On The Salvation Of Little Girls
Today I ate a piece of green-apple flavoured candy by mistake, and the taste reminded me of the time I watched my cousins respond to 23 altar-calls in a row.
Even though the three of us were cousins, and born within eight months of one another, we had nothing in common. Jen was tall and coltish with long red hair. Cherrie was as petite as Jen was tall and she reminded me of those tiny women who play Peter Pan because they won't break the wires. I, on the other hand, was a wire-breaker even at nine. Like Jen I was tall, but unlike her it could never be described as willowy. I had one of those Lolita bodies where the breasts rise early from the extra-yeasty dough and the hips start to curve. Our mutual grandmother, who had acquired our three parents by various (possibly nefarious) means decided that it would be good for us to go to camp together.
This camp, sponsered by her church, was set somewhere between vast fields of Indiana corn and was fully acceptable to any parent who didn't want their daughter exposed to dangerous ideas like boys and the wearing of pants. Having grown up with two brothers and several pairs of pants, I thought this was both overly strict and completely unnecessary. That aside, it was free and a chance to bond with The Other Cousins. I got on famously with the girls on my mom's side of the family, and really enjoyed the children of my dad's older brother. These two girls, however, were strangers to me and I was slightly afraid of them.
I didn't need to be too scared. Once it was established that Jen liked Starbuck and Cherrie liked horses, I figured the worst part was over. If I had to share my Richard Hatch crush we would have been in for a rocky week. I knew I was meant to be in charge, because not only did I have much better taste in men, I had also been to church camp. They, however, were both heathens, insofar as they both said "Oh My God" and didn't go to church. Jen's dad was some sort of travelling evangelist who dresssed as a pirate and carried a ventriloquist's dummy. I figured that while this might be a fine church pedigree in an ordinary person, the fact that the dummy was clearly the spawn of hell negated any bonus gold stars she may have gotten.
I was so wrong.
Other camps had teenage counselors who had fun make-up kits and Seventeen magazines stashed under their bunks. This all-girl Hallelujah Hothouse had tongue-clucking matrons staring down forty with hard-edged eyes. Mrs.'Think Of Me As Your Jesus Mom' Counselor started our warm mutual relationship by telling me she had known my father when they were kids and that I needed to wear a slip. Well, I had my own mom who would have laughed herself silly at the thought of a nine-year-old girl playing softball in a sundress in the first place.
Jen and Cherrie, on the other hand, appeared to have outfits you couldn't see through and were thus modest angels in comparison to the Nine Year Old Boobie Girl.
The fun continued as we had each of our multiple chapel services. Having been raised in a denomination that holds firmly to the controversial once-saved-always-saved position, I was in for a treat. It appeared that each service would not end until the pastor was satisfied with the Soul Quota. I comforted myself by counting the number of girls (87) and dividing it by the number who responded to the first altar call after fifteen minutes of badgering and 30 verses of 'Just As I Am'. Christian Story Problems! If nine girls are saved after one altar call how many services will it take before all present are enrolled in the Book of Life? I figured by Wednesday morning we'd be in the clear. Especially since I was already saved and hadn't yet, in my brief life, forsaken the Cross. Silly me. I hadn't reckoned on Arminism. When the same thirteen year old with long brown hair was saved in the first three services on Monday I began to cotton on. I also began to realize that I would need some form of amusement during the long prayer sessions. Herein is the origin of my 'any purse I buy must be big enough to hold a paperback book' rule. This book, about a beautiful girl who goes to Hollywood, becomes a prostitute, kills a man where he stands and winds up drunk in the New Orleans gutter was my best friend that week. The fact that it was a Christian Romance (she gets saved after the drunken gutter thing) meant that I didn't feel AS guilty. Then again, my usual bored-during-church reading is not as innocent as you would think.
Jen, who I think was probably sick of playing second fiddle to a wooden puppet, realized that there was some celebrity status surrounding the newly saved after each service. Other girls clamoured to know how it felt and you didn't get yelled at for having your elbows on the table at the next meal. Cherrie seemed destined to follow. All I ever did was read and write short stories about Richard Hatch in my Mead book, so Jen was the decidedly more attractive leader. Thus began the world's most protracted and dramatic conversion process. Each demand for sinners brought them to tears. Sometimes they would slip quietly out of the pew and down to the front for a quick prayer. Other times they would cry out from their seat and bring various counselours scurrying to our seats for urgent prayer. I figured all that mattered was being saved the first time. If they wanted the cool factor of repeated salvation it was no skin off my nose. Although I did picture God the Father holding back a rainstorm with one hand and annoyingly turning toward Indiana with a frustrated 'Not These Girls AGAIN!' What I hadn't considered was that next to the Aimee Semple MacPherson twins I looked like the original heathen. By Wednesday night, when everyone else had been to the altar at least once, proving the near-accuracy of my elementary math skills, I had unknowingly become the Mission Project for the entire camp staff. Keeping in mind that I was already saved and really enjoying my romps through the old testament in my Children's NIV , I was blissfully unaware of the impending crusade.
It began with a map to hell. Fully illustrated, it looked like a demonic CandyLand board game, with demons and flames all over the bottom of the page. The top part of the path led to heaven, natch, but you had to walk through The Cross. My counselor–suddenly willing to overlook my comparative state of undress–led me through the steps. When I assured her that I was already saved she insisted that it couldn't be true. I told her I accepted Christ after seeing a filmstrip about a Parable (earthly story, heavenly meaning. *ding* turn to next picture...).
"When was this? We didn't have any filmstrips this week." I started to suggest that perhaps that would have livened it up a bit and made things shorter. After all I was saved at the end a six minute audio visual presentation featuring squirrells. There had been no yelling about hell and definitely no choruses sung. Discretion being the better part of valour and the Hell Map being very convincingly drawn I decided to not press my luck. I thought she might give me a " Go Back Three Spaces" card.
"I go to a Christian School. It was in Kindergarten during Bible Week." (Yes, all weeks are technically Bible Week at a Christian School, but it only this one featured a new filmstrip every day. Most of the time we just got flannel graph.)
"Honey, that was a long time ago. You have backslidden since then." Her non-painted fingernail moved south on the curvy roadmap to illustrate what she meant.
"I don't think so. We don't have beer in our house." Seriously, that's what I said. The only time I ever heard about backsliding, it involved someone either drinking or playing cards.
The next night, in our evening devotions after final service she tried a different tack. Apparently the powers that be had decided to take my salvation on faith. Next came something I'd never heard of in my life.
"Honey, you need to be Sanctified." She explained the process of sanctification. I couldn't see how it differred in any way from my understanding of the Salvation I'd already experienced. Since it seemed to have already been taken care of by the Lord and it would make her happy to say she had an unblemished conversion record, I agreed to become sanctified. Little did I know that I would have to write a letter to my pastor about it. I have never felt like a bigger fool. I'm not given to sending letters to the Pastor. It seems a little Pauline. At nine years old I thought he had bigger fish to fry. But by this time my cousins had been saved a further six times and the heat was on. I sent what must have been the most bizarre letter, detailing my reasons for attending this decidedly non-Mennonite camp and informing him that I had jumped through an unnecessary Wesleyan hoop.
The next day was our last, and it was almost like the counselor had read my mind. We were going to have a movie in our closing service! A movie! I hoped it would have something to do with spaceships, but wouldn't mind if it featured a horse or a raccoon.
Since it was a movie and not held in the chapel we were allowed to bring treats. I spent the last of my weekly money on what must have been two dozen Sour Apple Jolly Ranchers. I hated this flavour, but Jen assured us it had something to do with catching boys. In between her salvations, my redheaded cousin was the most sex-mad person on the planet. Every discussion led back to the Rome of kissing boys, taking to boys, holding boys' hands. After choking down hundreds of these foul and nasty candies that week it occured to me years later that she was probably confusing them with the whole Green M&M rumour.
Our movie turned out to be–I know this will come as a shock–a cartoon about the salvation message. Some little boy built a boat, lost it on the pond and later came across it in a shop window. He saved up his money to buy the boat back. I cried through the entire second half as the little boy did chores all over the house to earn his boat money. Sticky green saliva mixed with tears in the back of my throat and I was miserable. I was also mad at the little boy for not putting his name on his boat. The whole thing seemed ridiculous and unfair. As bright as always, my cousins mistook my tears of frustration for a spiritual breakdown and urged me to come to the front with them for the week's final altar call.
I didn't go. Twenty-five years later I'm still saved (and sanctified). Both my cousins seem to have fallen a bit away, and I sometimes wish they'd gotten the Hell Map. Regardless, I steer clear of Sour Apple flavoured anything. Don't you just hate sense-memory?