by Liz Pagano

Hieronymus Bosch_-The Garden of Earthly Delights – Hell

The summer I defected for Christ

illustrated drop cap for the letter WWhen I was 12, I think I may have trained to be a Christian warrior. It’s the most religious I’ve ever been, and I still don’t quite understand it. 

Up until first grade, my family didn’t go to church at all. One day I sat my parents down and told them we had to, that it was a thing that people did. They found a nice, fairly ecumenical congregation in Cleveland Heights where I could go to Sunday school and they didn’t talk about Hell (a concept my mother rejected) very often. I never got the sense that my parents really bought it all that much: I remember my dad once made my class read an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association about how people actually die when they are crucified (asphyxiation and exhaustion) during an Easter guest spot in Sunday school. My mom was a proudly lapsed Catholic who enjoyed volunteering at the church but openly scoffed whenever things got too Jesus-y. 

With that context, then, it might be easiest to read my middle school defection to a summer at born-again Baptist summer camp as rebellion. I don’t think that was it. To be brutally honest to my former misfit self, the kids at regular camp were too cool. They smoked on the four square court. The Baptists just played four square.

The only downside was their apparent obsession with accepting Jesus Christ As Your Personal Lord and Savior. It came up a surprising amount. As comforting as the decreased pressure to be cool was, the Baptists were actually religious. 

I stuck with it, though. And in the woods surrounded by cornfields, I somehow became part of an elite group of 12-year-old suburban Ohians that woke up every morning at just before dawn to train. Every morning we would run through the dewy corn, down the dirt roads before anyone else at the camp had woken up. We were called the “Lions of Judah,” and as part of that tribe, we learned to shoot and throw tomahawks (skills that have come in handy: frequently and never, respectively.) We built our own fires. We sang. We learned how to climb really tall walls by forming ladders with each other. We studied the Bible. At night, we stayed up and freaked out reading Revelations aloud in the dark of our cabins. 

That summer was the only time I ever killed and cooked anything myself — we gutted chickens and roasted them over the fire, and we learned that if you hit a rabbit with a stick just so their heart continues to beat so it’s easier to drain their blood. If you cut their fur around their paws, it zips off like an onion peel.

To my parents, I now know it was horrifying. My dad was raised by the type of born-again Christians who delighted in asking questions that seemed like they had a real answer and then yelling, “I’ll put my faith in Jesus Christ, thank you very much” when you came up with an earnest response. Despite this, he was a scientist. 

My mother, who has never stopped swearing that the Catholic Church was “ruined” by the introduction of the acoustic guitar, must have shuddered at my dalliance with the bland and smiling church down the street that had as its kernel a very acoustic guitar-centered youth group.

Years after camp, when I was attending a very liberal East Coast college that I can only assume I was taught to battle in my youth, my mother called me in a panic, wondering  out-of-the blue if I “even believed in God.” It seemed like a joke until she clarified that she meant, by “God,” a universal force that compels kindness and good in people. I was relieved at the clarification; she was relieved at my truthful answer of “yes.” That hasn’t changed, though my current belief system has expanded to contain fungi, cephalopods, and Season 3 of Twin Peaks

And, luckily for everything, including my relationship with my parents and the wellbeing of any would-be spiritual foes, I never did fight that religious war I may or may not have been trained for. At the end of summer, we all stood around a flag in our lion T-shirts, and we were given medals. I never ran again. However, every time I shoot a gun or eat rabbit, I do think about that one summer I was given the skills and handed a team to fight for something.