I was sixteen years old, traveling with a group of other fourteen-eighteen year-olds for a weeklong Christian conference. This was a national conference for the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination, a fairly mainline evangelical protestant denomination that, from the outside, bears very little difference from say, Free Methodists, Presbyterian, or many other non-liturgical types of churches. The sort of churches where they have serious debates about whether or not, say, electric guitars are appropriate vehicles for worship. The type that are often located in wealthy, north end neighborhoods of their cities and send people across the world while studiously avoiding the “inner city.”
For me, and for many of the kids in this particular youth group, a weeklong vacation away from our parents sounded great. Didn’t matter what for. And there’s gonna a whole bunch of other teenagers there that we could meet? Even better! My friends and I discussed the possibility and plausibility of meeting that one Really Cool Girl in Salt Lake City, in this conference attended by thousands of other nominally Christian youth.
The conference worked as such: there were various services and classes during the day, with speakers and “experts” on various topics. We were encouraged, but not required to attend whichever piqued our interest. Many, but not all, were split up according to gender, given that God had different plans for Men and Women.
There were various Christian Rock Bands playing at a multitude of venues, including an outdoor parking lot stage, a coffeeshop, and one spot that in retrospect felt a lot closer to a legit dive bar than you’d think would get approved. I saw a couple of the same bands multiple times; including a positively goth-rock band called Sinner Fiend, who channeled all the violence, guilt, and self loathing of both youth and Christianity into ostensibly pro-Jesus anthems. Their drummer, shaven headed, and with an orange goatee talked about his days in “the world” listening to secular music– Nirvana and White Zombie, if I recall– with the same tenor in his voice usually reserved for admitting you sold your own children to buy oxy.
I definitely had a crush on the singer of this band. She had long black hair and was gorgeous and terrifying and intense and I did not talk to her except for when I bought the CD. She was probably twenty years old. I think they broke up the next year.
The night services followed a pattern that even at the time I had grown to recognize. Each evening service consisted of Worship, Announcements, The Message, and Prayer.
- Night one: The “yay, we’re all here!” night. High energy songs, generally positive message. Nothing too heavy or prescriptive. God Loves You vibes.
- Night two: PSYCHE! YOU ARE GOING TO HELL YOU ONLY THINK YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN, JESUS WILL DEFINITELY CAST YOU INTO THE DARKNESS WHERE THERE IS WEEPING AND GNASHING OF TEETH. This is always the most brutal night, as it primes the pump for what’s to come. Essentially, it creates an emotional story arc so that by the end of the last night you feel like you’ve come out the other side of a dark tunnel. The deliverer of the bad, bad, news that our salvation was a lie unless we did exactly what we were told was a Hispanic pastor from LA with a lazy eye who trotted out the old “atheist in foxholes” argument that essentially all POC believe in God, because they’ve Seen So Much.
- Night three: Don’t have sex. A couple of youth leaders who’d Waited talked about all the pressure “the world” puts on you to have sex. This talk is generalized, but also very essentialized; young girls only have sex because they “want to feel loved” while young guys have sex because it’s all they can think about, ever, and they should feel very guilty about this. The couple who gave this talk were in their early twenties and looked like Abercrombie models. When she said that it was “definitely worth the wait,” it was hardly suggestive by Hollywood standards. . . but it was enough.
- Night four: Do missionary stuff. NOT LIKE THAT. No, like, be a missionary. Go to places and help people! Most of the programs advertised were the sorts of things where you go build a house in a country whose poverty is viewed with a mix of pity, horror, and compassion. These nights, weirdly, are always the best, because you hear actual stories, some of them pretty gnarly. One of the missionaries almost swore (nearly said “shit”) and despite whatever complicated/messed up/colonial dynamics play out in the long run, you could tell the speakers really cared about the people they went to help.
- Night five: What have we learned? Every night has an alter call– where by people have a chance to come down to the front of the room and pray with a pastor, or appropriately deputized non-teenager and essentially become a Christian. Did you know you can go to church your whole life, donate to charity, obey all the rules, Love Your Neighbor As Yourself, but if you haven’t said a very specific prayer you’re still going to hell? Bummer, right? So this last night they really lay things on thick. This is the big recruitment haul. The money shot. This is where you’re in a room full of a thousand weeping teenagers and your most jaded friend is sobbing to God and offering up their Deftones CD as a “sacrifice.”
Besides this, there was a tour of Salt Lake City, with youth leaders desperately pleading that we be respectful of the Mormon heritage, and you know, tip our waiters and all that. There were outdoor expeditions and swimming trips where said leaders tried their damndest to figure out how you could have a bunch of teenagers in swimwear without them looking at each other’s bodies. At the end of the week there was a lot of crying and hugging and everyone said things they meant in the moment and had no way of backing up. I’d fallen in love with a few different girls and done nothing about it, because that was how I was in high school. Some of those people who made me so nervous and shy, statistically speaking, are probably dead now, and that’s fine, since this is the first time I’ve thought about them in fifteen years.
For two weeks after this trip, the members of the North Seattle Alliance Youth Group who all went to the rich private school north of town were nice– actually nice– to those of us who didn’t, and I had a few really good conversations with people that pre and post this trip never gave me the time of day. Then it went back to normal and the low-level hazing and ostracization resumed; those of us with other reasons to attend kept attending, those who could leave, did.
Today I am in Salt Lake City on a layover. It’s airport is. . . fine. I’ve found a decent brewpub and it does seem like SLC knows how to make beer. Drinking a beer rarely feels any sort of transgressive, but it does right now, thinking of those missionaries, so earnest, thinking of the stark fear of hell on that second night, or the way those girls who always hated each other apologized profusely over the rich tableau of sustained keyboard notes. I’m not even sure I’d get the names right.