It’s very early in the morning in the United States and I just traded comments with the man who hired me to work at a Presbyterian church camp back in 1993. At the time, I was definitely not a fan of church. I was raised mainstream Presbyterian, which is a fairly laid back denomination as churches go. I still hated attending every week. I found it a colossal bore and a waste of time.
Going to church was something I was forced to do, and it wasn’t even something we did as a family, mainly because my mom was always the organist and my dad was always in the choir. My sisters were grown and gone for most of my childhood. I found church dreadfully dull, and I wasn’t interested in it at all. I didn’t listen to the sermons, sing the hymns, or want to be part of any of the activities, although I was frequently compelled to do things like go to vacation Bible school and take the church’s confirmation class. When I was a teenager, I was also required by my parents to go to a career counseling class at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina. That school has since been renamed St. Andrew’s University. I remember not wanting to go on that trip and finding the experience “creepy”, although now I think I would have enjoyed going to that university myself. Fat lot of good the trip did for me anyway, although I ended up having some fun on it.
Despite going to church for many years, I didn’t know anything about church or religion or the Bible. I was basically a warm shell sitting in a pew, forced to be there every week and hating it. So why in the world would I have wanted to work at a Presbyterian church camp? It was mainly because I wanted to escape my parents’ house. I would rather be in a religious environment, sleeping in a platform tent, than living with my parents. In those days, my dad and I barely got along and my mom was stressed out keeping the business going. It was a hostile environment. Being at camp all summer spared me from having to be in that environment.
It turned out that church job was one of the best work experiences I’ve ever had. But I do remember being very nervous about working at a religious summer camp. Back in the 70s and 80s, a lot of churches had summer camps. In the area where I grew up, there was Makemie Woods. I remember being forced to go there a time or two when I was a child, though I never had to attend camp there. It looks like Makemie Woods is closed now. A lot of summer camps have ceased to operate, mainly because kids don’t want to go to camp anymore. They’d rather be online. I remember Paddy Run was at risk of closing, until my friend Amy got involved in saving it. Amy worked with me at Camp Paddy Run, as did a lot of other really cool people.
I remember the day I met my former boss, Simon. I walked up to him at a summer camp recruitment event held at my college. I had just spoken to a representative from Camp Fincastle, which was another Presbyterian camp located near where my dad’s family lives. I wasn’t all that impressed by the Camp Fincastle people, and it looks like now, Camp Fincastle no longer exists. But then I saw Simon standing by himself at a table. He wore jeans and a white sweatshirt that had the Very Fine juice company logo on it. He had short brown hair, wore glasses, and a cross around his neck. Before I knew what was happening, I was talking to Simon about being a camp counselor. He said they had enough counselors, but they needed a cook. And I said I’d be a better cook than counselor anyway. A few days later, after checking my references, that same man hired me. I remember thinking he was very uptight. Boy, was I ever wrong! But that didn’t change how I felt almost dread when it turned out he wanted to hire me to be the church camp’s cook! I wondered how I would cope with the religion.
I remember arriving at Camp Paddy Run in June 1993. It was, and still is, a very beautiful location. There was a huge meadow, enclosed by mountains on either side and a vast forest. There was a crude little church space out in the meadow, with weather worn splintery benches, a fire pit, and a cross that was strung together with rope. Deep in the woods, there was Paddy’s Run, a mountain creek, where kids would go rock hopping. There were cabins and “hogans”, and a garage that stored the canoes and camping equipment served as our staff lounge. I remember at night, the stars were absolutely incredible. There was no light pollution at all, so you could see so many stars in the summer sky. If I were inclined to be religious, I would say that God chose Camp Paddy Run to be a sacred place. I wish I had more pictures of it.
It took me awhile to get used to church camp life. I was pretty quiet at first. I wasn’t familiar with the Bible, despite going to church and Sunday School my whole life. I knew nothing about the origins of the Presbyterian Church, or the fact that my ancestry has a lot to do with why my family is mostly Presbyterian. I didn’t know anything about why church services are set up the way they are, and I didn’t enjoy “devotions” or “vespers”. I had nothing much to say during those meetings. Despite having gone to Sunday school and church and being raised in a religious extended family, I was never taught much about Christianity. My dad took me to church every week because it was something people did. It was the expected thing to do. But we never talked about religion at home. We didn’t pray before meals or bedtime (except when I was very little). So when I worked at the church camp, I wasn’t necessarily the best model of Christ-like behavior. I did get in trouble for cussing, too.
At camp, every day started early and ended late. It was my job to cook, and I was good at it. I had three teenaged guys working with me and we ended up becoming friends. I was introduced to canoeing, which was something I had never tried before I worked at camp. I also went on some wonderful hikes in the woods and found swimming holes, one of which had a natural slide. I slept on an uncomfortable cot in a platform tent with two or three other women, depending on the week. The pay wasn’t much, but I had few expenses. It was a healthy lifestyle, far away from “civilization”. I ended up enjoying the experience so much that I went back in 1994. Then, the following year, partly based on my church camp experience, I joined the Peace Corps.
I’m still not a very religious person, although I do enjoy sacred music. Perhaps that’s where my relationship with God is strongest. I don’t do a lot of praying and don’t feel comfortable in offering prayers to people. I still find religion kind of icky, especially since it’s been co-opted by powerful people who want to use it to promote their own agendas. And yet, that job working at a church camp gave me so much… especially in friendships. I still have many friends from that time period, including my former boss, who was a minister for some time and officiated at my wedding to Bill.
Simon has since left the ministry and become a Catholic. I’m not exactly sure what led him to take that step, although he clearly feels most authentic as a Catholic. His wife is still a Protestant. Talking to him now, I see that maybe it was a case of his being somewhat of a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. When I met him, thinking he was this very uptight religious person, I didn’t know that he was also a bit nuts like me. He has a great sense of humor, loves outrageous rock music from the 70s, wears nail polish, and has both earrings and long hair. In the 90s, he had to appear to be someone he wasn’t really. Now that he’s no longer a minister, he can be himself. That must be very liberating for him, although I’m sure the decision to leave his life’s work was extremely difficult. If I know him, he did a lot of praying and soul searching before he took that step.
Simon later became a certified nursing assistant and worked in a psychiatric hospital. I’m sure his skills as a minister were useful when he worked at that job. He recently had to stop working there due to health reasons and family responsibilities.
Like me, my former boss spent a lot of time in school. He’s earned a couple of master’s degrees that he doesn’t use for paid employment. He’s also a bit of an eccentric, like I am. Like me, he found his soul mate and has enjoyed a long, happy union. He’s married to a wonderful woman with whom he enjoys a great marriage and has three lovely daughters. I look up to my former boss as an example. He’s yet another person who didn’t take the conventional road through life.
Bill and I will soon celebrate our eighteenth wedding anniversary. Although the years haven’t always been easy… they’ve all been fun. We still love each other very much. I’m so grateful we were able to have our wedding officiated by someone who is a true friend. He made the ceremony very special and meaningful. We still talk about what he said to us during our wedding. And despite all of the little hassles that come up in our daily lives, we remain committed to each other and happy to be in each other’s lives. I realize how very fortunate we are every day, especially when I go a little nuts.
So… even though I know people read this blog and think all kinds of things about me, the truth is, I’ve been blessed with a lot of good things in life. And I have many good people in my life, too. Especially Bill… I could not have asked for a better partner. When I look back on my pathway through life, I realize that every decision I made, before we first encountered each other in a chat room back in 1999, led me to him. Even working at a church summer camp when I am not particularly religious myself.
I’m also really glad I grew up Presbyterian. If I had to go to church, I’m glad it was one that embraces education and scholarly research. I’m glad I didn’t come away from the experience with religious baggage. The Presbyterians also have the distinction of being from Scotland, too.
And now I have to decide what to get him for our anniversary, since we can’t travel anywhere. Wonder what Hallmark says the 18th anniversary present is. Guess I’ll go find out, especially now that the power is back on.