Jesus Camp

May 21, 2017

When I was a kid, every summer my parents would drive four hours to Estes Park and drop me off in the middle of the mountains with a bunch of strangers.

During the day Camp Como was like most youth camps. We swam in dirty lakes, ate charred marshmallows that had been roasted over open fires, and rode tired swaybacked horses around in circles. At night, however, we gathered together in the central cabin to sing praise songs and listen to sermons. It was a summer camp for Christian fundamentalists, but for the most part it was pretty tame. We didn’t burn  witches or nail anyone to a cross.

The camp counselors were twentysomething-year-olds in bible college. They had long hair and tattoos on their muscular shoulders that said “Got Jesus?” or “John 3:16.” Several were in a band that did Jesus-themed covers of romantic pop songs. The Bryan Adams hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” was a popular one, as well as Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” For the most part they were just excited young adults who enjoyed working with teenagers.

However, there was one counselor who was a bit more intense. His name was Gary and you could tell he was serious because he had a mustache. Gary was a marathon runner, and every day he awoke at 5 a.m. to run ten miles and puke. He never smiled and he did not often speak. Mostly he stood in the background with his muscular arms folded in a manner that made his biceps bulge. There were several rumors about Gary. One was that he was a Vietnam vet. The fact that the year was 1988, and Gary was like twenty three made this impossible, but his demeanor suggested he was suffering from PTSD of some kind. It was also suggested that Gary grew up in one of those liberal homes where the mother smoked dope all day and the father participated in various Satanic rituals. There was no evidence of this; it was just something we read in his mustache.

One night it was Gary’s turn to give the sermon. Gary clomped up on stage in a sleeveless t-shirt and combat boots. He stood up there for a full two minutes without speaking. We shifted uncomfortably in our seats.  Finally, Gary said, “Who wants to be in the Army of God?”

We all looked at each other.

“I don’t think you heard me,” Gary barked. “Who in this room wants to be a soldier in God’s army?”

We tentatively raised our hands.

“I don’t believe you,” said Gary.

We raised our hands higher.

I happened to be sitting in the front row.  Gary pointed at me and said, “You get up here.”

I stood up stepped onto the stage. My father was a preacher, so I was familiar with religious theatrics. This was a common form of play acting. You call someone up to the front and challenge their faith in front of the congregation to demonstrate what it’s like to publicly assert your religious beliefs.

“So you want to be a soldier in God’s army?” he said.

“Yes!” I said.

He looked me over with disappointment, like I was a poorly cooked meal he planned on returning to the kitchen.

“I don’t think you’re really committed to Jesus,” said Gary. “I don’t think you have what it takes to be a soldier for Christ.”

“I’m a soldier!” I insisted.

Gary’s mustache twitched. “Nah, I don’t think you’re ready. When Satan challenges you, I think you’ll just run away.”

My face turned red. “I won’t run away! I’m a soldier!”

Gary took a step closer. “Run away!” he yelled. “Go ahead! Run! Run from Jesus!”

“No!” I yelled back. “I’m a soldier!”

That’s when Gary reached inside his jacket, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at my chest.

“I. Said. Run.”

I gulped. The crowd was silent.

“No,” I whimpered.

He cocked the gun. “Run.”


We stood for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds.

Finally, Gary grinned. He took out the gun clip and showed everyone it was empty. He patted me on the back and said, “You did great. I’m proud of you.”

I thanked him and excused myself to the bathroom to throw up.

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