This is a guest article written by my friend and fellow exvangelical Shana Nielsen, who currently lives in Texas and is witness to the appalling attack happening right now on women’s reproductive rights in that state. Shana’s insightful story links these current events with a manipulative scare tactic that happened to her during a childhood church event — a clear-cut example of church abuse in action. It is an honor to share her story; thank you, Shana, for taking the time to write out this invaluable perspective, and thank you to all of those who read. Remember to be kind to yourselves and each other today.
A lot of my childhood memories revolve around an evangelical Christian church camp. I am only going to use its initials in my writing because I’m concerned about the reaction those still involved with the camp might have if they stumbled across my opinions. My Papaw ran CDR for the majority of my childhood. I have wonderful memories of making snow ice cream with him and being woken up in the middle of the night to watch Haley’s Comet pass over. I learned to ride horses there, and my horse craziness can be directly traced back to the most obstinate Shetland pony to ever trod upon this earth. Missy was the pony my Papaw bought for me and I spent a large amount of my time riding her. Really, we were just in a constant battle of wills. Every Thanksgiving we would gather at CDR and everyone would bring a dish (or 5) and the entire huge extended family on my mom’s side would celebrate Thanksgiving together. Camp was only in session during the summer, but I was at CDR year-round for family activities. Spending a week or two with my grandparents was a yearly ritual.
My Papaw kept an enormous garden. He could grow anything from stevia and aloe vera to corn and cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes and every type of bean. I spent time with my Mamaw on the front porch, shelling beans and trying to tame the semi-feral bobtail kittens born every year. In many ways CDR was a second home to me. From the creeks to Lonesome Pine, to the stinging nettles and the horse corral. I could wander around pretty much wherever I wanted. I always knew the way back to Papaw’s house.
In elementary school I would attend the day camp as a Peewee, and then instead of getting picked up at the end of the day, I would join my Mamaw and Papaw at the mess hall and have dinner with the older overnight campers before returning to their house on the grounds of the camp for the night. Once older, I would spend two weeks as a camper at CDR for several summers in a row. I’m sure some of the camp counselors knew who I was, but I had no perception that being related to Papaw made me different in any way.
I never realized CDR was “different” until later. Girls and boys were separated not just for lodging, but also for swimming and some sports. We were deep in the middle of the East Texas Piney Woods, but the dress code required everyone to wear jeans no matter how hot or humid it might be. Part of this is for protection. Snakes, ticks, poison ivy and stinging nettles were all part of the experience at CDR. But this was also due to the religious beliefs of the camp. My mom allowed me to wear shorts, but never to church. And the one time I made a mistake and wore shorts while staying with my Papaw, I was given a pretty stern talking to and told to change. Then he called my mom and gave her a rather stern talking to as well. Women’s legs should never be exposed. On the walk to the pool for swim time during camp, girls were expected to wear a t-shirt over their bathing suit and a towel around their waist that covered at least to the knees. Boys were required to wear a t-shirt, but could skip the towel (apparently their exposed legs are not an issue). We were told we shouldn’t be a distraction to the boys, and therefore the towel was required. All I remember was it being a pain trying to get the towel to stay on while I walked.
One particular summer at camp stands out in my memory the most. I would have been in fifth or sixth grade, I think. Every evening after dinner in the mess hall we met for night devotion. There would be singing and prayer, and a sermon; basically church (just shorter and no request for contributions or tithing). On the second or third day our nightly devotion was a little different. The head camp counselor leading the service told us that in the outside world suddenly Christianity was outlawed. We needed to hide our bibles and all our religious jewelry, crosses on necklaces and bracelets and anything else we had. I distinctly remember wrapping my bible in a green t-shirt from either girl scouts or a St Jude’s walkathon and hiding it in the bottom of the blue trunk that held all my stuff for camp. Every day our camp counselors spoke with us about how to keep our faith alive while we were under attack. How to be good Christians even if the “outside world” wouldn’t let us. I was terrified when a girl in my cabin squatted down next to me and said, “I know where you keep your bible” as I was rifling through my trunk for something. I worried she would tell on me, or that worse the police would show up and she would tell on me to them! I worried for my parents and my whole town (everyone went to church. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get a job without disclosing your church membership).
At the end of the two weeks, on the last night when we went up the hill for our closing devotion (and set a crucifix on fire – which is an enormous throw back to a long lineage of racism in East Texas), we were told that none of this was true. It was just a “readiness exercise” and our counselors hoped we would remember this time, and how hard it was, and be ready for what happened in the real world.
I was so angry about this. And I was never able to figure out until recently why it made me so angry as a kid (and why it contributed to me breaking from church). But basically they wanted us to suspect each other and feel alone, like we could not trust anyone and that by separating ourselves and being untrustful of the people around us and spying on them, we were proving our “loyalty to the faith”. I was a naïve kid, a gullible kid. I felt seriously misled and thought something was wrong with me for falling for this “readiness exercise” and believing it was real, while also feeling like something was wrong with me for being so trusting of the people in my daily life outside of camp (who had never given me a reason not to trust them!).
This story would have occurred in the mid to late 1980s. And it’s easy to think that this one story of one girl at a camp doesn’t have bigger consequences. But shortly after this the “War on Christmas” became an enormous deal. That saying “Happy Holidays” was not enough, that whole nation was attacking Christians because some people didn’t want to say “Merry Christmas.” This reverse victimhood, while arguably the largest Christian denomination in the country cries disenfranchisement, oppression, and attack any time the rest of the country doesn’t do things their way is now impacting our current politics. They prepared entire generations of kids for an attack on Christianity, then helped them to believe that if everyone else wasn’t going along with their religious beliefs, they were under attack.
Real world consequences of these games? The lack of abortion access in Texas right now. The inability for a woman to receive a hysterectomy without a male significant other’s approval. The “War on Christmas.” The election of Donald Trump (he was supposed to be the savior of the evangelical base who were being “attacked” by the secular world). The war on masks during the Covid-19 epidemic and the refusal to get vaccinated. All of these things can be traced back to evangelical Christianity’s myth of being under attack and having to “fight back” to preserve their religious beliefs.
To be clear, evangelical Christianity is not under attack. Everyone is allowed to follow whatever faith they want to. They just aren’t allowed to impose their faith on other people, and they aren’t allowed to have their faith be state-sanctioned. These two things are the basis for evangelical Christians purporting the myth that they are, indeed, under attack. They want their faith to be state-sanctioned and they want everyone else in the US at least, to have to follow their rules. In some states right now, they are getting their way. Texas is a great example of this, from SB8 banning abortion after 6 weeks to the new rules for public educators on what they can and cannot teach (basically anything about systemic racism is not allowed, even if a student brings it up). There are a lot of adults out there, and kids now, who are caught in an untenable position. They’ve been taught that they can’t trust anyone outside their church. And they are coming to the realization that they can’t trust their church either. That’s a harmful and isolating experience.
Everyone is deserving of love. Everyone is deserving of trust until they do something to show you otherwise. And everyone is allowed their own beliefs, even if they don’t agree with other people’s. It is ok to ask questions and question authority and seek out your own answers. That doesn’t make you a traitor. It doesn’t make you undeserving. And questions are not an attack on someone else’s faith.
CDR is no longer a part of me. I haven’t visited in more than two decades at this point. My Papaw passed away almost 20 years ago now. But those two weeks at camp were when CDR stopped being my home, a safe place full of pleasant memories and family. That’s when I learned the church lies.
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