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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Camp Meeting

In English class today, we read "Salvation" by Langston Hughes. I gave the students the assignment of writing a short account of a time when someone had expectations of them, and how they responded to those expectations. One of my students challenged me to write a similar account of my own. Here is my effort.

I remember Camp Arrowhead as being one of the hottest places on earth. Located on the banks of the Brazos River in North Texas, the camp always seemed to feature 100 degree temperatures with 100 percent humidity during the months of June, July and August when I went to summer camp with my friends and camp meeting with my family during my father's pastorates in Texas. It was during one such camp meeting, in either in the summer of 67 or 68 that my life began to take a definite slow turn much like the turns taken by the lazy Brazos.

"Camp Meeting" in those days was a combination of camping and twice daily evangelical church services. Our family would pile into the family Chevy station wagon and drive over the camp site where we would sit up the big cloth tent. During the day there would be morning worship and Bible study. In the evening there was a revival service in the camp's large, screened-in tabernacle. This might not seem like much fun to most, but I remember it all quite fondly as a time to enjoy some family time and the chance to run around with the kids who were there.

This particular camp meeting featured two evangelists whose style of preaching could not have contrasted more. Since both are still with us, as of this writing, I will call one Rev. City and the other Rev. Country.

Rev. City's background came from the urban streets of Chicago. He had been "saved" from a life of crime and grime, and his manner and speech reflected his tough background. Rev. City always seemed to be in your face, challenging you to dare deny his message. In my memory, he boxed during his sermon as if he and the devil were fighting it out all during the sermon.

Rev. Country was a prime example of the grand Southern tradition. His eyes seemed to be continually cast heavenward. His gestures were broad and open, arms flung out as if he was trying either to fly to heaven or grab it down for our sake. His accent dripped honey, his round phrases called forth magnolia scented nights and Spanish moss accented days.

The two men were clearly in competition with each other. Night after night each sought to outdo the other through the reaction that he got from those attending the camp and those who drove in from the surrounding community. Rev. City told tales of lives saved from drugs and gangs. Rev. County countered with lives saved from bootlegging and juke joints. Rev. City scorned churches that "watered down the one true gospel." Rev. Country mocked university professors who "might acknowledge Jesus was a good man", but did not accept the blood atonement. Each night, the crowds attending went away marveling and praising God, and God's anointed minister.

Everything came to a head Saturday night. It was Rev. Country's turn to preach. The day's heat had hardly abated that night. Sweat hung on me like a wet second skin. The only air movement came from the hundreds of paper fans and programs the congregation waved back and forth in front of their faces. The choir sang a stirring rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", emphasizing that God's truth would on the march that night. Earlier that week, Rev. Country had made a joke referring to the Civil War as "The War of Northern Aggression", but on the platform, his face did not show that he recognized the irony of the selected anthem.

I don't remember much about his sermon, but I will never forget the crowd's reaction to it. Men and women ran down the aisles, raising their hands and waving their handkerchiefs and fans. Shouts of "Glory!", "Praise Jesus!", and “Hallelujah!" punctuated Rev. Country's every sentence. Surely God in all his presence was in that place at that moment.

I was completely unmoved. Nothing was happening inside me.

I tried to participate in everything going on, but the more I tried to join in, the further I retreated away. I began to look about me. I had heard these types of sermons before, seemed like hundreds of times. I couldn't see the point, somehow, of going over this ground again. It felt like someone; the preacher, the service, the crowd, the camp; was trying to sell me something, a feeling or something, that I wasn't buying. I began to feel manipulated, resentful, and, yes, guilty, but upset for having to feel guilty. Instead of being moved, I was strangely removed from everything.

I couldn't tell anyone how I felt. I adored my mother and father, and I was afraid that I would somehow be a disappointment to them if my reaction to Rev. Country and Rev. City did not match that of the others who were there. I can't recall how they felt about what was going on. I was too ashamed to find out because I would have to admit to withdrawing from the presence of God.

But something in my turned that night. I began to take stock of all the ways people try to move me through words and images and emotions. I became a little more skeptical. And little more willing to try to understand how we are manipulated. I think this is why I became an English teacher, so that I could pierce through the devices used by Revs. City and Country, and be in some measure a free man. And that is what I want for my students, also

1 comment:

Wendy said...

Lynn, this is a beautiful. I can feel the heat and smell the southern air. Very powerful writing. I hope your students appreciate this. Love that a student challenged you and you accepted.

Wendy W. NY