Each summer, our youth group joined other churches from our Super-Christian North Texas district for a week of camp that took place at a Pentecostally-sanctioned camp ground. It was a week of field-day games, non-coed swimming, sexually-repressed flirting with other sexually-repressed teenagers and no less than two hellfire and brimstone services each day. None of these things were out of place to me since I’d attended camp each summer since elementary school. As a kid, the camp was aging and in need of an overhaul. The roofs were held together by rust, the wooden paneling in the dorms was peeling away from the wall, and the carcasses of brightly-colored and long-ago-exploded water balloons speckled the ground near the trees. Still, I loved being there—basking in the freedom of a parent-less week of fun and continuing in the nostalgic tradition of children’s summer camps.
One of the last years camp was held at that deteriorating site—before the modern and nostalgia-less camp was built—we found ourselves in the middle of an adventure. Our dorm counselor was a man who had a penchant for mischief and adventure; a big kid at heart who had no shortage of ideas for pranks, energy to keep up during a water gun fight, and a suitcase full of candy. On the last night of camp, when all the good Christian children were to be prayerfully asleep in their bunks, he told us to don our darkest clothing because we had a mission.
With him leading the way, we snuck out of our creaky dorm in a single file line. Following the directions of our pied piper, we evaded the camp’s night patrol by sprinting, crawling and slithering our way through the shadows, carefully making our way to an obstructed patch of field behind a barn-like structure. During the day, the barn was used as a central meeting place for games and meetings. It was called the tabernacle, a biblical moniker to describe the tent used by Moses as the place to meet with God, but here it was just an open-walled barn. At night, it cast a long shadow that was ideal for concealing a group of fifth graders trying to camouflage themselves after curfew. Our leader pulled out a giant slingshot and together, we launched dozens of over-filled water balloons across the field. Each thwump of the slingshot as it released and catapulted the balloons into the air filled me with devilish glee and we stood silently waiting for the payoff. It took a couple tries, but our balloons began landing on the girls’ dorms with thunderous thuds. We giggled as the girl’s screams—girls who’d been abruptly woken up by thundering explosions on the tin roofs above them—echoed across the sleepy camp. With each boom, we became more excited and though we didn’t know it until the following day, some of our balloons landed with such force that they broke through the deteriorating dorm ceilings, covering the sleeping girls with water. That was, without question, the greatest accomplishment of my fifth grade year.
After enough booms, we heard the sounds of the camp waking up and knew it was time to run like Olympic champions to get back inside our dorm. Closing the door, our leader told us to jump into our sleeping bags, cover our faces and stay as quiet as possible. We feigned being asleep when the night patrol went dorm-to-dorm searching for hints of water balloons or riled up children. I closed my eyes tightly and listened to our counselor say, “No sir. No water balloons here.” This was true as we’d launched our entire arsenal just minutes earlier. Once the coast was clear, we spent the rest of the night feasting on sour gummy candy and celebrating our success in evading capture.
We always drove away from camp with plenty to laugh about until the next year, but by the time I was in high school, the formulaic annual camp had become wearisome to our group’s leaders. They felt we were being given the same experience on repeat so, in an uncharacteristically radical move, they broke with tradition and announced we would hold our own week-long camp at an odd resort in the desert. It wasn’t really the desert, it actually sat on the edge of the woods, but in Middle of Nowhere, Texas, during July, it’s all a desert.
For a week, we swam with our coed friends, turned tomato red with sun burns and tried to golf, something the older boys claimed to be proficient at but much like on an episode of Maury, we learned to be false. Each evening, we rode tractors into the woods to eat barbecue with strangers who were also enjoying a desert getaway and then watched the sun set behind the enchanting and fabricated façade of a ghost town. After our singular church service each evening—a service we felt no need to dress up for as we didn’t have anyone from another church to impress—we spent the dark country nights lurking around the grounds by the light of only the moon. Middle of Nowhere, Texas, happens to be the quietest place on the Earth; a place where the sounds of each cricket, bird and animal are heard as if magnified with a bullhorn. We wandered through the woods and watched in awe as the moonlit silhouettes of a herd of deer leapt across the path in front of us, all while a small pack of coyotes followed alongside us on the gravel road. It was the stuff of brer rabbit, Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, but in real life at our independently-sanctioned, moderately-subversive, Super-Christian youth camp in the desert on the edge of the woods.
The first memory I have of my friend Carter was on a late night during the middle of that week when he bit into a bar of soap from a maid’s cart, thinking it was chocolate. That’s what he claimed at least as the entire youth group both laughed at and with him in the perfect cadence of a blossoming new friendship. For years, the story of the soap candy was as much a part of the history of that trip as the ghost town or Justin, the boy who became so sunburned we thought he might die. History became legend. Legend became myth. Carter had become the funniest guy in the room, an endearing position he’d hold until graduation.
Our paths crossed often as we both came from families for whom church attendance was as much a pillar of survival as eating or sleeping. However, he and I had different interests and therefore, different groups of friends. He was tough and never afraid to be the butt of the joke—the Chris Farley of the North Dallas Pentecostal set—and I was artsy and busy.
After high school, he and I lost track of each other. Years went by, fifteen years to be exact, and I didn’t think much about him beyond seeing the occasional social media update about his wife and family. On a Tuesday night, a few minutes before midnight, I received a Facebook message from him. He led with stating he’d been “completely ignorant to homosexuality in the past” and that he believed “firmly in God’s grace and all that it stands for.”
Beyond the time gap since we’d last spoken, this startled me because I don’t think I’d ever heard him articulate anything about his faith. He wasn’t the person who sat upfront near the stage in the spiritual splash zone; he tended to sit in the “luke warm” section of the room between the casual Christians in the middle and the backslidden at the rear. It’s funny, as we grow up, we learn God doesn’t care where you’re seated, just that you show up.
He went on to tell me that his cousin had recently come out to him and he didn’t know what to say in response. He knew, as so many of us do, that this decision wasn’t going to land on the good soil of his family members’ hearts and he wanted some advice on how to encourage his cousin to trust in the grace that reaches all of us. I sent him my number and told him he was free to call me whenever he wanted, and that while I was no expert, I would gladly share with him my experience.
Five minutes later, my phone rang.
He cut straight to the chase, sharing that his cousin didn’t want to abandon his faith. I could relate. He said the family members who already knew were upset and didn’t know how to handle it. I could relate. He explained that he loved his cousin, didn’t care if he got off on boys or girls, but didn’t want to say the wrong thing and spook him into bolting.
Once I began to pry, I learned Carter’s mother discovered his cousin’s “lifestyle change” through a loose-lipped relative and had subsequently asked Carter about it. She was of the belief that it was unequivocally wrong and that this was a black and white Biblical issue. When I was a teenager, being in the presence of his mother was evidence God was real—infectious levels of joy sprung out of her in a way only God can orchestrate—and to be honest, it didn’t irritate me that she felt the way she did about gay people. I can’t fault people for thinking a certain way if they’ve never had to confront a dissenting opinion. He told me they debated for a bit, and he then brought up my name as an example.
Now, this can go one of two ways. This could go the “rebellious, over-liberalized, back-turning heathen” route or it could go the “he’s-not-so-bad” route. Thankfully, it was the latter. He reasoned that I was doing well, finding success in my career fields, wasn’t posting images of godless vulgarity all over Facebook and that I routinely posted tokens of spiritual encouragement—which I’m assuming meant videos of black women singing gospel music. He told me that her response was a moment of contemplation, which made me smile. A quiet moment of consideration is worth far more than a reaction made with haste. I shared a bit of my experience and gave no less than four “just love him like you always have” adjacent affirmations. We caught up on each other’s lives and it was a really unexpected joy to be able to reconnect with my friend from so long ago.
As the conversation wound down, before he got off the call, he apologized to me. He apologized for the likelihood that he had demeaned, belittled or made fun of me in high school because of my voice or my mannerisms or any number of things. He said he couldn’t remember if he had—and I honestly couldn’t remember if he had either—but he laid the blanket of apology over my life and by proxy, over the lives of men he knew he’d judged unfairly but would never have on the phone to apologize to. He followed that with, “You’re the reason I believe the way I do.”
It’s uncommon that I can’t find even rudimentary words to express my thoughts, but I was stunned into silence. My spirit cracked open, became gelatinous, and oozed into a puddle on my bed, humbled and broken.
Something I grapple with on a daily basis is how difficult it is be a witness to those around you when they aren’t actually around you. How do I show my friends and family far away in the Republic of Texas who I am and more importantly, who I am not? If I lived in the area, I’d see them frequently and in turn, they’d see the man I’ve grown into. But I live in New York so their impressions of me are left to social media accounts and short visits back to the Republic. This makes it hard to present evidence in the case of What Ryan’s Life Really Looks Like v. What TV and the Media Says It Should Look Like. But at least in some way, I’d been shepherding from afar, not knowing I’d done a thing.
I learned a long time ago it’s best to just say what you mean and mean what you say, so I responded by telling him how overwhelming it was to hear “You’re the reason I believe the way I do.” Maybe I said thank you? I was a puddle at that point and puddles don’t remember details. He then said, “For what it’s worth, thank you.” It was worth more than he will ever know.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.