They almost got me.

Googled the lyrics and couldn’t find squat, but the damnedest thing is, almost 50 years later I still remember some of that guitar guy’s song — the tune, and almost all of the first verse. I was singing it as I wrote this.

♦ ♦ ♦

My parents sent me to summer camp for a week every year, and always it was a Christian summer camp. Converting kids, not entertaining them, was the mission of the camp.

There was fun stuff, sure — swimming and hiking and weenie roasts — but there would always be Jesus stuff, too — a prayer meeting before breakfast, mid-day Bible study, and a sermon after supper. Also a formal grace before every meal, of course, and prayer with the counselor in the cabin at bedtime. Jesus was everyone's assigned bunkmate.

The year I was 16 at camp, everything was pretty much the same as the year I was 15, or the year I was 17. My 16th summer, though, is when they almost got me.

They'd hired a young man with a guitar to preach and perform every night, singing folksy rock surprisingly well, but of course, all his songs were about Jesus. Nightly after dinner, the kids were herded to the open-air stone fireplace near the beach, where we sat in a semi-circle on old wooden benches, for more required God Time.

On the first night, the preacher with a guitar asked campers to join him on the chorus of one of the songs. It was a new song to me, but it was catchy and he played the hell out of it. After that, he gave us a short, heartfelt sermon, ending with an altar call, while he softly sang the chorus of his song in the background.

Altar call was a big thing in our church, but maybe it needs explaining? It's an especially sad and furious sermon, and the preacher hopes it'll convince you to dedicate your life to Christ. The first step of that is calling you up to the front, where everyone can see you weeping and praying, at the altar. Hence, altar call.

There was no altar at the camp's fire pit, of course, only dirt, and counselors standing by to pray with any kids who came forward. I'm calling it an altar call, though, because that's what it was. 

Guitar guy's altar call was better than most, because the dude wasn't decrepit. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, said he'd had a troubled youth, and TMI'd us about it. It was a good sermon, and I liked his music, but I wasn't buying what he was selling. I knew all the tropes.

God understands how sad you are, how frustrating your life is, all the guilt you feel, all the pain and loneliness and anguish, and God can make it all better, if you only ask. Come up to the altar, right now, come to God, and become a Christian.

An altar call with a guitar was still an altar call, and fuck that shit. I was at camp, and at the campfire, because I had to be there. No way was I getting converted.

A couple of kids came forward that night, though, and stayed late praying with the singer and some counselors. Teenage souls had been won, hooray and yawn. The rest of us went back to our cabins and turned in for the night.

The second and third and fourth nights of our week at camp were much the same, except nobody came forward at the fire. The guitar guy preached slightly different sermons and sang different songs, but always ended by pleading for kids to come forward, come to Christ, while he strummed that same tune.

I wondered what he was thinking when none of the kids came forward to accept Christ as their personal lord and savior. He'd plead for kids to come down, but no kids came down. He went 0 for 3 nights in a row.

Thursday was the fifth night of this, and it’s hard to say what was different. Everything seemed the same, but also not the same. Again, the kids and counselors sat on the benches, circling halfway around the fire. The singer sang and then preached, and the words and songs had been changed, but everything led to the same moment, the altar call, while he strummed the same song, the song I liked.

It was a cloudless evening, so we could see a million stars, and the fire was crackling loudly. For some reason, I wasn’t as bored shitless as I had been all week during the sermons. Instead I listened, and among his several stories of lost teenagers feeling unsure of themselves, and afraid, and angry and awkward and so very alone, some of it resonated.

He finally had my attention, and I wasn’t the only one. All around the half circle, kids were quieter than they’d been on other nights, no joking around for once — and some of them were crying. The singer was gently twitching his guitar and singing his chorus, and some kids were singing along, though he hadn’t even gotten to the part where he asked us to. Then he said again stuff he’d been saying all week, but damn, that night it shot straight into a lot of kids' heads. And mine.

The world is big and scary, dangerous and mean, but you don’t have to face it alone. Someone loves you, someone wants to help you and protect you, and all you have to do is ask. Say his name, and he’ll be there beside you through everything.

A girl said “Excuse me” as she passed in front of me, turned right, and made her way toward the altar. By then, just about all of us — hundreds of kids — were singing that song.

Guitar guy asked everyone to close their eyes, lower their heads while he prayed, but of course I kept my eyes open. I looked at the crowd and the fire and the stars. When the guitar guy said amen, another kid made his way toward the altar, and I thought about following him.

Down the bench, a boy from my cabin was crying, and another boy put his arm around him — something you don’t often see among teenage boys in public. The crying kid said something to his friend, and I couldn’t make it out, but his friend said, “I’ll go with you,” and together they walked down to the dirt altar. Twenty kids had already walked that walk, and they were crying, praying with counselors, and the guitar guy sang his song again, and fuckall, have I mentioned? It was a great song.

Raised in the church and in a very Christian family, and sentenced to a week at Christian summer camp every year since first grade, all my upbringing had been leading to this moment. Was I ready to walk to the dirt altar, kneel and pray and confess and cry and finally trust the Lord?

♦ ♦ ♦

It was a question I’d asked myself at that same camp, several summers earlier. I’d become a Christian there, when I was eight years old. The music wasn’t as good — just a guy with a bugle, that year — but the sermons had been similar. I’d felt the same tug, and I’d come forward, accepted Jesus Christ into my heart, and declared myself sorry for my sins.

Sorry for my sins, but don't ask what sins an eight-year-old has to be sorry for. Maybe I'd stolen a cookie, used a naughty word.

I’d been just a kid, but my come-to-Jesus moment had been very, very real to me. I’d kneeled and prayed, and thought God had answered. Thought I'd heard his voice, swear to God. Two adults had prayed with me the night I converted, and the next day they'd checked on me, hugs all around, and they'd prayed with me again at the end of the week, when camp ended and all the kids were leaving.

I took my Christianity home with me and tried to live it, but my life didn’t felt improved — or worsened. It felt the same.

That preacher had promised that God would be beside me, that I’d never be alone, that things would make more sense with Jesus, but it only took a few days for little-kid me to know that I was still just little-kid me, and still alone. The other children at school still hated me, and I still hated them. Church was still boring. Math was still impossible. Asparagus still sucked. The dog still had fleas. And nobody was beside me. The power of Christ I'd felt at camp was nowhere to be found, and it saddened me.

What the hell, though. Life goes on, even when you're 8.

♦ ♦ ♦

Eight summers later, the fire roaring and guitar guy playing and preaching, I thought about going down to the altar again. The call was persuasive, the song was an earworm for Christ, and I was singing along.

I looked at the other kids, with the fire reflected in their faces, the stars over their heads. More than a few were crying, and dozens of them held their arms high in the air, swaying, with their hands open and aligned like twin satellite dishes to receive the power of the Lord.

I’d never seen the hands-up move before, and it seemed like something from a spooky movie. Another kid said “Excuse me” as she made her way toward the end of the bench, and I got up and followed her. She turned right, and walked down the slight slope toward the fire and the dirt and the guitar man. I turned left and walked into the woods alone, away from the fire, the dirt altar, and especially away from the altar call.

Walking in the woods, I don't really remember any mental wrestling with complicated concepts. It's ridiculous, but mostly I remember humming the theme from Star Trek. Why that song popped into my head I couldn’t tell you, then or now.

It was a good choice, though. Star Trek was my favorite show, and of course Kirk and Spock and McCoy were only make-believe, but it was make-believe that made me feel better, not worse. It didn’t involve guilt, didn’t promise to make things better but leave everything the same, and it didn’t require regret and confession and surrender and prayer and carrying a Bible with me everywhere.

The next night, a couple of hundred kids gathered around the fire again, to sing that song and hear about Jesus, but I went back into the woods. Farther my God from thee.

♦ ♦ ♦

If you're still out there, guitar guy, I hope your god has been good to you. Tonight I'm singing that song you taught us, and remembering what you and your song almost did to me. There's no danger any more, though. It's only words and a tune and a strange, distant memory.



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  1. Great stuff.

    My story of how they almost got me is far less dramatic.

    It was some time before high school, do likely 6th or 7th grade. I'd have been 11 or 12, I guess? I went to Catholic school. In religion class, they passed out a piece of prose, written from Jesus' viewpoint. I remember the yellow paper.

    "I see all the kids on the playground, having fun, but why don't they come and say hello to me, Jesus?" was the basic gist of it. It was longer and made many points. It was obviously meant to make the reader feel bad and sad for excluding Jesus.

    It worked. I felt bad for a minute. Then I fucking forgot about it and went on with my life. I already somehow sensed that it was bullshit. It wasn't until I was 16 that I "officially" considered myself an atheist.

    1. > It worked. I felt bad for a minute.

      Isn't it crazy — and revealing — that the key to getting new converts is making them feel bad?

      And that their preferred targets are children?

      What do you call adults who go around trying to make kids feel bad? Christians.

  2. This is terrifying, isn't it? How is it not child abuse? My husband and me are raising our children with some religion because they have to be aware and know it, but it is never going to be a big element in the family and we would never send them to a camp like this.

    1. Yes, child abuse is what it is. They're preying on children. For me, in that moment, my whole life hung in the balance, and that's a crappy thing to do to a 15-year-old.

      Preventing it would be worse than allowing it, though. Sure don't want government regulations telling parents that *can't* bring up children according to their religious beliefs.


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