NOTE: This post was written by my 17-year-old son after a conversation we had to unpack an experience I had (as described in a previous post, the first in this three-part series). I asked him to write about how he experienced the camp. It is written here, without comment or edit from me…that’s next in the series.
A few days ago, I got home from a summer camp for middle and high school writers. It’s more than just a writing program, though—for many of the campers, it’s the only opportunity they have to be themselves. More on that in a moment. At this camp, every day, we had a readers’ forum, where campers could sign up to read some of their work. Due to the welcoming, open-minded nature of camp (and the two-minute time limit), these readings often took the form of emotionally charged slam poetry.
One day at the readers’ forum, I was struck by several pieces in which the authors seemed to believe that God, the church, and Christians in general, hated them for being themselves.
It made me kind of mad. What did they mean, God hates them? He loves everybody, according to my half-remembered children’s hymns and Sunday school lessons. What made these people so special that He couldn’t be bothered?
I kept listening and later talked to a few of them. As it turns out, they learned different things in Sunday school. Their parents and their ministers had very particular definitions of ‘everybody.’ These kids were used to sitting at the dinner table and listening to their parents discuss the moral infirmities and inevitable damnation of groups of people that, unbeknownst to them, included their own children. One girl who still hasn’t come out to her family told me a story about how, over Thanksgiving, her parents and relatives shook their heads over the folly of these strange people who identified as ‘pansexual.’ She narrowly resisted the urge to look up and say, “You rang?”
Humor was her escape from her family’s accidental ostracism. Not everyone was able to be so cheerful. On the last night of camp, a transgender girl was in tears at the prospect of returning to her strictly conservative town, a place she described as “essentially, a theocracy.” Other campers had similarly restrictive places to return to, places they didn’t call home. Camp is home; those places are just where they live.
Among many of my peers, the church is a place where freedom is stifled, where self-expression is denied, and where love is a sin. They’ve been embittered by the atmosphere in which they grew up, and they cannot see the church that I want to imagine: a place where everyone is welcome, where ministry is kindness, and where love is salvation.
Maybe there are churches like that; I don’t know. I hope so. But to the people who have seen the worst Christianity can offer, those churches might as well not exist. They want nothing to do with this God or the people who claim to be doing His will. In a time when they need more guidance than ever, they are least able to find it. They don’t trust their parents, or their churches, or their schools. They trust this camp. For two weeks out of the year, they feel safe, welcome, loved. For the rest of the year, I don’t know what they do.