was Nahum, chapter three, verse five, which reads:
“’I am against you,’ declares the Lord Almighty. ‘I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.”
The memories one makes at camp.
My answer was the same as Dave’s answer. John, chapter three, verse sixteen. It’s a verse most born again Christians know by heart. It’s the verse many pastors use as evidence that there is a loving, caring God in this universe and his eye is on YOU.
Dinner time would come and go and I generally found something to do that involved hanging out with my friends. However, once a year I decided “to go to prayer.” This wasn’t like a sermon. In a small, but wide, room tucked away in the back of the chapel a handful of adults and a whole lot of kids prayed intently. There was tears, there was praying in tongues, there were kids laying on the ground.
I could be remembering wrong but I don’t remember seeing the prayer room in the documentary. For all I know it’s was simply storage at that point, more than a decade after the last time I attended the camp.
Every evening there was a sermon. Like most churches, the services started with songs. Lots of singing, hand raising. The kids were psyched up. There was a sermon and depending on the age group there was maybe puppets or a funny guy. Every evening it inevitably ended with more praying, crying, laying of hands, and all the most dramatic stuff you would see in the documentary. It wasn’t as bad as it was in the doc, but I do seem to recall the speaker/minister/whoever kind of making the kids feel like shit about themselves so that they would feel the need to ask for forgiveness, to depend on god or the teachings of the church. I never stayed till the end. This felt like it went on for some time and no one would ever tell you that you needed to stay. So I left.
Afterward you could go to the building next door where there was a snack bar, order a pizza, maybe check out the gift shop, or just spend time with your friends. Lights out would come in time and then camp was over.
Perhaps this is something you’ve figured out about me by this point. I had little to no faith at this point in my life. The two things keeping me in the church at this point were my parents and the terror that I would one day think the wrong thing, Jesus would return in the very next moment, and I would be stuck on Earth with the sinners of the world as the Anti-Christ gained control of the planet and slaughtered those who were faithful to Jesus. Those who were not faithful to Jesus would fucking burn. I bring that up because it is the closest thing to the emotional child torture I experienced, much like what you witnessed in the documentary.
I had many more experiences in the church beyond camp. However last year I decided I should go in for testing and it was determined someone had set my switch to “mild” on the Autism spectrum disorder. It would be Asperger’s if that were still a thing. I believe this is why I am not utterly brainwashed and leading my own cult today.
Also, you could order a video tape of your time at camp! I did that once. My sister attended one year too. I actually recorded over my video. Somehow or another I have my sister’s.
This has nothing to do with the camp, but I have to add this because it was so weird. I recorded over my video because I was ashamed at having attended such a lame thing, not knowing in time this camp would be infamous. I recorded stuff from high school, hanging out at work, family events. By the end of the tape there wasn’t much left of the tape. I watched it in maybe 2013 and all the way through.
At the end of my footage there was static. Of course. That’s what happens when there’s nothing recorded and why would something be way at the end? But there was something at the end.
It sort of flickered in from the static, the image of a 20-something guy sitting at a computer, looking at the right side of his face from a 30 degree angle and about three feet away. Judging by the rest of the equipment around him, he was editing video. He sat there for about a minute, just working. The guy looks up at one of his monitors, at something not quite interesting but just something he noticed. He then glances over toward the camera. But it’s apparent he doesn’t see it. He goes back to work. After a shorter period of time he looks up again at the monitor, which we can’t see, and then back at the camera. He looks longer this time, like he’s actually looking for something. He doesn’t see the camera again. Again, he very briefly goes back to work but is distracted by his monitor and finally gets up from his seat and looks directly at the camera. He reaches for it and that was the end. Not even just the end of the weird clip, the very end of the VHS tape.
No idea what that was all about.