Katy Hershberger recalls the way her decade at Christian summer camp both shaped and condemned her views of faith and girlhood.
Katy Hershberger | Longreads | August 2019 | 25 minutes (6,207 words)
“Will you pray with us?” It was my fifth day as a camp counselor; I was 17 and the three girls who asked me were probably 12. The five years between us was a teenage lifetime, though now as adults, we could be classmates, colleagues, barflies on adjacent stools. Then, we were children. I pushed myself up from the cool summer ground. “Um, yeah. Do you — ” my voice cracked, “ — want to be saved?”
It was July 2001 in rural Virginia, the last night of Christian summer camp. A hundred girls sat in a circle around the campfire, the smell of embers and bug spray permeating our clothes. We sang praise songs, lifting our hands toward the Virginia stars, toward God. The camp director led us in prayer. Then she implored the campers: If you want to accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior, ask a counselor to pray with you.
A week earlier, I had graduated from CILT, a three-year counselor prep program. The acronym stood for Camper in Leadership Training, though Caring Imaginative Loving Teachers was printed on our t-shirts. I collected songs and games in a “resource file,” I taught a daily drama class during the week-long camp sessions, and I stockpiled readings and Bible verses for daily devotionals. I did not learn how someone becomes a Christian.
I don’t remember what the girls wanted to ask God that night, but it was, blessedly, not to be saved. We huddled away from the crowd, holding hands, and I stood above them, just barely the tallest. I prayed, my voice husky with uncertainty, and stared at the grass, glancing at the girls’ faces to see if I was doing this right. I asked God to help and guide them, and I silently asked the same for myself.
“I can’t tell whether my inclination toward ecstasy is a sign that I still believe in God, or if it was only because of that ecstatic tendency that I ever believed at all.”
A personal essay in which, after her grandmother’s passing, writer Sarah Betancourt explores Espiritismo — the secret religion her family kept hidden in their basement laundry room.
Sarah Betancourt | Longreads | March 2018 | 23 minutes (5,704 words)
There are things in life a Puerto Rican doesn’t talk about. One is the mesa blanca, or white table, in the laundry room, with statues of St. Michael, St. Lazarus, and others whose names you might not know. For years, I assumed leaving coffee in front of those other statues, trading out stale bread with new, and listening to nine days of prayers (la novena) after a death was just normal American life. Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time. By the time I was 9, I realized there was a reason my parents locked the laundry room door when white people came to our house.
The last thing I packed when I left Manhattan for Florida on September 12, 2015, was an old plastic rosary, worn and smelling of incense embedded in the yellowing nylon between each of the 60 beads. Seven hours later, I changed into a pink t-shirt in a dingy airport stall. My abuela loved pink. Twenty minutes after that, I was standing in front of a hospice, hating how bright the sunlight was, wishing away the flowers.
I didn’t recognize her on the bed until I saw the familiar grey blue of her eyes. I was hoping that in her mind, she was on a beach somewhere, maybe dipping her feet into the sands by her hometown in Puerto Rico, not here, in this bed, in this 50-pound body. My godfather puffed up his chest and said, “She’s been traveling this week. Seeing people.”
She should have been dead days earlier. Everyone said, “She waited for you. She needs to speak with you.” Her last words (“estoy cansada,” “I’m tired”) were spoken a week before. Alone in the room, I pulled over a chair, and touched her arms. She lay completely still, her drifting right eye trying to focus. I dipped a Q-tip in water to wet her hard tongue, brushed her hair as it fell like snowflakes on my hands, pulled out my Chapstick to give her lips relief. No reaction.
Catholicism was for Sundays; Espiritismo was the rest of the time.
I had forgotten that her solace couldn’t be found in the physical. Santa Betancourt had been a spiritual woman for every single one of her 94 years. As a trained healer in the faith of Espiritismo, she had people asking her to fix them, to solve their problems. Every time I saw her, I would greet her with un beso (a kiss) and “la bendicion,” not knowing for many years that it was more than a phrase of recognition, but a request for her blessing. I had never seen her ask anyone but God to heal her own pains. She hated going to the doctor.
I pulled out the tiny blue book she had given me, hoping that the complex religious words would make some sense. I placed the rosary in her hand and asked her if she wanted me to pray. I mentioned it wouldn’t be great — I had been agnostic for 10 years, and didn’t know what to believe. Her eye stopped swimming, and her finger moved. I pulled up the rosary on my phone, lay my head next to hers, and began.
During Pride Month, Emily Perper will be sharing stories from the LGBTQ community. This reading list is about the experiences of queer people of faith.
My city was one of many to hold a vigil in memory of the innocent lost to hatred and violence in Orlando a week ago. Christian, Jewish and Muslim community leaders spoke, one after the other, rallying the crowd into a frenzy of love. We lit candles and sang and prayed and cried. It did not resurrect 49 people.
I will be frank: I do not know how to live in the wake of this nightmare. I do not think I will ever feel normal again. As the poet Anne Carson puts it, “I felt as though the sky was torn off my life. I had no home in goodness anymore.” I stood on the steps of our police-protected vigil with my candle, afraid a hate-filled bullet would pierce the back of my skull. And if I, a white person, feel this afraid, then I cannot even begin to imagine what queer people of color, including queer Muslims, are feeling. I have included several of their stories in the list below. They need to be heard, loud and clear and often.
I’ve also included an interview with queer Hebrew priestess Rebekah Erev and an interview with bisexual Christian activist Eliel Cruz. Because of my work with youth in interfaith dialogue, I wanted to include representation from other Abrahamic religions. Queer people of all faith traditions deserve to know that they are not alone and that they are loved. Read more…