The summer I turned sixteen the swelter at camp was relentless. Each afternoon the temperature peaked — 101, 102, even rising past 103 degrees — and campers dropped like flies from the heat. Or like grasshoppers, really. Have you ever seen a grasshopper before it keels over under a body-blistering sun? It jumps erratically, its center of balance overridden by an instinct of perpetual motion, and then it just stops, still and stiffening as its body bakes. The kids were like that — frantic in the sports field with Frisbees and soccer balls, fueled by mediocre mess hall food — and then they crumpled to the ground, unmoving until the nurse came to time their pulses and brace them for the walk to the infirmary.
The heatstroke hit the girls almost exclusively, until the nurse’s station was out of cots and they had to clear space in the back of the gym for a makeshift second infirmary. The rest of us were told to drink water and to sit in the shade as often as possible. We rolled up the legs of our pants and tucked the arms of our shirts up over our shoulders. Camp rules for girls: No tank tops, no two-piece bathing suits, no shorts shorter than an inch above the knee. Modesty always.
Because, yes, I was at Jesus Camp. Willingly, even. I had been packed into a church van with a broken air conditioner, a trunk full of sleeping bags, and half a dozen other pastor’s and deacon’s kids and sent off every summer from the time I was eight years old. We sang worship songs for hours while the clanking van climbed higher into the hills — “Lord, I lift your name on high” — and the better you were at harmonizing during the chorus, the more you loved God, obviously.
It’s not really called Jesus Camp, you know. That’s what we call it when we’re on the outside looking in, but when you’re on the inside, each religious-based camp is as nuanced as any other themed summer camp. Some years, I split my weeks between camps. One, a Western-style Christian camp, was complete with cabins named after wild west figures — like Belle Starr and Buffalo Bill — a chow hall, trail rides on horseback, and a three-times-daily trudge up a dirt road to a rustic clapboard chapel for bible study. The other camp was more scholastic in nature. Sure, we made picture frames out of popsicle sticks and floated lazily down a river on inflatable tubes, but we also spent long hours memorizing bible verses and being quizzed by staff and counselors on our knowledge of scripture. (We also learned and performed faith-based worship skits with large-headed felt puppets for a local nursing home, but I may keel over from embarrassment if I share more details from that part of the story.)
It was while I was at this camp that the heat wave broke out, but I wasn’t feeling smothered by the weather so much as I was by the oppressive weight of uncertainty. I had recently stopped praying to God — not because I had stopped believing in Him — but because I didn’t want to stop believing in Him; I was so afraid that I’d been praying to nothing all along and I couldn’t yet let that be true. If it was, then it meant I’d be a teenager navigating the world alone without a Higher Power super hero by my side. I’d have to find a moral compass that didn’t always point north toward the heavens.
My floundering faith manifested itself at camp in rebellion. It was SO hot, I complained to my friends, and SO unfair that we can’t wear tank tops while the guys get to run around shirtless in the soccer field.
Every afternoon, the athletic directors were out during our free hour stopping girls who crossed the wide field on the way to the snack hut or the tetherball courts. They made each one stand straight and still while they used a ruler to measure the length of their shorts. The shamed girls, wearing shorts with less than five inches in leg length, were sent to change and often returned to their gaggle of girlfriends with their faces flushed, both from embarrassment and from a rising body temperature as the extra fabric of capris or jeans clung to their skin, damp from the sweat that was accumulating from the excessive summer heat.
Fuck it, I thought (though it must have been a g-rated version of “fuck” since good Christian girls don’t swear), and I left for dinner on the last evening at camp wearing a contraband sleeveless shirt that most definitely showed off more of my midriff than was acceptable. Before I could lift a forkful of tepid goulash to my lips after prayer, the pastor’s wife grabbed my arm from behind and frowned.
“You’re a Counselor-in-Training!” she whispered furiously.
“Go change your shirt. The entire table of boys behind you can see the skin of your lower back when you sit. How do you think your curves help them in their fight against temptations of the flesh?”
She gave me a lingering look of disapproval before turning on her heel, clipboard in hand and eyes scanning the room for more sinful behaviors to reprimand. Dutifully, though shaking with a rising fury, I left my seat at the table to comply.
Later, as I walked back from my cabin, I noticed the camp lifeguard standing outside the dining hall waiting for me. She was a stocky woman, thick in torso and topped in coarse, curly hair. She didn’t say much while she sat on her high wooden chair at the pool; “No running!” was all she’d occasionally bark, gaze hidden behind her round-rim shades. But standing in front of me, she tilted her head to the side, something flickering in her eyes — compassion, maybe.
“I want to know,” she started slowly as she considered me, “what do you really think? How does the way you dress affect your relationship with God?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure God wouldn’t walk around measuring inseams!” I quickly snapped.
It had come out sarcastic and sour, and I almost regretted that it did. I had chosen the wrong person to rebuke. Her question was sympathetic enough, and she was the first adult in a long time to ask my opinion instead of tell me what it should be. Perhaps she could have been an ally; a confidant who would understand my widening faith crisis, but my teenage anger only expanded as I looked at her.
“Forget it,” I said, and I walked away.
It would be a few more years, during my early college days, before I’d realize that there were more like me — more Army of God deserters who had deviated from the path of the righteous. We had tried to stick it out by singing praises, learning scripture passages, and following the rules. We took notes during chapel services about the dangers of kissing before marriage. We tossed around a volleyball, careful to not touch our opposite sex teammates, or to curse when a bump went wild. We spent stifling nights in church camp cabins praying — or not praying — to a God we hoped wasn’t measuring our goodness by the length of our hemlines. But in the end, it was our own faith that fell short.
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