How One Night At Church Youth Camp Changed My Life

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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.

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