Attending kids camps as a youngster was easily the most significant factor in my conversion to Christianity. I went to my first one in January 2007, about a month after I turned nine. As you can imagine, I was at an extremely impressionable age. Kids’ minds are like sponges, and for the most part, they will believe and take on the ideas, values, and words of trusted adults in their life. From the first camp I went to, I was absolutely enamoured with camp life and activities, cabin leaders, worship songs, new friends and in particular, my new friend Jesus. It all felt really independent, being away from home for a whole week.
I went along to my first kids camp with my cousin/best bud Hannah, who is the same age as me (I know it doesn’t look like it from the pic below, but she’s actually two months older). She and I had way too much fun throwing ourselves into the week of camp activities: from the epic waterslide, to archery, to the massive flying fox that went across the camp lake, to go karts, to horse riding, to the all in night games on the field. Then there was the faith-based aspect: the passionate preaching, twice daily worship, devotionals and bible studies. The worship sessions were like KidzBop concerts – they felt like a party. There was a live rock band, and every song had easy actions to follow along to. Every morning and every evening was a dance party for Jesus. And I loved it. It was exciting, it was fun, and I felt the adrenaline as we all bounced around and sang our little hearts out. Here, I was introduced to the song Redeemer by Planetshakers, which became my favourite worship song. I’m pretty sure my grandma (or my aunty?) then bought me the album lol. I could tell you what I think about that song now, but I’ll save that whakaaro for another blog post 😉
This kids camp was my favourite place in the world for the longest time. I met some amazing people through it, and even though I’m not in contact with the majority of them anymore, I wish them all well in their lives. I hope they’re enjoying what they’re doing and that they’re happy, healthy and all that cute shizz.
Life with Jesus
From that fateful summer camp onwards, I went to kids camp almost every single school holidays between the ages of 9-13, so roughly four times a year for a week at a time. I decided that I wanted to start going to church, because that’s what Christians did, and I wanted to get to know this Jesus guy more. At first, I would carpool with my aunty, then later on with a kind young couple in the church who lived nearby to me. I also signed up for the kids camp devotionals in the mail, and would get fortnightly letters filled with bible stories, interactive worksheets and reflection journals to do. Kids camp felt like coming home, in a way – it was where my faith was at its strongest. I didn’t have the same doubts creeping in like I did at home among my non-Christian family.
I learnt the rules of Christianity, and I did my best to follow them pretty diligently. I think a lot of that has to do with my Asperger’s/High-Functioning Autism diagnosis and my nature in general: at times I can be quite literal in the way I interpret and understand things. For example, I remember censoring bad words with asterisks when I journaled in my diaries and outright refusing to swear, and getting upset when my parents would. I remember talking to god in my head, asking him to help me find things when I lost them, and to help me control my anger. I think these rules brought me a sense of calm and a sense of order in my often anxious mind. As a kid, at night I regularly found myself intensely troubled by existential questions of meaning, humanity and existence. My Christianity, at that point in time, served to soothe those worries and uncertainties for me.
My church was a small yet hugely welcoming community, and gradually became a big part of my life. The congregation were mostly made up of young families, young professionals, and a few elders and grandparents. It was held in a vacant office space a few stories up, overlooking a busy road and a VTNZ, just outside of the central city. I loved Sunday school, especially when we got lollies for answering questions correctly, or that one time we went on an outing to McDonalds and I got vegetarian animal-shaped pasta (a very short-lived campaign lol). #gonebutnotforgotten
One of my favourite parts of church growing up was the worship bracket we would do at the beginning of every service. It was a contemporary band set up: usually guitar, bass, vocals, keys and drums. The worship band played at the front, song lyrics projected on the wall to the left of them, congregation with their arms outstretched, praising. Kids of all ages running around, crawling, peaking from sugar highs from hot chocolate and donuts offered during the break before the sermon started. I enjoyed worship in this capacity for two reasons: 1. everyone else around me was doing it too, so I didn’t have to be scared of being heard when singing, 2. it was a very freeing place to be, and the unity and spiritual connection I felt was soothing to the soul. Especially in the teenage years, my soul often needed soothing, and some semblance of rest and respite was found here. Here was where I felt connected with god, or the god I knew at the time.
I remember in the lead up to Christmas 2010, when I was just a month or so shy of thirteen, being asked if I would sing solo as part of the children’s music performance for the Christmas service at my church. The song was Beautiful Things by Gungor.
It must have been the first time I had ever been asked to sing in public, and to say that twelvie me found the prospect terrifying would have been an understatement. Our congregation was small, and as mentioned before was full of young families and yo-pros. The people were kind and good-hearted and not the least bit intimidating. In hindsight, my fear was somewhat irrational, but at the time it didn’t quiet my performance anxiety or pre-teen self-consciousness. I was just at the precipice of teenhood, and just starting puberty – not yet fully aware of all the tricky years ahead. I didn’t feel like I fit in with the other church kids both because of the age gap and because I wasn’t raised Christian, and I definitely related with and connected better to the adults in my church. I was the oldest by a couple of years out of all the kids. There were a few teenagers, probably aged around 15 or 16, who popped in every so often, but they didn’t attend regularly, and they were really cool and scary.
I still think that nature, people (how ever flawed and messy we may be, and however we got here), music, love and human creativity are pretty beautiful things. I can still get something out of that song, and it can still move me, ten years later.
(That was significantly mushier than my usual style here, so I will reign it in from here on out)
I sometimes wonder whether my old friends and mentors in my church community still pray for me, five years on since I left. Whether they think of me, like I think of them every now and again. I want them to know I’m okay, and that I’m doing good, and that I wish them all the best in their aspirations, pursuits and day to day family life. I would love to know what they are all up to now, and about the cool stuff that going on in their lives. Though the fundamental thing that originally brought us together is no longer a thing held in common, I still remember and reflect on that feeling of community and mentorship that church gave me: while I have felt those things in other parts of my life since, they haven’t been in the way that my church community provided that for me.
I want them to know I will never be militantly against Christianity, or any religion for that matter. I have a lot of respect for them and their faith, and I know that they are good people. While I definitely have some at times uncomfortable feels about Christianity, I am also aware that there is a spectrum to everything, and I personally know believers – many of whom are my friends – that are lovely people, are non-judgemental and as good as the next person.
As always, I would love to hear any whakaaro/thoughts from you. Whether you’re usually a lurker, or we haven’t spoken for yonks, or you disagree with my views etc – I’m very keen to have an open convo and just chat.
Stay tuned for part two, where I’ll kōrero about youth groups, teenhood with Jesus, and losing my faith.