Every evening at church camp was the same. We tidied up our cabins and then met back at the lodge. There we were taught songs and led in quiet games. Ours was a reserved sort of Christianity. The Presbyterian church I was raised in proffered no talk of hell or being saved, no witnessing. The congregation was friendly in a formal sort of way. (Even so, I don’t think they entirely deserved the denomination’s nickname—“God’s Frozen Chosen.”)
I was nine years old that summer. My father had volunteered to serve as one of the camp counselors and bunked halfway up the hill in a cabin with the older boys. I was assigned a cabin at the bottom of the hill with the younger girls.
On our last evening of the week-long camp we were called out of the lodge after the final song. There stood our recently ordained young minister. He held flaming torches in his upraised hands like some illustration from a storybook. He passed them out to the counselors and told us to follow.
This was highly irregular. Fire? Hiking after dark? Staying up past bedtime? Our speculative whispers were unsuccessfully hushed by the grown-ups. We arrived at the clearing where morning worship services were held. It looked different at night. Shadowy trees loomed over the ring of log seats. Adults leaned their torches toward a dark stack of wood until a bonfire flared.
The minister offered a prayer and then talked about faith. I was so caught up in this out-of-the-ordinary moment that I didn’t pay close attention to his words. Who would? Kids know grown-ups like to go on and on about things. It’s best to let them. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the flames and how different our faces looked in the firelight.
Then the minister asked a question, something about how we knew God in our hearts. Silence settled over our group. None of us were familiar with faith discussed in such personal terms. The pastor looked around the circle with an expression kids know all too well. It’s the look teachers get when they are going to call on someone.
I was so timid that I tended to blush even for other people. One day in school, after his family had vacationed in Hawaii, Doug Bloomfield brought a grass skirt to Show & Tell. He cheerfully clicked on a cassette of exotic music, pulled the skirt over his pants, and demonstrated a hula dance. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. In my third row seat I blushed a red so deep that kids actually looked away from the hula spectacle to stare at me.
Until now I’d liked this strange after-dark event. The cool night air scented with burning wood felt magical. But I was pretty sure asking people to talk about their own religious experiences was rude. Already I felt flustered on behalf of whoever might have to answer. The minister stopped waiting for one of us to volunteer. He chose someone.
The person he asked was my father.
My dad, a quiet and low-key man, wasn’t one to speak up in front of others. There was a long pause. I was sure I could feel his distress. Then my father spoke. He talked a little about growing up in the country where he spent time in the woods and fields. He said he still felt closest to God not in church, but when he was out in nature. He finished by saying he liked silence and that was a way of praying too.
A moment comes when a child begins to see a parent as a separate person. This was such a moment. I knew my father was drawn to the outdoors. He took us hiking, showed us how to skip stones across the water, let us get muddy. But this was a larger context. I saw he had his own reasons to spend time outside. I recognized my father as a man whose life was bigger than I’d imagined.
Although this was my first glimpse of him as a person in his own right, I also I felt closer to him. That’s because what he spoke was my truth too. In the little forest behind our house I liked to go to a particular spot by myself. I didn’t have the words for it, but when I sat quietly there I had a sense of being in a sacred place. I looked across the circle at my father and loved him more than ever. He looked back at me. His face was luminous in the firelight.