God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp

This post is part of a series. If you missed part 1, you can read it here.

Meme of Clint Eastwood as “Dirty Harry” holding a .44 Magnum. The image text says: “Do you feel lucky, punk? Lucky enough to bet your immortal soul?”

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…

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 3: Jesus Loves the Little Children

God, Guts, and Guns, Part 1: Background

Lately, I find myself in a lot of conversations about Christianity, the nature of Christ, and how the Bible is interpreted—or misinterpreted. My opinions are often dismissed by a certain demographic that sees my melanated skin and my mixed-race family and assumes that I’m a “big city liberal” who has never seen the inside of a small-town church or attended a humble Bible study.

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

A crowd of young people at an outdoor Christian music festival. Some people have their arms raised in praise.
Image from the Creation Festival Facebook page. The Creation Festival is an annual Christian music festival held at Agape Farm in Shirleysburg, PA (near Mount Union, PA), which I attended a few times in my youth.

I don’t often talk about my early years. Growing up mixed-race in rural Pennsylvania was exactly as much fun as you’d think. So, I don’t like to think about it. But be assured, I grew up in “God, Guts, and Guns” country, as declared proudly on bumper stickers plastered to trucks with gunracks mounted to their rear windows. I only share this background now because people often try to discredit my experience by focusing on what they think are discrepancies in my story when I tell it in pieces. “Well, are you a Catholic or a Baptist? Make up your mind. You’re clearly full of shit.”

Oh, how narrow their worlds must be!

The short history is that my father is Black, and he and his side of the family are Catholic. My mother is white, and was at the time in question, an evangelical Protestant. I was baptized Catholic at the insistence of my paternal grandmother, but when it came to my spiritual upbringing, my father declared, “I was an altar boy and went to Catholic school. God and I are square.” (When I shared this with coworkers at a Catholic magazine I briefly worked for, I had to pause to let them laugh before I went on. Apparently, this sentiment is common?) And so, if I was to be raised in church at all, it would be white, evangelical churches with my mother.

We started out in a United Methodist church (my brother was baptized Methodist, and I had been an acolyte), but due to some spiritual trauma my mother experienced there, we left that church in my mid-teens and tried out a handful of churches over the course of a few years. I specifically recall a Wesleyan church and an Assembly of God before my mother, brother, and I were baptized again (by full submersion) as Baptists. I think I was eighteen. Nineteen, maybe?

There are some people who have suggested that not staying in one faith community was part of the problem. That we had too many ideas from too many places, displaying a lack of faith from the jump. That if we’d stayed in one community, we wouldn’t have been affected by all the outside noise. We wouldn’t have questioned. If that seems hinky to you, if it raises the hairs on the back of your neck, it should. And that sentiment was among the more benign suggestions. There are some who have appallingly suggested to me that my problem is being from a mixed-faith and mixed-race family to begin with, but I’ll get to more on that later.

For now, what I need to make clear, what I need to regretfully confess, is just how very “in it” I was. My mother was a lay speaker and youth leader. She had been a counselor at the same summer “Jesus camp” I attended. Church was a twice-per-week thing, and Bible study was a given. I was often embarrassed by my mother’s insistence on Christian radio when carpooling with my friends, only to be ashamed by that embarrassment later when I sobbed all over myself during altar calls, rededicating my life to Jesus after a particularly fear-based, fire and brimstone sermon. On my knees shaking, crying, and begging for forgiveness and salvation from Hell.

It wasn’t just church, but activism, too. You want to talk about cancel culture? I learned about how a boycott works in Sunday school. You want to picket the porn shop down the street? I know how to organize that. And—perhaps most regretfully—you want to know about protests and marches? My first protest was a “pro-life” march.

So, I was in it, friends. Talked the talk, and quite literally walked the walk. I often cringe at the shameful things I said and did as an evangelical Christian trying to impose my beliefs on others because I was told that’s what good Christians do. But if there’s an upside to any of it, it’s that those evangelicals trained me (and I use the word “trained” for a reason). I understand the logic of their illogic. I know what their goals are and what they’re going to do to achieve them. And that’s why it’s time—past time—to write about it.

Next: God, Guts, and Guns, Part 2: That Time I Fired Dirty Harry’s Gun at Church Camp

Friends, Family, and Rock and Roll

Moving 3,000 miles away from your family and friends is emotional no matter how much you want it not to be. No matter how hard you reason that, I only saw them once or twice a year anyway, or that, Technology keeps us connected no matter how far away we are, the physical distance and the emotions that come with it cannot be denied.

My emotions manifested themselves in absent mindedness and minor meltdowns. I had a meltdown at my husband’s parents’ house when it was time to leave and I couldn’t find my keys, a meltdown at my parents’ house when it was time to leave and I couldn’t find my keys, an almost-meltdown at a friend’s place when it was time…ugh…you get it. I misplaced my damn keys three times before getting out of Pennsylvania…and don’t even get me started on my phone!

Of course, this emotional absent mindedness gets worse when I’m stressed, and we still had stressful things to do before we could leave familiar ground.

We were actually still driving both cars as we rolled into Pennsylvania. My husband’s car had a few things in it that we were giving away and therefore didn’t pack in the car that was actually making the trip. This meant that we still had to sell or junk his car (and believe me when I say it was time to do one or the other). The task was not turning out to be as easy as we thought and we were running out of time. We could NOT take that car with us outside of central Pennsylvania.

As it turned out, we didn’t have to. A family friend offered to take if off our hands for the price a junk yard would have given us so he could rebuild it himself. We left his car at my parents’ place and headed toward Pittsburgh.

It was on that stretch that the move became a reality. There was no more land west that I really knew. I pushed any and all trepidation out of my head and thought about the great night ahead with friends in Pittsburgh.

It was the next day, on our way to Cleveland, OH that the guilt set in. I’d had such a great time catching up with friends and family on the way: drinking good beer with a fellow writer on her gorgeous patio, playing/listening to music in another friend’s living room with more good beer, checking in on the mad lives of artist friends, assuring the family that we’d be just fine while simultaneously being assured by them that we’d be just fine. So much love in those first few days on the road. I felt guilty about the people our itinerary didn’t allow for us to see and make even more memories with. We only had one day in Cleveland and a handful of friends who live in the area. However, being a weekday, I only felt a little guilty about hitting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Cleveland rocks!

Cleveland rocks!

We did it quickly. Racing through the exhibits, we kept our eyes peeled for things of specific interest while trying to absorb as much as possible. Not the best way to see anything, but I can say that we did see everything before racing to dinner and drinks with friends and then getting a good night’s sleep before heading to Indianapolis…our last stop with friends.

Previous Post: East Coast to West Coast and Back to the Blog

Next Post: The Prairie, the Mississippi River, and the Awesomeness that is South Dakota