I got saved no less than six times during my childhood, and was baptized nearly as much, too.
I grew up Catholic, so I was baptized when I was an infant (oh that evil infant baptism, as the Baptists would say). I don’t remember that one, but I remember the next one pretty clearly.
Camp Joy. A week-long sleep-away hellhole camp for special needs and at-risk kids. A scare-the-hell-out-of-you-so-you-will-ask-Jesus-into-your-heart salvation factory, meeting the quota of “1,000 brought to Christ annually” (their website, as of this writing).
It was the summer between 3rd and 4th grade. This kid Stephen from school, who I never really hung out with, invited me. Even at eight years old I was a people pleaser, so I couldn’t say no, even though every instinct in me told me to. The struggle is real, folks.
Camp Joy was run by a very large and influential church in Chattanooga, TN – the Mt. Zion of cities in the Bible Belt. The Buckle of the Belt. I was not privy to these facts at that age, though. All I knew was I was headed to my first sleep-away camp.
The first, and most traumatizing thing I took note of at Camp Joy was the camp counselors. I don’t know how old they were, high schoolers maybe, but they certainly established themselves as authority figures right away. They did so by handing out vicious wedgies to anyone who stepped out of line. Literally. We lined up everywhere we went, and if anyone got out of line for just one second, boom: wedgie. The counselors also told us that no one could escape it, that everyone by the end of the week would receive at least one good, scream-worthy wedgie. The only question was when.
The second dreadful thing I noticed was the bathroom. I would have to hold it for the week.
The third thing: the tetherball court and the seventh grader (who must have been volunteering at the camp) who presided over it, daring anyone to challenge him.
The fourth thing: the strict segregation of boys and girls. This may be where my memory fails me a bit, but I think we only ever saw girls in the Tabernacle sessions. We wouldn’t even pass them when marching to and fro.
The Tabernacle sessions: I suppose these were the cornerstone of Camp Joy. Sounds kind of cool, doesn’t it? Stevie Ray Vaughn: The Tabernacle sessions. But alas, it wasn’t anything like that. Actually, it’s where we learned of the inherent evils of rock and roll and the demonic MTV. It’s also where we learned about Heaven and Hell. Mostly Hell, though. Paired with death. Death and Hell and wedgies. It was one night during a Tabernacle sessions that I got saved.
We would first sing old time hymns, then a speaker would come tell us a scary story about death, whether it be about these two kids who were innocently playing on their swing set, and the next thing they knew were getting hit by a train, or about some kid who got caught up in rock and roll and rap or whatever and got into drugs and overdosed. On the third night of camp, a man told this mono-tonal, yet intriguing story about how his car overheated. He got out and checked the radiator cap and burned his hand. He then proceeded to unscrew the cap with a hand towel and the cap and steam exploded in his face and he almost died. I thought it was kind of cool, but it also got me pondering my own mortality and, of course, whether or not I wanted to spend an eternity in Hell if I ever died from a radiator explosion. So when it came time to sing emotionally-charged songs about surrendering all and asking Jesus not to pass us by and questioning our tarrying while Jesus is pleading for us, all during which the speaker was entreating us to ask Jesus into our hearts, I raised my hand to be saved.
One of the counselors came and grabbed me, and I thought I was about to get my first big wedgie. Instead, he pulled me aside with a group of about six other kids and told us to repeat this prayer, and then we were saved. But we weren’t done yet. We had to be baptized.
The next day, instead of going swimming in the shallow end of a not-an-olympic-sized pool (you had to pass a swim test to be able to swim in the deep end, and only three boys out of at least 150 passed, so the rest of us crowded and waded in the warm shallow end missing home and the Harrison Bay pool where I could not only swim in the deep end, but could jump off the fifteen-foot high dive), me and about a hundred other kids went to be baptized.
We went to some church down the street and lined up like factory workers on Friday waiting for their check. One by one, we stepped up and into the baptismal and were dunked (the biblical way to get baptized) into the water and were proclaimed baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – buried in the likeness of His death, raised to walk in the newness of life. No counselors were around to hand out wedgies, so I got out of line when I saw a bathroom. It was the first time in four days I was able to go. I came back out in time to be the last one baptized.
The only thing to ruin my rebirth was tetherball. Everyone lined up to face off against the seventh grader, and one-by-one we all fell hard to him. I just knew I would beat him, though, despite having never played tetherball.
It was awful. He was Robert Duvall, and I was Will Ferrell. Finally, I wasn’t put out of my misery, but rather, I severely stubbed my finger, and I walked away holding my hand in pain and holding back my tears in desperation. I needed medical attention immediately, but I didn’t want anyone to see me cry. Good thing it was at night.
I don’t want to hold up just the imperfections of Camp Joy to the light, though. Some of the highlights: (guided) horseback riding. Canoeing to a rope swing. And I didn’t get sick like that one kid in the blue shirt who carried a bucket around with him to throw up into. And that’s about it. Oh, wait – I went the entire week and didn’t get a wedgie! “How in the world?” you may ask, since I was such a problem child. Well, I guess I was street-smart enough to know which fights to pick and which ones were better left for another day. I knew I couldn’t fend off high-schoolers if they wanted to give me a wedgie, so I played it safe, flew under the radar for the week. I kept to myself. Didn’t get too riled up over anything. And it worked. I think getting saved helped, too. Like I was protected by God from any evil being done to me or something.
Later when my Step-mom found out about my conversion from Catholicism to a born-again Christian, she became very upset and gave me a stern lecture. I didn’t see what the big deal was, but I knew things had changed. She saw me differently. My brother, too. But that was my fault.
Before Camp Joy, my brother and I watched MTV every single day and competed with each other over the countdown. I sided with Coolio and his hit “Fantastic Voyage”, while Spencer took Warren G’s “Regulate”. It was a constant battle for #1. We also rapped along with Snoop Dogg, F-words and all. Especially the F-words.
On the car ride home from Camp Joy, my brother sat up from the back seat and stuck his head around my seat back and told me that the two songs flip-flopped at #1 and #2 every day of the week. He had this big grin on his face, like he couldn’t wait to tell me this bit of information. I don’t even know if it was true or not – I like to think it wasn’t because it would show me that my brother missed me and really liked me, even though he would never admit to it.
But it breaks my heart every time I think of my response to him. I said a feeble, “Really?” and didn’t say another word about it. And that was the last time we talked about music or MTV. We never ghangsta-rapped together again. I was born-again, and having Jesus in your heart means there’s no room for MTV or Snoop Dogg in your heart as well.
I truly believe this was the point in my life where a fissure was created between me and Spencer that has only caused us to move further and further away from each other. I didn’t even ask him to be my best man in my wedding. But hey – I got saved!