This post is part of a series. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.
So, do you ever tell a story that seems perfectly normal to you, but then everyone looks at you like they want to give you hot chocolate and a hug? Well, let me tell you about this one time at church camp.
It was actually a winter weekend retreat with the youth group I was part of at the time. Social activities with the church were always parent-approved, and if I recall correctly, I was grounded otherwise for my garbage grade in Geometry, so the choice to go was a pretty easy one to make. I remember some grumbling about not being able to bring outside reading material besides, of course, my own Bible. The X-Men comics needed to stay at home, but at least I’d have something to do with my weekend.
I recall very normal, mundane things. Like how, in addition to my comics, I’d also left my coat behind. I’d taken it off while running around with friends at the pastor’s house before the trip, and had forgotten about it completely by the time of departure. So, I ended up wearing lots of layers the whole weekend. I remember some very normal teenage heartbreak when, shortly after arrival at the camp, a girl walked up to me and asked if I was who she thought I was, which I confirmed. She then introduced herself as the girlfriend of the “Good Christian Boy” I’d met at another Christian event and on whom I’d had a very significant crush. I hadn’t known he had a girlfriend. Thankfully, I was already well-practiced in hiding my emotions, so saving face wasn’t that hard. I might have been heartbroken, but I’d be damned if I let anyone know it. Sucky, but normal, teenager stuff.
I should also remind everyone that I’m talking about rural Pennsylvania, where the first day of buck hunting season and the first day of doe hunting season are holidays off from school. It is assumed that everyone hunts the American whitetail deer, and the age at which you can obtain a youth hunting license in Pennsylvania is 12. While I have never held a hunting license, I admit that target shooting is a lot of fun. I’m convinced that’s part of why we have such a gun problem in America. Just about everyone I know who has been shooting enjoys shooting. Conservative, Liberal, Progressive—it makes little difference. But I digress. The point is that there’s nothing weird about target shooting at a young age in Pennsylvania.
So, what, exactly, was weird?
Shooting a .44 Magnum—decidedly NOT a hunting rifle—while listening to the instructor talk about being good soldiers for Christ. While no one suggested that we go shoot non-Christians, metaphors about keeping our eyes on the target despite distractions from the outside, secular world made it very clear that there was an “us” and a “them” and that we had better be on the right side or Hell awaited.
It’s important to note that there were myriad other weapons available, which we all took turns firing, from handguns to rifles (thankfully, no military style assault rifles), to various bows and arrows. I only remember the .44 Magnum because of the smug smile on the instructor’s face as he put it in my hand and suggested that Dirty Harry’s gun was probably too much for me. (I did just fine, thanks.)
As the first line of this piece suggests, I hadn’t even realized that this wasn’t normal activity at a Christian youth event until I told the story to a handful of Catholic friends. “Oh yeah…The very first time I ever fired a gun was at church camp.” And that’s when I got that Red Cross, hot chocolate and a hug look. The more I tried to explain it away, the more it looked like I needed a hug and lots of therapy. It was concerning for them that I thought this was normal.
They were right.
I talked to my mother about the guns at the youth retreat years later, and she’d had no idea that shooting had been an activity. She’d never signed any consent forms for me, older than 12, but still a minor, to fire any weapons. But most importantly, I don’t recall anyone at all asking any questions at all about the activities. It was simply assumed that because it was church, it was automatically good and wholesome. All parents needed to know, all youth leaders needed to know, was that it was an evangelical Christian event.
Please check out any church or church sponsored activity before you just send your kids. You may not think they’re getting extremist messaging—and they may not be, but they very well may be. Ask the questions, no matter how outlandish and unnecessary you think they are, because you may be surprised by the answers.
If you ever question whether my Catholic friends were right, I need to ask you a question. The very same question you might have been asking yourself while reading and that I’ve asked myself a million times: “What if we’d been Muslims?” Or literally anyone not majority white and evangelical…