How One Night At Church Youth Camp Changed My Life


I grew up in a home that believed the sun rose and set on the likes of Billy Graham, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, and the *cough* infallible *cough* Kenneth Copeland, just to name a few. If we weren’t AT church, one of these guys was on the television, OR Kenny Rogers and Ann Murray were belting out tunes on the turntable because they too, were god-like.

You might think that, by the time I was 16, I was firmly indoctrinated in the church. But no. Like those preacher’s kids you had in homeroom, the moment I got a taste of freedom I went in the opposite direction for a short while. However, after years of having the church and these mouthpieces of God’s word pounded into my brain, my actions–and the guilty thoughts they generated–were never far apart.

To confuse a young man even more, I experienced something once at a church youth camp that, to this day, I cannot explain and I cannot ignore–though I have tried mightily.

It was the year of my 10th birthday. I was still cute; thin. I sang frequently at church and though my voice was still that of a young tenor, I had good control and I wasn’t overly nervous on stage, which made me a perennial favorite. Truthfully, I never quite “got it” myself. There were other singers, much older and more talented than me, but somehow I still got called on regularly. Amy Grant was all the rage for young church singers then and thinking back on how I butchered “My Father’s Eyes” makes me cringe to this day.

But that year at church camp was my year. I won “Camp King” AND the talent contest. It was THE best year of my life. It was also the year right before everything changed, so it has remained a high point for me.

At camp, every morning started out in church, right after we finished scrubbing our cabins and eating breakfast. During the day, we played ball and mostly ran around like unsupervised hooligans. After supper in the evenings, we had church again. The night services were the serious ones and they could go on for two hours or more depending on how “the spirit moved.”

Up to that point, I’d never had a real personal conviction of Christ. Oh, I believed in that most revered godly creation, “The Trinity,” but, I’d never heard the voice of God or felt moved by him in one direction or another.

It was nearing the end of the service on the next to last night of camp. As usual, the pastor was ending the service with an altar call.  These were, and still are, so formulaic that they must teach it at seminary. How else can you explain every Church of God/Assembly of God pastor acting out the same ritual Sunday night after Sunday night all across the country?

Here’s the Formula; stop me if you’ve heard it: The pastor begins with a prayer. Then, “with every head bowed and every eye closed” he asks for people to raise their hands if they have a need they want him to pray about or if they want to know the Lord better. Or “maybe, you know the lord but it’s been a while and you just need a refreshing and want to ask the lord to come into your heart again.” A few initially raise their hands, then more as others in the congregation peek up from their own shuttered eyelids and see the other brave souls who have already raised their hands. The pastor promises “I don’t want to embarrass anybody here tonight, but please, raise your hand,” which emboldens a few others.

With enough hands raised, the pastor begins his prayer, which usually runs about two minutes. Any less and he can’t cover all the necessary topics, but any more and he risks losing people to sleep.

With the prayer said, he throws his promise out the door, “Now, I’d like every one of you who raised their hand to come down here to the altar.”

Wait, what happened to the “I don’t want to embarrass anyone” part?

So predictable.

At first, only a few venture down. Then a few more. Then the pastor asks “the elders” to come down and pray with them, which makes it look like a nice, anonymous crowd where, someone who maybe wanted to come down but didn’t want to stand out, might feel safe.

With the altar full and the band softly singing a rhythmic tune that just blends into the backround, people begin praying. The pastor moves from one person to another, laying his hands on them and pleading with the Lord in a loud voice to come and bless this person!

At this point, I was still standing in my aisle by my seat, unmoved by what was going on around me. The volume of prayer coming up from the altar began steadily increasing as did the tempo and volume of the music–all planned and carefully choreographed. I could see one particular friend of mine–a girl, but not one I was “into” more than as a friend–had gone down to the altar. I knew a bit about her home life and it wasn’t good. Having a taste of that myself, I had empathy for her and in a show of support, I moved out of my seat and walked down to where she stood, crying, her hands outraised, praying silently but with her lips moving.

I stood there for perhaps a minute before reaching out to her (we’re big on the “laying on of hands” in Pentecostal churches).

The moment I touched her, I felt a bolt of lightning go through my body and I hit the floor, knocked out! Pentecostals call this “being slain in the spirit.” It is believed that when this happens, a person is actually touched by God. In itself it doesn’t really mean anything. You don’t wake up with superpowers or the ability to talk to animals. It’s just a “thing” that happens; a supposed proof that God exists and that he does, in fact, move in this world despite the ample evidence to the contrary.

I came semi-awake sometime later, on the floor, crying, and praying. There were several people kneeling beside me praying with me. I lay there a few minutes honestly too embarrased to open my eyes so I pretended like I was still “out.” But finally, I cracked my eyes just a bit, then a bit more until finally, those around could see that I was awake.  More than still a little embarrassed, I tried to stand up on my own but I didn’t have the strength in my legs, so a couple of people grabbed me under the arms and half-walked, half-dragged me to my seat.

It took me about 15 minutes to fully recover and by that time, the service was all but shut down and everyone gone back to their cabins. I followed suit a few minutes later.

The rest of camp was uneventful and certainly, I didn’t get knocked out by the Holy Spirit again. In fact, I stayed away from the altar the rest of camp. But, nobody really talked about what happened to me, including me. I’m not sure even my parents knew.

To this day it remains the only real evidence I have that God exists and that he’s paying any attention to my insignificant candle of a life. But, it’s something you can’t just shake. I know I didn’t make it up. I know I didn’t “will” it to happen, but it did happen and I cannot explain it away.

As the years passed, my spirituality wavered, then came back strong again during times of difficulty as these things usually do. Today, though I don’t attend church regularly and though I put almost no stock in “men of God” at all, particularly those on television, that night at camp keeps me praying. That one moment where–maybe–God actually intervened in my life, keeps me cognizant of my actions and the things I do in this world.

I like to think that most of us are innately good. That, lacking a divine mandate like everyone used to get from church, we would all still be basically good people, looking out for each other; careful not to hurt others’ feelings. But, it does feel like that’s less so as the years go by. That scares me. People are capable of terrible things. Without boundaries, our own narcissism can easily overcome our innate safeguards leading us to do and say things that make us feel good, but which are not things civilized people do and say to each other.

Too often, the very people who demand equality and respect for others equally, are the first ones to condemn others for their beliefs. In that respect, we’re losing the fight for humanity, and that’s a difficult thing to watch.

I may not still go to church and it’s rare my radio seizes on the local gospel radio station anymore, but I cling to the belief there is a God and that he does still care. I don’t believe, as a race, we can afford not to.

On the Proper Way to Pronounce New Orleans, and the Delights of Seafood Gumbo

My father’s second wife brought a wealth of new culinary adventures to our table. I’ve previously blogged about “Tricking kids into eating,” the story about my step-mother trying to pass off chicken liver as steak. Other notable favorites she introduced me to include salmon patties–imagine salmon chopped to the consistency of shredded tuna, mixed with mayo and onions, and then pan fried. It’s actually better than it sounds. She introduced yet another fried fish meal, previously frozen flounder. It’s exactly what it sounds like. I add the “previously frozen” part because, while I admittedly loved this dish, doused liberally with red-wine vinegar, there was that one unfortunate time where, as she was cooking it, it turned to complete mush. Literally, it went from “frozen” to “mush” right there in the pan in a matter of seconds. After that, it sort of dropped off our regular menu.

My step-mom was a good cook, but her mother, my step-grandmother, was an excellent cook, though she tended to more veggies than I would have preferred then. “Granny,” as we called her, honed her craft daily in what I felt was a strange relationship with her sister whereas my grandmother acted as her sister’s maid. Each week my grandmother dutifully washed and ironed her sister’s laundry and most every night my grandmother cooked her sister dinner, usually “To Go.” Having an older brother myself, albeit briefly, I could never shake the feeling that it probably galled my grandmother having to act as her sister’s caretaker. But maybe it wasn’t like that.

Now, you may have noted a trend in the types of foods my step-mother introduced me to. Prior to her, I’d never had most types of seafood, certainly nothing as exotic (to me at least at the time) as shrimp! I like shrimp now, although for my taste, it’s very bland unless you really spice it up with 3x the amount of crab boil as the box tells you, and a ton of horseradish in the cocktail sauce.

But, as much as anything, shrimp has become a nostalgia food, no doubt partly thanks to the events that transpired during one of our first “step-family” get-togethers. These tended to happen in the fall and winter, what with Alabama summers being intolerably hot. No one wants to stand around mingling when it’s 95 degrees and 97% humidity, unless you’re at the pool, which only one family had, but it didn’t have a gathering space for more than a few, so it was rarely used by anyone outside of their immediate family.

It all happened at our annual Christmas party, which culminated in a gift-exchange. Unlike “white elephant” we kept it simple and just drew names to decide who was buying for whom. So, you were never really sure what you  were going to get. Sometimes you’d get something great, because they asked your mom what you wanted, and sometimes you’d get something not so great because they simply didn’t want to spend much money on you. But, as these things go, I didn’t hate it.

We almost always had the party  at my aunt’s house, probably because my grandmother did most of the cooking and she lived just a bit down the road from my aunt, making it easy to transport all of her casseroles and pies. My aunt, Shirley (not her real name), was a quiet woman. She was a gifted hair dresser, a craft she practiced in a building her husband bought for her out back behind their house. Usually, my step-mom cut my hair, but whenever aunt Shirley did it, I was in heaven.

Aunt Shirley had an eye for decorating and her home was exactly what Southern Living magazine would be like if they based their decorating on reality, which is usually the budget of a single, working-class income, and little more than a Michaels store for inspiration (hey, it was the country). However, it was a decided step-up from our own home, which was sparsely furnished and had very little by way of knick-knacks or art.

The highlight of the evening for me wasn’t mingling with the family; I couldn’t have cared less about that. No, what made the evening special was all the delicious foods and desserts I never got to eat at home. My step-mother kept a copy of “Sugar Blues” on her nightstand, which tells you all you need to know about eating at my house. But at these family gatherings, it was all there–pies, cookies, fudge even–just laying out on the table with no one to tell me “stop” or “that’s enough.” It was glorious!

For the main course that year, my step-mother volunteered to make gumbo, a southern main course-slash-soup that, to this day,  is one my Top 5 Favorite Meals. Now, there are as many variations on Gumbo as there are pronunciations of the great city of “New Orleans” with the only acceptable pronunciation being, “New Orlens” spoken quickly and with an emphasis on the “Or”. Anyone who doesn’t live there and tries to say it like “Nahlens” as if they DO live there, is just an idiot.

Back to gumbo; some of the differences you’ll find from one gumbo recipe to another comes mainly from the addition of different proteins. At its most basic, gumbo is a chicken-stock soup made from boiling a whole chicken until the meat literally falls off the bone. From there, you’ll find all sorts of seafood additions ranging from shrimp, to oysters, to scallops and crab. Usually, the “crab” wasn’t real crab, what with how expensive it is. Usually, the “crab” was artificially substituted with sweetened pollock. I’m not gonna lie; it tastes pretty good to me.

Now, there are two ingredients in gumbo that are non-negotiable. The first is the roux, a flour and fat concoction that sounds as delicious as it tastes in your final dish. To make a proper roux, mix equal parts flour and fat (preferably a flavorful fat like lard). I prefer good old bacon fat with the chunks filtered out. Mix the fat and flour in a hot pan or under the broiler in your oven until it is a rich golden brown. My step-mother made her roux in a pan in the broiler, but I find that too difficult to control. You can easily catch the flour on fire and that is not a mess you want to deal with. I prefer a heavy, cast-iron pan, on medium-high heat to start. Once it starts browning, you have to keep it moving, else it burns and then you have to start over.

My step-mother had a saying, “The darker the roux, the better the brew” and while I’m not sure I’d call gumbo a “brew,” a good dark roux will elevate your gumbo to a whole ‘nuther level.

The one other absolute must-have ingredient is okra. I hate okra. I hate picking it and I hate eating it, fried or otherwise. But okra is essential to gumbo both as a thickening agent and for its flavor. It’s as essential as “Gumbo File,” a fancy name for dried sassafras, which is nearly impossible to find in my area outside of With the okra, put it in a blender until it’s gooey and then mix it with your gumbo base just before it all cooks together. You won’t even notice the gooey consistency as you’re eating, but anyone who has had real gumbo will immediately know if it’s NOT there.

Back at the party, with the socializing over, we all gathered together in the dining room for grace, which was usually led by my grandmother, a prayer-warrior of a woman. Despite her religious fervor, she said the fastest blessings you ever heard, which always struck me as hilariously funny for someone who began and ended every day reading her Bible and praying. With the Lord having blessed it all, we kids went to our small table in the breakfast nook while the adults gathered together at the big table in the formal dining room.

Within minutes, a steaming bowl of gumbo was delivered to me, along with a tall, cold glass of sweet tea and a small-stack of Saltine crackers. My cousin, who had grown up eating all the foods I was only just becoming acquainted with, instructed me to crumble up my crackers and mix them into my gumbo and when I did, I found another surprise. A ball of sticky white rice resting just under the surface of my gumbo. Yum!

Knowing the gumbo was right off the stove, I blew on it before venturing a taste. I tentatively put it in my mouth. As I did, my eyes widened and my mouth watered. It was delicious! I had another spoonful, and then another. But then, I stopped. Something strange was in my gumbo.

Let’s step back for a moment: while this was my first time eating gumbo, it wasn’t my first time eating shrimp. In fact, I had helped clean shrimp on a few occasions prior. For the uninitiated, when you get fresh shrimp, like right off the boat at the docks, you get the whole shrimp; head, whiskers, shells and all. The first thing most people do when preparing shrimp, is remove the head. But you have to be careful, particularly if you’re pulling them from a bag. Shrimp heads are like little nightmares, full of spikey  protrusions, all designed to protect their eyes and whiskers. If you’re not careful, you’ll catch one under your cuticle, or under your fingernail and that is a pain you do not want to deal with.

shrimp eyes

That night, as I stared at my bowl, I noticed something familiar floating around in the gumbo. A LOT of somethings in fact. What are those THINGS floating around in my bowl? Those small, round, pale gray orbs? And then it hit me: they look like shrimp eyeballs!

Well, you can imagine how that affected me. I put down my spoon and stopped eating immediately. A few minutes later from across the room my step-mother saw me sitting stock still and, knowing I was usually a quick eater, called out, “What’s wrong? Why aren’t you eating?” I mumbled something about my gumbo being weird and with a concerned look she told me to bring it over to her.

The twenty or so steps it took to reach the dining room, me carrying my bowl full of shrimp eyeballs, felt like an eternity.  When I got there, my step-mother peered over into my bowl and after a quick glance said, “What’s wrong with it? I don’t see anything.

I looked up at her, everyone at the table staring expectantly, and I said in a quiet voice, “It’s got shrimp eyeballs in it.

Have you ever really watched someone’s face when they’re reacting to bad news? Particularly when they’re having a good time and they see or hear something that immediately shuts them down? That was my step-mother’s face in that instant. She went from smiling to glaring in a micro-second and that’s when I knew I was in deep.

In a calm, measured voice, the one she reserved for when I was REALLY in trouble, she said, “Those aren’t eyeballs, they are okra seeds.

Despite the raging war clearly going on in her head, with one side telling her to do one thing and the other side reminding her where she was, in a measured voice she instructed me to return to the table and finish eating. I wish I could say I completely believed her and was able to set my doubt aside and eat my okra seeds, but I can’t. Okra was not a vegetable I was acquainted with and so there was no “A-ha!” moment for me. Rather, I ate my bowl of maybe-shrimp-eyeballs in silence, catching increasingly angry glares from the dining room.

That little episode cost me at least two days of the silent treatment, more on that in another blog. I never did understand why she got so triggered at such a simple misunderstanding. But, that was true of so many things with her. You never could tell if she was going to react with staggering ferocity, or if she’d just laugh it off and tell you go back out and play. In her later years, that duality become more pronounced, to the point where I have wondered if she is bipolar. I’ve never asked.

To this day, I can’t eat gumbo without reliving that night and without feeling that “pit of my gut” feeling under her withering gaze. Years later, we would laugh about it, or at least she would. Like so many things from my youth that she considered “no big deal,” the shrimp-eyeball-episode was a watershed event that left an indelible mark on my psyche.

But it also made me more attuned to my own kids’ eating habits and now, anytime I introduce something new to them, I’m careful to make sure they know what it is. And I never lie to them!

But then, I’ve never tried to trick them with liver-steak either.

On People Who Change Your Life Without You Ever Realizing It

House in Semmes

When my family moved out to the “suburbs” of Mobile, AL, I spent a lot of time by myself. Most afternoons, as soon as my dad got home, I was expected to work with him in the yard, or help him with some never-ending project on the house, until dinner or dark-thirty, whichever came first.

We bought our five acres, which to this day still sits in the middle of a large wood, from a family member whose first name was simply, “Joe.” By the time I met him, Joe was already an older gentleman, complete with a ruddy complexion and an impressively portly belly. He was also the father of my step-mother’s brother’s wife, making us distantly related by marriage. Joe owned a huge swath of land around our property, which included what I called a lake, but which was really just a large pond. A poorly maintained dirt road connected the end of our county-maintained dirt road at the end of our neighborhood to the lake about 3/10 of a mile back in the woods. From there, the road continued on around Joe’s expansive property. As I got older, that property line became my dirt-bike trail, with the added benefit of providing a fire-break in case something sparked in the middle of a long, hot Alabama summer (it never did).

I really didn’t know Joe all that well, nor he me. My step-mother and I spent a few summer days as guests at his home, by invite of his daughter (my step-mother’s brother’s wife) swimming in his pool. I can only guess that’s how he got to know that I even existed.

One day Joe asked my step-mother if I would be willing to work for him cleaning out the logs and other debris that floated up from the bottom of the lake, which tended to be a lot. When the lake was built, they roughly scooped out the hole, leaving a great many exposed tree roots that rotted away from the bottom of the lake as the years passed. He offered to pay me what I considered an obscene amount of money at the time, $50. All I had to do was pull the logs out of the lake and pile them up in one spot off to the side. Of course, I had to get my father’s permission to do this since my working for Joe meant I wasn’t available to help him. When my father agreed to let me work for Joe, it was an “Aha!” moment for me. For the first time in my life someone was willing to pay me to do something I would probably have been just told to do by my father if Joe had asked.

The days turned into weeks and over time, after school, a few hours here and there on the weekend, I did the work. I must have done a good job because Joe also invited me to come to his house and do other various jobs–scrubbing the accumulated grime from his pool walls and cleaning up his own lake. Again, for an obscene amount of money–$100.

Then, I didn’t see Joe for a while until one day he drove up late in the afternoon. Now, I had been told that Joe was a wealthy man and in retrospect, I believe that was likely true. Also likely true, most of his wealth was tied up in real-estate. Joe lived well, but not THAT well. I met his wife all of twice, and neither time did I get a feeling of warmth from her. What I did get, was a sense based on her appearance, her sparing glance at me, and barely a murmur of pleasantries, that she had expectations for how she lived and presented herself to others, which her husband, Joe, did not share.

Despite his presumed wealth, Joe drove an older model, light green, generic Chevrolet car. Most of the time he had the windows down even in the heat of summer, from which out peeked a couple of fly rods. He dressed like a man who had departed years ago for a laid-back African safari wearing khaki shorts, a light-colored short-sleeved button-up shirt, and work boots, having only lately returned wearing the exact same clothes, only very much the worse for the wear. Oh, and a straw hat. That was Joe.

This particular day I heard Joe pull into our driveway even before I saw his car, the limestone rocks my dad had deposited and I had raked out smooth, making a satisfying crunching sound under his tires. I had evolved a sort of sixth-sense and could detect the sounds and vibrations of vehicles coming down our long driveway well before you could see anything through the trees. It was a talent I put to good use whenever I heard my father’s truck come home of an afternoon. At which point, I’d quickly turn off the TV, throw away the detritus of my abundant snacks and run to the kitchen table pretending like I had been studying.

That day, my father was already home, and having heard/felt the car coming, I’d gone outside to see who it was. As soon as I saw the car, I knew who it was, which only served to pique my curiosity. Joe and my father were never friendly, despite our having purchased our land from him. I heard someone offhandedly comment once that the general feeling was, since we were charitably considered “family”,  we should have gotten a better deal than we did on the land. But, as a kid none of that mattered to me.

I figured Joe wasn’t there to chat up my father, so I cautiously stayed in the confines of our screened-in porch while Joe extracted himself, oh so slowly, from his car. Part of me was a little fearful I’d done something wrong down at the lake and that Joe was there to revoke my fishing privileges, which at the time consisted of me and a basic rod and reel and whatever earthworms I could dig up. But, as Joe exited his car, he reached into the back through one of the open windows and pulled something out and brought it over to the door where I was standing just inside.

Joe had brought me a fly rod and was inviting me to come fishing with him. I was speechless. This older man I hardly knew was showing me a kindness I’d never really experienced from anyone outside my immediate family and for a moment, I honestly didn’t know what to say. I did know that a fly rod was something sacred to Joe. I had seen him rhythmically casting out on the lake in his little green Jon-boat and I knew that fly fishing was, to him, something of a religion, complete with rules on the kinds of fish you should and shouldn’t take from the lake in order to maintain the delicate eco-balance.

Joe invited me to come learn how to fly fish and after incredulously getting  approval from my dad to “take the day off” we hopped in Joe’s car and headed back to the lake. Between the two of us, we dragged his boat down to the water, launched it and paddled out to the middle of the lake; a safe place where a novice fly-fisherman was unlikely to snag anything he couldn’t easily un-snag. All the while, only exchanging a handful of words. That was also “Joe’s Way.”

That day, Joe taught me how to tie a hook on a line and he taught me the basics of fly-fishing; how to hold the rod, how far back to take my wrist before whipping it forward in that rhythmic hallmark of fly fishermen everywhere. I didn’t catch anything, but that day I discovered my love for fishing. I also learned you don’t talk much when you’re fishing. It’s a very serious endeavor.

Joe and I only fished together a few times, but we did other things together. Joe knew all about maintaining the right balance between the types of fish and other aquatic animals and Joe assured me of two things: 1. If you catch too many bass out of the lake, the brim will overpopulate and then nothing ever reaches a size worth catching, and 2. Turtle are the bane of any lake’s existence.

Joe hated turtles. But since there aren’t many natural predators for turtles in Alabama, Joe made himself into a predator. He would bring his 22-rifle and together we would sit on the far side of the lake, aiming towards the woods and away from anything within miles that might catch a bullet. There, together we would scan the lake, patiently waiting for that tell-tale tiny turtle head to come up out of the water and when it did…POW! We missed more often than not, but we had some help from the resident alligator (which someone shot and killed years later), and together we maintained that critical balance. By the time I left home, there were easily seven-pound bass in the lake.

Once I turned sixteen, I never saw Joe again. Either my schedule or his conflicted, or maybe I just hit an age where he lost interest in trying to be friends. The marriage tie that bound us also deteriorated into a divorce, so perhaps that was the true cause of the dissolution.

Joe has surely passed away by now, and I don’t have any contact with his family, although I could probably find one of his grandsons if I tried hard enough. I wish I could tell Joe how much of an impact his simple kindness had on a lonely kid who felt overworked and under-loved. Thinking back, at the time Joe didn’t have any grandchildren, so maybe I filled that gap in his life, however small and for however brief a time. If so, I’m hopeful he derived some small pleasure from spending time with me.

Joe made an indelible mark on my life, in more ways than one. I think that’s one thing about getting older; you tend you think back and look deeper into the motivations of people, their actions, and the consequences of those actions. Whatever Joe’s were, it meant a lot to me then, and now. Rest in peace Joe. You did well.