Fast forward nine years. My family had long since stopped attending the church where I was baptized due to some “political issues.”
I wasn’t what you’d consider a bad teenager – I wasn’t into drugs, didn’t have sex, didn’t smoke or drink. I had a massive shoplifting habit but I never got caught.
What I did have was a lesbian best friend who was a little more into me than my parents were comfortable with. I will most likely go to my grave without convincing my family I am not, in fact, gay – I dipped a toe or two in the Sapphic pursuits about a decade ago and that was enough. I find way more women than men aesthetically attractive, but sexually and certainly from a relationship standpoint (if I did that sort of thing), it’s dick all the way.
Having said that, I’m pretty clueless when people are interested in me no matter what gender they’re sporting, so I didn’t understand my parents’ concerns.
I had gotten into fantasy novels pretty heavily and joined a pen pal network based on the works of Mercedes Lackey (remember pen pals?), and apparently that was alarming, as were the apparent rumors I was dabbling in Witchcraft. (Unfounded, really, at the time – I had read some books, but the whole thing still felt theoretical, like reading about magic in a novel. Most of what I’d found was nonsense anyway – high school library five-page-essay caliber stuff – and the one real book I’d managed to get my hands on was still under my mattress, waiting for me to get up the balls to crack its spine. More on that later.)
They also had no idea how to deal with a daughter who was so withdrawn. I spent most of my time in my room, hardly a rarity among teenagers, but I wasn’t Mary Sue High School until my senior year when I realized the only way I was going to get out of my hometown was to go to college.
This is all to say that when the titular event of this post occurred, I was unprepared; I didn’t realize I had become such a problem. I thought I was just being me.
The short short version is this: One summer, the people I loved lied to my face to get me to attend Come to Jesus Camp.
Shit like this is why I have trust issues.
I don’t really remember what they told me I was going to. Some kind of retreat weekend for teenage girls to do with self-esteem and confidence. Why I didn’t find that suspect I have no idea. What I do remember very clearly is my mother telling me it had “nothing to do with church.”
As my mom’s car pulled away, leaving me at a local church with my suitcase and a gaggle of other girls, the chaperone started praying enthusiastically, and I felt a stone drop into my stomach. What in the hell am I doing here?
I know a great many people get major spiritual renewal from these things, but let me tell you my experience with these people: when you arrive, they take your watch. There are no clocks; you live by a bell the camp counselors ring. You’re not allowed to call home, ever. If you’re sick they’ll call for you. You spend the whole day sitting in a brightly lit room being talked to about Jesus, then have to do childish activities like making posters and skits to illustrate what you’ve heard. There’s delicious food, and every time you go back to your room you find little gifts on your pillow. Then the last day you’re there you are presented with a bag full of letters all your friends and family wrote to you telling you how proud they are that you’re “taking this walk” and how happy they hope you’ll be.
Years later as I was telling this story to someone they sent me a disturbing link – whether the group was trying to do this or just unconsciously borrowing some of the ideas, reading the step-by-step breakdown made me feel kind of queasy.
I spent most of the weekend staring straight ahead and trying to play Compliant Girl, but not because I was afraid of punishment – people were kind, giving, and I’m sure would have had plenty of advice for a girl with doubts. I couldn’t have been the first, after all. But I was doing what I did: blending in so I could observe and choose the appropriate response. The last thing I wanted to do was be an outcast.
So I decided to throw it in with these guys and see what happened. There was lots of singing, a lot of laughing, and as I said, good food. It really wasn’t bad, except for one niggling little problem.
I didn’t feel anything.
I knew they were going for the full on conversion experience. Every possible opportunity was given for the girls to cry and turn their watches lives over to Christ. I saw it happen all around me and I thought, oh come on, surely after all this something will happen! I surrendered my internal defense systems so I wouldn’t find all this creepy! I’m willing! Come and get me, God!
One night, one of the few occasions on which we were allowed to leave the compound, we went to a church in whatever tiny town was nearby. It was candlelit and beautiful, and we realized as we walked in that all our family members were there, up at the front singing and holding candles.
I’m not sure what the idea was there, other than to get us to cry – we weren’t allowed to talk to our families, and they vanished before sermon time. But it had the desired effect; a church full of teenaged girls sobbed and prayed, and the counselors moved among them Witnessing or whatever they were called to do.
I felt utterly empty. At first it was the emptiness of a vessel waiting to be filled, to drink deeply of the Kool-Aid and find refuge. As the hour passed, however, that emptiness began to echo, then to ache. I could see God moving among the pews, touching even the naughtiest girls who’d snuck off campus to meet boys.
I prayed. Lord, I don’t need a burning bush. I don’t need thunder. Just give me something so I’ll know I’m not alone. A shiver, a breeze, a scent on the air – tell me you’re here. Tell me this has all been worth something.
It never occurred to me at the time that I probably wasn’t the only one going through the same thing. Any one of those girls could have been faking it, or crying for other reasons. But what it felt like was being left out in the cold dark night staring through a stained-glass window at what I had been denied.
I had no words for it then, but I wanted the Presence. That soft sense of the sacred that arises from every living thing, telling you that they’re all connected and so are you; telling you that there is a prime Source from which it all flows and will return again. People in every religion through all of history have sought the Presence; there are always a few people who lead liminal lives, walking the edges, never fully in society. Artists, healers, shamans, prophets, mystics of all sorts know that edge, and they know that in the wild country that lies beyond it there are wonders they have to seek out.
I was a baby mystic. I didn’t know it then. And I didn’t realize that a place like this was not where I belonged – God and I couldn’t meet here. It was like trying to get a vegetarian to meet you at Outback Steakhouse for a first date. Oh sure, you might lure them in with a nice salad, but it’s going to be awkward and you’re definitely not getting laid.
Like I said, though, I didn’t understand that at the time. All I felt was abandoned. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not good enough for God? Am I that broken? What’s wrong with me?
That thought dogged my steps the whole night, all the way back to the compound, all the way back to my room.
As I tried to go to sleep, listening to the snoring all around me and wishing I had a book or at least my Walkman (outside music and literature were not allowed either), with nothing to distract me from the relentless self-condemnation hamster wheel that I would develop into an art form in my 20s, a singular thought occurred, one that was so scandalous I would never have said it aloud…but the minute I thought it, all my grief turned into anger, and it felt so good to push it outward, shove it into the universe with all the fire a teenager could muster (probably just enough to singe a few angels’ eyebrows).
“You know what, God?