By summer I had come to terms with the loss of my former imaginary companion – dismissing the whole thing as a childish invention fueled by the trickery of moms and dads everywhere seemed to help me move on. Besides, I didn’t have time to worry over such nonsense. I was attending my very first summer camp! My grandfather was sending all of the grandkids to camp, complete with horses, water slides, the Blob, canoeing, arts and crafts, and archery. I felt so grownup packing my trunk with all of the necessities, carefully marking off each item on the campers’ checklist. My cousin, Kami, who was my age and who I rarely had the opportunity to see, was also coming. It was almost too much!
The first day of camp finally arrived, and I struggled to pay attention to my mom’s final instructions to me as we were saying goodbye. I was ready to get to the fun stuff. Once I realized that she was employing a rather serious and intentional tone, I tuned in. She was letting me know that the camp we were attending was one of those “Christian camps.” It’s still unclear to me if she knew that detail before we arrived or if she had only discovered it upon pulling up to the entrance (this was, afterall, pre-internet), but at any rate, she wanted to give me some advice before we parted on how to navigate what she knew would be a new experience for me.
She explained that they would be sharing stories with the campers from the Bible, and asserted that it was only a book written by men long ago. She said that it would be the leaders’ goal to try to convince us that the stories were true, but I needn’t worry about any of that. I was just there to have fun. So listen respectfully, she instructed, but don’t buy into what they are saying. Strange. I had heard my dad talk briefly about religion before, saying he thought maybe there was something to it. He spoke of studying a variety of world religions—Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity—but hadn’t arrived at any conclusions. He ended the conversation by talking about his belief in spirits and psychic abilities. The whole discussion seemed to make my mom uncomfortable and a little upset with my father. I would later learn that both of my parents had had some early experiences with religion that had been hurtful and dispiriting, creating a great deal of distrust on the subject in each of them.
That was the day they explained to us their philosophy that my brother and I should research and draw our own conclusions if ever we found ourselves curious on the topic of religion. This moment at camp was the first time Mom seemed to be offering an opinion, and it was pretty clear that she did not lean in favor of the Christian point of view. I nodded my head, indicating I understood (even though I did not), and returned my attention to the good times ahead of me.
Sky Ranch was everything a kid could hope for in a summer camp. I was having a blast, but after my mom’s atypical cautioning about the dangers of listening too intently to the teaching, I was uneasy during fireside Bible study each night and felt ashamed over how much I enjoyed singing the catchy camp songs whose lyrics had been pulled directly from the pages of the Bible and spoke of the love and forgiveness of Jesus. I was determined to honor my parents’ wishes and not get sucked in by the camp’s ploy. My cousin was not as strong-willed, however, and by day three, she had professed faith in Christ and had received a celebratory party in the cabin leaders’ quarters. Poor girl. She was not warned of the dangers that awaited the more gullible among us.
On the final night of camp, I struggled to sleep. I laid there alone in my bunk, wishing I had someone to talk to about the disturbing experience I had during Bible study earlier that evening. Just before the leader wrapped up and dismissed us to our cabins, he said that if any of us had sensed at any point during the week that the Lord was calling us to follow him, we need only respond to that call by praying a simple prayer, confessing that Jesus is the Son of God and believing in our hearts that he died for our sins. He would then come to “live in our hearts.”
Up until that point I was proud of how aloof and disinterested I had remained throughout the teaching times, but as he spoke those final words, something stirred inside me and I experienced a strange longing to know Jesus. Nonsense, Jennie. I told myself. You’re just falling prey to all the hype. I had managed to shake off the feeling on the walk back. But in the quiet, after lights out, my thoughts returned to Jesus. What did the leader mean when he said, ‘if the Lord was calling to us?’ How would we even be aware of him calling? Why when he said it did I feel something inside of me begin to react? Hadn’t I experienced that before?
And then I heard it – that familiar voice that had been my companion in times of trouble for as long as I could remember. “I am the one who is always with you – the one who has been speaking to you all this time. I am the one who knows you and loves you and cares for you. The Jesus they have been telling you about. I am the One. Come to me.” It is hard to explain the reaction that overtook me upon hearing these words. It stole my breath for a moment. It felt like an arrow piercing straight through me, and my heart swelled with a peculiar blend of joy, love, elation, and peacefulness all at once.
What was that prayer I was supposed to pray in response? Something about Jesus being God’s Son and dying for our sins? I can’t remember it exactly. Somehow, I knew it didn’t matter. Jesus was mine and I was his. What was I going to tell my parents? They would be so disappointed in me. I decided then and there that it would have to remain a secret. It was just too embarrassing to admit. But it was a fact, and I knew it all the way to my core. I was a Christ follower, a Christian.
When all of the parents arrived to pick us up from camp, I had to push through the guilt I was feeling to perform one of the few duties of childhood: ‘Tell us all about it!’ I offered up as many details as I could think of on every thrilling thing that happened, overcompensating for the most significant feature, which I had chosen to reserve for myself. The drive home (probably a little over an hour in reality) felt interminable. I don’t know how long I can keep this up. You’d think that someone who had become so adept at a young age at safeguarding a really important secret would be better at this. But I had hidden the facts about the abuse out of a belief that I was protecting everyone. This omission was only to preserve my own dignity, so Mom and Dad didn’t think me ignorant or weak-willed.
I think I may have lasted two days.
I found my mom alone in the kitchen one afternoon and spilled my guts about my unintended decision to ask Jesus into my heart. I noted the look of concern that spread over her face, so I tried to offer more to explain myself. But I had little defense. I was not about to go into detail about the voice I had heard my whole life or the “feeling” I had in response to the invitation to follow Christ. At ten years old, I certainly could not present a case for the historical reliability of Scripture or break down for her the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.
As I stood there, clearly struggling, her concern softened into empathy and understanding. “It’s easy to get caught up in these things when you are in situations like the one at camp,“ she chided gently. “The whole experience is emotionally charged, and the camp leaders know it is a good environment to introduce new ideas. While they are not being malicious and believe they are doing good, it is a form of brainwashing. Sadly, it is how most religions win converts, and Christians are particularly good at it.”
Brainwashing! I was familiar with the term—I’m pretty sure from Scooby-Doo. Now there was no doubt. It was just as I had feared. She thought I had been duped, and although she was trying to be patient and loving, the mom I had known to always listen and who was great at validating my thoughts and feelings was in that moment, I felt, being very dismissive and a bit condescending. All I wanted was for the conversation to end. I think Mom did too, so she concluded by insisting that I would soon forget the experience and move on.
But that did not happen. There was just no turning back. I knew my mom believed she was protecting me, and I appreciated her for it. But if it was to be a choice between being viewed as a gullible, brainwashed fool or my Jesus, I would just have to swallow my pride and let the cards fall where they may. It was a choice I would find myself making again and again in this life with God—even now, as I write this testimony.
“We are fools for Christ’s sake…”1 Corinthians 4:10