Not All Stories End With An Altar Call
The new comedy film Camp Manna is an absolutely hilarious film, a loving send-up and ode to the weird world of evangelical summer camps. It’s filled with little winks and nods to people like me who grew up in the shadow of the religious right: the cool, edgy counselor signs off his video diaries with “grace and peace,” the same salutation the Apostle Paul uses in his epistles, and basically every person in this film wears some shirt with a dumb religious pun on it.
Manna tells the story of Ian Fletcher, a 15-year-old left orphaned by a horrific accident that convinced him God doesn’t exist. After moving in with his fervently religious aunt and uncle, he gets sent to Camp Manna, a remote Evangelical Christian camp, where he has to compete in the God Games, a Biblically-themed series of competitions focused on turning boys into “men of faith.”
If it sounds like a total farce, well, it is. But under the laughs, a darker film exists, one that dives deep into the underbelly of Christian camps and evangelical culture. When I spoke with the men behind the film–directors Eric Machiela and Eric Scott Johnson, as well as producer and star Evan Koons–they told me that making the film became a release for them.
“We started making a Christian camp movie not because we chose comedy or because we chose camp but because the thematic topic of it was so visceral for us,” Johnson said. “When we started writing the film, we were both emerging from that culture and reeling from it a little bit.”
Machiela agreed: “Hemingway said that when he had something that was hurting him, he wrote about it and got freed from it. We didn’t even know that was going to happen. When we first started writing, we thought it was going to be a really fun camp comedy, and then we realized it was a super cathartic experience.”
It’s this tension of heavy and light that got me thinking about my own camp experience. I certainly didn’t expect a camp comedy like this to provide healing for me. But weirdly enough, that’s what happened.
Naked and afraid.
Early on in the film, Ian gets introduced to the water blob. The blob was a staple of my camp experience, but for those who don’t know, it’s basically an inflated tarp from which one can be launched into a body of water. As Ian watches, a fellow camper flies off the blob into the water–and dies instantly upon hitting the water, his body having been unable to take the force of the landing.
It’s a dark scene that shocks Ian, but the rest of the campers laugh it off. Everyone moves on. After all, if you’re left scarred, that can’t be the work of a healing God, right?
“Because the film is satire, we’re hyperbolizing, but we’re not making this stuff up,” said Johnson. “The reaction [to darkness] often is, ‘We don’t know how to deal with this, so we’re just going to avoid it.’ You need those moments in the film to speak to a little criticism of the way that, culturally, we tended to dodge things that were hard to deal with.”
In the cabins at my Christian summer camp, the boys paraded around naked. They slept in the nude as much as possible, even creating themes for each night: “Tube Sock Tuesday,” “Weiner Wednesday,” and “Sleep Naked Thursday.” I can’t make this shit up.
As a closeted gay kid who believed homosexuality was a sin, this put me in quite the bind. I thought any exposure to another man’s penis, even for a juvenile event like Tube Sock Tuesday, would risk outing me to my heterosexual cabinmates. I prayed for God to heal me of my orientation, but at camp, I just got more scars.
I spoke to my friend Michael Greene about his own camp experience. Unlike myself, he didn’t go back after his first horrible year. “We’d play these games that, on the surface, looked really fun and lighthearted, but when you look into them, they would all say, ‘Oh, this is just to show you how easy peer pressure is.’ But… they peer pressured us into playing those games!” he said. “It was really bizarre. There was this weird sense of almost bullying from some of the counselors. They were definitely very emotionally aggressive.”
During the film, the “cool” counselor Clayton tries to recruit Ian into his cabin so that they have a better chance of winning the blob competition in the God Games. When Ian resists, Clayton threatens him. Then, he grins and laughs. He’s just joking, he tells Ian.
It’s hard to admit I got gaslighted at camp because Weiner Wednesday just sounds so silly. Every threat to my safety got made into a joke. I didn’t recognize this as trauma because I was told church camp isn’t about trauma; it’s about fun. It’s about friends. It’s about God. And if you’re left scarred, that’s not God’s fault. You did it to yourself.
Come for the fun, stay for the guilt trip.
In my middle and high school years, I attended the flagship camp of Hume Lake Christian Ministries, located alongside a picturesque mountain lake just 90 minutes outside of Fresno, California. One of the largest Christian camp organizations in the world, Hume had just about everything a kid could dream of: beach volleyball; cabin competitions; rock climbing walls and a high-ropes course; a video game arcade and roller skating rink; ice cream shops; a swimming pool; and hours of daily free time to take advantage of all of this.
Oh, and there was a twice-daily mandatory worship service, of course. The camp staff actually patrolled the cabins during each service just to make sure no camper was hiding out, taking advantage of the empty campgrounds to smoke weed or fool around with another camper or even just catch up on sleep.
Years after my last week at Hume, I’m still sifting out what was and wasn’t traumatic because, in the moment, it seemed so lighthearted. Hindsight may often be 20/20, but in this instance, my vision isn’t so clear.
Those occurrences were rare, though, to my knowledge, because kids wanted to worship. The leaders at Hume went out of their way to ensure that church could be just as fun as beach volleyball and rock climbing. The worship band always featured young, attractive, white men dressed in hip clothes playing the hottest contemporary Christian music; the speaker always knew the latest slang and trends to talk to us youth. At Hume, church was, well, cool. Definitely more cool than ice cream, and roller skating.
At the end of the week, as we boarded our buses and drove back down the mountain, us campers felt “on fire” for faith, hyped up on our week of 24/7 Jesus talk. The wiser, older kids would warn us that this was “just a mountaintop experience,” that the real test of our faith would be back at home, when God asked us to testify on our experience at camp and share the Good News with those around us, even when the culture and Satan tried to shame us or tempt us.
Inevitably, we’d all fail that test. One day or one week or one month would pass, and we’d inevitably get mad at our parents, or masturbate, or forget to read our Bible. The feeling of failure would hang over us.
“Camp was often an experience of punishment,” my friend Ben Derk told me. Ben went to Camp YoliJwa, a Church of God camp in Newville, Pennsylvania, and eventually they began working there–until they got fired for coming out as gay. They told me, “When I was there, I would ask God for forgiveness for the year I had of lusting. Basically camp was a cleansing experience for me. I would go there and reaffirm that I wasn’t gay.”
The leaders of Hume exhorted us to be like Christ, but in the end, I was just the same old me. So naturally, I craved camp each year, where I could be cleansed of my sins again, annually renewing my commitment to God.
Hume’s mission is ”that each person coming into contact with this global ministry will accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior; grow in their faith and Christian character development; establish the priorities of prayer, Bible study, and Christian fellowship while associating with a local church; and devote their lives in service to our Lord Jesus at home and abroad.”
That may be Hume’s intended mission, but they’re also a business, and businesses generally need repeat customers to survive. By wooing us with the luxury camp lifestyle and then establishing themselves as arbiters of salvation–and declaring us all guilty before the Lord–Hume Lake Christian Camp got us teens high on Jesus, and we kept coming back for another hit, year after year.
Hindsight is the hardest part.
My friend Haley Balbi went to Hume with me. She’s straight, so she didn’t have some big secret to hide, like Michael and Ben and I. I asked her if she had any bad memories from camp, and she told me about Hume’s annual modesty song: “They changed the lyrics to a bunch of the most popular songs at the time to rules and guidelines about modesty. I could probably quote so many of the lyrics because they would post the videos or songs, and [my friend] Macie and I would listen to them throughout the year. For me as a high schooler, it didn't bug me.”
But then things changed, she told me. “It took me a really a long time to even start to think about how purity culture affected me and my thoughts and experiences, but looking back at it years later, I really think those camp modesty talks just perpetuated the message that as girls, our bodies were a source of bad rather than good because simply exposing our bodies could cause our ‘brothers to stumble.’ In that way it put a lot of feelings of responsibility and guilt on a bunch of teen girls.”
When we finally give up on trying to parse our memories into pleasant or harmful categories, when we finally realize that maybe some experiences can’t be chiseled down into simple categories of good and bad, how do we make peace?
This is perhaps the most frustrating part about all this: years after my last week at Hume, I’m still sifting out what was and wasn’t traumatic because, in the moment, it seemed so lighthearted. Hindsight may often be 20/20, but in this instance, my vision isn’t so clear.
Even some of the kids from the controversial 2006 documentary Jesus Camp feel conflict around their time at the Kids On Fire church camp. In 2016, The Guardian asked one of the featured children, Andrew Sommerkamp, then 20, to reflect on his time at camp. “Was it child abuse? Yes and no,” he said. “I think they had the best of intentions, but I see it as sick people trying to treat sick people. It’s their coping mechanism for figuring out why we’re alive. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, though, because it allowed me at such a young age to question my existence.”
But Camp Manna doesn’t feel conflicted; it feels at peace with all the clashing bullshit messages camp gives us. That tone is intentional. “If I’m in a room with a bunch of people who are pious about their faith, I feel extremely out of place,” Johnson told me. “But if you put me in a room with a bunch of people who are basically shit on the idea of faith and church… I’m often the one in the room going, ‘Oh, I don’t feel that way.’ Yea, that reality is different for me now, but I have incredible memories from that point in time in my life, and I don’t see any reason to go back and try to undo those. They’re wonderful, they’re just not for me now.”
"Not all stories end with an altar call."
Toward the climax of Camp Manna, Ian and his cabinmates perform a skit retelling the story of Jesus in Gethsemane shortly before his death. The cabin faces interpersonal strife, and they end their performance with Jesus being taken away by Roman centurions.
Frustrated, a camper in the audience stands up and asks, “What about the resurrection?”
Ian’s cabinmate Gordo snaps back, “Not all stories end with an altar call.”
In his book Postmodern Youth Ministry, Tony Jones tells of an altar call experience he witnessed while working as a youth leader:
"One night I was at a winter retreat with a bunch of junior highers and the speaker gave the bloodiest Jesus talk I'd ever heard. First he talked about a Russian woman who was trapped under a building after an earthquake, and she kept her two-year-old daughter alive by slicing her hand on broken glass and letting her daughter drink the blood. Then he went on to tell about Jesus' passion, filling in details that the biblical accounts leave blank.
"Finally, he said, 'If you want to be saved tonight, we love you, heaven is having a party, come forward and pray with a counselor. If you want to recommit your life tonight, we love you, heaven is having a party, come forward and pray with a counselor. The rest of you can go to the dining hall for juice and popcorn.'
These disingenuous altar calls transform the Gospel’s invitation of a liberated, new life into a competition for who looks the most pious. Jones continues, “This kind of emotionally manipulative 'evangelism' is an insult to the gospel – and to its recipients… Em Griffin [a professor emeritus of Communications Theory at Wheaton College] makes no bones about this style of evangelism; he calls it emotional rape.”
Like a rape, the damage can stay with you for years. During an altar call, “you’re telling someone they’re forgiven and they’re accepted if they do these certain steps, but what happens when they leave?” asks Machiela. “I think it’s really important to recognize the guilt and shame that is embedded in you from those moments when you’re not living up to the standard that was set in that environment. It lives with you, beyond that moment, all the way into your adulthood.”
But not all stories end with that altar call.
Mine certainly hasn’t.
Church camp was traumatizing for me, but I’ve found ways to heal. And after we’ve healed, what’s next? When we finally give up on trying to parse our memories into pleasant or harmful categories, when we finally realize that maybe some experiences can’t be chiseled down into simple categories of good and bad, how do we make peace?
Camp Manna shows that perhaps the answer lies in comedy.
“This was the first time,” Johnson told me, “we’d ever had permission to step back and go like, ‘This is so funny,’ and laugh at it, and also give ourselves permission to go, ‘OK, what of this is good and do we want to retain?’ No one had ever given us permission to do that before.”
Correction: a previous version of this article identified Camp YoliJwa as a Pentecostal camp. This information has been updated to the correct denomination.