I posted the above photo on my Instagram profile earlier this year to promote a blog post I had just published, thinking it would be a fun lil’ flashback to the 19 yr old me who was already judging Bible college guys for sending excerpts of Max Lucado books to girls they liked so they could take credit for looking deep and introspective with their faith. Then I started posting about it on my IG Stories, and before I knew it, I was talking about how, when I look at this photograph (#Nickelback), I can still feel the keen joy I was feeling here…most because it was literally one of the only days I felt truly happy that whole year.
(As I mentioned previously) I was 19 years old, and had dropped out of college at North Park in Chicago after my freshman year to work at a bible camp in Okoboji, Iowa. I had made that choice because - other than being severely depressed, which I wouldn’t understand until much later - I was stubbornly set on experiencing more of the “real world” before I buried myself back into school again. I wanted to go on adventures. I wanted to travel, I wanted to do daring things, I wanted to do all the things I was so afraid I would never get to do if I stayed on the college-job-marriage-kids path everyone else seemed to think I needed to follow. That track made me feel so trapped that it would literally send me into a panic attack if I thought about it too much.
Looking back, what I should have done was save up all the money I was making at my college campus job to go backpacking across Europe for a year…but what I did instead was decide to move to Iowa to work at a bible camp as part of their Youth Ministry Team (YMT). My beloved high school youth director, Lisa, had left my home church to work at the bible camp as the director of the YMT program, and after talking about it with her on the phone, it sounded so perfect: I would get to live at camp year-round while I led my own youth group at a local church and helped run camp retreats on the weekends. I should put in a summer as a camp counselor first, Lisa told me, so the other leadership at camp could get to know me, but she was confident that I would make it on the team. I was psyched: I had this image in my mind of this idyllic place on a beautiful lake, filled with pine trees and cute cabins and smelling like campfire every night, where I could live out all of the preciously-held bible camp fantasies I had created for myself while attending my own favorite summer camp, Lake Beauty, during summers in high school. Deep and illuminating bible studies with fellow God-seekers; early morning solo devotionals with hot coffee by the chilly lake; joyful campfires with a crew of people who both challenged and affirmed my faith; long, intimate talks into the night under starry skies with a handsome male counselor who would surely turn out to be the love of my life. “WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE THAT LIFE YEAR ROUND?!!” I said in an email to my best friend (and fellow Lake Beauty camper), Katy, after announcing my formal decision.
But as it turned out, the joke was on me, because the camp I had signed up for was in the middle of an upscale neighborhood, situated on a peninsula that bordered Lake Okoboji. Instead of being immersed in nature, I was immersed in million-dollar lake homes, cul-de-sacs, and a retreat center that, inside and out, resembled an assisted living home. Reader, I hated it on sight.
It was not “camp” pretty, it was not peaceful, and I struggled SO hard that first year to make real friends. I went from being well-liked and affirmed at college for being outgoing and funny and outspoken to suddenly getting serious side-eye for being all of those things. For instance, it was quickly made clear to me that the ideal female camp counselor was sweet, docile, and quiet; who never questioned any of the rules; never complained; always had something positive to say about everything and everyone; and was maybe funny in that she was cute and childlike during skits but was never actually laugh-out-loud funny, because that meant she was a show-off (and besides, as outlined in the book of Psalms, being hilarious was the guys’ job!!!).
Leadership even told me once, straight out, that they felt I liked the “secular world” too much…meaning that listening to Top 40 radio, watching Popular on the WB network, and going to movies that had swears in them was now a huge blight on my character. This didn’t hurt as much, though, as the advice that I directly received about my body: Since I had such a “curvy” figure (I.e., big bazooms), I really needed to be extra careful not to “cause my brothers in Christ to stumble” with my flirtatious or suggestive behavior. What kind of behavior, you ask? Oh, very seductive stuff, like just having the audacity to walk around in plain sight, wearing regular clothes like t-shirts and shorts, and saying super suggestive things like, “Hi! How are you?” or “What are you going to do for free time?”
Despite this “advice”, I thankfully started making friends, mostly with some of the male counselors…not because I wasn’t a “girls girl”, but mostly because I didn’t really want to spend all of my free time making scrapbooks with decorative markers or talking about dream weddings with people who didn’t even have boyfriends yet.
And when the Junior Counselors started their tenure at camp, I finally found a crew of people I loved and who loved me back. This would later be considered a flaw by leadership, who saw my friendships with the Junior Counselors - who were all a year younger than I was - as proof of my immaturity.
Basically, I couldn’t f*cking win!!!!
But all of that was going to change when I was a YMT! I told myself. And OMG, guess what - it did NOT! In fact, it just got worse…being a 19 yr old working with the rest of my YMT team - who were all college graduates - just made leadership view me as even more immature (and to be fair, yeah - I was a little immature. I was also 19, working a full-blown, more-than-full-time adult job, SO GIMME A GD BREAK). And my fellow YMT did not exactly think I was super cool, either…pllus, despite my fervent wishes all that summer, there were definitely no hot guys on YMT with which to have long, starry-night talks with).
Every single day, I swallowed every ounce of my pride and tried really hard to be a completely different person in order to try and impress leadership and get everyone on my team to like me. And every single night, I either stayed in the quiet seclusion of my office and wrote tearful journal entries or emails to Katy, or I went back to the cabin I shared with my fellow YMT Marni and watched Felicity, or sat in my room and listened to #41 by Dave Matthews, trying hard not to cry through either experience as I wondered why the f*ck I ever left Chicago…where the world was so much bigger than this tiny place, and where I at least had people there who liked me and didn’t constantly make me feel like total and complete crap for simply being myself.
The biggest saving grace at camp that year was my friend Jay, a full-time staffer + photographer who was just as snarky and sarcastic and “worldly” as me. We had bonded immediately at the start of that summer, when he caught me in the hall after I had performed a skit during counselor training…, in his best impression of Phil Hartman’s Russell Clark skit on SNL, he announced that he liked me because, “you’re SASSY!” He was one of the full-time employees on staff, so I didn’t get to have a lot of interaction with him until I was on YMT. Once I was, though, I would escape down to the front desk to see him every chance I had, and he would make jokes worthy of an HBO comedy special or throw out merciless insults toward leadership and my fellow YMTs until I was laughing so hard that I had to beg him to stop.
“Don’t let them do that to you,” he lectured one afternoon, when I was feeling so defeated that I couldn’t even remember what it was that I actually liked about myself. “Don’t let them convince you that you’re not good enough. I mean, at the end of the day, are these really the people that you wanna impress? Like, really? You wanna live in Okoboji for the rest of your life and become best friends with these people? You’d kill yourself. Look, it’s not that you don’t fit in here…it’s just that this place doesn’t fit you.”
He was proven right the weekend of our High School Spring Retreat. YMT ran weekend retreats every fall and spring, with a different age bracket coming to camp each weekend. The high school retreat was the most popular among both campers and counselors. We always had a waiting list of summer camp counselors and their college pals who were eager to give up a weekend at their schools to come back to camp and mingle with counselors from other schools. That particular year, the waiting list was especially long because the weekend led into Spring Break, making it a much more attractive proposition for the population of counselors who would proudly and smugly proclaim that they had no interest in spending Spring Break getting plastered on a Florida beach with a bunch of co-eds.
I honestly don’t know what it was about that weekend…I just look back at that weekend (and at that photo at the top of this post) and remember that it was magic. So many counselors that I had actually liked were now back at camp, and they had all brought friends who were also really nice and funny. There was also a guy, Jason Sinwell (who came with a guy who had been a counselor that summer ), with whom, upon first sight, I had formed an immediate crush on, and who actually seemed to be interested in me, too.
That Sunday, after the campers had all departed from camp and I got back from my Sunday school youth group duties, all of these fun, nice counselors were hanging out on the front lawn, all having decided to spend that night having a sleepover at the empty camp before they all left for their respective homes on Monday.
Reader, it was one of the best days of my life. It was as if my old self had reentered my body, and suddenly I was funny and light-hearted and happy again. Like, it sounds so dumb to say out loud, but all my jokes landed - all of a sudden, I was with people again who got me and thought I was likable and fun and funny and wanted to hang out with me. We ran around camp playing field games and posing for photos for Jay, and then we went into town for dinner and then hung out around camp, watching movies from the camp hot tub and making s’mores in the camp kitchen and just laughing and joking and talking the whole time, and it was so fun.
I distinctly remember standing out on the lawn with a bunch of them that afternoon - laughing so hard that I had started to cry as I helped the guys try to do classic cheerleader stunts - and thinking, “Oh my gosh…this is what it feels like to be totally and completely myself. I had almost forgotten what this felt like.”
Jay was right - it wasn’t that I didn’t fit in at camp…it really was just that camp didn’t fit me.
From there on, things would get immeasurably better. I needed that weekend to remind myself that changing myself to please people who never really liked or believed in me in the first place would serve no one, least of all myself. I decided that, instead of being a camp counselor again that summer, I would instead go to India and see if a stint there might be useful in helping me set my future course.
I came back to camp transformed. I had a wider perspective on the world, and on life. I still didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with my life yet…all I knew was that YMT was probably not going to get me to where I wanted to go. Yet when I had originally made the formal decision to drop out of North Park and go to Okoboji, I had made a stubborn promise to myself that I would give camp at least two years before peace’ing out, even if just to show everyone else - and myself - that I wasn’t a quitter. So when leadership (acting like they were doing me a huge, benevolent favor instead of fulfilling the wishes of the church where I led youth group, with whom the camp had a much-needed contract) offered me second-year contract for YMT, I accepted it, vowing that I would do everything I could to make the most out of that second year.
As luck would have it, all the YMTs from that first year had adios’ed before the summer started, and that fall, they were replaced by a motley crew of peeps who all somehow instantly came together and formed the kind of friendships that helped make that year one of the best years of all our lives.
Now, twenty years later, I look back on that time and I can still feel all of those feelings so keenly…the alienation, the isolation, the confusion, and frustration. The loneliness. Even now, when I watch Felicity, one of my favorite shows in the entire world, I can still point to all the scenes that made me want to cry that first year of YMT… either because they reminded me so much of the great times I had at North Park that my friends there were still probably having, or from the fear and doubt that consumed me every time I let myself wonder if leaving North Park and coming to camp was going to end up being the biggest mistake of my life. But it wasn’t. It was really, really hard, and sometimes I wonder if any of it would have even happened if 19 yr old me had just known more about what depression really looked + felt like, but it also pushed me more into my writing and directly led to soul-shaping experiences that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
For one, it completely challenged and shattered any allegiance I previously had to organized religion and what most people would perceived as modern-day Christianity. Which is literally one of the best things that ever happened to me. From the smoking ruins of what I used to call happy-clappy camp Christianity, I’ve built a relationship with God that is bigger and deeper and so full of magic and wonder and possibility. God is huge to me now, but God is also male and female and spirit and inside of me and made in your likeness and a fan of Goddess culture and a loving creator + fan of sexual fluidity and all the things that a patriarchal religion borne of Peter tried to excise or ignore or dismantle because it was too threatening to their preferred male-dominate structures. And YES, I’m still a lil’ bitter that, at 19, I was thrown so many heavy bricks in the shape of the ingrained misogyny and sexist social constructs (still) so inherent to modern Christianity. That shit impacted and messed with my self-perception and my ownership over my own sexuality FOR YEARS. It still angers me that, for the majority of my camp experience, when it came to that kind of “no spaghetti straps because if a guy sees a bra strap it immediately makes him think of sex and instead of asking him to control his thoughts we’re just going to make it your responsibility to control his thoughts and actions FOR him through what you wear, ladies!!!” BS, we were strong-armed into buying into ALL of it, because if we didn’t then it would be a direct reflection on our faith. It would obviously mean that our faith was flawed and wrong and that we’d probably never be the kind of Woman of Christ that a Godly Man would want to take as his Bride, which is trés important because without a Brother In Christ finding you to be “more precious than rubies”, you might as well change your Hotmail Chat message to “Virgin 4 Lyfe”, baby (and if you would like me to come onto your podcast to talk more about this, my schedule is currently wide open).
I can also be grateful because that first year of YMT cemented a now-lifelong, stubborn insistence to never pretend to be anything else other than myself, ever again, for anyone. Obviously it’s helpful to be open to learning, growing, and changing for the better…but I think you can instinctively tell if someone is asking you to do better for the highest advantage of all, or if they’re just trying to enact their own small-minded version of who they think you should be because they think they can. Let’s be straight - lots of people don’t like me, and they certainly don’t have to. But I think real maturity and wisdom comes from recognizing that, when someone doesn’t like or approve of you, then that’s a personal problem for them to figure out and manage - not you.
It also gave me the kind of perspective and life experience that allowed me to enjoy movies like Saved! to the absolute fullest, which I am super grateful for, because friends - it’s funny because it IS so true*.
Your Friend AC
*Even the parts of the movie that you’re like, “Oh, hahaha, that’s totally exaggerated for comedy, that stuff doesn’t actually happen”…no, my beloveds. I will stand here as a witness and tell you that the stuff that seems the most ridiculous is actually the stuff that’s the most true.