I was ten. Frizzy headed. Shy. It was the summer of 1995. I can still hear TLC’s “Don’t Go Chasing Water Falls” ringing through my head. My mother piled my sisters and I into her blue Chevy Astro van and we headed for the rolling green hills of Southern Indiana. The place where she grew up. The place were most of our extended family lived. The place where my mother had attended Church Camp. The place where we too would have our first solitary taste of what it means to be “religious”.
As my oldest sister Brittnay and I fought about the front seat, my little sister Braie found her way to her favorite spot: lying on top of the luggage. Imagine, the days before seatbelts and booster seats. How did we all survive? As we winded along the curvy mountain roads in Tennessee, my mother told us story after story of her childhood, with hand motions and great animation, as she always did. She told me about her years at Scenic Hills and sold me on all of the reasons I would like it. My mother had a way of making the trips zip by. I found this time with her highly enjoyable!
We talked all of the way into the dark, late night until we finally pulled up to my Great Grandma Hays’ driveway. My sisters lay silently sleeping in the back. I loved my mother’s stories and I loved that she never treated me like I was a kid when she talked to me. She didn’t filter much. To this day, I still appreciate that, regardless of how many other adults scoffed at her honesty.
What was this experience at camp going to be like? What was spending an entire summer without my mom going to be like? I had no idea. I was excited and I was scared.
As we got passed along from grandparent to grandparent, I plowed through library books awaiting and dreading the days until I would go to camp. Our Great Aunt Vicki had a daughter about our age. She too was going to camp. Vicki offered to take us to the store to grab most of the items on our camp checklist. How kind that was of her.
The day finally arrived when it was time for us to go to camp. We would spend one week in a completely foreign place out in the woods. I had no idea what to expect. Aunt Vicki had a van big enough to hold a small sports team. In it, we glided up and down the hills as our tummies got a tickle, until we finally arrived at Church Camp. She took a right onto a gravel road.
As the rocks rolled under the tires, I watched the dust behind the van as my stomach was in knots. This wasn’t my first experience being thrown into uncharted waters. After all, I had a single mom who was in the Navy. Change was our middle name. Although, truthfully, I hated the unknown. I was intensely shy. I grabbed my pillows and jumped out. We headed for the girl’s dorm. It had slick concrete floors, no air conditioning, and only three showers compared to at least 40 bunk beds.
I shoved my things under the bed and put my borrowed sheets on the rubbery mattress. Then, Brittnay and I nervously went to the chapel. I was happy to have my sister with me. She was naturally outgoing and had a way of making friends, attracting boys, and sticking up for me.
We headed for the chapel to check in. The “chapel” was a concrete slab with a pointed metal roof held up by multiple wooden posts. They opened up our week by gathering us all in the chapel, talking with us, and singing some religious songs. They handed us some booklets that had a theme for the week, spaces to take notes, and many assignments. To say the least, I wasn’t stoked about it. It all felt so foreign to me, every bit of it; the people, the state, the songs, the assignments and even the Bible.
As I mentioned, my mother didn’t filter much. She wore short shorts, teeny bikinis (which she definitely had the body to flaunt), and she cursed like a sailor. While I knew what was expected of me around other adults and children, I had not been sheltered. There were some aspects of being there that I found particularly difficult, such as not wearing a bikini. We grew up on a beach for crying out loud. I spent the entire week wearing a white t-shirt over my bathing suit. It was awkward. It sucked and bubbled off of my skin as I tried to play in the water. I have always been terribly modest. However, it never occurred to me that wearing a bikini was inappropriate. And to be honest, I still don’t think it is. I found it weird that I was not allowed to be the person I was at home there. I had to pretend to be a way that didn’t feel right to me.
I was aware of so many things that these other children were not. In many ways, my mother raised us contrastingly different. They were “church going”. They had spent many o’ mornings being praised and prided over memorizing Bible Verses and stories. Their parents were still married. They weren’t aware of sex. They had never seen scary movies. Their mothers did not wear cutoffs. They prayed for things like, “landing their liberty (a cheerleading move)” and I prayed for a stable life.
I felt like a kindergartener in comparison to these college student level “Christians”. Each year, they had no trouble actively rewarding those who knew more biblical stories and singling those of us out who did not. However, on the flip side, I felt like an adult in many other respects especially in comparison to their real knowledge of the world or lack thereof.
Every morning at camp started off with a talk, and then we were sent off on our own to read the Bible privately and “reflect” upon some questions that were in our booklet. Then, we would meet with a counselor who would tell us whether what we thought was correctly interpreted. It seemed odd to me to reveal my thoughts on something as intimate as my spirituality. Then, expose them to a group and potentially be corrected. It just made me feel uneasy. Like someone asking, “What do you see when you look at this painting?” and then telling you that you are incorrect. It’s subjective.
The days were very regimented and structured with lessons, sermons and meals in between. I didn’t like being Lorded over and that’s what camp felt like to me more often than not. The next several years, I went to camp every year and the very last year, when I was about 16, was the last time I went. And I left early.
The years in between my first and last years at camp, I experienced a lot. My mom had cancer. We moved states. My mom lost her job. We lost our house. We lived in a tent. We moved states again to be in North Carolina with my grandparents. I experienced a lot of additional things, personally. It was a rough time in my life and my God got me through it.
By the last time I went, I knew I was an imposter. To pretend I wanted to wear a full piece when I had an awkwardly long torso. To pretend that I cared to memorize regurgitated bible verses. To pretend that I felt something when I was told what to read, sing and think. It wasn’t for me for I wished to sing when I felt, to read when I was called and to drop to my knees and pray in my right times.
My relationship had grown much deeper with God. It had grown past the pressures of being “viewed” as a good Christian by others. I had grown past following the recipe that others believed made me “worthy to be saved”. I had grown to a point where I felt it, I saw it, I breathed it. And when I went to church camp, I didn’t particularly feel it in being told how to be or how to worship.
In moments of weakness and disparity, I would pull out my Bible and I would be drawn to something that truly spoke to me. I watched my mother, the same mother who went to this same church camp, be judged many times by her outward graces. And that upset me because I have watched my mother give more graciously than many church going, moderately dressed, non-cussing people. She taught me to be like God, to do as God does in all of the right ways without ever having to actually say it. Not by comparing, judging, criticizing or fitting into a mold but by being kind, giving, accepting and loving.
I knew in my heart that God loved me despite what I wore to swim. Despite what I did or did not do with my boyfriend. Despite whether I listened to regular music and/or if I did/didn’t throw my hands up and cry while seeing church songs. Despite whether I didn’t feel anything from an excerpt I was forced to read. Despite whether my mother cussed. I learned that my relationship with “Him” was mine and mine only. He knew my intentions.
After many years and those same car rides to Indiana, I realized that my lack of religion was quite alright. While the avenues of church sometimes lead people to spirituality, that wasn’t the case for me. Incidentally, my avenue ended up being the school of hard knocks, the painful throws of life at a young age. That is what forever changed and exposed me to true spirituality.