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Jacqueline Alnes | Longreads | November, 2019 | 34 minutes (9,431 words)
To get to Kamp in rural Missouri every year, I flew from Jakarta to Singapore to Tokyo to Minneapolis to Springfield. There, my mom rented a car, picked our trunks up from storage, and drove my brother and me up winding roads to drop us off first, always first. The welcome party was a horde of college-age blond-haired, summer-tanned counselors jumping around in costumes: ballerina skirts over basketball shorts; children’s floaties tight around biceps; the beleaguered orange hair of a synthetic lion mane worn too many times. Without other kids there yet, a product of our early arrival, the party seemed surreal. I slouched in the back seat of the car. Maybe I could disappear.
“I can’t do this,” I moaned, though I knew deep down that I would. After all, I was the one who had discovered Kamp. A popular older boy on my swim team in Indonesia, one with crew-cut brown hair and a glistening set of abs, had bragged to the other kids about how much fun it was. I begged my parents to let me and Erik attend, so they logged on to our family’s dial-up internet. Years later, a search for Kanakuk Kamps would render a list of news articles rife with reports of sexual abuse and molestation, but back then it led you to its website, which only featured pictures of clean-cut kids splashing in the pool or standing on a kelly-green soccer field, their arms around one another. My parents signed us up.
“You say that every year,” my mom said. She turned from the driver’s seat to look at me, her green-blue eyes unblinking. “Come on, get out.”
“But this year I’m serious,” I whined. Though I liked Kamp for the lake swimming and kickball tournaments, it felt like a test of identity, one I never passed: to prove I was a good, Christian, American girl.
“Come on, Jaggin’,” my brother said. The counselors rushed toward the car, the chant of howdy y’all, get rowdy y’all growing louder as my brother opened his door. We said a quick goodbye to my mom, and Erik and I followed our counselors into the cavernous dodgeball gym.
“You gonna be OK?” Erik asked. Though I was 12 and he 11, he often took on the role of an older sibling in how he cared for me. Lecrae’s Who u with? Are you in it to win man? Are you livin’ in sin reverberated from stacked speakers. LED lights flickered a kaleidoscope of colors over the walls. Without Kampers, the scene felt depressing, like a birthday party no one had bothered to attend.
“Mungkin,” I whispered. I shrugged. My use of Bahasa Indonesian was a ploy to make him feel tethered to me, though he was confident enough not to need me at Kamp. When we were in America, the language felt like a set of tin cans and string no one else could touch.
“Please try to have fun,” he said, and walked to the boys’ side of the gym, where he pantomimed skateboard moves with his counselors. I wrung my hands and waited.
One by one, the other Kampers came in. They separated by gender, the way we would remain throughout Kamp. Boys’ and girls’ cabins were on separate sides of the property, our dining hall tables were on opposite ends of one long room, and parties were divided by an unmarked line on the gym floor. The only way I would see my brother throughout the week was if he passed my cabin on the way to somewhere else.
Girls began to populate my side of the gym. To me, all of them looked like my American Girl dolls at home, their noses perfectly freckled, skin like shimmering bowls of cream, hair wild and undone. They danced politely around me in their oversize basketball shorts and baggy T-shirts, all modest enough to meet the Kamp dress code. They talked about soccer tournaments and complimented hair braids.
“You’re from Kansas City, too? No way!” Two girls hugged, as if the proximity of their neighborhoods was a sign from God. I knew it was just coincidence. Girls came from the same hometowns every year: Knoxville, Naperville, Dallas, Fayetteville, Wichita, St. Louis, Tulsa. The city names sounded so American, especially prefaced by a suburb of. I often wondered what it would be like to say I had been raised in a three-bedroom, two-bathroom single-family home on Ashley Spring Court or Savannah Hills Drive. During summers in America, I had seen the miracle of glittering, planned streets, and I wanted them as my own. Instead, my family moved frequently. Before Jakarta, we’d lived for four years in Balikpapan, Indonesia, in a home we deemed the Vitamin House because B-12, our address, was sprayed yellow on our driveway.
I stayed away from the other girls, hoping they wouldn’t ask me any questions, especially about where I was from. I knew that my body — a gangly array of tanned limbs and blond hair cut to my chin — looked like the Kamp girls, but I felt split in half, like I didn’t belong. My vision of America came from the filtered peek I received each summer on our two-month trek through grandparents’ living rooms, the Mall of America, and cousins’ lush backyards. I fell in love with the silky green grass I was allowed to touch with bare feet. But I didn’t know the country well, not at all. I felt like a tourist in a land that everyone else said was mine, and though I’d been coming to Kamp for three years, the initial night always felt shocking, like a full-body plunge into ice-cold water.
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Smile, I reminded myself. Kamu orang Amerika.
Eventually, in the gym swollen with the noise and heat of nearly 300 campers and counselors, the Kamp leader who went by the initials of something like JP shushed us all over the microphone.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he crooned, like a poorly paid late-night radio host. “How are we all doing tonight?”
The Kampers cheered. I raised my voice in a half-hearted yay while scanning the boys’ side of the room for any sign of my brother’s freckled cheeks or the white-blond spot on the back of his head that marked him like a fawn. My counselor shot me a glare.
“Let’s play Who Traveled Farthest to Kamp!” he yelled. I twisted the edge of my T-shirt in my hand. “Stand up now, and when I name a state, you’ll sit down if you get eliminated.”
We all stood up. I tried finding Erik again. Most of the counselors were new each year, so maybe we could lie about where we were from. The bobbing sea of boy-hair left him camouflaged.
Half the crowd sat down at “anywhere outside Missouri.”
Another chunk crumpled to Kansas.
Soon, I could see my brother, one of only five or so of us left standing.
JP, wearing a bandana around his balding head in an attempt to look hip, dragged the cord of his microphone behind him into the crowd.
“Which one of you thinks you have it?” he asked. I shot my brother a glance, hoping my eyes would say we could pretend to be from Illinois? He gave me a thumbs-up, not understanding. He didn’t mind the attention; somehow his status as the Boy From Indonesia earned him extra credibility.
A boy with scruffy brown hair raised his hand. “Virginia,” he yelped into the microphone.
“Ooh,” JP sang. “Virginia. How long did it take for you to get here?”
“A day,” the kid said. I looked around. The girls in my cabin flitted their eyes at one another, impressed. Two of the other kids sat down. My palms began to sweat, and I rubbed them on the tie-dye I LOVE TABLEROCK LAKE tourist T-shirt my mom had purchased for me at the local Walmart.
“Anyone from further than that?” JP murmured. He swaggered toward me, and I again eyed at my brother: help. I was the one who struggled with words under pressure. On a family vacation to a different island, a man had approached me asking, “Where’s the slide” in a British accent. I’d responded “Disana, disana,” before he backed away, saying “SORRY” slowly and loudly. Sometimes even my tongue got tangled between lives.
“Where are you from?”
I wasn’t from anywhere, I wanted to say. I wasn’t allowed to be from Indonesia; no matter the fact that I had lived there for five years — longer than anywhere else in my life — no matter that I spoke the language, no matter that I no longer remembered what America was like, I could never be from Indonesia. I’d always be a white foreigner, the daughter of parents wealthy enough to live on the compound, holder of a passport from the USA.
“Jakarta, Indonesia,” I whispered.
The crowd went silent.
Is that in California? someone behind me whispered.
Probably, a different voice whispered back.
“That’s near Bali, right?” JP responded. I nodded yes, though I wanted to him to know the difference between the tourist resort town and where I lived. People went to Bali for a pristine beach, trinkets, and the idea that they were somewhere foreign, without ever actually experiencing the realities of the country. I wanted to believe that my years in Indonesia had been different. I learned to squat rather than sit while waiting for the bus, watched the snake man wrangle a spitting cobra into a cage, and woke each morning to the wail of a mosque, the prayers a soothing cadence. I wanted to tell him that I came alive in the rhythm of a place where I could never belong — but I didn’t.
He adjusted his bandana before making the hang-loose sign with his free hand. “Rad.”
The first days of Kamp passed in a haze of chlorine and a crackle of bonfire. One afternoon our cabin trekked from the soccer field to the volleyball court, where we had been told we’d get to play against a boys’ cabin. One of the girls walked next to Melissa, who was secretly my favorite counselor. Melissa was blond, tan, and wore a small purple sport watch on the inside of her wrist. Kampers and counselors alike were drawn to her intensely caring and exuberant spirit. Melissa was who I dreamed I might turn out like someday, when my braces and glasses would finally come off, when my hair would grow past my chin and cascade down my back, when I would move to America and change not only my appearance but also the part of me that grew anxious whenever I was around too many other people. I wanted to give tight-squeeze side-hugs like Melissa instead of turning away. I wanted to be able to love others without abandon, without worrying that who or what I was would never be enough.
Boys waited at the volleyball court. The other girls, out of earshot of our counselors, had whispered throughout the week about biceps and dimples and hunky hair. I wanted to participate, but even speaking about the boys seemed like a sin. As girls, we were supposed to view the opposite sex as brothers, protecting them from our preadolescent forms by wearing one-pieces at the pool, long shorts, and baggy T-shirts everywhere else. Plus, when I scanned the lineup, my actual brother was there. Only 13 months younger than me, he’d been assigned to my partner cabin. I raised my hand in acknowledgment. Without him around, I’d been able to pretend my life in Indonesia was a distant dream and that my small attempts at being social were equivalent to a queen bee rallying a hive.
“Melissa, you know we’ve got a star on our team?” the boys’ counselor teased. He and Melissa had been flirting all week in the way that only Kamp counselors could. They’d pass notes filled with scripture and make fun of each other’s college mascots. Sometimes Melissa left her long hair down after illegally drying it in our cabin, and she’d flip it over her shoulder.
“Is that right? I’ve got some stars, too,” Melissa said, her voice light.
“This kid,” the counselor said. He grabbed my brother by the shoulders. Erik raised his hand in a fist pump. I could tell he’d spiked his hair with water from the bathroom sink, and he was wearing the same shirt he had on two days before when I’d spotted him at the dining hall. “He’s a two-time I’m Third Award winner.”
“Wow,” Melissa said, her voice suddenly sober. The I’m Third Award was the highest at Kamp. As we were told at every meal, chapel session, Bible study, and worship time throughout the week, the award was named after the life motto of Captain Johnny Ferrier, a man who drove his fighter jet to the ground — and certain death — rather than risk killing others by attempting a safe landing. I’m Third meant God first, others second, and yourself third. By winning twice, my brother had earned a spot as a near-saint. “Well I’ve got his sister,” she added.
Melissa came toward me and I flinched; I hated to be touched by anyone. My face grew hot. In previous years, for my immobilizing anxiety, I’d won the Meek and Humble Certificate, an award allocated only to girls, because I had managed to spend a full week speaking only a few words.
“You must be pretty awesome if you’re this legend’s sister,” the boy counselor said to me. “And you guys are from Indonesia? Pretty cool.” I stared down at my white tennis shoes, the curly pink elastic laces erupting from them like confetti. I kept my head down, not wanting my cabin to suddenly gain interest in where I was from. They’d left me alone after the opening ceremony, and my international residence had evaporated overnight, the immediacy of what flavor Kool-Aid was available with lunch and who launched furthest from the blob in the pool reigning supreme as conversation topics.
But now, if the girls in my cabin realized, the questions would start: What is it like there? Do you live in a hut? What do the people look like? Whenever I was asked about Indonesia, I stuttered at the impossibility of what felt like describing another life. I didn’t know how to compare countries. As I’d left Alaska after kindergarten, my memory there was a blur of moose roaming the backyard and fields of fireweed coloring the mountains hot pink. Indonesia was complicated. I could describe my life as a child: To get to school, I scootered past monitor lizards poking their prehistoric heads from the drains; at recess I whacked my wrist against a taut tetherball, a crowd of caged gibbons behind the school chirruping me on; and in my backyard, I pulled ribbons of gray fading skin from the base of a eucalyptus tree to reveal streaks of pastel oranges, purples, and greens. But to describe who I was there and what that meant — a white American girl on a compound in Balikpapan, and now a girl in a gated, walled-off home with rotating security guards in Jakarta — seemed too big of a task. Usually I stopped at It’s different. In the rare times I did explain, people responded with remarks like, “They really live like that?” or “Whoa,” which made my stomach feel like it was ballooning toward my throat, all of me taut with failure.
Looking back, I realize now that at the age of 12 , it was difficult for me to navigate the glaring privilege of the life I led. Even now I feel reticent about my time in Indonesia, as I still feel like an outsider, someone whose words fall short again and again and again. Though I want to consider myself different from the tourists who collected trinkets and memories of time spent on beaches, was I? Am I? I spoke the language, yes, learned the customs, respected cultural norms, consumed local food, was invited into the homes and weddings of Indonesian friends, and tried to remain aware –– as much as was possible for someone in second to eighth grade –– about the privileges I was afforded. But I was also someone who attended exorbitantly priced international schools with other expatriates; lived in homes with marble floors and gated walls; flew to Singapore every other month to get my braces tightened; and, with my passport and family’s financial resources, could leave at any time. My memories of Indonesia are dual in nature. Sometimes I remember myself with compassion: I was a child who remained sensitive to the workings of the world, who tried her best to let love and respect lead her through the thorniness of privilege, place, and power. But other times, I remember myself with disdain: I did not deserve –– and still do not deserve –– the privileges I had and have access to; I am saddened that I, with my presence in Indonesia, contributed to a legacy of colonialism. But there is also this: I was a child. What agency did I have during those early years of my life, when I didn’t have the chance to choose where or how I lived? What grace can I give myself and my family, all of us wanting to respect the communities we landed in during our many moves, all of us seeking to nurture those around us in different ways? Now, it seems possible to hold an array of truths in my mind –– I was a source of harm and also did my best to make a home –– but at Kamp, I only felt a complicated tangle of emotions, with no way to parse them out.
At the volleyball court, the game started with the crack of a first serve. I positioned myself in the back corner, half-heartedly lunging for the ball when it soared my way. After the boys scored a point, I watched as my brother clapped backs and received noogies; he could speak the language of physical affection. The longer I watched him, the further away I felt. Was I the strange one for not belonging to both worlds? Here, he was revered for his awards, his ability to stir a crowd into laughter with his movie impersonations, his athleticism. And in Indonesia, he was a laki-laki, nomor one, praised because he was male, because he was blond, because his skin was porcelain. The men in our lives would ask Erik to help drive the car, give him candy, ride their motorcycles. I, on the other hand, was pinched and prodded at the market for showing my bony legs and tan arms, an anomaly in a predominately Muslim country. I was only a perempuan or gadis, a girl or virgin. My only wish was to belong somewhere, fully and completely, as I could in my bedroom: hair down and bobbing, my voice singing a made-up song in whatever language emerged, my legs and arms swinging with a rhythm I composed.
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Comp-e-tition! Woop! Jesus is number one! a girl with French braids and freckles in my cabin began chanting. The thwack of the volleyball from the boys’ side only made her louder, and a few of the other girls chimed in.
Awesome! Awesome! Hit ’em in the head with a big ole possum! the boys cheered back. Sweat trickled down my brow, and I whispered Jesus is number one just in case He was listening, realizing, even while I said it, that the reassurance was just as much for me as it was for God; in Kamp, surrounded by reminders that I should be proclaiming my faith, I felt even more compelled than usual to try believing. Both cabins grew louder, but when someone served the volleyball into a thicket of nearby woods, we all moved to sit on the wooden barrier separating the edge of the court from grass, tired. The chants quieted down. Some of the boys moved close to the girls in my cabin, a proximity Melissa didn’t notice because she’d run to help the boys’ counselor find the ball.
One of the boys, a mop of brown hair framing green eyes, turned to a girl in my cabin. “Ba-gus … sek …” My body froze. “Hey, Indonesia, how do you say it again?”
Erik leaned over from his spot on the barrier. “Say what?”
“You know, what you taught us.”
“Bagus sekali!” Erik said, and gave the boy a thumbs-up. I glared at them both, especially when the girl in my cabin giggled back.
“What’s that mean? You speak another language?”
“Kind of,” the boy said. He shook his hair so his bangs swayed to one side. “Erik has been teaching us Indonesian.”
I felt like taunting the boy, asking anda bisa berbahasa Indonesia? You think you can speak my language? The way he spoke the words made me angry, using them only to impress a girl. He didn’t know the cacophony of cicadas screaming high in the rainforest trees, the clucks of a dusty rooster, the high whine of motorcycles straining uphill that turned the language to music. And toward my brother, I felt something I hadn’t before. In my eyes, he had everything: the right clothes, Kamp awards, friends, and the ability to belong anywhere. Why had he given away a language that felt like ours in a country that didn’t?
When Melissa called us to go, I left without saying sampai jumpa to Erik. I was angry without fully understanding why. Usually my brother felt like a kind of home, somewhere I didn’t have to explain my past or present, but watching him give away part of what had tethered us together, our words made me feel further unmoored, as if I didn’t belong even with him. I felt like the long snakes that sometimes hid on the concrete wall near our home, only their flickering tongues peeking out from behind lush leaves of ivy.
A few afternoons later, during Flat-On-Back hour, Melissa called my name.
“Wanna join me outside?” she asked. I sat up in my bed, sentence half-finished in my diary, and nodded yes.
From attending Kamp so many years in a row, I knew that I’d been summoned for my Porch Talk. These special sessions spent one-on-one with counselors were designed for Kampers to share their testimonies or deepest struggles. In the past, I’d been so tight-lipped that my sessions had lasted only 10 minutes at most. A couple of the counselors had drawn me a picture of a cliff — me on one side, God on the other — and then filled the gap in with the arms of the cross, telling me that if only I accepted Jesus Christ as my One True Lord and Savior I’d be saved forever, lifted up to Heaven, forgiven for the sins I hadn’t been brave enough to confess to them. Usually, I took whatever paper they gave me, let them place their hands on the back of my head or shoulders as they prayed for me, then shrugged off their touch as soon as I could, returning to my bunk to write in my diary or read the Bible.
This year would be different. I had never told a testimony before, but I had heard enough at church services and Kamp to know the general outline of the narrative — doubtful sinner experiences a dramatic event, feels God’s presence, lays down life for Christ — and so I’d begun to devise one during the hours spent on the soccer field or swimming. If I could tell a good enough story, maybe I’d belong here as much as my brother did. Maybe Melissa would think I was special.
“How are you?” she asked as soon as we were outside. Another counselor and Kamper sat at the other end of the porch, their heads bowed together in tears or prayer.
“Good,” I said shyly. The wood slats of the porch beneath me whorled in what looked like fingerprints. I traced the grain with my pointer finger before realizing that I was supposed to be a girl brave enough to tell a testimony. A good American girl. I looked up and offered Melissa a smile.
“Do you want to tell me a little bit about your faith journey?” She sat cross-legged and leaned forward.
“I don’t really know where to start,” I said cautiously, which was true. I was supposed to be a Christian. I had been baptized in the Catholic church and served as an altar girl at mass for four years in Balikpapan, our parents watching us from the pews. The priest, an elderly Indonesian man, mumbled at the podium, so mostly my religious experience was knowing when to ring the bell, recite my prayers, and try my best not to laugh at Erik when he pretended to swig the chalice if no one was looking in our direction. My parents took my brother and me to church on the compound sometimes too. Church there, some sort of unitarian service, was more fun than the rigid kneel-sit-stand-pray solemnity of the Catholic mass, but I didn’t learn to distinguish between Catholicism and other types of Christianity until I was in my early 20s. To me, God was God. And as a child who took comfort in following rules, in knowing the “right” way to live and love, God was not only God, but also community. Believing in God — and adhering perfectly to every rule set before me — meant in my mind that I would finally find solid footing in terms of identity. The part of me that felt unmoored by moving so often during childhood took solace in the idea that I could be a Christian: something definable, something unchanging.
When we moved to Jakarta, we didn’t attend church because of a series of bombings that had happened a couple years before, but I tried my best to believe on my own, to quiet the voice in my head that said, How can you know for sure that there’s a God out there? In many ways, on the outside, I seemed like a Christian. One of my favorite books was Rachel’s Tears: The Spiritual Journey of Columbine Martyr Rachel Scott. After my fifth or sixth time through the book, I stood in front of the mirror in my bedroom and tried to convince myself that I too would stand steadfast in my love for Christ if ever a school shooting happened, that I would die for Jesus. I wore a cross necklace to school, chastised a popular girl when she told me my T-shirt had a “condom pocket,” and wrote worship songs of my own: You surround me, but with clarity or love? Do your arms wrap around me like the wings of a dove?
But my diary from the time wasn’t one of a steadfast believer. I flip-flopped enough between belief and disbelief that I had a codeword, “tnm,” that I would use to differentiate between my entries written by my sinner-self and “the new me.” Looking back, I realize that I learned the language of “new” versus “old” from Kamp, where they preached a fundamentalist version of being saved. While as a baptized Catholic I had technically been freed from original sin, the allure of Kamp was that I could choose to commit myself to Christ. In my mind, in the black-and-white thinking I often reverted to, committing myself to Christ meant not only that I’d be a Christian, but also that I would be “pure,” and that, if I prayed hard enough, I might eventually shed the shell of fear that kept me from wanting to be close to other people. I also believed that if I was Christian, my family would better be able to love me because I was “good,” not trusting fully at the time that they would –– and do –– love me unconditionally; I think I didn’t love myself enough at the time to be able to recognize that. If I believed in God and tried hard enough, as I was taught at Kamp and in sermons, I might be comfortable with greater levels of emotional intimacy, be able to articulate the complex struggles I experienced with identity, or be happier. When I look back at myself from where I am now, I see my fears –– my fear of emotional intimacy, physical touch, my desire to have someone at Kamp tell me I was “good” –– sprang from a lack of self love. I internalized so much guilt about who I was as a foreigner living in Indonesia, about not being able to believe without doubt, and about my shortcomings as a person, that I was afraid to be close to anyone for fear they would see too much of me and dislike me as much as I did myself. I thought religion could save me, give me worth.
For these reasons, I tried my hardest to believe. But “the new me” entries in my diary only lasted a few days, sometimes a week after Kamp, and then I would unravel and make a mess of my newly-saved self. I would still follow the rules of Christianity I’d been taught like modesty and no physical intimacy with boys, but the pulse of true belief often faded away, leaving me feeling muddled. I began to hate myself for not being able to believe like everyone else at Kamp and church seemed to, as if my lack of faith was just another personal failure. During one of these confusing periods, I wrote: I guess you could call me Christian, although if writing solely for myself, I only read the Bible in hopes of making a connection in my life, trying to see the way out of my lonely Friday nights, trying to let my parents love me. Right now I’m stuck, like when you’re driving in a car through a long tunnel and you can’t see the light on either side. It’s the place in tunnels where most cars crash, I think.
“That’s OK,” Melissa said. Her pen hovered over the blank page of her notebook. “What do you struggle with most in your faith?”
“Doubt,” I responded honestly. Whereas I aligned myself with Thomas of the Bible, needing to see something before believing it, my brother believed in the unseen. He’d once claimed to see the cherry red of Santa Claus’s suit disappearing into our bathroom in Alaska, and he would keep his belief until he was 12, my mom breaking the news to him in tears. I, on the other hand, had questioned Santa’s existence at the ripe age of 5. On a piece of computer paper, I had calculated the route for my mathematician dad, telling him that it was physically impossible for a Santa to fly around the world, especially if he stopped to eat cookies.
“Why do you doubt?” Melissa asked. Part of me withdrew, not wanting to give any more about myself away; I had not told any other counselor that I doubted, because I wanted to be a good Kamper. But something about Melissa made me want to talk. If she kept my secrets in her notebook, maybe I would mean something to her. Though I shied away from physical affection, my story in her notebook would seem like a kind of closeness, an emotional intimacy I could handle.
“It’s complicated,” I said, and I twisted a chunk of my shirt between my fingers. How could I explain something that I hadn’t been able to put words to in my own diary? The doubt itself was complicated, a gnarly-rooted plant taking hold somewhere deep within me: How could there be a One True Christian God if outside my home every other person believed just as fervently in Allah? How could Christianity be the only thing that was right and real if another set of people sang their own beautiful prayers? I felt like Thomas; I couldn’t believe without seeing a scarred palm. During those years, I often begged God to show me a miracle, a form of proof that He existed, something like a meteor flaring across the night sky. I had heard testimonies from visiting pastors about dramatic moments in their lives –– God showing Himself by saving them from drowning after a fishing boat capsized or sending them a friend when they were at rock bottom in their life or putting their cancer in remission after doctors said it was incurable. I wanted a sign like that, but I’d been met with silence, which I interpreted as a message from God that I needed to trust Him, even in the absence of a miracle. I tried my best to dampen my own misgivings, for my faith wasn’t just a means of community or identity; it was also a form of absolution. During a time when I felt perpetual guilt –– over my inability to believe fully in God, my presence in Indonesia as a foreigner, the sadness I saw in my mom’s eyes when I winced during our rare hugs, and my inability to understand why physical touch was so impossible for me though I’d only ever been treated with love –– Christianity offered a salve. I could be pure, no matter how often I stumbled through the complexities of life. I could be good, no matter how often I internally berated myself for not being good enough. This is why I kept trying to believe: I wanted the feeling of salvation to wash over me again and again. I wanted to be clean.
A few months before Kamp started, I woke on our usually quiet street to the sound of motorcycles chuffing down the road, voices shouting, and the familiar crackle of a morning prayer vibrating over a loudspeaker. I left my bed and padded over to my brother’s room across the hall.
“You want to see what’s going on?” I asked, shoving him awake. He opened his eyes and looked up at the broken ceiling panel above him, one that had collapsed in the middle of the night weeks before from the weight of a dead rat and thousands of maggots, all of them raining onto his bed.
“Mom said to stay inside,” he mumbled. Usually he was braver than I was, not afraid to break the rules if he was sure he wouldn’t get caught. He drank Coca-Cola from the fridge while Mom was gone and threw the empty cans into a construction zone next door.
“Come on,” I said. “I wanna see.”
He slouched out of bed and the two of us made our way to the front room of the house, where a balcony on the second floor overlooked the neighborhood park. The park was nothing more than a dusty patch where no house had been built, but that day it was to be transformed into the local site of slaughter for Idul Adha, a holiday celebrating Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his own son and Allah’s subsequent grace in killing a sheep instead. Already, this early in the morning, throngs of people milled about, and goats brayed loudly. Some of the animals had plastic bags tied over their heads. I pinched my wrist to keep my eyes from welling up.
“Whoa, they’re gonna do it,” my brother said, nudging me to look toward the edge of the park, where a long knife glinted in the sun. A group of people flipped a goat onto its side and it wriggled in the dirt. They chanted a familiar prayer while they tugged limbs into place and steadied the head. The man with the knife aimed toward the throat, and soon bright red blood seeped from the goat’s neck and into the ground, the crowd voicing praise. I watched as the goat was hung with a rope from one of the park’s feeble trees, blood dripping down.
Later that day, our doorbell rang. One of our security guards, a man with a face that looked not much older than mine, was waiting outside. Usually he joked around with Erik, the two of them throwing wiffle balls at each other over our tall gate, but that day he was somber. In each hand he held a steaming bowl of meat, rice underneath.
“I share goat with you,” he said slowly in English. “As Allah waters ground, may he bless you.”
My mom took the bowls in her hands. We thanked Effrianto and told him to have a happy holiday. When he’d gone, we put the meat on our dining room table. My mom and I, largely vegetarian at the time, didn’t care to eat it, and it went untouched by my brother and dad as well. We left it out on our dining room table the rest of the day, I think as a sign that even though we didn’t partake in the meal, we respected it, communed with it at our table. We all seemed to recognize that it was far more than just food. In a sense, it seemed like a moment representative of inequity that roiled under the surface of our lives. There was something I couldn’t name, at 12 years old, about the stark differences in not only religion, but also in class and race that unsettled me while living in Indonesia: a child roaming the streets barefoot while the heels of my feet kissed cool marble; the stooped older women hawking meager vegetables across the street from machine gun guards who stood stiff outside the gates of my school. My whiteness and wealth perturbed me the older I grew, and I begged always to move back to America, as if that would erase the world’s disparities, as if that would absolve me of my guilt.
On Idul Adha, with the goat on my family’s table, I felt stronger than ever the notion that Christianity couldn’t be the only acceptable religion. According to my Bible, Effrianto would perish in flames because he didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, but how could that be when his act was more generous than any act I’d seen in my own religion? In that moment, I felt torn between believing in a Christian God and admitting to myself that I was stuck in some kind of limbo. But with Melissa in front of me, two hair ties around her wrist, a pearly white smile, blue eyes that looked at me searchingly, I wanted to be a Christian, to forget about all the confusion and adopt what I thought might be a normal, easy identity: a girl who believed in God, a girl who might one day live on Enchanted Crossing Lane in a suburb of some American town.
“Have you accepted Christ as your savior?” Melissa prompted. I was aware that long minutes of silence had passed between us, but I never knew how to articulate the storm of identity that raged in me whenever I left Indonesia behind.
“Actually, I have,” I lied. Though I’d tried over and over to commit myself to Christ, using the language I’d heard others use, writing a contract in my diary and signing my name, I didn’t actually believe.
“I’d love to hear your story, if you’re willing to share,” Melissa said. She flicked her pen between her fingers.
“On Christmas Eve we were on a flight from Jakarta to Thailand. When we landed, everyone in the streets were gathered around television sets in the windows of shops. There was footage playing that looked like a horror movie — waves taller than buildings smashing into land, houses crumbling, streets turned into brown rivers, people screaming. We watched with everyone else, but we couldn’t understand Thai so we walked to our hotel, not knowing what had happened or where, not knowing if the scenes were a movie or real life,” I said, all of the information true. We had been flying that night, we had landed and seen footage from the tsunami, we had received dozens and dozens of phone calls from family members calling my dad’s work cell phone to see if we were alive.
“Wow,” Melissa said softly.
“We had planned to go to Phuket for Christmas, a town that got hit hard, but my dad had picked Chang Mai at the last second,” I said, as my last truthful statement. “For months before the tsunami, I had prayed and prayed for a sign that God was real. Show me, I begged. I wanted to know that He was real. In that moment, in the hotel room, with my dad receiving phone calls from people wondering whether we were alive or not, I began to realize that God must have saved me and my family for a reason.”
I began to cry in front of Melissa, though I hadn’t planned on it. Part of my sadness probably did come from the experience of the tsunami, an event I hadn’t really processed. To hear my grandmother’s voice warble into tears over the long-distance line when she heard my voice, alive, was unsettling. Later, to write letters in school to survivors in Aceh felt like a cruel trick, something to remind me of how useless I was in helping anyone actually heal. What could the words of an American girl with a life, a school, a home, and a family do when so many tangible walls and meals were needed? I felt terrible that I, of such little faith, had survived a storm for no clear reason. And the idea that I’d just used such a devastating event as a lie made my shoulders shake harder with grief.
Melissa, of course, took my tears as relief that I’d finally told someone my testimony. She rubbed my back with her palm and scooted closer to me. I didn’t move away.
“God kept you alive for a reason,” she said. “You’ve been blessed with a servant’s heart and an opportunity — there’s an entire country of nonbelievers around you. You are a light.”
I nodded and tried to smile through my tears. Wasn’t this what I had dreamt of when I read Rachel’s story? That I would save others from damnation and defend my faith? In that moment, I wanted so desperately to feel as though my life had changed, as though I could be absolved of my guilt and my failings. I wanted some sign that I was moving through the world in the right way, as Christianity seemed to promise would happen if I believed fervently enough. Instead, my stomach churned with the ghost of greasy meat gone sour.
At Kamp’s last supper, the entire dining room was silent. No kitchies stood on the counter to stir batter and belt Disney songs, no one squabbled over the last hot limb of fried chicken in our basket, no one broke into the familiar cheer don’t gimme no pop no pop don’t gimme no tea no tea, just gimme that milk moo moo moo, just gimme that milk moo moo moo. The only sounds in the room were the crinkle of oily parchment paper in the chicken basket, the squish of jelly as I swirled my knife to make a sandwich, and the tap of an anxious Kamper’s foot against the floor. We were all supposed to be quiet in order to prepare our minds and hearts for what was coming next, an event called Cross Talk. I nervously glanced at the boys’ side in an attempt to find Erik, who I hadn’t seen since the volleyball game, but his small frame remained hidden.
JP entered the room, unadorned. He looked smaller or wearier somehow without a bandana on his head or microphone in hand. “Let us bow our heads. Lord, we call upon you to descend upon this place, to enter the hearts of each and every one of these Kampers,” he said. I wasn’t used to an earnest, sober JP. Usually he spoke in his own form of Christian slang. He referred to his wife as “Wifey” rather than by her name, which all of us girls found titillating, and called new believers “baby C’s.”
“Tonight, Lord, we have the opportunity to come to you, to lay down our sins and failings and ask you into our hearts. I pray that each Kamper here receives you,” he said. I clenched my eyes shut tight, feeling that he was speaking only to me. “I know there is doubt in this room, Lord. I know there are souls heavy with wrongdoing. This is the night to give those burdens up to You, because You alone Lord can save, and You alone Lord can heal.”
He closed his prayer. As we did every year on this night of Kamp, we followed JP down the main road, stopping every so often to watch different scenes from Jesus’ last days on earth. In one, two female counselors had wrapped sheets around their bodies as dresses. One woman, playing Martha, busied herself by clanging pans and pots from the kitchen. Mary sat by Jesus’ feet, listening to his every word. Do not be distracted by many things, Martha, Jesus said. There is only one important thing, and Mary has chosen it. Mary began to wash Jesus’ feet and I was struck by the intimacy; I hadn’t seen anyone give affection at Kamp besides same-sex side-hugs, and the moment between Mary and Jesus felt tender. What if there had been an actual Jesus? What if I had been denying his dusty feet? His stories? I was surely Martha, worrying about whether or not I’d get to shop at Limited Too or not during prayers, comparing the lush blond and silky brown hair of my middle school crushes during worship. As we walked along the road to watch the Last Supper, I realized I was probably Judas, too. I had betrayed Indonesia to get a foothold at Kamp, and I had betrayed my supposedly Christian faith by lying to my counselor. I had been jealous of my brother, coveted the clothes of my cabin mates, and harbored a false belief in Jesus. As Judas turned away from the table, clink of heavy coins in his cloak, I began to cry, suddenly overwhelmed by my transgressions.
Dusk settled in over the tallest limbs of trees as we made our way to the kickball field. The night was quiet aside from siren songs of cicadas and the low rumble of a generator. A spotlight illuminated a wooden cross that nearly reached the height of the tall backstop fence. We filed in and took our seats on the dewy grass of the outfield. No one spoke.
From somewhere in the dark, I heard the sound of skin being slapped. Thwack. Thwack. Crucify him, a man yelled, and a chorus of voices joined in.
Away with him. King of the Jews? Thwack.
Messiah? Thwack. Save yourself.
I crumpled my shirt in my hand. From somewhere near the front, I heard soft, low sobs.
Jesus, surrounded by a pack of angry, shirtless men, was brought to the front of the kickball field. His chest was ribboned with red welts that looked too realistic from where I sat. As Jesus was kicked and beaten by the other men, I cried.
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing, Jesus said. His head slumped to one side as the other men lifted him to the cross.
If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself, the men yelled, slapping him once more. I heard myself in their jeers and began to shake with grief. Here, now, after telling a testimony, sitting in front of a life-like Jesus, shouldn’t I finally feel as though I could accept Christ in my heart?
Jesus’ body crumpled on the cross, his arms extended. Father, into your hands I commit my spirit, he whispered, and the spotlight was shut off, leaving us all in the dark. I heard the murmurs of sadness around me: sniffle of a nose, choked gasp of a sob. The counselors weren’t supposed to comfort us during the ceremony, so we all curled into ourselves, hugging our knees and wiping our tears with the backs of our hands.
A few minutes of silence passed, and the spotlight kicked back on. Jesus, wearing fresh white robes, stood blood-free and smiling on the cross. “Tonight you have the opportunity to accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior,” Jesus said.
JP rolled a whiteboard onto the field and left it by the cross. On the other side of Jesus, a few counselors gently set a towering bell on the ground. “Confess your sins. Lay down your life for Christ. Ring the bell of salvation,” JP said. Soft worship music began to play — guitar chords, humming, and the song of Jesus we need you — and Kampers began a mass migration to the front of the field.
I could guess what each of the girls in my cabin was writing. A few evenings before, at Campfire Night, we had been encouraged to voice our sins. Some girls wept when they confessed what they perceived to be wrongdoings: having a crush on a boy who wasn’t Christian, posting pictures to MySpace that weren’t Kamp-approved, wearing immoral clothes to school, or dancing to “Genie in a Bottle.” One girl’s story has stayed with me through all these years. The whole week, I thought she had everything. She was beautiful, had a steady Christian boyfriend, and lived in Kansas City. On Campfire Night though, she wept as she told us about how her boyfriend had sprinkled rose petals on her bed for their first anniversary and begged to touch her. He had pawed at the button of her jeans until she complied, telling her they’d break up if she didn’t submit to him. Our counselors responded by asking if she was wearing makeup, or if she’d thought about her clothing choices, and the girl sobbed even harder as she described her short jean shorts.
All of us were harmed in some way by that circle. I realize now that the identity I so longed for — that of a simple American girl — was only a mirage. The actual lives of my fellow cabinmates, if only I had stopped to listen, were filled with grief and complication. I wish now that I could return to that place. I would tell each girl that their worth came not from men or God or what they kept hidden, but from the innate and fierce beauty of their independent hearts and minds.
The night of Cross Talk though, they penned their wrongdoings on the whiteboard. They knelt by Jesus’ feet and raised their hands to the heavens.
I sat frozen on the grass. I felt like I would burst with the impossible decision in front of me. To stay seated in my spot would mean that I wasn’t a true believer; I might go to hell, and Melissa might sense that my testimony had been a lie. Jesus’ bodily sacrifice on the cross — a violence that had just played out in front of me — would be wasted. But to walk to the front of the field, to list my sins and ring the bell of salvation felt fraudulent. To do so would be to claim a Christian God as being the only one true God, renounce other people’s beliefs as false, and reduce an entire country to the category of “nonbelievers,” elevating myself in not only race and class but religion as well. I did not believe in Islam, but I did believe in the earnestness of the daily calls to prayer, the immense, undeserved generosity shown to me, and the footage of hands raised to sky or heads bowed toward the ground after the tsunami.
I sat and wept into my knees. Years later, I would want to reach out in time to hold that young girl’s hand in mine, lead her away from the dramatic, manipulative ploy unfurling on the kickball field, and tell her that her worth as a person — as a girl, a daughter, a citizen of any country— did not depend on whether or not she rang the bell that night, on whether she believed at all. I would let her know that Indonesia — all of its immense beauty, its complications — would remain with her, blooming in strange turns of guilt and desire. Some mornings, before dawn, she would ache for the melody of a long-gone adhan, and her tongue would speak the language of a place she never belonged. She would grow up to assert herself in the world as a woman. She would become someone who made her own thoughtful decisions about who to love and how, someone who settled for nothing less than equality and respect in relationships. She would find her own church, one where the footfalls of a long run became prayer, birds chittering in the trees a sermon, the dappled sunrise above a form of miracle. But there, in that moment, my only options were to ring the bell or not.
A figure stepped gingerly across the dark grass toward me. Erik squatted next to me on the grass.
“Can I give you a hug?” he asked. His cheeks were shiny with the residue of tears. I nodded yes. When he wrapped his arms around me, I was reminded of how small he was, how young still. Despite his ability to make friends, despite the show of bravery he put on to prove to me that everything would be OK wherever we went, I realized he must feel some of the anxieties related to identity that I did. Though he was pak and nomor one and a boy at Kamp, those labels came with their own outrageous expectations of what it meant to be a man. None of them involved crying on his sister’s shoulder when he was supposed to be accepting Christ into his heart.
“Apa kabar?” I asked.
“Sad,” he whispered. He looked around furtively for a counselor. “I don’t know what to do.”
“Saya juga,” I said in agreement. “I’ll go up there with you if you want.”
He nodded, and we made our way to the whiteboard. I couldn’t think of any sins that I wanted to confess to all of Kamp. Was confusion a sin? Doubt? Mistrust of this choreographed night? Because I couldn’t see any options other than believing in Kamp’s version of God or eternal damnation, I hated myself for not being able to believe. The bell began to ring, cheers rising up after. Another one saved! Hallelujah! My stomach turned.
Erik wrote on the board and asked me to come with him to the bell. We stood in a line as Kampers, one by one, often guided by their counselors, pulled the worn rope. Too many people were around for me to ask Erik if he actually wanted to, but years later, far enough away for us both to probe the past, he would tell me that he thought if he rang the bell, it would mean he belonged to something. It was only then that I remembered his struggles with friendships in Indonesia; he had one good friend at school, but other boys made fun of him because he was not aggressive enough, didn’t wear Quicksilver shirts, and cried too easily. At Kamp, he was a hero, his sensitive heart elevated by counselors who saw how he took the trays of other boys after dinner or the way he ran across a soccer field just to make sure I was doing OK.
When my brother made it to the front of the line, his counselors appeared and prayed over him. I slunk back into the shadows, where I held my arms around myself and looked up at the night sky. Constellations usually covered by Indonesia’s smog began to emerge from memory: Orion’s belt blazing bright, Lyra’s lines transforming into imagined chords. I tried to lose myself in the rigid boundaries of ages-old light. Around me, Kampers hugged one another, inconsolable. Even after being saved they wept, and I couldn’t tell if their tears were those of relief or anxiety. I listened as Erik rang the bell, one note within the music of other repentant hearts, a song of salvation that I couldn’t bring myself to sing.
Jacqueline Alnes is working on a memoir about running and neurological illness. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter @jacquelinealnes.
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross