Looking For Love At Vacation Bible School

Looking back, I was kind of a Jesus freak. I went to church every Sunday and on every big holiday. From 1st grade on, I went to CCD, volunteered at church events such as the yearly 10-mile walk, performed in church plays (like Tales of Wonder), quickly graduated from being an altar boy to being a lectern, and was invited regularly to read to the congregation during the very well attended 9:30 mass — once, I even was asked to read the story of Genesis in the pitch black to a packed house during the Easter vigil mass. That was pretty cool, I’ll admit. This devotion lasted right up until my Confirmation and so it probably came as no surprise that I begged my dad to let me go to Vacation Bible School, although, I am sure it is a shock to anyone who knows me now.

The advertisement was painted on a sandwich board and stood outside a little Baptist church (for some reason CCD avoided discussing Martin Luther, and so I didn’t learn about different denominations until I was an adult) on the road to my cousin’s house in Medway, Massachusetts. I wanted to go so badly. It was as if Jesus was calling out to me through those hand-painted red letters. But that’s not why I wanted to go. My reasons were much less wholesome. Honestly, I was hoping there would be girls there. I was kinda in love with my cousin’s neighbor, Becca. Maybe she’d be there. And if not her, there would certainly be cute girls to flirt with — a chance at summer love and making out, or at the very least, some intense, sweaty hand-holding. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a bad person, but I wasn’t necessarily a good kid either. I was sent to the headmaster’s in 7th grade for questioning how a virgin could give birth. By 9th grade, I was often late to CCD because we’d sneak around back and smoke cigarettes, and by 11th grade, I’d dutifully go to church, sign in (yes, we had to sign in l) and immediately proceed to Giselle’s where I’d order a “Special, scrambled with white toast and homefries, well-done.” I don’t think anyone ever found out about that. I digress. The point is, I was no angel, and it is in this context that I decided to attend Vacation Bible School.

By this point, church had given me a polish and shine that I leaned to use to my advantage. All I had to do was play the game: keep up appearances, read a passage from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John or Paul (I was always confused that he never actually met Jesus, yet had so much to say about him), read my hymns, and take communion. I don’t mean that I used my status in the church in any insidious way, but I was aware of its value as a cultural currency. It gave me credibility in my white, picket fence community. that was especially important for me because I was a Filipino in a very white community. The problem was, I hadn’t earned that credibility. It wasn’t based on my character or my accomplishments. All I had done was go to the places my parents forced me to go to, and regurgitate the things that they told me I had to. I read the words, but I hadn’t written them, and since we were never encouraged to interpret the passages in CCD, I hadn’t internalized their wisdom. The word “Faith” could have easily been replace with “fear” in describing why I played along. My mom told me when I was little that Jesus is always watching you, and is always with you. “Even in the bathroom?!”, I asked. To me, that was terrifying.

There is a point to all of this. I recently was on social media and saw a former student- a student who I admire as a writer and thinker and human- and she had posted about going to Awakening Conference 2016, which is a very intense Christian conference targeted toward youth, and includes all kinds of live performances. Awakening Conference was held at The Dunkin Donuts Center at $80 a ticket. I immediately judged her. I was horrified that, she, such an intelligent, thoughtful, young woman, could be so easily led astray and exploited by this Christian organization. How did she pay for it? Did her parents send her? Then I remembered Vacation Bible School. I remembered how badly I wanted to go and why I wanted to go and I suddenly realized that I had no business judging her. Maybe, like me, she was still figuring things out. Maybe she wanted to be part of something new and exciting. She hadn’t been out in the world to see all the vibrant communities it has to offer- places where she would feel like she belonged and could feel safe and nurtured and loved as she traverses the path to becoming. Aren’t those the same reasons I wanted to go to Vacation Bible School, in a town I didn’t live in, at a church I didn’t belong to? The answer is yes…plus the hope of making out.

I don’t want to belabor the point. I think you get it. All of us want to belong somewhere. Some of us are not satisfied with the kind of community church can provide. Some of us are. Some need the abstraction of heaven and an invisible god, while others crave to worship only that which they can see- whether it is money, trees, or the rising seas. Even the rejection of religion gives community to those who share in their mutual rejection. We crave togetherness in life because we fear the prospect of dying alone. None of us wants to be alone. So we call ourselves Catholic or Baptist or Muslim or Democrats or Conservatives or radicals or Red Sox fans, and typically we identify as being part of these communities long before we have any critical thinking skills at all. The point isn’t only what we call ourselves but also why we call ourselves anything at all.

So, I went to bible school, because I didn’t want to die alone and it seemed like fun. I ended up making a plaque with a quote from the Bible on it. I think it was by Matthew and I remember the leaders having us burn the edges so when we mounted it on the lacquered wood, it would look ancient and as if it had escaped a book burning. I also made a birdhouse out of yellow pine. For years after that, I kept the birdhouse beside my bed. In it, I would hide my cigarettes, and discipline referrals, and notes from girls, and condoms that would inevitably expire before I got to use them. I never held a sweaty hand or even made a friend that summer. I don’t know what became of the plaque, and so in the end all Vacation Bible School had given me was a convenient place to hide my sins, which at the time was really all I needed.