16 votes

Losing my religion at Christian camp: The way a decade at Christian summer camp both shaped and condemned views of faith and girlhood


  1. kfwyre
    As someone who attended a Christian summer camp for many years, this was a very resonant read. Like the author, I went through the counselor training program and then walked before I actually...
    • Exemplary

    As someone who attended a Christian summer camp for many years, this was a very resonant read. Like the author, I went through the counselor training program and then walked before I actually became a counselor.

    I could write something similar to her, as I have a hard time situating my positive, individual memories of camp alongside the bigger picture I started to put together as I grew. When you're a kid, your blinders are on because you simply cannot see the world with complexity, nuance, or full context. When you grow older and look back, do you cling to your childhood as it was, accepting your own naivety in the process? Or do you tamper with those memories, projecting your adult understanding onto them and losing the perspective from which they were real and experienced?

    As a young adolescent who didn't yet identify as gay but had some very grave concerns about how he felt regarding other males, camp was tough for me. Though there were parts that I loved, the entire experience was filled with a silent, personal self-loathing because I knew, and God knew, what was "in my heart." This problem only got worse in later years, as I became more aware of my own inclinations just as the church started talking more and more about dating, sex, and romance. For those that didn't grow up like I did it can be surprising to find out that sex education happens often in the church, and at quite an early age. Of course, the sex education we were given was very chaste, very heteronormative, and very marriage-based, but it was there, and it was a topic that came up quite often.

    I think the camps like the one I went to know that we live in a world where we're exposed to sexual messaging and that we're at a point in our lives where we're starting to become aware of our own feelings, so rather than sticking their heads in the sand and just ignoring sex, they instead set the parameters for it. They know people will careen towards the gutters, so, like bumpers on a bowling lane, they set themselves up to be the boundaries that keep us headed in the right direction. The author's anecdote about the 69 tattoo is a perfect example of this. Most of the girls simply knew it was "wrong" (and maybe not even why), but one counselor clarified that it was alright within marriage. A holy, heterosexual, monogamous union between two devout believers was the correct model for intimacy. The message wasn't "don't have sex" but instead "sex is great under these conditions only."

    Of course, there was plenty of negative messaging and I have sat through my fair share of anti-gay sermons and discussions. The counselor training program I went through required me to write personal statements on several different issues, citing Bible verses as support for my positions. One of those issues was homosexuality, and like any good Christian, I wrote down a negative statement, citing both Leviticus and Romans. Though internally I knew I felt homosexual feelings, there was no way I could convey anything other than condemnation. In fact, I wanted to go out of my way to affirm that my opposition was certain! In Christian faith there is a strong debate about the role of Old Testament law (like Leviticus) because some believe that Jesus basically came and superseded those laws thereby eliminating them. By quoting Romans, a New Testament text, I was showing that even if someone believed Levitical law was no longer applicable, they would still have to contend with New Testament, post-Jesus teachings.

    Here's the thing though: I cannot remember a lot about my camp experience as so many memories are lost to time, but I can still remember the wording on my application. For other issues, I spoke in a definitive voice: "Abortion is wrong", "Drinking alcohol outside of Communion is immoral", and so on. But for my entry on homosexuality I distinctly remember writing something to the effect of "The Bible clearly condemns homosexuality." I left the judgment to the Bible itself, giving no part of my own thoughts in there. Some of this was psychic self-preservation--though I didn't yet identify as gay or homosexual and considered my problem to be primarily one of lust, deep down inside I knew.

    The other part though was that, separate from my own feelings, anti-gay teachings stuck out like a sore thumb. What I loved about Christianity was that it was love. And joy. And peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Gentleness. I cherished these things and felt them deep in my heart. These were wonderful, beautiful things. Many of them I still carry with me to this day and consider them central to who I am as a person. Their strength and power were incredible and rich and amazing, and that's what made it so pronounced when someone would suddenly shift gears and show none of those good Christian qualities when talking about someone gay. Homosexuals seemed to be fair game for hate, and whenever the topic came up I would be left wondering where all the kindness, goodness, and gentleness had gone.

    In fact, it felt doubly mean, as I grew up underneath the shadow of AIDS. Homosexuals were dying and it felt like so many Christians I knew were happy to dance on their graves. It felt very un-Christlike to me. I remember learning that Jesus spent time with and loved the outcasts. Wouldn't he love gay people if he were around now? It was a question I never asked because it would be too potentially revealing--the implication too illuminating.

    The "graduation" for my counselor program involved a big ceremony that went late into the night. Lots of self-reflection, prayer, and worship. We sat under the stars by a big campfire, in front of a giant wooden cross. Toward the end of the night, the worship leader asked us to dig deep into our hearts and find the darkest part, the thing we had been struggling with the most, the thing that we were too afraid to tell anyone about. He then directed us to write it down on a scrap of paper we were given. I didn't dare write the dreaded g- or h-word about myself, especially not because it might be seen by someone else (though the likelihood was low in the dim flickering light of the campfire). Instead I just wrote "lust" and knew that both me and God understood what it really meant.

    One by one we then walked up to the cross and nailed our pieces of paper to it. Words cannot express how meaningful this was to young Christian me. The symbolic nature of nailing my worst sin to the cross, the watershed moment of moving from a mere camper to a counselor, and the belief that in doing this act I might finally be free from the curse that haunted my thoughts, every single day and night, for years. I didn't want to feel this way about men, and I was feeling increasingly powerless to stop it.

    After all the sins were nailed to the cross, the counselors then moved it into the fire, and we quietly watched it burn. At the time I had no context for the horrific, racist implications of burning crosses, and if there were any racial overtures or subtexts that night or at that camp in general, it was all lost on me. Instead all I saw was a powerful physical, metaphorical, and spiritual destruction of sinful affliction I had suffered from for so long.

    As an adult I look back and I question the authenticity of the moment. Did the people running the show believe what they were doing? Or was this effectively theatre that they knew would speak to young hearts and minds? Was I experiencing truth, or merely influence? One of the hardest questions to answer, as I reflect back on my childhood, is how much of what the adults did at camp and in church was "real", as in motivated by their true beliefs, and how much was strategic, as in motivated by their drive to save our souls at all costs. Were the adults in the room experiencing genuine moments of fellowship with young believers, or was I simply being strategically groomed for Christ?

    At some point the distinction loses meaning, as many of the Christians I knew believed so strongly in saving others, especially kids, that methods became immaterial. It didn't matter what you did because you were saving someone from eternal damnation. The stakes were too high to get hung up on minor process issues.

    After the graduation ceremony we went back to our cabins. I remember crying through most of the night, painfully trying to keep it as silent as possible so no one else could hear me. I don't know what I felt then. It was like a big weight had been lifted but there was also a lingering fear that it might crash back down at any moment. The next morning we woke up, cleaned up camp, and left with our parents.

    I didn't go back to camp the next year. Some of it was that I was disappointed that my graduation hadn't changed me. The weight on my shoulders did in fact return, now heavier than ever, almost taunting me with its implication of permanency. If earnestly nailing my sin to a cross and watching it go up in flames under the all-seeing eye of God didn't fix me, what would? I still felt something for men that I didn't feel for women, and I was starting to become aware of the reality that those feelings might never change. Why wouldn't God change me? Why wouldn't he save me from what I was? I wanted so very badly to be saved.

    But the real reason I didn't go back was that it felt like I would be doing a disservice to the other people there. It's only as an adult that I've questioned the motives and beliefs of the counselors. As a child and teen I believed they were as wonderful, devout, and holy as they presented themselves to be. Campers needed Christians like that--not someone like me who still believed but had serious reservations and personal demons. I felt I was deeply flawed, too much so to lead others.

    What follows from there in my life was a much bigger falling out with the Church, some of which I've talked about in other posts here. There was a long period of time where I couldn't even bring myself to enter a church building. It's taken a lot of time and healing to be able to separate out the good that I experienced from the bad and not just toss out the whole idea of religion as harmful and my whole childhood as tainted. I can't in good conscience ignore the damage it did to me, as it was a primary factor in my longstanding depression and consequent suicide attempt, which is a story so many like me share but were not as lucky as I to live through it. Nevertheless, it also gave me meaningful formative experiences and influenced my worldview in positive ways, some of which are still central to who I am.

    I no longer feel like I cannot walk into a church. I don't attend, but I will go with my parents when I visit them. I do it for my mom, mostly, as I know it warms her heart to see her non-believing gay son in the Lord's house. I no longer feel unwelcome, just as I am no longer unwelcome towards Christians. I love communal singing and still enjoy the experience of praise and worship songs even though I no longer believe the words. During the sermons I focus on the good parts: compassion, self-reflection, self-improvement, love for others. The message of Christianity can be a powerful force for individual and collective good if it is not directed by hatred. Just as I have grown, so has the Church, and now so many more Christians are coming down on the side of love and understanding. I cannot allow my personal bitterness to corrupt that, as it is the way forward. Central to faith is forgiveness, but that concept can be harder to find in a secular world and a secular life.

    For a long time I lived in my hurt and let it calcify into resentment. It has taken me a long time to see that giving up my anger is not capitulation but restoration. Though I still have questions and even some frustrations, I no longer hold others in contempt, even for the very real harm they did to me. I no longer hold myself in contempt either. It is an ugly emotion from which nothing good grows, but that can be hard to see from within it, when it is raw and it is justified and it is more real than anything else. I instead center myself in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and gentleness. These are the truths I learned from the Church, and they are boundless and transformative when unconstrained by hate.

    7 votes
  2. Grzmot
    Thanks for posting this. As someone who spent years at summer camp (Although not a religious one, because what the fuck, America), this gave me nostalgic vibes thinking back on those days. It's...

    Thanks for posting this.

    As someone who spent years at summer camp (Although not a religious one, because what the fuck, America), this gave me nostalgic vibes thinking back on those days. It's also interesting to read the internal monologue of someone struggling with their faith, as this was something I had never quite understood. Either you believe or you don't is what I thought. But this just makes sense.

    It's also interesting to read the other perspective of the Christian patriarchal complex and how even though the author seems to have grown up in a religious household and spent a decade going to Christian summer camp, didn't grow up to become a devout christian housewife as I'm sure that was the original intent when this camp was created, even though she mostly glossed over the very religious parts of the camp (five times bible study a day?) which seem quite extreme from my point of view, so it's impossible to tell what exactly she was meant to believe and become, so I was mostly going on what conservative christians idolize.

    However, that she didn't go the route of quiet docile christian housewife shows that in this way, society has changed for the better.

    3 votes
  3. [2]
    (edited )
    I can't help but feel like they could have come up with a better title and acronym instead of Camper in Leadership Training. Especially for an all-girls camp, the acronym's proximity to another...

    I can't help but feel like they could have come up with a better title and acronym instead of Camper in Leadership Training. Especially for an all-girls camp, the acronym's proximity to another certain word is.....unfortunate.

    4 votes