Below find Justin’s post: I Went to Jesus Camp. Part I: The Camper
The film tracks an evangelical christian summer camp that is designed to create christian soldiers. These soldiers (small children) were to take up arms and fight in the culture war that was taking place in America. If you have not seen this movie go see it here for free.
If you have never experienced evangelical Christianity the movie will blow your mind. If you have, and you aren’t too far removed from the experience, it will seem familiar but not too shocking. That is the scary part.
When I first told a friend of mine that I went to a Jesus Camp she told me she had seen the movie. She was asked, “is your camp really like that?” I went on to explain. Bewilderment ensued. Brookhill Ranch Summer Camp was my destination for Jesus. I attended camp from around 5th grade through the 9th or 10th grade and then was a camp counselor for about 3 summers.
The truth is, there is too much to tell for a single blog post. This post alone is almost 3k words. So, we will start you off with my experience as a camper. (Later posts will be dedicated to the counselor experience, the parent experience, and the post-religious holy-shit experience)
I’m sure there are quite a few of you who have experienced summer camp. A day camp with some outdoor fun, some bad food, and making out with a boy or two before you go home. Well, this was not like that experience. To some this tale will be one that you cannot relate to in any way shape or form. My goal is to follow this thing fact by fact. Memory by memory. And, while doing that, share the thoughts and feelings that went through my head and chest. What I don’t want is for it to read like a pile of fuck you Christianity from the get go. To do that would be disingenuous and would allow me to recreate who I have been along the way.
I was an average kid. Milquetoast. I had a bit of a hard time fitting in. (like most do) As a way pass the time and feel special I got involved at church. (A Methodist Church) My first post for service was as an acolyte. This was a position of great responsibility. I not only lit the candles, but I also put them out. I came to learn that you can more easily twiddle your thumbs as an acolyte because you get to sit on the front row and can’t get tiny elbow pinched by your mother for acting foolish. I went to church about every Sunday. Most days my parents were too tired from work or would really rather golf. Who could blame them? But I craved it. So I would drag my mother some Sundays against her will. A few years later, I joined the church youth group. (even went to a Petra concert baby!) It started off fairly vanilla. We had some youth leaders in the summer that were big Jesus fans. One of them, I really only remember that he had the Lion King soundtrack and would play it or Elton John in the car often. We went on float trips, we would mow people’s yards, and we would also do communion for shut-in’s, etc. The final youth director I had was nice. But, there would be a lot of really charismatic people coming in and out that he would associate with. It eventually started looking more like the evangelical talk I was hearing at summer camp. (put god and prayer back in school, Jesus all day, no secular rock music, sexual abstinence, and no drugs or smoking) Don’t get me wrong. the Methodist elders were not throwing orgies or drug experimentation parties. However, it really was more of a WASPY traditional thing. You go to church, you have a potluck, you hang out with white church folk, etc. It was religious indoctrination, but not quite as exciting!
My parents weren’t that religious in their day to day lives. We didn’t pray over dinner every night or talk about how god helped them sell a dryer or carpet at the store that day. On the other hand, I don’t remember having anyone over that was not white or a Christian. A few Catholic friends, but that was about as edgy as it got.
By elementary school my cousins had been going to this summer camp. (Brookhill) You would not believe my excitement. I heard the stories one summer when I was at their house visiting. Go karts? Swimming? Bows and Arrows? You stay in a cabin named after a horse. I asked my mother if I could go and she said yes.
The first day of camp starts out very pedestrian. You have campers driving up in their vans with their parents and they get in line to pay for camp and get assigned a cabin. As a kid, and after you have been there a year previously, you start darting your eyes around the camp to see what counselors were there. These people were gods. They wore red tshirts and they commanded much attention and respect. So, you would go get settled into the cabin. The counselors would usher you in and yes m’am and yes sir your parents. They would be so pleased and comforted by these nice young counselors. (They would have to be comforting because my mother was a nervous wreck)
I was so anxious that I could not stand it. But, my counselor comforted me and introduced me to a few other boys in my cabin and I was able to get settled in pretty quick. Below I have done an exhaustive run through of a day at camp. It may be laborious to read. However, I think it is necessary. If you have not been to Jesus Camp you need to read this to get an idea. If you have been, and you still think it is all normal and fine then do this: take this list, print it out, tape it to a 2×4, and smack your face with it.
A typical day at Brookhill when I was there would be as follows. We would wake up and take showers and get ready along with our cabin. We would then stumble outside and pray in a circle with our cabin mates. If it were one the younger kids it would be really painful for everyone else. “I would like to thank….*feeling the pressure of what to say* God….and thank him for this yummy food…..*long pause* amen.” *sigh from rest of the boys and counselors* “Amen! Let’s go eat” If it was one of the older boys in the cabin then there would be a much more elaborate performance. I’m not saying you know it is a performance when you are doing it. But, that is what it is. You realize that as you mature your way through the rank that more elaborate prayer was met with praise and reinforcement. “I would like to thank Jesus for what he put on my heart so far this week, and thank Counselor Steve who has shown me that I have talents that God has given to me and I plan to share the word of Christ when I get back to school.” Then Counselor Steve would chime in: “That is awesome. Simply awesome. God is going to do great things in you!” What I quickly found is that all good things came from Jesus. I am nice to you because of Jesus. You will be at peace with Jesus.
Eat Breakfast. Then, morning devotions. The devotions would consist of one of the cabins doing a skit on the bible. The skit would usually be a lesson on how to apply biblical ideas to your every day life. (A common theme is … everyone is doing drugs but you do not have to! You have the power of Jesus in your heart!) After the skit a counselor tells something about Jesus that Jesus himself laid on the counselor’s heart. A few songs are sung, a prayer again, and then start the day. As a camper it all seemed pretty normal. I had been in youth group and we had done somewhat similar skits for my church I grew up in. What I could feel, and clearly what the camp staff wanted you to feel, is that this Jesuslifestyle was something to never put down. There was a very certain way to do it. And, not only that, it was expected that you do it. You are a Christian (or a Christian prospect). You will have to be a certain way. They would illustrate this these skits. What is wrong with telling kids they don’t have to give into peer pressure? Or do drugs? Or have exploratory sexual experiences? What, I tell you? You were a vessel for Christ. Jesus-down trickle lifestyle economics.
The day is filled with busy activities: go karts, horseback riding, archery, etc. These are fun. Don’t get me wrong. Constant motion. They would wear us out to such a degree that you couldn’t help but pass out when your head hit the pillow at night. Now to lunch! We then would pray for lunch and then eat. We would sing some pop-like Jesus tunes to fire you up. (Ex. Pharoh, Pharoh!)Then, on to more activities. Rinse and Repeat. Constant reinforcement of Jesus paired with the excitement of song and activity.
Coming back from an afternoon of activity we would be allowed to purchase snacks, candies and drinks to help cool off and satisfy our sweet tooth. We would relax with our cache of goodies and settle in for a story.
Hettie Lou Brooks, the matriarch of the camp, would come out and greet the campers in the pavilion. This woman had jet black hair that was huge and curly. She had a vision that god had given her to create a summer camp where kids could come and become christian kids and mingle with other christian kids. The counselors would retire for their meeting (more on that in part 2: The Counselor), and Hettie would talk about the culture of America going to Satan. Little did I know but Satan had his hands in everything. Music, television, and SEX. She would describe sex as boys with their frothy mouths drooling all around. There would be many mentions through the week of common themes: no prayer in school, Satan taking over our government, Satan taking over our sex, and Satan making people think they were gay, (I was educated to the scientific fact that no homosexual acts occurred in the animal kingdom) Satan Satan Satan. Oh, and before we would retire for a nap, she would tell us a very riveting story. She could tell stories on the fly in a very impressive way. I can remember being quite spellbound and attentive as she would seem to tell these stories in an improvisational way. She would weave all the above mentioned themes together until the story ended at the end of the week. A boy would befriend a girl that was struggling and then in the struggling the kid would find Jesus and it would all be better. (For some insight into the type of ideas being shared you should look toDavid Barton. Mr. Barton was friends with the Brooks and he seemed to heavily influence her. To get an idea of the madness that this man spreads: click here
Ok, let us quickly move through the rest. It is getting boring. After story time was nap time. Wake up from the nap and leave your cabin with your cabin mates and go down dinner. (pray for dinner of course).
The evenings would be more of of a serious affair. Evening vespers would be the service. This would include slower songs, a parable skit told by a cabin, a small sermon from the counselor, and then a prayer. Kids would raise their hands in the air or kneel on the ground and audibly pray to themselves. There would be mention of Jesus being the only way. I can remember feeling the beginnings of the pressure. I couldn’t articulate it then. I wouldn’t even dream of saying anything if I could have. These counselors were so nice and so kind to me. That along with the rush of emotions, music, and wanting to belong were a powerful combination. I found a link to two videos I have embedded below. I can’t hardly watch the one from Brookhill now without a lot of shitty feelings. I remember the rush of it. I was going to do it! I was going to be the greatest Jesus ambassador! I had no idea how psychologically damagingthis experience was. (more talk on the psychology of these things in Part 2: The Counselor)
I worshiped the camp counselors. They paid so much attention to me. I never was left out. They would ask what I liked, where I was from, and how I was doing. The constant attention was a drug. What made these people act like this? The love of Christ. Why wouldn’t I do the love of Christ? I get to fit in here and be part of something. I never had any particular desire to do drugs or drink (alcohol in the family). I was so ridiculously awkward and Jesus-y I had no worries of any girls wanting to share froth with me. A pretty easy pitch for a kid like me.
After the evening worship service we would go back to the cabin and get ready for bed. The counselors would tell amateur morality tales. It would depend on the counselor. If the counselor had been into drugs, girls, or rock music, the counselor would describe how bad it was before and how much better it felt to be a Christian. I was convinced I would never need any of those things to make my life better. Just summer camp would do for me.
The above daily schedule would repeat itself until the crescendo of the week: Salvation. Salvation, as I would come to know, was the one and only purpose of Brookhill. The rides, the nice people, and the stories were all to woo you.
I can remember the music playing. I can remember a counselor in tattered clothes with fake blood and the crucifixion being reenacted. There would be wailing women and the crack of a whip. It was an emotional experience. Kids in the crowd would be crying and then they would ask us if we would want to be Christians. They asked if we were ready to live lives as good Christian young men and women. I had thought I might be a Christian already from being a member of the church. But, I wasn’t going to chance it. I certainly wasn’t going to be one of only kids not to go to the front and heed the call. So, I did it. I could never tell you what year I ever became a Christian. Every one of the other counselors had a date they remembered. It would always stress me out because I did not know the day I became a Christian. If you had been saved you were supposed to know the day that it happened. I probably went to the front to accept Christ almost half a dozen times. Hard to be too sure on these things.
After leaving Brookhill that summer I would enter in a constant cycle of mania, anxiety, guilt, and doubt over whatever it was I was supposed to be. Burning my secular music, telling people about Jesus, and living life for the Lord. Nothing felt as necessary as the next Brookhill Camp session. It was an addiction. An actual addiction. A need that would fill a spot that any other addiction would fill. Within a week of leaving camp the feelings of excitement were gone. The friends were gone, the constant praise was gone, and the pulsating music and promises of a godly world were gone. I was left confused and I felt like the very worst Christian that could ever be. I really had no desire to lead anyone to Christ. Seemed scary and a bit forward of me. Yikes, especially in real life? That was just crazy talk. It was easy to be a on-fire Jesus kid with all the other campers.
After the years as a camper I became fixated on the next goal. I was going to show everyone I had what it took to be a counselor. I knew how it felt to have someone talk to me. So, I was going to do the same. It was a whole new world on the other side of camp. The veneer would wear away a little bit. But, the addiction was still fed.
No speaking in tongues was going to stop me.