Monday, July 18, 2011

Faith Walk

I loved girl's camp as a teenager. By girls' camp, I don't mean Girl Scouts--the LDS church does a knockoff version as a part of the YW program. In many ways, it's a lot like a regular summer camp. We had hikes, slept in tents or cabins, did crafts, roasted marshmallows, and went swimming. But it was more than just a regular summer camp; its primary function was to strengthen the testimonies of the attendees.

There were lots of reasons why I loved girls' camp. I've always loved camping, and I enjoyed spending the time with my friends. I loved the campfires and the goofy songs. I loved the late nights and the early mornings; we ran on sugar and goofball-ness instead of sleep. And the best part of girls camp was the "spiritual high," as we called it, that camp induced and that lingered for weeks afterwards.

In retrospect I feel profoundly manipulated by girls' camp. It was a tradition that every year on the last night of camp we would have some kind of huge activity meant to bring "the spirit" and strengthen our testimonies, followed by a testimony meeting. This activity could take various forms from year to year, but the most frequent version was a "faith walk."

It always started in the evening, an hour or so before sunset. It was the end of the week, so we were all exhausted from sleep deprivation and usual camp activities. Most years they built up to the final activity throughout the week. One year especially stands out in my memory.

This year, they spent the week giving little devotionals on various aspects of the gospel--repentance, exaltation, prayer, etc. Then on the last night of camp, they gathered all the girls together and then had us sing hymns while we waited. They guided us off in small groups of three or four, and we went on a short hike. We were instructed to be very quiet and not goof off with each other. At designated places along the trail, leaders quizzed us on the concepts we'd been learning about throughout the week. Our final destination was a section of trail that had been blocked off with a sheet. Here we were blindfolded and taken behind the sheet, and our hands were placed on a PVC pipe rod about four feet above the ground. We walked blindfolded down the trail using the rod to guide ourselves. The only sound was the sinister-sounding whispering of leaders playing the part of devils tempting us away from the rod. They would come up to us individually and whisper in our ears. It was not difficult for me to realize what the simulation was supposed to be teaching, and so I closed down my ears and pressed forward. However, I was nearly to the end when a voice told me that I had reached the end of the rod. I let go, and was immediately escorted to the beginning of the rod. This time I was determined not to let go, and I successfully made it to the end of the rod and my blindfold was removed.

The sight that greeted me is burned into my memory. I was in an outdoor amphitheater in the forest. The sun had set, and the amphitheater was lit by thousands of white Christmas lights and a small potted tree set up on the stage, also bedecked with white lights and hung with miniature portraits of Jesus. All the leaders were dressed in white. Since I was part of one of the first groups to start the walk, the amphitheater was mostly empty. I sat with a few other girls from my ward and waited for the rest of the girls to finish the walk. A boom box was playing hymns, and one of my friends next to me was sobbing.

After all the girls had made it to the amphitheater, there was a short devotional accompanied by some hymn singing, and we made our way back to our cabins as individual ward units. Everyone was very quiet and subdued as we walked back, and several girls were still crying. It was now completely dark.

After we had gathered around our ward campfire, our bishop gave us a brief talk and bore his testimony, and then opened the gathering for testimony bearing. All the girls bore their testimonies, and nearly all of us cried. I remember one girl who initially refused to bear her testimony, but she eventually caved under pressure--all of us sitting near her were whispering to her to go up. At the conclusion of the testimony bearing, a prayer was offered and we went to bed. That year we were sleeping in cabins, and we pulled our mattresses off of our bunks and into the middle of the floor. We fell asleep exhausted and tear-stained.

This exercise was repeated every year I was at girls camp, with variations on the specifics. Not every year involved a makeshift iron rod, but every single year we had a closing testimony meeting with intense pressure on every girl to bear her testimony. One year that we did do the iron rod simulation, the rod was a long rope. We were blindfolded as usual and led around the camp area. When the simulation was over, we removed our blindfolds but we did not let go of the rope. Instead, we carried it with us back to our campsite and continued clutching it as we sat in a large circle. We had learned our lesson: never let go.

3 comments:

  1. We must have gone to the same camp. You brought back so many memories. It makes me sick to my stomach. They really had us snowed didn't they?

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  2. I found the link to your blog from Postmo. I can so, so relate to the feelings of being, as you so accurately put it, profoundly manipulated. I came from a semi-active family, and nothing could have prepared me for that testimony night my first year at girls camp. Thank you for writing this.

    As an aside, I remember one year going to a girls camp at Martin's Cove--something to do with Pioneers. We pulled handcarts and everything. When I returned from what I had been assured was a monumentally spiritual experience, I was out running errands with my mother. A woman my mother knew took one look at me and said, "You must have just gotten back from Martin's Cove, too. You have that same dead look in your eyes that my girls do." And even though I was very tired, I still realized how strange it was that after such a "spiritual" experience, we would return with a "dead" look....oh girls camp. So glad I'm out.

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  3. I sorry that you feel you were manipulated. Does that mean that you believe your leaders were people who were manipulators? Do you think they had ill intentions and were trying to harm you, or do you believe that they were fouled themselves and were all leading miserable lives chained to their morality? I'm sorry, but I tried a "free" life for awhile and quickly discovered it only led to pain and regret. I believe that true freedom comes from aligning our lives with the Savior's.
    As for your exhaustion; If you read the scriptures you'll find that every prophet who had an experience with the Spirit came away exhausted. Our spirits and bodies are one and they have a profound affect on each other. Of course, a prophet doesn't tire from the amount of Spirit that comes from girl's camp. They've had years to exercise their spiritual muscles, but for a young girl, the reverence they might feel bearing their testimony for the first time, or among their peers can be spiritually exhausting. Just because a person is tired from girl's camp partying, doesn't mean their being brainwashed.

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