Wednesday, October 12, 2011

More Church! More Camp!

Four out of the five years I attended youth group, I went to something called workcamp in the summer. They're short-term youth mission trips - about a week - where 5 or 6 kids and an adult leader team up to help residents in the community with a construction project, like painting the house, re-shingling a roof, or building a wheelchair ramp. Each person on the team had a role - lunch/snacks/breaks coordinator, devotion leader, team leader, etc. The company (Group Workcamps Foundation) does all the organization and creates the "kits" needed for each project, as well as organizes evening programs and logistics like housing (usually on the floor at a local school) and breakfast.

Each one is really formulaic - for example, Sunday night is when everyone meets their teammates and decides who has what role. Wednesday night is the talent show, Thursday night is Jesus Died For Your Sins And You Should Feel Really Bad About It night, Friday night is a celebration of all the work done and goodbyes, since everyone makes a mass exit Saturday morning after breakfast.

The official stance of the Group Workcamps Foundation is that it's not so much about the service projects but rather a chance to deepen a relationship with Christ, which I'm sure a lot of people felt, but I just wasn't one of them. My mom is fond of saying that Presbyterians like "a little religion with their art" which made it pretty easy for me to "pass" amongst them as a young atheist, but it wasn't as easy in my Group Workcamp team, especially when I decided in my second year that I wanted to try being devotion leader for the week.

It didn't seem hard, nor did I feel any conflict - you read the prescribed scripture for the day over lunch and lead a discussion about what it meant to everyone. The theme was later repeated in the evening program. Even though I didn't feel as though I had a personal relationship with God, I've always been able to read poems and fiction and dissect them for discussion - in fact, it's one of my favorite things - and I didn't figure this to be much of a challenge. Simply because I didn't believe everything didn't mean I could parse out greater meaning and depth.

What WAS a challenge, however, was my team - especially when, about halfway through the week - I divulged that I wasn't so sure about God. I'm not sure what scripture reading I had just done, or what someone else said that prompted me to reveal this information, but the silence that followed told me I'd made a big mistake. The kids looked at the ground until one of the adults tried to salvage the conversation about the scripture, ending quickly with a prayer and having everyone finish up their ham and cheese sandwiches. I was then pulled aside and demoted from devotion leader to... nothing. I remember numbly continuing to paint the inside of a garage, mostly ignored by the rest of my group for most of the day, while I tried to understand what had just happened and why I felt as though I'd done something horribly wrong when all I had been is honest.

At the end of the week, we said our goodbyes and I left, clutching an envelope full of something called "Care Cards" - they're short notes you're supposed to write to your team and every member of your youth group during the week. The notes are all little nuggets of inspiration and gratitude like "Thanks for your hard work!" and "I see God's light shining in you" and "You're the best!" They all go into an envelope and when you leave on Saturday morning, they're distributed so you can read all the notes from the week on the ride home. My notes also tended to say things like "No offense but you're really strange" and would mention I had a "unique attitude".Reading through the care cards from that week is a little hard; I remember how confused and hurt I was. One of the girls, Jenny, wrote "Your love for Christ is already shining through to me with the work you're doing. Keep it up!" in the beginning of the week, and at the end of the week she wrote "It's been interesting this past week working w/ you."

Jenny on Monday -  I'm the best girl ever!
Jenny on Friday - not feeling the love.

Another girl wrote "I liked talking to you this past week. Even though our beliefs and opinions differed, I found you interesting. Good luck with your future plans." I get it, I'm obviously not full of Christ's love, so obviously how hard I worked to make our resident's house a better place is irrelevant.

One of the things we differed on was whether or not she should take her narcolepsy medication. After she fell asleep on the roof one day, my vote was YES.

The mass-distributed care card from the M.C. (who essentially was the Head Devotion Leader) says "It was not a freak accident that you were your crew's devotion leader. Continue to tell people about Jesus, and explore the gifts God has given you!" I came across this care card right before I read one from a friend of mine in youth group.

It starts "My Atheist friend. Why do you bother with workcamp?" I remember thinking to myself, "Yeah, why?" It was 10 days out of my summer, with all the travel. I stuck out from the group as an unknown, I was frustrated with feeling alienated and alone, I was both a little intimidating and intimidated, my eye-rolling muscles were getting a huge workout, and I didn't know if I was doing any good or really belonged.

I don't know if I really answered myself in the end, but I kept going until I left for college.

Over the years, Group Workcamp programs changed; they got a little more extreme, contrived and disturbing, especially Thursday night:

Thursday morning: Workcampers! Bring a rock from your worksite to tonight's program!


... the rising part I may have made up, but you get the idea. I spoke out against returning, and instead finding another program that suited our needs more (and didn't result in a late Thursday night trip to Dairy Queen to debrief so we wouldn't be afraid to fall asleep) but was shot down because it wasn't tradition (this was also the response to the notion of NOT riding 900+ miles in a school bus from Minneapolis to Tennessee. I'm pretty sure my spine has never been the same).

Over the years, I also changed. I played to my "audience" in a way: I learned all the words to "Flood". I kept to being in charge of lunch, snacks, and water breaks at camp. I took over the back of the school bus and reigned (nicknamed "Queen Kashena") with the combined force of my eye-rolling and sarcasm... but I also kept trying to change things for the better, making the experience more inclusive, introducing more levity. One year I decided to write a care card to every single camper. All 500+ of them. I succeeded, but I didn't really sleep. One year I held a dramatized re-enactment of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Canada on the ceiling of the bus (green army men with magnets on the bottom and duct-taped flags everywhere).  I also refused to participate in our youth group's yearly "initiation" which took place during the first lunch stop of the first day. The senior kids would haze the first-year kids in a bizzare hostile takeover of what would otherwise be a peaceful time to stretch and eat a sandwich.

In the years since I've left, the youth group has changed too - they pick more community-centered programs. They travel in 15-person passenger vans. They try new methods for fundraising... and they know the percentage of the youth group that secretly considers itself to be Atheist or Agnostic: a pretty shocking (to the congregation) 70%.

That 70% gives up 10 days of their summers, makes ham-and-cheese sandwiches for campers, dutifully paints houses and builds wheelchair ramps for the elderly.

I think they're doing OK.

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