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Campfire Confessions: My 7-Year Journey Through a Teenage Christian camp (And How I Survived)

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

When I was about thirteen – an impressionable age – my God-mother, for whom I have an unending amount of admiration and love gave me the gift of a week long camping holiday. The predetermined location was a Christian retreat centre. My Godmother is an incredibly devout Catholic and probably one of the most sincere and mindful people I know. I took her up on the offer gracefully and persuaded one of my greatest childhood friends, Tom, to join me on this adventure.  

My memories of attending this camp bring back fond recollections of deep, though brief, friendships. The first few holidays were before the dawn of the internet or mobile phones, so keeping in contact with my new friends was hard, especially as I lived with my parents on the other side of the country. We did write letters to each other, which I still look over now and again, but as is the case with most long distance relationships, we eventually all lost touch, especially if they didn’t come back to the camp the following year. I think Tom and I managed about seven years in a row at the camp and my experiences there had a phenomenal effect on my state of mind during these years, as you’ll see in a bit.

When I started going to the camp I was young and very open to what the world had to offer. I don’t regret going to them; I had some of the best moments of my childhood there. My only objection was to the way in which they drummed their views to a captive audience of incredibly impressionable teenagers. Of course I was going to take on board their teachings; I was only thirteen and hadn’t really been out of the country, bar a few family holidays, let alone had any life experiences to otherwise influence my burgeoning psyche.

The activities during the day were standard youth camp frivolities, from playing various team sports, shopping in the local town to swimming, eating and socialising. In the evenings, the whole ethos of the camp took on a much more hands-on approach to Godliness, where the camp organisers tried to subtly prompt us into committing our lives to their God, remonstrating stories of how our lives would end up if we failed to adhere to the apparent truth. Accompanying the stories they also played us very downbeat, rather sombre songs in a bid to influence our way of thinking. Only they could apparently offer us salvation from the shitty lives we had been led to believe we now faced.

I know now how I want to lead my life and I won’t be swayed by some artful musical interlude. Between the ages of thirteen and twenty, however, I had no idea of the direction in which I needed to go and was very open to suggestions. For seven years my whole view on life was altered dramatically. I believe it was this that instigated a lot of my self-loathing, as will be described in a later blog.

So there I was. I already had a general moral compass for leading a ‘good’ life, thanks to my parents, but I’m being taught again because it sounds better coming from a course leader with a pious stance. I remember being told that God would not be happy if I kept listening to Guns N’ Roses, because apparently they worshipped the devil. What? I was no longer allowed to listen to this music because the course leaders heard something that 1) was probably not true and 2) even if it was, had no bearing on how awesome they sounded. I think they said that we could listen to Genesis if we wanted to.

I didn’t do yoga then but I strongly support it now, especially as Katie, my younger sister, is a trained instructor. I have vivid memories of being told that yoga was the work of the devil because it was all about concentrating and devoting time to yourself, not thinking about anyone else or trying to save the world. In reality, it’s an activity that effectively grants the participant physical and mental wellbeing, which can then easily be used to benefit countless other people as an unequivocal payback.

Yoga originates from meditation, which, as you already know, has the power to completely readjust and invigorate a previously mindless life. It was the mid-nineties when I attended these camps, long before the worldwide acceptance of meditation as a common practise, so I know that the course leaders would have savagely renounced it, because of its primary objective of self-focus and self-love. When it boils down to it, though, prayer and meditation are in many ways exactly the same thing. More on that later, though.

Back to the Christian camp. Despite the difficulties, for me to have attended it for seven years in a row there must have been something that kept me asking to go back. I genuinely considered what I experienced at the very first camp to be a spiritual awakening. It was that initial experience that inspired both Tom and I to attend it for a further six years. You may have seen films or programmes where charismatic Christian brethren sing joyously, laying hands on their followers who consequently fall to the ground in jubilation, with tears in their eyes, whilst chanting some unintelligible drivel (speaking in tongues). Well, that kind of peculiarity happened at the camps. Remember, I’m thirteen, I haven’t experienced much of life, I don’t understand the power of the mind and I have never seen anything quite like this before. I was absolutely mesmerized when Emily, a girl who was being prayed over on the straw bale in front of me (I forgot to mention this was all conducted in a barn, in the countryside, hence the straw), started wailing in some kind of ecstasy before effectively passing out and then chanting ‘carla rash ma langda whitsdangley crang a dang my lang’ or something very similar, whilst crying her eyes out. This to me was conclusive proof that there was indeed a loving God (who got his kicks out of watching us make fools of ourselves).

I didn’t care about the crap we did during the day. I wanted to watch the spirit of God move around the room each evening and entangle itself within all of us. This was captivating wonder. I made it my mission to be ‘filled with the holy spirit’ and to replicate the incredible experience that I had witnessed.

I found myself standing at the front of the barn with a straw bale at my feet. A course leader came over to me, extended his arm and gently laid his hand on my forehead. Oh my goodness (not God, blasphemy was a massive no), I thought to myself, it’s about to happen. The course leader started murmuring some kind of mumbo jumbo. That’s okay, he’s speaking in tongues, it’s not meant to be understood. It’s coming, it’s coming, I whisper in my mind.

‘Hummmmmmmm’ Maybe humming will help, I think to myself. ‘Hummmmmmmmmmm’. Keep at it. I persevere, ‘hummmmmmmmm’. Shit, nothing is happening, maybe I shouldn’t have sworn, damn, is that better? Fuck, no, shit, no, be calm. ‘Hummmmmmmmmmm’.”

A few minutes went by until the course leader moved to my side to invoke the holy spirit through someone else. Why didn’t it want to come to me? I thought to myself, just as Matthew, the kid on the straw bale next to me toppled to the ground and started laughing his head off (another way in which the spirit moves, apparently, unless he was laughing at himself for falling over).

I was a bit down at this point. Why didn’t it happen to me? I wondered. I looked around the barn to see an array of completely different scenarios all happening at the same time. Some kids were sitting silently, some were crying, some were lying motionless on the floor, some were laughing hysterically but I had nothing, absolutely nothing. I noticed this girl who I had developed a huge crush on in the corner of my eye, who was sitting very quietly as if she had been crying. Although I’m sure she wasn’t, she looked very sad and I didn’t like that, which made me sad. I thought about it for a while, well, more about her, and I then thought about why I had not been chosen. These two things together brought a tear to my eye and I suddenly started crying.

Wow, maybe it has happened? I convinced myself. I didn’t want to wail, so I moved my hands to my head in a bid to maybe show this girl that I, too, had been visited by the holy spirit. It worked, she somehow noticed me crying and leant over to give me a tissue to dry my eyes. Yes, I thought to myself, this holy spirit truly works in mysterious ways.

The annual Christian camp trip to maintain my ethereal mindset meant that I needed to somehow top it up in the intervening months. This saw me establishing a youth club at my local church, with another young Christian, Stefan. We tried to go on trips similar to the summer camps I attended, and we met up each week to pray and talk about the wonders of God. Looking back on it now, I can’t see what, if anything, we achieved from any of it but I guess it was a good way to pass the time and in good company. I don’t remember how the youth club ended, when or why, it just slowly phased out to become a small blip in my memory.

I know that religious experiences are different for absolutely everyone but mine was so overwhelming that until I took the time to understand my own existence and question the need to seek solace in such a fantastical interpretation of Why We Are Here, my life was never going to develop past this sophomoric state of obscurity. If you point-blank refuse to question a belief you have maintained your entire life and if yet still your questions and prayers are not being answered, perhaps, just perhaps, you don’t really believe what you are trying to practise.

As I mentioned in may previous blog, in no way am I trying to ridicule or belittle any religious doctrine, that is not why I am here. With the correct mental attitude, it doesn’t matter who or what you worship, because you can still get the same results from whichever God you pray to, or whichever system you adhere to. Ultimately, for me, the problem was the way in which I had been taught at such a young, impressionable age.

I don’t doubt that I wasn’t the only kid to have been affected in such a negative way by the camp’s teachings. I also know that the positive messages that they tried to convey did resonate with plenty of the other kids, who have consequently gone on to lead devout and happy lives. My course-attendee friend, Tom, is one of them and now has a dream job in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. He is an Elder at his local church, met and married a delightful woman with the same faith and now has three wonderful children. We have spoken about my opinions of these camps and he doesn’t agree with everything I say. He found different, and many more positive, lessons at the camps. What we have both learned, somewhere along the way, is to have enough respect and love for each other to know that whatever disagreements we may have between our faiths, these have no impact on our long-standing friendship.

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