One time, at Church Camp…
“Oh cute, that’s really nice to see,” my cousin says, pointing at the car next to us decorated in ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ stickers.
“Jesus wouldn’t drive like an asshole, for one thing,”
(is what I would have said if this interaction had happened when I was 26).
But at the tender age of 13, I just sat quietly in the back, palms sweating, as my cousin admired the car of her fellow Christian commuters. She had found Jesus over the summer at the church camp we attended together. Her and I had very different experiences there. The program didn’t work on me.
I had decided to attend church camp the summer of 7th grade because my childhood best friend Lauren had gone the summer before and claimed it was “super fun.” I had never been to sleep-away camp before and because the best lesson my grandpa ever bestowed upon me was to “try new things, because how would you know you liked chocolate ice cream if you never tried it?”, I jumped at the first camp opportunity that was presented to me, rather than researching my options. I asked my cousin Tiana to go with me too so I would have moral support on either side of me. Tiana was also a first-timer…and she was the one who got the summer camp experience I was looking for.
Two days before we left for camp, my mom and I browsed Berean Christian Bookstore, because apparently it’s required to bring a Bible to church camp. It took a while, because I couldn’t decide what kind of message I wanted to send with my Bible. (I skipped right past the Bibles for babies, with “My 1st Bible” engraved in the cover…no one needed to know that). There were Bibles that came in leather casings that looked like mini-briefcases and had paper inside to take notes on, and places to store your pens. There were Bibles with butterflies on them and big old-timey Bibles that I imagined Pastors would display in their homes like Encyclopedias. After much deliberation, I decided on a very plain Bible. Navy blue. It said “Holy Bible” on the front, in plain silver text. The message I’d be sending with that one was – mysterious. Maybe I know what’s inside this thing, maybe I don’t.
My mom and I loaded up in our car and joined the three-car caravan (my aunt and my cousin in one car, following us, following Lauren and her mom), that would escort us to Camp Horizon in Kissimmee, Florida. On the way there, I tried to rough up the pages of my Bible to make it look “gently used.” When we got there, it looked like a camp straight out of all my favorite movies (The Parent Trap, Heavyweights..). There were rows of cabins, a big lake, a pool, a forested area which I always called “the woods.” Our moms helped us load into our cabins, unpack our bags, make our beds. I was already trying to plan out how I was going to act fake-embarrassed by my mom hugging me, when really I would feel like crying because she was leaving me.
Before my mom was allowed to leave, she had to check in with the nurse’s station. This is where I earned my first official “camp cool points” because nothing says “Coolest Girl at Camp” like the one who’s on twice-a-day seizure medication. Bonus points if that same girl can’t swallow pills and has to leave the Cafeteria (Mess hall? Whatever you call it) everyday at breakfast and dinner with a dixie cup full of grape juice to empty her pill dust into, and then swallow it in one dusty-grapey-poisony gulp.
While my mom was signing my life over to the nurse, I had to take a swimming test in the pool to prove that I could participate in all the water activities. I was in my cabin, trying to flash my friendliest smile at all my bunk-mates, waiting in line for the bathroom as everyone was changing into their bright new summer swimsuits. I couldn’t wait for my turn to change into my new church camp approved one piece. But then, for the second time in my whole life, something terrible happened: I got my period. I didn’t have the period protocol down at. all. yet, so my Mom would be bailing me out, just like last time when I got my period at Theater Camp on the day that I was filming a commercial. Yes, my first steps into womanhood were caught on camera and we will have that memory on a neon green VHS tape for the rest of time. (But we’ll never have to watch it again because no one has VHS players anymore bwahahaha).
I don’t know what kind of sexual deviants I was bunking with but there was no way I was shoving anything up my vagina in my second month of actual womanhood. That plastic applicator looked like a little penis-shaped gun – neither of which I was ready to implant into my person. I would be handling my menstruation skinny-diaper style, so the swim test was O-U-T! My mom whispered to one of the lady counselors what was going on with me, assured her I could indeed swim and I got a PASS. I hung out with the girl who had a cast on her arm and pretended I was allergic to chlorine.
Camp Orientation was that night and it was the first time I got to see everyone – the girls, the boys, the counselors. The camp leader (who I don’t remember at all, so in all my memories she is played by Jane Lynch), gave us an overview of how camp works. We got breakfast, lunch and dinner, we went to Chapel twice a day, and we each got to pick three camp activities. I picked Arts & Crafts, because that was the activity that felt most natural to me at summer camp where I was surrounded by nature, Archery because once again, Lauren claimed it was “super fun” and Lake…which was basically all the activities you can do in a lake rolled into one.
So everyday it went like this:
Arts & Crafts.
Sometimes there would be bonus activities since no camp experience is complete without some friendly competition. Each cabin would have a Bible verse memorization battle, because nothing says fun camp game like memorizing Bible verses. All the girls in my cabin rocked at this game because they’ve been doing this shit since they were 5. This was exciting to them, and I would be the one breaking out in a cold sweat, frantically flipping my “gently used” (aka crisp, not fooling anyone) pages. (“Where is Leviticus? What did he say? Am I even in the right book?”) The counselors would walk around, NAME A FUCKING RANDOM VERSE, and we would have to recite it from memory. YEAH RIGHT. The whole cabin knew I was the weakling and every time a counselor stood in front of me, it was like a game of Biblical Charades behind them, coaching me to the right answers.
Other than the stressful cabin games, I have a lot of fun memories from camp.
The lake was really fun to play in. There was a dock that the scared kids would run and jump off of. The brave ones entered the water by the shore. You had to run really fast through the sand because the shallow water was infested with leeches and if you weren’t quick enough, a leech would attach to your leg and a counselor would have to help you rip it off, and in some cases, bandage your wound. One day when we were all swimming in the deep end, safely away from the blood suckers, a boat pulling an upside down dead alligator floated past us. The smell from that dead alligator is what I measure all terrible smells against to this day. I’ve never met anything worse.
Archery took place in the woods in this shady clearing surrounded by trees. It was beautiful. In order to survive, all campers had to wear pants and be equipped with bug spray, because the mosquitos were fierce in the woods. (Summer camp in Florida is really a terrible idea). My mom sent me to camp with organic bug spray because I grew up in a full-organic house before that movement really took off. (I used to have to explain to my friends coming over that organic chocolate milk tastes the same, if not better, than regular milk. No one believed me and I was the weird organic girl all throughout middle school. And now I just think everyone I meet in San Francisco is a poser…this was so 2002 for me, guys). I appreciate my mom’s efforts to keep chemicals out of my skin, but let me just go on record and say that organic bug spray is a tool of the devil and it should not have been allowed on the church camp premises. There was no need for the bugs to bite any of my camp friends, when they could feast on the lone camper who basically doused herself in sugar water. (You know what’s bad about organic bug spray Mom? It’s not fucking toxic)! It was hard to really excel at archery between the impending heat stroke from having to wear jeans and a sweatshirt outside in 100 degree weather, the mosquitos crawling into my eyes and nostrils, because that was the only part of my skin exposed, and the horse flies that straight up bit THROUGH my jeans because they are the thugs of the insect community.
Arts & Crafts happened in a hot ass tent, but other than that it was pretty chill. One time we painted these little ceramic bumble bees. And one time we made bracelets and we got to use soldering irons. It was my first time using a soldering iron and the counselor’s exact words were “These are kind of tricky, do you think you can do it without burning yourself?” I said yes and then I burned myself so bad that my finger turned red and bubbled up like the top of a mushroom and I didn’t tell anyone, banking on the leeches as my excuse if anyone noticed.
One night a girl in my cabin had an asthma attack in the middle of the night and she couldn’t find her inhaler. It was by far the scariest moment of camp (and that’s saying a lot). She was hyperventilating and crying and other girls were screaming and our counselors were calling the nurse and other camp officials and it was so stressful that I thought surely one of us would die that night. Either the girl who had an actual medical issue, or me, from high levels of anxiety.
All around me at camp people were getting saved. They said this would happen. They said that the more you read the Bible and listen to the Pastor and spend time with like-minded individuals that sooner or later, when the time was right for you, you would feel it. You would be overtaken by the energy of IT and you would just know. And then you’re saved and you’re allowed into heaven. This was my understanding of it. So every night at Chapel the Pastor would ask us if anyone was saved that day, and one or two people would stand up and everyone would clap and hug. This happened night after night, and I never stood up. I wanted to. I didn’t want people staring at me like, why hasn’t Destini been saved? I was jealous of the people who felt it. I didn’t know what being saved was supposed to feel like. I probably put too much weight on it, I don’t know what I expected to happen. Like I would black out and wake up naked in the woods with my Bible and not remember how I got there and then I would walk into Chapel naked, covered in dirt and horse fly bites, and say, “Everyone, it happened. I’m just like all of you now.”
When my cousin stood up one night and said it had happened to her, that was the final straw. Even SHE felt it. So, one night after a prayer in our cabin (probably for the girl with terrifying asthma), our counselors asked if anyone was saved. Like seven people or something ridiculous, raised their hands. So I did too. Fuck it, I was saved. I had been frantically memorizing Bible verses everyday, my patience had been tested, much like Job’s, and I had battled ALL elements of nature…that’s GOT to count for something.
The next night at Chapel, the Pastor told us that animals don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls and I was the only one who audibly gasped, because “A heaven without animals is no heaven for me!” and I spent that night clutching a picture of my cat Saturn, and crying.
Our camp experience capped off with an end-of-camp luncheon. It was like a dance, but without the dancing. Everyone got dressed up and boys were allowed to ask girls to be their “date” but they weren’t allowed to dance with them or kiss them or stand too close to them. I didn’t have to worry about this because since no one told me about this formal luncheon I didn’t pack a dress so I wore a collared shirt. And no boy asked me to be his date so I went with my cousin, who did get asked by a boy, but turned him down for me because family first, bro.
Going to the luncheon with my cousin was way better because it was a luncheon, not a dance, and she didn’t care that my seizure medication made me really hungry because she was there to eat too, because we weren’t allowed to dance.
My mom came to pick me and my cousin up on the last day of camp. The day we all wrapped towels around our necks like superheroes and posed in front of the tree in front of our cabin and our two counselors dove onto mattresses so it looked like they were flying. I handed her the 17 letters I wrote her but never sent her and on the car ride home, we reflected on our experiences.
Church camp was where I learned about the Bible. Where I swam with leeches, shot bows and arrows, painted a bee. Where I learned how to fork a yard as a prank, when our cabin pranked the boys cabin. Where I earned new battle scars. Where I made new friends and added eight new phobias to my already lengthy list.
And it was the longest week of my life.