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How I Worked at a Church Camp for Four Years Without Being a Christian

Life has been a little weird lately, and by weird, I mean busy. I finished reading Genesis (finally) but I didn’t have time to start Exodus. Am I falling behind schedule? Sure. But fear not, I will get back on track.

One super fun part of my job is that I get to take these huge tests that require hundreds of hours of studying. Studying takes over my life for quite some time. My next test is at the end of April, and as that day approaches I might post only once per week for my church visit instead of posting twice per week. Thanks for bearing with me.

Since I didn’t have any time to read Exodus (although I did have time to watch Prince of Egypt) I decided this might be a good time to tell my story of How I Worked at a Church Camp for Four Years Without Being a Christian.

In high school I was in National Honor Society, and requirement of being in the society (besides the requirement of being a nerd) was community service. You had to get so many hours per year and I knew I wouldn’t get all of my hours during the school year because I had too much else going on. I wanted to earn my hours the summer before each school year, and that’s how I found Summer Shine. Summer Shine was a program that ran Monday-Friday in the summers at Lindenwald United Methodist Church in Hamilton, OH. It was an underserved area, and the program was designed so kids who might have relied on school lunch for one of their meals throughout the week during the school year could still get a free lunch during the summertime.

The program included craft time, music time, sports time, lunch, movie time, and (because we were at a church) Bible time. As a volunteer, I lead around a group of kids from activity to activity and made sure they got on the bus to go back home. It was essentially babysitting, but the kids were so sweet and genuinely fun to hang out with. I loved doing it, I loved spending time with them, and I mostly ignored the Bible stuff. I rationalized me being at the church as a coincidence of my volunteering there. I didn’t believe, but I figured I didn’t need to in order to do a good job. And that was mostly true. I learned all the basic Bible stories for the first time sitting in the Sunday School type classes meant for kids. If the kids had a question about the story, I never poisoned their belief. I didn’t tell them I thought Adam and Eve weren’t real or I thought Daniel probably would have been shredded to pieces in that lion’s den. If they had a question, I answered it as best I could based on scripture or referred them to the children’s minister, who became a close friend and mentor of mine.

I went back summer after summer because I loved the kids, I knew the program was doing something important for them, and I liked being there. I went through some of the toughest times of my life during these years, and I could confide in my friends at the church. I didn’t mind that they wanted to pray for me – if anything them holding my hand and crying with me was what I needed, whether or not they were praying to God at that moment. Still, I felt a bit deceptive. I never disclosed my lack of faith. I went along with worship but in a very passive way. No one ever directly asked me if I was a Christian, so I just continued to let them believe whatever they’d like about my situation.

The spring of my freshman year of college, my friend (the children’s minister) called me and asked to meet. She had been director of the camp for the past three summers which included ordering supplies, coordinating the busses, signing kids up, keeping track of the number of kids we fed so we could get reimbursed by our grant, and just basically making sure things ran smoothly day-to-day. It was a huge responsibility. She was transitioning to a new job, and although she wanted to still be involved with Summer Shine, she couldn’t be director, so she asked me. I was touched, I was excited, I was nervous, I was ready. Being director meant a lot more responsibility but it also meant being PAID. I was going to be paid for something I had done for free for years! I was happy and I accepted. I went to leave the meeting, and on my way out she said to me, “Tory, I chose you because I know you have Jesus Christ in your heart.”

I think I laughed nervously, thanked her, and ran to my car. I felt anxious and sweaty the whole way home. Was I wrong for lying? I’d never actually lied, but I’d definitely mislead her. Would she still want me if I told the truth? I wanted the job.

After much debate and chastising from Christian friends, I called her and plead my case. I told her I wasn’t a Christian, but that I loved the program and I still wanted to be there. She didn’t even hesitate, of course she still wanted me to run the camp. She said whether I believe in God or not, she still believed in me, and that I could do a good job. She briefly added, “maybe someday you will find your way to God, and if you do we’ll be here for you.”

I was so relieved. I ran the camp that summer, I did a damn good job (can I say that about a church job?), and everything about my experience gave me a lot of affection for the church and people of faith. Up until then, religious people had made me uncomfortable. I think overly-religious or obnoxious bible-thumpers still do. But after my experience at LUMC, I viewed people of faith as kind, compassionate, and understanding. After Summer Shine, I never shied away from Christians, and never got bothered when someone prayed for me or beside me. I didn’t whither from revealing myself as an atheist, either. I just became more comfortable with it, and assured that it wasn’t a make-or-break fact for people that really cared about me.

I definitely will go back to Lindenwald UMC as one of my 52 churches this year, and I can’t wait for that. Maybe I’ll hit up Summer Shine again if it’s still going.