My dad was cleaning out our storage unit a couple of weeks ago and came across a stack of photos, still in their Kodak envelopes from when I picked them up from the counter at the nearby Walgreens. The pictures chronicle the month I spent volunteering at a Christian camp in the late summer of 2000.
It was after my junior year of college and I was coming off a tumultuous year. I had a mental breakdown part way through the fall semester. Actually, I call it a breakdown because I have no other way to describe what happened; it was a sudden drop instead of a slow slide and I tried to find something, anything to hold onto. The thing I ended up holding when I crawled myself out of the pit was the Christian faith of my middle and high school years. I threw myself back into that faith, to the detriment of the friendships I’d made outside a church/youth group setting.
So, in my still semi-fragile state, I thought the best thing to do was to live with 100 other young Christians in a cabin for a month at a sprawling Christian camp on the outskirts of Asheville, NC. I worked in the kitchen, waking up at 5 a.m. to fix breakfast and lunch for the campers who cycled in and out on a weekly basis for the four weeks I was there. The menu was the same every week too. My favorite lunch day was Wednesday when we had grilled cheese sandwiches cooked in butter oil.
I look at these five envelopes and see a baby-faced girl who wanted to be liked so very badly and never felt like she fit in. That in a glance, is the reason I eventually left the Church in my late twenties and haven’t been back. There were other reasons for sure; the idea that my friends and co-workers (or anyone) who didn’t confess a belief in God or Jesus was condemned to eternal damnation being a big one. There’s a host of others (LGBT rights, women treated as lesser, my liberal beliefs being of the devil) but the main catalyst was that feeling that I’d never quite fit in anywhere in Christianity. I tried, God I tried, but I left to preserve my sanity. I stopped going to church regularly before I left to go overseas and didn’t even try and find a church in South Korea, though Christians make up a sizable minority and many churches offer services in English. I dodged the question of whether I had found a church in my city. Now, when asked what church I’m attending, I say I’m taking an extended hiatus.
There are many people who leave faith of all kinds for more painful reasons than mine. An Internet search will show you stories of emotional and sexual abuse that runs rampant in evangelical circles. LGBT individuals of all ages have been ostracized and kicked out of their churches (though this hits LGBT youth the hardest.) Some go through horrible things and decide to stay and I can’t help but admire them. For me, I just couldn’t pretend to be someone I’m not, and I left. I’ve had fulfilling and terrible relationships. I’ve had some profound experiences and traveled to places I never thought I’d see. I’ve also been through some shit times and none of those are any less significant because they aren’t viewed through a religious lens. Oh and sex is awesome.
Part of me still misses the structure and the IDEA of community within a religious setting. A lesser part of me misses the certainty of belief I held when I was 20, but that part is fading. I don’t know if I’ll ever cross over into atheism; I still believe something started our universe and that our souls move on after death. Even so, I look at those pictures of a girl wearing baggy jeans, pastel t-shirts and a gold cross and I just want to tell her she was and is enough. Her faith would not be not the end all, be all of her life and that’s ok. That the people in those photos with her do not matter and their opinions, even less.
Because some 14 years later, you’ll look at those pictures and not remember any of their names.