At twelve years old I was sent away for one long hot summer of obediently serving the Lord. But instead of finding God, I discovered my rebellious streak.
I got myself into the Teen Missions mess in the first place.
I saw their ad on the back of a magazine for Christian teens — it was a picture of a striped tent, the kind you see at the circus. The copy encouraged me to have the adventure of a lifetime while sacrificing myself for God. This seemed promising. I ordered a catalog and pored over potential options. My mom was firm on the fact that I couldn’t leave the country, so truly exciting missions were out, but there was still Team Rain Forest, where I could spread God’s word by building an accessible sidewalk through the lush Florida rain forest; see exotic creatures watching me from behind glossy leaves as I labored for the Lord; listen for the flutter and song of mysterious birds. Make new friends. Change my life.
I was only adventurous in my imagination; at twelve years old, I got homesick when I left for a few days, let alone a whole month with a boot camp involved. It’s likely that my mom took the idea and ran with it, like she did with many vague ideas I had, but this time I also felt determined to prove myself in a way of my own choosing.
I wanted to back out as soon as they sent my packing list: six-inch boots, a bucket for washing clothes, a hammer, long pants and loose shirts to hide my budding curves from boys. Along with the list came videos I had to review: How to Hit a Nail, How to Dig a Ditch.
Teen Missions International (TMI) uses summer boot camps and mission trips to prepare evangelical kids for life in the “real” mission field; experiencing the worst conditions and the hardest labor would make us tough for Jesus.
By the time I knew I was in trouble I was already in too deep, because, like a real missionary, I had to raise my own support. In exchange for donations I handed out prayer cards to sweet old ladies at church, my parent’s friends, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. The prayer cards read “Serving the Lord” above a picture of my face.
“You made a commitment,” my mom said when I balked at the training videos, “you have to follow through.”
* * *
On the drive from the Orlando airport to the TMI campus I tingled, afraid but still ready to be convinced, still holding on to possibility. When we arrived at boot camp it was too dark to see our surroundings. We were led inside a building, up a set of stairs, and into a dark, carpeted room. Here we were told to lie down on the floor and go to sleep, so I did.
In the morning we tumbled out under bright sun and unfamiliar trees, lined up, and wove through a maze of tents and tables to collect black duffel bags and stuff our things inside. We were each issued a water bottle, a divided plate, a set of silverware and a cup. I kept mine in a mesh bag and hung it on a tree in our team’s eating area, a wobbly circle of wooden benches.
My first test of courage came that morning as we went down the breakfast line. I dreaded meals, even at home: certain foods made me gag around their textures like a reflex. My mother stood over me at our kitchen table and yelled while I choked down my collard greens, then gave me her disappointed look when I puked them back up on my plate. That morning at boot camp they slapped pancakes on our plates, which seemed simple enough, a meal even I could deal with. But then I sat down and took my first bite. I had no idea a pancake could be that bad. The food was definitely going to be a problem. Eventually I learned to hide what I couldn’t eat in the dead leaves under my bench.
Over breakfast we met our team leaders, students at the TMI Bible School who were forced to lead our team as part of their education. Miss Dotty was one leader who was not happy about this. Small, pale and sour, she radiated hate toward us and by the end of the day I knew she relished dishing out “special blessings,” punishments that involved picking up rocks and putting them in piles. She set commands like traps to see if we would slip up.
I was used to this; I knew all about should, knew all about what God wanted me to do. I tried to be a good girl, but it wasn’t in my nature to be submissive. It wasn’t in my mother’s nature, either, but she believed it was god’s law that men should take charge and women should be wives and mothers who submit to their husbands, so she struggled to make herself fit. “I want you to be better than me,” my mom would say, working to mold me into a beautiful, righteous woman. At boot camp I wouldn’t have her to tell me when I was getting things wrong. Instead, Miss Dotty would be God’s disappointed face, glowering.
We slept in tents over fetid water swirling with mosquitoes. Each morning we cleaned our tents, marched down to breakfast, then raced the other teams through a timed obstacle course. The physical obstacles were supposed to represent spiritual trials and temptations we would face as Christians. According to the Teen Missions website, through the obstacle course “Team members learn to rely on the Lord for strength and to lift up their fellow team member to achieve a common goal. They also learn that one member who oversteps a boundary can adversely affect the entire team.” We scrambled over Mount Sinai, a mountain of tires, and swung on ropes across a wide muddy pit called The Slough of Despond. We stacked wooden boxes painted with the books of the Bible in their correct order. At the end of the course we had to get our whole team over a huge wooden wall. Each team’s wall was painted with a different word: Doubt. Anxiety. Complaining. Pride. Selfishness. Team Rain Forest never finished in time. In fact, I don’t remember a single time I made it over the wall.
As a team we were boot-camp fuckups in general. “Dig a hole,” we sang under the Big Top, “dig a hole, dig a hole and put the Devil in.” But when we took ditch-digging lessons and hammering class and painted boards in wood shop we were sloppy at best. Every day at the end of chapel they hung “Piggy” signs around our necks to show how bad our team was at cleaning our campsite. This also meant we were in charge of cleaning the rancid bathrooms. Sometime near the end of the week I realized the Piggy signs might be my fault: I’d been arranging my stuff the wrong way without realizing it. In my head I panicked — nobody could find out I’d caused this, just like they could never see that I wasn’t trying to climb the wall, that I never finished my food.
But at the same time, a hard kernel of stubbornness was forming in my chest. My whole life I’d been told who I was supposed to be and how I’d fallen short, and my whole life I believed it was my fault. But now I was struggling in the heat of a swamp when the brochure had promised me a rain forest, and wondering if maybe I wasn’t the one falling short.
* * *
At the end of the first week my dad flew down to attend our commissioning service. I’d lost ten pounds and my arms were covered with scabs from mosquito bites I couldn’t stop scratching. As part of the festivities there was a milkshake so huge that a guy in a special suit was dropped in by crane to stir it with his body. I’d dreamed about that milkshake all week, but I stared at the frozen chocolate in my cup and felt nothing. I would have to take their orders for three more weeks. I was exhausted, and I wouldn’t be soothed by their sugar.
My dad called my mom to ask if he should take me home. She said no. “This is a character-building experience,” she said.
Now I think about all those donations, the friends and family we couldn’t disappoint. The very definition of failure to her. At the time I didn’t think about these things. I just stopped writing her letters.
In the dark that night there were candles and hasty goodbyes as other teams took off to share the word of God to other nations. Team Rain Forest would be staying right where we were. As he was leaving my dad passed me a care package: a Ziploc bag of chocolate chip cookies from my grandmother, more valuable than gold.
For the next two weeks we slept in hammocks hung in a screened pavilion divided with tarps down the middle to separate the boys and the girls. After the tents the hammocks were paradise. At night I slipped into mine and cocooned myself in the colorful fabric. I stuck a hand out and set myself swaying, listening to the night sounds drifting through the screens. I kept the cookies from my grandmother in my duffel bag and ate one secretly every evening. I did not want to share.
I made a new friend. Maggie’s parents sent her to Teen Missions instead of sending her to military school, but Maggie was unquenchable. She had long red hair, she was quick-witted and involved in interesting sensual activities — she told me about her boyfriend at home, how she’d poured wax on his bare chest just like in the “Livin’ la Vida Loca” video, which of course I’d never seen.
One day during choir practice our team, cranky and fading in the afternoon sun, couldn’t get the song to work. “The next person that talks gets a Special Blessing,” Miss Dotty snapped. Maggie raised her hand, and one of the leaders called on her. “I can help lead,” she said, “I’m in my church choir back home.”
“Me too,” I said, the words jumping out of my mouth.
“Who said that?” Miss Dotty narrowed her black eyes, scanning the group until she picked me out.
For the rest of choir practice I was sullen and silent while Maggie stood up front and directed. I seethed all afternoon as I picked up rocks off the path by the bathhouse, unsure where to put my anger: I’d broken a rule, but I didn’t mean to. Inside, I struggled — I should obey, no matter what. At home I would have carried the guilt like a millstone, but when I got back to camp Maggie was waiting for me, ready to make fun of Miss Dotty. Maggie’s laugh loosened the knot in the back of my neck. Miss Dotty was not my mother — I didn’t have to accept her punishments as love.
Meanwhile, postcards from my mother got increasingly passive aggressive. July 15: “Where is everybody’s mail?? Are you writing?!” July 20: “Isn’t it fun to get mail everyday? Well, it could be fun if we got some, too!” July 21: “Hasn’t it been fun getting mail every day?! I sure wish I knew what it felt like to ever get mail once or twice a week. Surely you’re not that busy. What about the journal entries? Are you taking photos? What are you doing??!”
We spent our days hauling concrete through the forest in wheelbarrows, carrying it where trucks couldn’t drive. Our mission was to expand the sidewalks on the TMI campus. I was supposed to be a missionary, changing things, but I was stuck here expanding this hellish boot camp. I couldn’t find any meaning in the hot, boring work. Our drinking water stank like rotten eggs; sometimes it was mixed with powdered Kool-Aid, but this wasn’t an improvement. I couldn’t get any down my throat without holding my nose, which is why I found myself dropping the handles of my wheelbarrow one day and bending over the edge of the half-finished sidewalk to puke out the contents of my stomach, just a bunch of churning acid. Then I stood up, wiped my mouth, and kept going. This, more than anything, made me feel strong.
Every morning we had silent Bible study. We were given a list of verses to help us in times of doubt, trouble or selfishness, and we marked the verses in our Bibles according to a color key. I still believed in God as I did this, but I don’t remember how I pictured him. I had a sense that Jesus loved me but that God towered over all, outshining Jesus’ gentle smile with anger and jealousy. I had a sense they both were far away and hard to conjure. The Holy Spirit was something else. Maybe he was the stirring in my chest sometimes when I’d feel electric, connected to life and ready to burst. I did not have this feeling at Teen Missions. There I could only endure.
* * *
One day we were supposed to visit a local nursing home, which seemed a lot better than hauling concrete, but I woke up sick with a fever and a sore throat. Those of us who were sick stayed behind with Mr. Roberto, a leader with warm brown skin and a gentle smile. He stood over my hammock while I tossed and shook, trying to get comfortable. “I’ll cook you anything you want,” he said. It was the greatest gift he could have given me. “I want bacon,” I said, and he laughed, but he made it for me.
I spent the day reading a biography of Lottie Moon, a missionary to China who was practically a saint to Southern Baptists, my family’s denomination. I looked for things to admire in her — she was determined, smart, and brave. Still, according to the book, she stayed inside the role she was given: a devoted caregiver to orphans; a self-sacrificing lover of Christ who starved to death when she gave away her food during a famine. Frustrated, I wondered if this is what my life would have to be, too: endlessly bowing down, always shrinking.
My sore throat did not get better, so Miss Melanie, another leader, took me and Anna, a sick teammate, to the emergency room. I hadn’t been a hospital patient since the day I was born. The doctor swiped our cheeks and took the swabs away to test for strep. Later my mom would spend months contesting these medical charges. “They never got my permission,” she said. I wanted her rage directed at the injustices done to my body and spirit, not the snub to her authority. I didn’t consider that she’d found a battle where she could fight and feel sure it wasn’t sin because, as my mother, she knew it was her God-given right to be in charge of me.
On the way back to boot camp Miss Melanie rolled the windows down and played top-forty pop in her car. “We’re not supposed to be listening to this,” said Anna, a Teen Missions true devotee, always ready to tattle. “Oh, shut up,” said Miss Melanie, and I could have kissed her.
* * *
I guess this is the last letter I’ll write to you,” says the final postcard from my mom. “We are hot (probably not as hot as you.)…I do hope you’ve been keeping your journal. How’s your spiritual life? Have you felt closer to God? He sure has been looking out for you.”
There was one time at Teen Missions when I had that feeling I might call the stirring of the Holy Spirit. Boot camp was located close to the Kennedy Space Center and there was a launch that summer. I don’t know why the administration decided to take us, but I am grateful. Mr. Roberto leaned over the hammock to shake me awake. We were all jumpy in the hushed dark as we followed the path to the van. They drove us to a point across from Cape Canaveral. The rocket was farther across the water than I expected but it still felt very close. In the shuttle was Eileen Collins, about to make history as the first female commander of a U.S. space flight. I wondered what she felt like, geared up, waiting.
What I didn’t know then about Lottie Moon was that she’d written an article in 1883 titled “The Woman’s Question Again,” in which she wrote, “Can we wonder at the mortal weariness and disgust, the sense of wasted powers and the conviction that her life is a failure, that comes over a woman when, instead of the ever broadening activities that she had planned, she finds herself tied down to the petty work of teaching a few girls?” I did not know that Lottie defied the missions board and moved 150 miles away from any male authority so she could do her work as she saw fit. I couldn’t yet apply her words to women like Miss Dotty and my mother, women who were brilliant, strong, complicated, determined to be the best. They were formed by the pressure of their roles and now they passed the pressure on to me. That’s what it meant to be a righteous woman — sharp and hard as a diamond.
Under the dark sky, across the glittering water, I watched a different woman travel far away from home. 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 — blast of light and steam, a sound louder than I expected, the rocket slowly disconnecting and lifting up into the air, cradling fragile humans who risked their lives to leave this earth. I watched it rise and my heart went with it, up, up, up, following Commander Collins and her crew until they were just a small speck, until I couldn’t see them anymore.
Leaving Teen Missions was supposed to mean coming down from a mountain, coming down off a spiritual high. During the last week our leaders instructed us on how to readjust to civilian life, how to spread the truth we’d found here with nice PowerPoint presentations about our adventures. It was also a time with last-minute fun designed, in my eyes, to soften the pain so we could feel good on our way home, the way women supposedly forget about the pain of childbirth because they have a baby at the end.
We had a final service in the same dark room where we slept on the floor the first night. As hands drifted skyward and prayers were shouted I signed a card pledging myself to the mission field for life and glued it in my Bible, but even as I wrote my name I knew it was a lie. My stomach was a bowl of rotten fruit. There was a fever in the midst of us but it didn’t carry me to God. Instead, that summer I stepped over an invisible line. It was only a small step, one I didn’t have a name for yet, but I would never go back. I would come out of that swamp and travel home to face my mother.
Later I would make nice PowerPoint presentations about my trip and I would try to live up to the words on my prayer card, but one day I would leave altogether. My mother was God’s servant, so was Miss Dotty, but I wouldn’t have to be. In the meantime I would continue to endure.