|Photo by Eric Dufresne|
I duck my head under the rafters I climb up and sit cross-legged on the end of her bunk. She is sprawled out on her side, resting her head on her arm. One of the cabin’s two dim light bulbs has gone out. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well,” I say.
“My stomach hurts,” she confirms.
I don’t think until later to wonder if she is really sick or if she was just made uncomfortable by the mob of campers crying as they scrambled down the aisles of the campfire, after Jesus was betrayed, beaten, crucified in front of them by dramatic torchlight earlier this evening—if she didn’t want to respond to the altar call but knew she would be the only one still sitting on the benches. I don’t think until later to wonder if I was made uncomfortable by the spectacle, if there was a subconscious reason I volunteered to walk back to the cabin with her.
They call her Bubbles. She’s the one who put my hair in corn rows yesterday. She is thirteen.
“So how have you enjoyed the week?” I ask her. “Crazy you’ll be going home in just a couple days.” I feel no small pressure to make this time with her spiritually meaningful, considering we are missing the altar call and her chance to pray the prayer, to make a decision for Christ.
She adjusts her bandanna and props up her head on her elbow. It doesn’t take much before she launches into it all. She doesn’t much want to go home. Her mom is always pushing her too hard, and she doesn’t do well in school. She misses her dad, who’s in jail. Her uncle is in a gang; lately he has gotten into trouble with members of an opposing gang, and she is worried about him.
I don’t know what to say. I am nineteen and the urban kids who have come for this last week of the summer have experiences and sorrows far beyond my realm of understanding.
I am still young and insecure enough to be afraid of silence. I steer the conversation back to a topic in which I will know what I am supposed to say.
“What did you think about the cross talk at the campfire?”
It’s safe to say that even then, I was uncomfortable with these veins of conversation, the forced feeling that I had to always be looking for a door to insert Jesus into—as though Jesus needed me to awkwardly insert him into any place or moment. I thought the discomfort came because I was an introvert, because I was shy, because I was not a good enough Christian, because I was ashamed of my faith. I thought I needed to push through and be bold.
In high school I felt that tension constantly, and sometimes I would notice an opening in the conversation—after an English class about Jonathan Edwards or Dante’s Inferno, after the anxiety-riddled college-application season, as we sat around dreaming about our futures and the purpose and meaning of life. I should say something about Jesus, I would think. Mostly I felt guilty, and sometimes I wrote convoluted emails and letters explaining my beliefs, which usually didn’t get any response.
I wonder what it would have looked like if I hadn’t tried so much to force these words, words I usually failed to say anyway. I could have focused on the gifts and sensitivities I did have, the desires for justice and action. I could have brought tiny pieces of God’s realm right there to my little high school. I could have been a symbol of what heaven looks like: loving my enemies, refusing to climb the American ladder, befriending weirder weirdos than me, raising money to fight malaria, ending human trafficking. I could have shown them what it was like to be unafraid to be myself, unafraid to live by the Spirit, to live free.
The last morning of camp, while the others are playing in the waterpark, Bubbles and I sit and watch from the hill (she has her period, which maybe explains the stomach ache a few days ago, or maybe not).
“Have you thought any more about accepting Christ?” I ask her.
“Yeah, a little,” she mumbles.
“It’s a big decision, more than just saying one prayer,” I concede. “Not something you should do if you aren’t ready to dedicate your life to Jesus,” I explain.
This probably isn’t what she was expecting when she started telling me her problems. The things I am saying about Christ are just words, completely distinct from the secrets she shared with me the other night.
She shrugs. I tell her to keep thinking about it.
It is so cringingly blatant, now—that every privileged word I could have said to her about Christ being enough, about God being the answer to her problems, was empty. Not because God couldn’t be a source of strength and comfort and guidance, but because I didn’t, couldn’t know how to relate that to her. Because God’s love wouldn’t change the fact that it wasn’t fair that she lacked a supportive family, that she lacked good role models and a community that could buoy her up through the hard times. Knowing that Jesus died for her sins wouldn’t give her the tools she needed to find a way out.
I see now that what she needed, more than an empty idea of Christ being enough, was incarnation—for God’s love to take on flesh. For a community, a family, a friend, a church, to enact in her life a model of real Love.
Lately I am finding that for me, one way to speak authentically is to write, here in this space, to “witness” to the renewal and life God has worked in me. Another, perhaps harder, challenge is to let Love come into flesh through me. Complaining, being angry, and being sullen are all much more “natural” than the awkwardness of loving where no one else is, spending time with an outcast, reaching out to people I barely know to offer help.