What did you do the summer after you graduated from high school? Take a vacation? Go to summer school? Work a summer job?
I spent the summer hours away from home, serving as a Southern Baptist Convention summer missionary. I was 17 and felt called to save the world*.
Here are some things (from the perspective of 35 years later) that I no longer am:
- A recent high school graduate
- Southern Baptist
As a 53-year-old with a few more degrees and a certificate (somewhere) verifying I am a confirmed Episcopalian, this is what that summer looks in retrospect:
Door-to-door is an introvert’s worst nightmare
First, let me say that I think the definition of “introvert” has become a bit contorted as it has taken hold in the public mindset (although I trust most everything Jennifer Kahnweiler has written about it). For me, the most salient part is the fact that I recharge more by being alone than I do with being in room full of people (this is the case with my husband — ask me how it works out when two people in a marriage recharge in different ways!).
Despite the fact that my religious beliefs at the time and my concern for my fellow man led me to apply to be a summer missionary and to accept an assignment in Fort Pierce/Port St. Lucie, FL (hours from home), that hunger to serve did not make it any easier to knock on strangers’ doors and try to get them to accept the gospel.
I would stand there at the door, playing mental games with myself (“If they don’t answer by the time I count to 10, I can leave” … that kind of thing).
Staying at host homes is an eye opener
Staying in host homes was probably a burden for the homes (and a joy, I know), but it was one of the most growth-inducing parts of this summer experience for me. I had a lot of growing up to do, and figuring out how to function in other people’s homes helped with that.
I’ve lost touch with most of my hosts, but am still in touch to this day with one. Her daughter was 3 then and she has her own kids now. Time moves on.
Lack of clarity about roles
Something happened during my summer as a missionary that has repeated itself in other areas of my life subsequently.
One of the churches (we moved around — I think we were at 5 churches in 10 weeks — also 5 different host homes) was sending its puppet ministry to a workshop in Orlando. I asked if we could go. I am pretty sure they hadn’t budgeted to send two summer missionaries to this workshop, but they let us go.
We weren’t *this* creative but here is an example Christian puppetry at its finest — in the form of BETHLEHEMian Rhapsody:
The reason I say this repeated itself later is … I was presenting to our board at Healthy Kids once. I was situating the screen so the presentation’s graphics could be shown and I was angling it toward the audience. Our Executive Director somewhat dramatically indicated that the screen needed to face the BOARD not the audience of hangers-on there to observe the meeting.
It’s always important to think through hierarchies in organizations and to understand your place (not that there aren’t some times it’s worthwhile to push a bit to be seen/heard (or to learn how to properly coordinate a puppet’s mouth movements with the spoken audio)).
There’s no scoreboard for salvation
One of the biggest memories of that summer has to do with a day that we were out knocking on doors (sigh…) with a minister. I think this particular home visit consisted of the minister, another missionary and me. We talked at length with a woman, discussing her life and her spiritual needs.
She said she had a void in her life, and the minister walked her though confessing her faith in Christ and accepting Him as her savior. (The follow-up steps would ostensibly be her seeking out a local church and following through with baptism.)
When we got to the car — no lie — this minister pumped his fist and said (paraphrasing a bit — it was 35+ years ago!) “YES! IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME!” It became clear that he was keeping count and (more importantly) that as a minister he felt there was some type of quota he was expected to reach.
Now that I have more life experience behind me, I see in that woman’s “void” something maybe a little less spiritual and a little more human — she was a woman isolated in a suburb of Orlando (because yes we had driven to Orlando to expand our soul-saving activities), needing someone to talk to. We offered companionship and a promise of more warm fuzzies, not to mention eternal security.
I can’t say denominations don’t hold their clergy and evangelists to “scoreboards.” Any business, even the business of providing religious support/education/worship, runs on metrics. But something about that moment in time —- he was more excited to have another tick mark than to know that she had had a genuine change that would benefit her —- has always stuck in my head.
I have peeked into some deeper evangelical things and …. I’m glad my path went a different direction
I can’t say that the things I was exposed to this summer were the first time I experienced some of the activities that are more aligned with expressions of evangelicalism like speaking in tongues, talk of demonic influence and being afraid of secular influences. I still can’t listen to “My Sweet Lord” without hearing the hour-long audio lecture I heard in a high-school Bible Study about backmasking and that “My Sweet Lord’s” insidious Hare Krishna messages.
We went skating once — most of the summer missionaries and the children of our host family — just to have the mom come back about half an hour later to make us leave early, “convicted” that the secular music we were listening to at the rink was somehow corrupting us and leading us astray.
That summer was the first time I saw the fear of demons be manifested in an actual demon exorcism (picture a middle class living room and a chair, not anything you’ve seen in movies).
And although I think this actually tracks back to some camp I went to, and not my summer missionary experience, that time in my life definitely carried a heavy (very) set of messaging around purity. Even “fingerprints” (ahem) were to be avoided (more about how I evolved past that particular phobia here).
Faith evolves…and did I mention there’s no scoreboard?
There’s also no script.
Don’t get me wrong…I know there are “scoreboards.”
And I know there are scripts. I scored a 100 on my “Certified Witness Training” test (this was after the summer missionary period, to be clear) that demonstrated I knew exactly what to say to try to get someone to recognize their “void,” the verses to parrot to help them know Jesus is what they needed to fill the “void,” and the steps to take to notch another score on the “scoreboard.”
However, I have evolved as a human and a person of faith.
It would probably take a whole separate post to explain that evolution (although this post from 2011 details a slice of it).
In a nutshell, at this point I think the way I live my life — including trying to work my way out of messes and mistakes and the times I’ve offended others — says more than any script I’ve ever memorized. God will choose whether that added to His (or Her) scoreboard, not me.
Does faith ever call for a pause?
This is a bit of an abrupt diversion from talking about me (but YAY LET’S PLEASE MOVE ON FROM ME…..).
One of my favorite writers (and humans … and people of faith) is Sarah Thebarge, author of The Invisible Girls and Well. Sarah is more than an author. She is a medical professional, a cancer survivor and a Compassion International spokesperson.
Sarah is also, as she discussed in If Your Gospel Isn’t Good News For Everyone, It’s Not Good News For Anyone: Why I Signed #PledgetoPause, someone who has chosen to sign the #PledgetoPause.
The #CallToPause was created by Lisa Sharon Harper. Among other things it posits that, “Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination poses grave danger to the rights and protections of historically marginalized communities.” This is what Sarah writes about it:
Dozens of high-profile evangelical leaders have joined the #CalltoPause. And hundreds of others have signed the #PledgetoPause, committing to fasting and praying for American Christians to return to what God’s called us to: kindness, mercy, compassion and love.
While I don’t plan to sign the pledge (I’m too pro-choice to be comfortable doing that), I have to admire the people who are. They may have spent a lifetime in the environment I encountered during my 17-year-old summer, telling people there was only one way to avoid a life of damnation and being scared that a note of music or pursuing any hint of personal pleasure was a failing. And yet they are willing to confront “why the right-wing culture wars began in the first place: racism.”
In my opinion, talking to each other about a middle ground and placing more emphasis on “kindness, mercy, compassion and love” is the kind of thing where it would be fine to keep score, as long as the scoreboard goes to infinity.
I have linked this post with the Kat Bouska prompt “Who needs a vacation when you can spend your summer doing this…”
*I suppose some would argue I still feel compelled to save the world. Hopefully my attempts these days are a little less heavy-handed.
Wife of one, Mom of two, Friend of many. My pronouns are she/her/hers.