Chrys Stevenson on the “school chaplains” issue.

Back in high school–way before any of the current debate about whether it’s okay to use tax dollars to fund religious evangelism–we had a roving band of evangelists from the Scripture Union. This was my first brush with, I guess, mainstream Christianity (my parents are sort of 1970s academic new age syncretists, and dad in particular has an interest in the history of the spread of Christianity).

It was weird and creepy.

Also wrong. Like, just flat-out factually wrong.

Backtracking a bit: the SU came in at Thursday lunchtimes, co-opting a classroom. I still remember the guy who ran the sessions; his name was Cliff, he had a goatee, and I suppose in retrospect he’d’ve been somewhere in his twenties.

(At some point, I even ended up at Cliff’s house one night on a weekend. I remember mostly because he had laserdiscs, and that was so weird. Yanno. Weird like a bunch of teenagers hanging out at the house of an unrelated adult male of dubious intentions.)

SU sessions were mostly about ice cream and candy; exactly all the creepy shit you’d use to lure impressionable young kids into your cult. Plus free Bibles and some Christianity 101 tracts (this was back before they had to pretend to be about something other than evangelism). I even remember one session on, I guess, comparative religions.

It was an A4 “fact sheet”. There weren’t many “facts” present on it, let me tell you.

Every summer, the SU ran a camp in the holidays called Zone 40. I never figured out why it was called that. What I did figure out was that it was brainwashing. Kids who’d been lured into the SU sessions on promise of free ice cream would be dragged along to this camp, starting as that sort of soft, “cultural Christian” that’s common in Australia, and coming back diehard Christian fundamentalists.

I was pretty much immune to SU since I couldn’t get over the fact their tracts contained bald-faced factual lies. The one I got really hung up on was about the Bible being the literal word of God, and thus unchanged throughout the ages, translations be damned. I knew this wasn’t the case–I knew about things like the apocrypha and the Council of Nicaea and so on–and spent more than one evening scribbling all over tracts pointing out the lies (yay for having access to dad’s library; these were the days before Wikipedia). For all the good that did (read: none).

I felt helpless and lonely, as one-by-one my social circle went away to this camp and came back… different. Vulnerable kids, y’know? Ones from broken homes and ones dealing with mental illness or angst over body image and so on and so forth. You know what it was like, being fifteen. Everyone’s vulnerable at fifteen.

It wouldn’t’ve been too bad but for the fact we were teenagers, and they were all so cliquish about it. Because it wasn’t just about them; it was about me, too. And I guess it was the same choice every one of them had made at some point; whether to follow their friends into the “light”, that endless party of candy and Veggie Tales, or… not.

In the end, I chose not. Because even a sweet lie is still a lie.

By the time we all moved on to senior high, I basically had no one.1 I mean, I was still friendly with most of the SU kids–and at least one of them I still have occasional contact with as an adult–but we weren’t friends any more.

(Things got better… sort of. My compsci teacher I think took pity on me, and appointed me the head of the school’s IT team, meaning I got to go into a special room at the back of the library and use the unfiltered internet to my heart’s content. I spent most of that time on; the main thing I credit with my current day job. Then, in my final year of senior high, I fell in with some girls who were into anime and ran one of the then-huge slash/yaoi fanfic archives. That was the thing that, in its own roundabout way, lead to Liesmith. So it worked out. Still. There were a few lonely years in there.)

(Meanwhile, last I heard, a bunch of the SU girls got married at 18 to their “youth pastors”; men who’d been in their twenties when they’d met the then-underage girls. Yeah. Nothing creepyweird about that at all.)

I suppose there isn’t really a point or a moral to this story, other than to excise some fifteen-year-old teenage angst. But it is something I always think about whenever I hear the current debate over whether organisations like the SU should be allowed into (public) schools. The fact is that these organisations are, by their nature, divisive. Not just for the kids in them, but for the kids left behind; it’s probably no coincidence that my “post-SU” group of friends included a higher-than-population-average number of kids who, in later years, came out as queer (including your truly), as well as kids from Muslim and non-evangelical-Christian Christian backgrounds (also including yours truly; dad’s family being slavic Orthodox).

This is what happens when you divide teenagers into the sinners and the saved. Into “straight white heteronormative anglo-saxons” and “everyone else”.

Being a teenager sucks. It’s hard and confusing and any adult who tells you otherwise is either lying or has forgotten exactly what that quagmire of identity and becoming was really like. And the one thing kids are really, really good at is sectioning themselves off into their own subcultures and cliques, viciously defending that turf from any perceived outsider.

That’s the stuff of peer pressure and bullying alike. And I think, as adults, it behoves us not to contribute anything more to it than kids will action on their own.

  1. This isn’t entirely true, but the thing about senior high, which we call “college” here, is that the flow between it and the feeder high schools isn’t a one-to-one mapping. I went to an “out of area” college, which was known for both its academic excellence and pot-smoking liberal art program. Meanwhile, most of my late-high school friends went to the “in area” college, and the ones who did end up at my college fell in with Different Crowds. In retrospect, nearly everyone tried reaching out and being friendly, and I had plenty of options. But I was still in a kind of self-involved teenage mourning for the social circle I’d lost in high school, and wasn’t ready to trade Magic cards for marijuana.