Illustration by Minna

For five summers in a row, starting when I was nine years old and ending at 13, I was driven by my parents to a camp secluded in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, and left there for two weeks. It looked like any other American summer camp: there were hiking trails, s’mores cooked over a bonfire, and casual Native American appropriation. But if you looked a little closer, you’d notice some oddities. While regular camp (at least as far as I’ve learned from the many camp-centric movies I’ve seen) is a place where you can take crazy risks in a safe environment, like having your first kiss by the campfire, or skinny-dipping after curfew (like Vegas for awkward teens—WHAT HAPPENS AT CAMP STAYS AT CAMP), our camp was all girls, and required us to wear one-piece bathing suits any time we went swimming in the name of “modesty.” The most badass skills we picked up there were those commonly referred to as “handicrafts”—besides constructing your run-of-the-mill “God’s eyes,” I mastered important life lessons like cutting and staining leather, shooting archery, throwing pottery, and composing a three-course meal over a campfire. No one really defied the rules at my camp; I think the worst act of rebellion I witnessed was when a cabin of girls snuck a crimping iron into the bathroom (no electric appliances allowed!).

What made my camp different is that it was a Christian camp—and I loved it. When I confess this to people their number-one question is usually WHY??? Was I caught shoplifting a graphic tee from Limited Too? Did my parents think that my Bratz dolls were turning me into a sexually deviant preteen? Why would I ever willingly want to spend my vacation in a place devoid of boys and full of neon WWJD bracelets? Although I did have a brief rebellious period during which I practiced such delinquency as purchasing a skateboard from Kmart and raiding my dad’s closet for Avril Lavigne–style ties, I wasn’t sent to church camp by force. My parents, who also sent me to a Christian elementary school, thought it would be a wholesome way to get me out of their hair for a few weeks, and I looked forward to and relished those two weeks every summer when I could at last get in touch with my spiritual side through intense scavenger hunting and Shrinky Dinks crucifix making.

Every morning each cabin had a short Bible study. We prayed before every meal. Then at night we had campfires, where someone, usually a counselor, would give a quick sermon—the subject matter was never too serious, usually just really positive stuff like trusting God to help you achieve your goals, or the value of helping others. Some weeks had religious themes—e.g., “Under the Sea” week, when we learned about the story of Jonah and the whale. I found these activities pretty boring, to be honest, but they were small price to pay for all the other parts of camp.

At school, I was always picked last in gym class. Other kids mocked my inability to climb the monkey bars. But at church camp, no one ever made fun of my physical ineptitude—or of anything else, because it criticizing others wasn’t a “Christian thing to do.” My camp had a tradition of playing this game called broomball, which is like hockey except with a ball instead of a puck and broomsticks instead of hockey sticks. During a game one afternoon, someone had the brilliant idea to appoint me their team’s goalie. Have you ever played Whac-A-Mole at an arcade? At first it was like I was the mallet and the ball was the moles—the shots flew past me at lightning speed, and there was no way I could keep up. Then it felt more like I was all of the moles and a room of pre-pubescent girls, who had just consumed gallons of sugary juice from the camp kitchen, were the giant rubber mallet. I was being pelted from all angles, and I felt totally helpless. I thought my team hated me. But no! My team started chanting my name. “GABBY! GABBY! GAAAAABBBYY!” I’m not going to lie and say that in a moment of divine intervention I was suddenly blessed with the skills of a broomball champion—we still lost, but the fact that no one resented me for it felt like just as big a miracle.

There is a good chance if you’re reading this article that you are teen girl or were once a teen girl or that you do now or have at some point identified as a teen girl, so you know that girls aren’t general conditioned to be able to express our anger in a healthy, straightforward way, which can lead to lot of really stealthy and insidious bullying (we’ve all seen Mean Girls, so I trust I don’t have to explain this any further). But Christian girls’ camp was like a crazy upside-down world where no one noticed (or at least no one mentioned) the frizziness of my hair or the tininess or my training bra, because they were way too busy hiking a mountain or embroidering Bible verses onto decorative pillows to care. We were taught the golden rule of loving your neighbor as yourself, which was especially easy when my neighbor lived in the bunk below mine. At the risk of sounding sappy, church camp was the first place I experienced that glorious feeling of unconditional love that you can have with a group of girls you’re not related to—I believe it’s called ~sisterhood~.

These days, I’m not very religious, though I still believe in God. I’ve lost touch with most of the friends I made at camp. And when I reveal to my current friends my not-so-dirty little secret that I was a church camp devotee, most of them react with shock, confusion, and alarm. I think they imagine that I spent my summers at a convent hidden in the woods. But actually, camp was just a place where I was encouraged to have fun, without pitting myself against other girls. Christian camp taught me this very basic feminist idea before I even knew what feminism was. I’ve held on to that part of camp, and it still feels like a miracle. ♦