This is one part writing exercise and one part self-administered therapy. My hope is not to offend anyone, but to shine a light on some of the stuff I experienced as an active church attendee, in hope that someone out there has had some similar experience an realizes they aren’t crazy.
One of the many things I was heavily involved in the church I grew up in was the youth group. I started out around the time I was in sixth grade, and remained involved until I was in my mid-twenties, as a Sunday School teacher, camp sponsor and various other roles.
The last camp I ever sponsored for was Super Summer in Abilene, TX. I believe this was Super Summer 2002. It’s officially a training camp for Southern Baptist youth to learn how to evangelize better. In practice it’s really not.
One important detail about Super Summer is the application process. There was an application for the kids, and a much more involved one for the sponsors. To put in in perspective, I had mostly unrestricted clearance to be in the control and communications centers of a major US power company post 9/11. That security clearance application was less of a pain in the ass than the camp sponsor application.
So here is the tale of my very last church camp.
Every sponsor got assigned to a particular school, each school being the grade the kids were entering when the school year started. My school that year were high school kids. I believe they were going into tenth grade. We were also partnered up with someone of the opposite sex since the small groups we led were co-ed. We had an odd number of sponsors that year so one lady got paired up with a Spongebob toy and led hers solo. I’m going to call my partner “Jan”, mostly because it’s been twenty years and I regretfully don’t remember her name.
We were given some one-on-one time with each other get acquainted and to generally discuss our game plan for the week. Jan was quite a bit older than me, and I thought we’d get along fine. She was far better than the girl I was paired with the year before at any rate.
Jan admitted to me that she’d lied about her age a little on the application by a year or so. I’m not a snitch and one year difference didn’t seem like that big a deal to me.
I also found out she wasn’t really a great match for me. My faith came from years of study. My spirituality is, and was, mostly academic. She was a new Christian, and had no real knowledge or understanding of scripture. But she did have some years, and I think she was a mom so at least she knew about dealing with kids.
She also informed me she had been in a psychiatric hospital and had only been released a month or so before. Maybe less. Jan said it had been for clinical depression and admitted to not being on her medication, because she was cured and filled with the Holy Spirit.
I want to go on record and say that the Holy Spirit is not a substitute for modern psychiatric care. In fact the Holy Spirit is into consulting with your doctor and following their instructions. I’m informed He was actually involved with the invention of Prozac, insulin and Imodium.
This was a red flag for me, but I was a naive man in my early twenties and she seemed alright at that moment. Looking back I should have told someone immediately. I’ve known quite a lot of people with depression and none of them required hospitalization. So, it must have been pretty severe, or she wasn’t telling the whole truth.
So basically, the camp staff did screw all to vet anyone, and potentially put a couple hundred children in danger.
I feel I need to explain the environment we were in a little before continuing this tale of colossal failure on the camp’s part. Summer camp in Texas, church or otherwise, is an exercise in the upper limits of human endurance. You’re outside during the hottest part of the day, for several hours, every day. In Abilene this means temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, no shade and little breeze. Thankfully it’s not very humid. At Super Summer the sponsors arrive two days early for ‘training’. So we had two extra days and nights of all this to deal with.
Constipation, dehydration and some mild mineral deficiency symptoms (headaches, cramps, weird bruising) were complaints I heard a lot from the boys in the dorm I was assigned to. Encouraging them to eat more of the green vegetables, bathe and poop early in the morning if they were shy, have a glass of water every single time they went through a door, and drink exactly one Gatorade a day was advice I gave a lot. I myself, a frequent insomniac, would sleep for a day and a half after getting back home from these events. At any rate, this is one reason for the maximum age limit they imposed on sponsors. I’m nearly forty and can’t imagine doing that again, even knowing what to expect.
So fast forward to Wednesday morning, or day five of this adventure. It was a relatively uneventful camp, I got to hang out with the musicians who were cool. The kids were pretty easy going. We had the normal morning class in the school room, which opened with prayer. As normal, it was one of those long drawn out ‘Father God, Abba Father, God Jesus’ prayers that would drone on for about five, maybe ten minutes,.
During that prayer, Jan started moaning. She was in the back of the room for some reason, so it was pretty unnoticeable to start with. I thought she was just really agreeing with, or protesting the long prayer. Then she started snarling, and growling. So definitely protesting.
To be fair to Jan, the preacher had a habit of calling God ‘daddy’, so I was also annoyed.
Jan then completely lost her mind and started running up and down the center aisle. She screamed incoherently at the kids. There was shrieking, yelling and an exact imitation of the growl of a siberian grey wolf. Most of the kids in my group were pretty calm, but I did see a few that were visibly shaking. Something about it must have also triggered me, because I had jumped out of my seat and hid behind the sound equipment were Jan couldn’t see me.
She had fixated on something one of the boys had told us on our first evening group sessions. He’d said some guys in his class at his high school used dip (chewing tobacco), and just spit on the floor. Jan seemed incredibly bothered by this. The tirade went on like this for several minutes and she called the kids bad Christians.
The first conclusion most people, including myself, jumped to was demonic possession. The school leader and a couple of other guys even tried rebuking her, to no effect. They even waved their Bibles at her like magic talismans. It’s unfortunate because everyone knows that only Holman KJV Drill Bibles have the proper enchantments on them to be effective against demons.
Eventually she was removed from the classroom. I don’t remember if she calmed down on her own or had to be removed. It then occurred to me that this wasn’t supernatural. She was having some kind of mental breakdown because of her condition. So, I told the school leader’s second in charge about her clinical depression, and that she’d told me she’d just been released from some sort of mental hospital shortly before arriving.
He told me not to tell anyone at all what I thought it was, and to keep that to myself.
At any rate, the camp staff locked her in a room for the next day and told her to get some sleep. Jan didn’t do this, of course. Instead she stayed up for another whole night and filled at least one of those wire bound notebooks with insane, incoherent and some said blasphemous, Lovecraftian ramblings. She also wrote quite a few letters to people and I guess was asking for stamps. We were told she thought she received all this from God. Eventually, someone was called to take her home.
I wished they’d at least let me read the notebook. Not often you get to read something written by someone driven completely mad by church camp.
To put some kind of notch in the belt of his ministerial career, the school leader announced to us that he thought it was a kind of possession, though maybe not demonic. But definitely it was possession. By something. He said this to get himself out of a logical trap. Since his rebuking of the supposed demon didn’t work, either his faith wasn’t real, or Jan wasn’t really possessed.
There are an extremely limited number of supernatural entities that Southern Baptists typically believe exist. Only two of these, demons and the Holy Spirit, are thought to ‘possess’ people in any capacity. If it happened, was supernatural, and wasn’t the Holy Spirit or a demon, I can only assume the preacher was in fact a heretic. Or at least uneducated.
Obviously telling people a mentally ill woman had a breakdown after four days of extreme sleep deprivation and his solution was to yell at her isn’t that compelling a story. The attempted exorcising of a woman possessed by Methamstopheles, the lesser demon of sleepless nights and loose teeth, is a better story for whatever church you’re trying to con into hiring you.
After that, the camp went on fairly normally for the last three days. I was assigned another partner from the camp staff. Many of the campers asked me about what happened. I did tell them what I thought. I didn’t tell anyone about Jan’s depression, or having been in the hospital. This is, to my shame, the only time I’ve told anyone who wasn’t a close friend about the event.
Hopefully, I’ve gotten across that I don’t think Jan was at fault for what she did and that I’m making light of it. She was sick, had some kind of break down, and was treated poorly. The camp staff should have never kept her there in hopes she’d get better the next day. At minimum, they should have called someone and had her taken home as quickly as that could have been arranged. She was a danger to herself and others in that state. It’s fortunate she just wrote all night. She might’ve attempted to harm, or kill herself.
After this camp I quit really volunteering to be a chaperone. I’d like to say it was for noble reasons. The reality is, work got in the way, and I figured out I really liked playing video games. The full weight of how bad my experience were didn’t hit me until much later.
If anyone reading this has seen similar things happen, seen or suffered abuse at the hands of any kind of church authority, please speak up. Nothing improves if everyone is silent.