Ah, camp. That lovely invention of summer that gives kids something to do during the break and parents a week or so of sanity, rest, and relaxation. I never went to camp as a small child, as I was very clingy and dependent on my parents growing up, besides being immensely shy and awkward. But by the time I was a teen, I decided to give it a try once I found a particular camp.
Northland Camp & Conference Center in Dunbar, Wisconsin, was my summer go-to from ages 13-17. It was a religious camp and my only experience with camp. The schedule was somewhat grueling and included required activities that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but I still liked it enough to request to keep going. I’m not sure if it was the idea of going to camp that I liked so much, or that I just convinced myself that I liked it, as looking back on it, the experience was pretty overrated. Fun, but overrated.
Wakeup was always early, because any getting-ready things that needed to be done had to be done by the time all the cabins were to line up for the daily flag raising. Then we had breakfast, followed by cabin devotions. The exact schedule varied day-to-day after that. Sometimes we’d have a cabin activity, or a camp bible session. We always had a morning chapel, at least. After lunch there were sometimes other bible sessions, team game activities (which I loathed, as I hated that kind of thing, but I couldn’t opt out), and then maybe a few hours of free time before dinner and evening chapel. One night a week we’d have an after-dark activity. There was also usually a water day that went along with the team games, but I remember one year it was so cold they almost had to cancel it. There was also a loooooong list of bible verses to memorize. That part wasn’t necessarily required, but it garnered your team lots of points, so it was always pressured.
Even though free time was pretty limited, they had many options with how to spend the time. They had a bookstore and coffee shop on site. There was an archery range. A shooting range. A climbing wall. Many, many trails for walking. A craft shop. A mini-golf course. And, of course, they had a large pond where one could use one part for boating and the other for swimming. I never got a chance to participate in the swimming, because you had to have a buddy with you, and since I never came with anyone (a lot of kids came as part of a church group) and I didn’t make friends too easily, I never had someone to go with. There’s probably other little things that I’ve forgotten about, too, but those are the major ones that stand out in my memory.
When I was 15 going on 16, my mother and I went to a special ladies retreat in Door County, Wisconsin. Door County is a lovely area, and we relished the time we spent on our little mini-vacation. I don’t remember who hosted the event or who was running it, but it featured at least a couple of people associated with Northland’s ministries, because I remember it came up in talking with a couple of women. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but they suggested that I attend the Leadership Camp that Northland offered.
I was immediately hesitant about it, but we said we would think and pray about it. Ultimately, despite my initial hesitation, I ended up attending. Leadership Camp is two weeks instead of one, weekend stay included. The first week is pretty similar to the regular Teen Camp; we participated in all of their activities and are assigned a team, just like them, however we had our own special little sessions and individual counseling with various staff members. The second week was spent being a junior counselor in either the Kid or Teen Camps, along with a regular counselor. We also still had our special sessions and individual counseling sessions. The weekend was fairly open, compared to the week. We usually had a big group trip/activity on Saturday. Sunday we would go to a local church and sing.
The first year I went, when I was 16, I was in a deep denial of myself, my life, and my beliefs. While I had some doubts, I convinced myself of my faith and was in the midst of throwing myself into it with all of my energy. So my first year of Leadership Camp was pretty awesome. I bonded better with the other campers that joined me, probably because they were here purposefully and not just as something to do over the summer. We all had ministry aspirations. We rejoiced in our kindred hearts and drew close together, sharing our burdens and our hearts with each other and praying with one another.
The second year, however, did not go as smoothly. My denial had broken through into major issues for me. I had adopted a more goth-like look in terms of clothes and makeup. I was extremely depressed and stressed in general. I was having trouble dealing with certain traumas in my life that I felt I couldn’t get help for. Despite that, I still went, because I remembered the wonderful time I’d had and I yearned to be around people that were as kind and friendly and wonderful as I’d met the previous year.
While my fellow campers were still very nice to me, the counselors and staff were more stand-offish. I’m sure they likely remembered me from all the years I’d been attending, and my sudden change in appearance was fairly shocking. I still attended all of the sessions, still took copious amounts of studious notes, asked questions, memorized scripture, participated in everything, even if I didn’t want to. But they seemed to treat me differently, based on my looks and regardless of participation.
This became apparent during my first individual counseling session. I met with a lady in the ministry at Northland – a pastor’s wife, no less – and at first it seemed to be fairly the same as the last year. She was a different lady than the year before, but I knew her still, if only from a distance. However, not far into the session, she made a comment about my appearance being “goth”. I replied that I liked black and felt comfortable, which was true. I wasn’t wearing anything extreme, just a black shirt and black pants with thick black eyeliner. Compared to some goth kids I’d seen in the mall, I was pretty tame. But she apparently felt the need to comment on it and make a negative insinuation of it.
I brushed it off, thinking that she was probably just surprised at what would appear to her to be a sudden change. As we talked more and she dug deeper, I did confess issues with depression, especially following sexual abuse I’d suffered at the hands of a previous boyfriend. I don’t remember everything about the session, but what I distinctly remember is that she asked for as many details as I would give her (I didn’t give her much, as I didn’t feel comfortable doing so) and she simply advised me to be careful upon going home, that I wouldn’t be tempted into immorality with another man.
I remember being utterly shocked at her reaction. She didn’t necessarily invalidate the abuse itself, but she completely invalidated my feelings about it and my reactions to it (I had a lot of trouble even looking a man in the eye at the time, there was no way I wanted anyone to even touch me). I felt like she didn’t take it seriously, because she didn’t. She threw some bible verses at me, I’m sure, but I was in a haze of shock at the lack of support and empathy.
Despite the staff reaction, like I said, the other campers treated me the same. The group I was with my last year seemed to be a little looser, though still just as fervent. There was even a few regular Teen Campers who noticed my dress, asked if I was a “Christian Goth”, and immediately bonded with me over it. It must not be so bad, I reasoned as I walked to evening chapel with them.
However, that little hope came late in the second week. Before the second week even started, I was pulled aside and told – by the husband of the same lady I met with for counseling – that because of my “personal struggles”, I was deemed unfit to counsel the age group that I would be normally assigned to. Instead, I would be assigned to a younger group and paired up with the counselor I’d been with so far, I’m guessing in an effort for stability through the transition into the second week.
It was a devastating blow to me, especially because despite my struggles, I still had a heart for ministry and was still aching for chances to prove myself. My chin quivered and tears welled up in my eyes as he told me, but I refused to let them fall. I would not give in. I would not give him the satisfaction of confirming that I was indeed “broken” and that their decision was correct.
Later that night, in my bunk, I allowed myself some quiet tears, my face buried in my pillow to quell any sounds that might escape. Again, I refused to show any weakness, to anyone. I felt like I couldn’t trust anyone. I had to go it alone, because I was alone. Utterly and completely alone.
That year was the last year for me, as I’d reached the maximum age that they accepted. As I left, I clung desperately to the good memories. Laughing with newly made friends. The smell of the morning mist as it rolled in while we lined up for flag-raising. Sitting in the open courtyard in between rows of cabins, listening to a fellow Leadership Camper strum a guitar and complain about the confiscation of his Grateful Dead CD’s. The instant camaraderie felt by others who weren’t the “norm” as far as appearances went in the conservative Christian community.
However, the good just doesn’t cancel out the bad, as much as I wish it did. While I mostly enjoyed the time I spent there, the blatant condemnation and utter lack of any sympathy still linger. Like a cloud that suddenly appears on a sunny day, the rejection will always be there.
I suppose it’s all for the best, looking back, as it helped loosen some of my ties to the Christian community that was previously very tight. Because of the events that followed, I know I would have ended up leaving anyway, but this subtle bond breaking made it just slightly easier, and I guess that’s all I could have asked for.
So, if anyone who knows me from that camp reads this, if you were one of those who accepted me regardless, thank you. Your love and acceptance were and are greatly appreciated. If you were one of those who judged me instead of offering support, I also say thank you. If not for you, my journey to discover my true self and eventually into transitioning into Paganism would have been rougher, tougher, and more ridden with guilt and anxiety than it already was. Thank you for showing me your true colours, for without that, it would have been harder to show mine.