I was 13 years old when I went to Hume Lake Christian Camp as a camper for the first time. I was there over 4th of July weekend, and I was still two months away from turning 14, and another three before I’d actually set foot in a high school. For a lot of reasons, I shouldn’t have been there, but my mother thought it would be an amazing gift for me to attend this legendary, amazing camp. It lived up to the billing in a lot of ways. The paintball, ropes course, the worship services, and all of the entertainment value was above my young expectations. But the experience damaged my faith and set my life on a course away from God for a long time.
It was the first night that a group of graduating seniors, all of them over 18 at the time, and my leader started what were essentially hazing-based, penis-showing games. There was a whole spectrum of jokes, gags, lead-ins, whatever. Wristwatches, sock runs, and on and on. It happened every night for the duration of the camp. I laughed along with my cabin mates and friends, most of whom I considered outcasts along with myself, a throwaway group of boys who were tagging along with the older kids. I was told to look forward to the days when I could do the same to a group of young boys. I was assured that it was all in good fun.
In me, there were questions about my sexuality that I hadn’t consciously put into words yet. I didn’t know what to do with that, and these grown men regularly “hazing” me didn’t help. When I expressed some concern to a leader, they laughed along at the revelation. Yes, he’d been on both ends of that, too. I shared my frustration, somehow knowing the blowback I would receive if I protested to loudly, with a female leader who was outraged for me – but then silenced by the rest of the group herself. It was a widely accepted tradition at my church, and apparently at the larger Christian camp. It was accepted years later when I was at camp as a senior once again, and we engaged in a different form of the same thing. Nakedness, in and out of our cabin, exposing ourselves to each other but especially to the younger boys. The Hume Lake leaders joined in the fun. In my mind at the time, I felt some sense of vindication, like revenge or something – I still don’t know how to explain it. I had evened the score by being on the other side of it myself. I paid it forward, and it felt good.
What ended up happening in me going away from that initial experience was a splintering of my trust for Christian men in positions of authority. I withdrew in a lot of ways, some of which I have yet to restore. It was a visceral breaking of my sexual identity and my sense of self. My safety and control had been taken away, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I didn’t recognize this situation as abuse until nearly ten years later. I started to wonder about whether I liked boys or girls. It created questions in my mind that I admit were already there on some level – like gasoline on some hot ashes.
I think it’d be one thing if it had been the camp incidents, and then I was left to clean up that internal mess later. It added another layer when the leaders and authorities in place enforced it. It was a tradition to be protected by my leader, he explicitly said as much. “If people start complaining about it, you won’t get to do all this fun, free-balling stuff later,” I heard. There are and will always be wrongs, sometimes even those that exist in “gray areas” at the time, but I hate that leadership is weak and slow to hear and protect the vulnerable. I was a vulnerable, confused, 13-year old boy, hundreds of miles away from home. My leaders didn’t hear me when I asked for help, for someone to explain to me why I wasn’t engaged with the hazing like everyone else was, someone who could hear on that level.
I share this partly for catharsis, and partly to say, listen to the vulnerable, the marginalized, the helpless, the outsiders. Listen on a deep level. Speak up for them. I see that there are a lot of strong, confident young men who could take some hazing and experience no ill effect from it. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t strong, I wasn’t confident, I was weak and insecure, and insecure in more ways than one. I needed someone to listen to me and speak up for me. There are the “let me speak to your manager types,” the litigious and vocal advocates who fill the ears of leadership in so many organizations, corporations, ministries. I doubt there are many leaders who have the capacity to lean in and listen to the quietly wounded ones. Please, be that person for someone. If you look around you’ll see them in your community. Notice and hear the outsiders.