What I learned from troubling experiences at church camp in my youth
It took years to make sense of my confusing experiences at church camps, but those later shaped my understanding of the importance of spiritual and emotional safety at church.
When I was 16, my parents were worried that my interest in a new church was just a phase, so they set forth some parameters. I could change my faith after completing a two-year program in the faith I was raised. A retreat held my Senior year, was the last requirement. After a negative experience at another retreat, I didn't want to go, but I went in order to fulfill the requirement.
At first, the retreat was consistent with the normal practices of my family’s church. But on the last night, there was a dramatic change. We were gathered into an assembly hall and special guests were introduced to give us "spiritual gifts." That seemed odd because their appearance was very different from the clergy we were used to. The visitors had long hair and tie-dyed shirts, and some of them weren't wearing shoes.
At first, no one wanted to receive their gift, but pretty soon one boy did so on a dare. I will always remember his expression as he went, and the way he and his friends were laughing.
Standing in a circle, the visitors said an inaudible prayer over the boy, then he emerged crying hysterically. His transformation from a self-assured, head held high smirking teen to a child sobbing with his head bent low, shoulders shaking and pitching forward, was disturbing to me. His friends stopped laughing and everybody stared.
For the next hour and a half, each of the thirty or so youth went up to receive their gifts. All of them returned with a different all-encompassing behavior. Some were speaking in tongues, some were crying uncontrollably or laughing hysterically, and some were lying on the floor as stiff as a board. Growing up in a very conservative, not very outwardly demonstrative faith, I'd never seen anything like it. I had no frame of reference for what was happening other than horror movies about demons and possession and I was terrified. Afraid a gift might be forced on me, I snuck back to my dorm and sat in the dark. But a youth leader came looking for me, and told me the area was "closed." He said I had to leave (even though I wanted to go to bed), so I grabbed my journal and scriptures and went outside. He locked the door behind me.
By now it was almost midnight, and the scene from the assembly hall had moved outside. Kids were running all over the grassy hills that broke up the outdoor breezeways practicing their gifts. Sitting in a lit alcove by a classroom door, I tried not to look and wrote prayers in my journal. The chaos continued all night until morning and I remained locked out of my dorm. I wanted to run away and call my parents, but I was worried that given my recent complaints about my high school, they'd chalk up a call in the middle of the night to me being dramatic. Looking back, had I called and described to them what was going on, they would have come.
The next day, four youth leaders approached me while I sat alone at lunch, still anxious from the night before. “Does your new church have anything like that?” one asked in a mocking tone. As they continued referencing my new church, I felt embarrassed and ashamed. After 12 years of religious education, I knew nothing about The Day of Pentecost.
When the retreat was over, we went straight to a church service where our parents were waiting for us. The minute I saw my mom and dad, I bee-lined for them and stood between them, grabbing their hands. They were confused that their 18-year-old daughter wanted to hold hands. I felt bad to upset them by not being with the other teens gathered at the front of the church, but not bad enough to leave their side. As kids shared their experiences, parents (mine included) were confused and upset. It was outside of the realm of normal practice for our church. I knew from my parents' faces that they were deeply disappointed. This had been their last hope for me, their "lost little sheep."
For many years, I felt only shame and confusion about that experience. I ripped all the pages out of my journal from that night thinking, Why didn't God protect me from something so frightening?
Now thirty years later, I'm grateful for what my camp experience taught me and how it shaped later interactions at church camps with my own and other teens. I know from my experiences that God's work with us doesn't happen in ONE day. It takes place in many moments over a lifetime. I picture that as lots of small drops of oil in our individual lamps of conversion (Matthew 25). Spiritual experiences can't be contrived, they can't be forced.
You can't scold, guilt, shame, or threaten a child into loving God or being "faithful."You can't lock him or her in a room and say, "You're going to stay here until you believe."
It doesn't work.