by John Ellis
Image is important for the Christian fundamentalist. To be fair, image is important across all subsets of Western culture. We signal how we define ourselves by the ways in which we dress and present ourselves. But, in many ways, especially for the fundamentalism of my youth, image takes on extra import inside of Christian fundamentalism.
Many of the rules about dress were in place to prevent us from looking like “the world.” And, oh, were there a lot of rules. Growing up, I had friends who weren’t allowed to wear shorts. Until I was an upperclassman in high school, I could only wear shorts while playing sports; my parents wouldn’t allow me to show my knees and calves inside Wal-Mart, snaking through the line at Quincy’s to get my plastic tray, and most definitely not at church. And, as the saying goes, if I had nickel for every time I heard a preacher condemn long hair on guys, I’d have a lot of nickels. I frequently heard evangelists say that, “I can tell you what kind of music a fella listens to by the length of his hair.”
It’s not an accident that I grew my hair long at the first opportunity.
Likewise, speaking of piles of nickels, I would have a mountain of nickels if given one for each sermon on appearance and dress I heard. Beards, jewelry (especially necklaces and earrings), and ripped jeans were all verboten for guys who were serious about their faith. Shirts had to be tucked in, faces shaved every day, shoes polished, and ties were to be worn to class and church, if not a suit. When wearing t-shirts, there was a whole litany of rules to keep in mind regarding the images and words on the shirt. As already mentioned, shorts were only for participating in sports.
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not relating this to heap scorn or judgment on those of my youth who expected us to adhere to strict rules about clothes and appearance. I mean, my wife and I have rules about dress for our kids. I have certain standards for myself for the worship service on the Lord’s Day, especially if I’m scheduled to be on the platform during the service. I even make sure that my beard is nicely trimmed and that my long hair is clean and brushed. Everyone has rules because we all understand that our clothes and appearance communicate things about us to other people. As Mark Twain astutely quipped, “Clothes make a man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”
I relate the strict rules to set the stage for the stark contrast I presented when I showed up for my job at the Bill Rice Ranch the summer of 1996.
To be clear, within the strict rules of my parents, BJU, and the BRR there was only so much that I could do in the way of my appearance to signal my embrace of my full-on rebellion against God. It wasn’t easy trying to look what I thought “cool” looked like when constrained by the clothing and appearance rules of fundamentalism. But I did my best.
The year before, during my time as a BJU preacher boy, I adopted the clothes of the group that I wanted to be identified with. My flannel shirts were replaced with well-starched dress shirts (and I do mean well-starched). The pleats in my pants were sharp. My necklace was placed in a drawer. I even embraced wearing ties.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to jettison ties, even though I hated ties. And, so my ties throughout high school and entering my freshman year at BJU were meant to communicate my disdain for ties (I still hate ties, and only own one to go with the lone suit I keep for weddings and funerals). While a preacher boy, though, my ties reflected my desire to be taken seriously as a member of my new identity group. At least for that year, my ties ceased to be intentionally ugly and dirty.
As a preacher boy, my black boots were replaced by dress shoes. I went so far as to put taps on the bottom of my shoes (taps were used to help prevent the soles from being worn down). As I walked around campus, the click-clack of my shoes, the sharply ironed pleats down the front of my pants, and my well-chosen tie resting on a starched dress shirt all spoke to my commitment to being a first-rate BJU preacher boy.
My appearance was one of the first things, if not most obvious, to change about me once I let the previous year’s façade drop.
By the time I showed up at the Bill Rice Ranch, I had gone back to wearing Dickies (the uniform of punks), a wallet chain, untucked and often inappropriate t-shirts, a necklace, and Dr. Marten boots. As odd as this may sound to many, my appearance was not that of a respected BJU preacher boy showing up to spend a summer of ministry work at a Christian youth camp. The John Ellis who walked into the BRR administration office to check in for the summer did not look like the John Ellis that the camp thought they had hired to run their dining hall.
Due to the nature of my job, I arrived at the camp a week before the rest of the summer staff. Having hired a man to run the dining hall whose food service experience had only been running restaurants, the BRR realized that there would be a learning curve to become acclimated to running a large church camp kitchen and dining hall. That’s why I was hired for the summer.
The Ranch believed that both he and they would be served to have someone (me) teach him the ins-and-outs of the dining hall and help him transition into prepping, cooking, and serving camp food to thousands of starving campers with undiscerning palettes. That was smart thinking on the Ranch’s part, because from the get-go the man had trouble letting go of his restaurant expectations and embracing the “quick, hot, and plenty” ethos needed to ensure success in a large youth camp kitchen. Campers don’t care how their food is plated.
The man the Ranch hired cared quite a bit how the food was plated, though. Caring how chicken strips are arranged on the platter is quite the impediment to a successful meal service at camp. The new manager struggled to grasp that, and sadly, I learned just a few years ago that he lasted less than a year on staff at the BRR.
However, as smart as the Ranch’s thinking was, a platitude that my high school coach loved to say comes to mind: good idea, poor execution. Unfortunately, I was a large part of the poor execution part.
Setting aside my own personal problems and rebellion, and with the advantage of hindsight, it was not wise to have essentially a kid placed in a position of authority over a man who thought he knew everything and believed that he didn’t need a handler. He resented me, primarily because of my age, which was only 20, from the get-go.
Our relationship was a train wreck waiting to happen. My own problems and rebellion exacerbated the situation and ensured that the whole thing was going to blow up in everyone’s faces. I walked into a bad situation and made it worse by my attitude and blatant rejection of the Bill Rice Ranch’s beliefs and mission.
The foreman of the Ranch, a man for whom I had (and still have) nothing but the utmost respect was troubled by my appearance from the get-go. However, due to things like grace and love, things that many of my ex-fundy peers dishonestly attempt to claim don’t exist in fundamentalism, he gave me the benefit of the doubt and demonstrated great care and concern for my spiritual well-being throughout my entire time there that summer.
He wasn’t an idiot, though, and so the first week I was there, he sat me down and had a conversation with me about my clothes and appearance.
After joking about my new “look,” he gravely said, “You do know that you’re going to have to shave, take your necklace off, and tuck your shirt in once the rest of the summer staff arrive, right?”
I assured him that I understood, thankful that he hadn’t mentioned my wallet chain, Dr. Marten boots, and CK t-shirts.
Side note – I should probably explain about the CK t-shirts. At the time, Calvin Klein had become somewhat of a favorite whipping boy for fundamentalist preachers. To be fair, the brand’s oversexualized, androgynous, and, frankly, creepy ads didn’t help. That and CK had become synonymous with heroin chic. In fact, and I’m embarrassed to admit this, I would stay up late at night attempting to coax dark circles around my eyes so that people would think I did drugs … feel free to mock me, I deserve it.
During that same conversation with the camp foreman, I was informed that I would not be a staff counselor in charge of my own cabin. Originally, I had been told that I would run the kitchen and dining hall and be the staff counselor in a cabin. Even though I didn’t want to be a counselor (the thought of giving devotions at night and enforcing the rules did not appeal to me), I was still offended. I knew that my boss was right, that I had no business being a counselor, but that didn’t stop me from being angry and hurt that he had taken my cabin away from me. Rebellion is innately irrational.
Most of that first week, though, I was too busy in the dining hall to think much about the potential for conflict my “new persona” presented. Prepping the kitchen while training the new manager was more than a full-time job, and I had little time to contemplate my changing relationship with the Bill Rice Ranch. It didn’t help that in the evenings, the head counselor and I would head to town.
The head counselor, a PCC student named Derrick (not his real name), had arrived at camp early, too. I’m not sure what he did during the days that week, but the evenings were filled with the two of us going to the movies, visiting bars, and looking for girls to hook up with.
Derrick had been a counselor with me the summer before. In fact, I think that the summer of 96 was his third summer at the Ranch. He was one of the people that had introduced me to CCM the summer before. He was also unqualified to be a counselor at the Ranch, obviously, much less the head counselor. But he was.
That week, during a time of my life when weeks went by slowly, he and I had a blast hanging out and going to town. As far as I was concerned, the façade did not present a problem. Two Bill Rice Ranch counselors going to the movie theatre and bars was a contradiction of terms that didn’t bother me because, well, I simply didn’t care. I never asked Derrick how he rationalized it, but I was struck with how swiftly he could transition into the head counselor role when needed.
After the rest of the summer staff started rolling in, I knew that our jaunts into town would have to be limited to the weekends. That was fine, because I was busy, he was busy, and his role as the “head counselor” would need to be guarded. During the week, we barely spoke. On the weekends, he and I, joined by another friend from summers past, would escape the Bill Rice Ranch and do whatever we wanted unhindered by the rules of our fundamentalist employers.
The summer of 1996 was somewhat of a transition year for the BRR. By that, I mean that much of the summer staff was brand new. The generation of counselors that had populated the Ranch the previous summers had mostly graduated from college or moved on to other summer endeavors.
Being surrounded by mostly fresh faces was to my advantage. Most of my co-workers were unfamiliar with me, so I was able to craft an image divorced from any past perceptions. I quickly became the aloof guy that no one could figure out. Ignoring my boss’s warning from the first week, I continued to openly flaunt my dismissal of the Ranch’s dress code.
Not looking like them or sounding like them, I was a stranger among the fundamentalist college students who had devoted their summer break to serving Jesus and ministering to kids. For the first few weeks, everyone left me alone.
During those first few weeks, I quickly settled into a routine, waking up at 5:30 to be in the dining hall by 6 so that I could brew the early morning coffee to be ready for the counselors while they had their early morning devotions. After that was finished, I transitioned into preparing for breakfast. By then, my staff had arrived.
Throughout the day, I sequestered myself inside of the dining hall. My staff would come and go as the meal service shifts began and ended. In between meals, the man I was supposed to be training would shut himself up in his office, which was fine with me. I would find something to clean.
Because of my devotion to my work, the dining hall ran smoothly those first few weeks, with the high school guys quickly learning their roles. Taking what I had learned during my two summers in high school running the dishwash room, I organized my staff into units working together as a well-oiled machine. Since I was the first “adult” in their lives that listened to the music they liked, dressed the way they wished they could, and overall represented a break from the standard authority figure, my crew sought my approval.
Well, most of my crew. There were a few “good” guys, for lack of a better term, who were troubled by me. But I inverted the traditional fundamentalist power structure and empowered the guys who were usually considered the “rebels.” Which, frankly, while loaded with rebellious motives was also structured through and through with a wise management philosophy.
At the beginning of the summer, I had been “warned” about one teenage boy who would be working under me. I was given a list of his previous troubles at his Christian school and church. The Ranch, primarily concerned that the summer be a time of spiritual growth for him, wanted me to be aware of his problems so that I could better disciple him. On the job front, it was assumed that he would lazy and disrespectful, because that was his history. In my mind, the kid sounded fine just the way he was. He became my right-hand guy in the dining hall.
At first, my decision to promote him to an undeserved place of privilege paid off. Regarding the job, he responded well and took his work seriously. My bosses commented on how well I had “reached him” and what a great job he was doing in the dining hall. As the summer wore on, though, empowered by me, he began to bully the “good” guys. Ostracizing them outside of work, constantly and mockingly pointing out that the guys who exerted the most effort to follow the rules were the least productive workers, openly flaunting his love for forbidden music in front of them, daring them to report him to me, and constantly belittling their standards, he made sure that the tone of the Bill Rice Ranch’s dining hall was most decidedly anti-fundamentalist. As long as it didn’t come back on me and he continued to perform his job duties at a high level, I didn’t really care.
Predictably, it eventually came back on me, though. As did other decisions that I was initially praised for. Even in hindsight, questions related to “how could I not foresee the endgame?” misunderstand my heart. Having the courage of my convictions only so far, I didn’t know how to extract myself from fundamentalism, even though I desperately wanted out. Previewing my final semesters at BJU, my anger and inner turmoil were manifest in a do-not-care attitude and approach.
I did care, though. And I was scared. My angst over feeling alone as a young kid was dwarfed by the angst produced as a result of having completely given myself over to open antagonism with Christianity. If you think it’s easy being the only non-Christian in a intentionally Christian environment, especially a fundamentalist one, you’re wrong.
At the onset of the summer, though, things in the dining hall were going great.
My hard work and success allowed, as far as I could see from my perspective, any concerns that the Ranch had about me at first to dissipate. But as I began to believe that I was untouchable, the man I was training began to become increasingly unhappy with the situation.
My hard work came with a cost. Although, at the time, I viewed it as a perk. Locking myself away in the dining hall all morning, day, and evening meant that I never attended any of the services. In fact, at least a part of my intense work ethic that summer was me simply providing myself with an excuse to not go to any of the services. I would rather scrub pots and pans than sit in one of the only airconditioned buildings at the camp and listen to a sermon.
My bosses didn’t seem to notice. For good reason, it’s outside the scope of expectations to have a summer staff worker, especially a preacher boy from BJU, that would intentionally miss all of the services. Based on the deafening silence regarding my refusal to attend services, and attending at least one service a day was a requirement, I’m assuming that the higher ups assumed I was going.
The summer staff counselors began to take note, though.
One afternoon, while minding my own business, a small group of staff counselors entered the dining hall and began walking towards me. If I had known their objective, I probably would’ve made an exit before they reached me. As it was, I curiously watched them purposefully stride towards me, smiles on their face, presumably to set me at ease.
They asked if they could talk to me, and the leader of the pack, an outspoken female counselor, sat down before I could say anything.
She started the conversation by apologizing that they, the summer counselors, hadn’t made much of an effort to get to know me. “You’re all alone in here,” she gushed. “You’re missing out on one of the benefits of working at a summer camp – the fellowship with others. We shouldn’t have let you be so alone.”
Somewhat bemused, I told her that it was okay, that I was too busy to really get to know anyone. What’s more, I added, relishing the displeasure on their faces, “I like being alone.”
The group insisted that it wasn’t okay, and that my busyness was not an excuse for their failure. And no one likes to be alone, they insisted.
I don’t know if her speech was rehearsed or not, but the apparent leader of the group, fleshing out her previous statement, launched into a mini-sermon about how one of the benefits of working at a summer camp was the mutual edification provided by like-minded Christians. She insisted that they had failed me because they had withheld from me the Christian fellowship and encouragement that would be mutually beneficial in our spiritual lives.
Promising to include me and get to know me better, they insisted that I promise to respond positively to their coming overtures of friendship. While weakly giving in, I thought to myself, “I don’t think you really want to get to know me.”
Having given them what they wanted, I assumed that they would leave the dining hall and let me get back to work. Except, I quickly realized, they weren’t done. They were just getting started.
Up to that point, the mood had been light-hearted and friendly. Much of their conversation had been framed with self-deprecation and jokes. But when I mistakenly assumed that it was over and that I was going to be left alone, the leader’s face turned serious and she quietly said, “We have something else we want to talk to you about.”
Sighing, I replied, “Okay,” realizing that my previously hassle-free day was no longer hassle-free.
“We’ve noticed that you never go to the services,” she sternly informed me.
Dismissively, and beginning to realize that this was an ambush, I curtly replied, “I’m too busy.”
A few of them started talking at once. The gist of their lecture was that I was being a Martha and not a Mary, and that I was running the risk of doing myself spiritual harm by failing to sit under the preaching provided by the Ranch.
Attempting to scoff their concerns away, I pointed out that running the dining hall was a lot of work (which was true) and that I was not intentionally missing the services but that my work required me to do just that – miss the services (which was not true). I insisted that I would be fine, that I was doing my job well, and that I didn’t need to attend the services.
One of the girls in the group broke down in tears as she implored me to make an effort to attend the services. She even offered to come help me in the kitchen so that I could get to the services. An offer that I don’t think she realized she wouldn’t have been allowed to fulfill even if I had accepted it.
While I was touched by their concern for me, I was mostly annoyed by the realization that I wasn’t flying as far under the radar as I thought. The gig was up, so to speak. Except I wasn’t willing to simply give the gig up. I wasn’t bothering anybody, and I wasn’t about to change my ways. I was doing my job, very well, and anything else was no one else’s business, I believed.
However, and regardless of my stubborn desire to ignore which way the winds were blowing, that afternoon was an inevitable step in my summer’s inevitable end. Having successfully navigated Christian fundamentalism for twenty years, that was the only world I knew. As much as I wanted out, it was hard to imagine a way out much less imagine where I’d go once out. Things were changing though; my relationship with those occupying the world around me was the biggest change. A change I had driven. Having finally arrived, I didn’t know what came next nor did I really want to think about it. No matter, though, unable to squash the feeling that I had passed a point of no return (from my rebellious perspective), I plowed ahead.
True to their word, the staff counselors made a constant effort to include me in their conversations, activities, and friendships. Their attention simultaneously irritated and flattered me. An immediate casualty of the new attention being directed my way was that it became harder for me to sneak away with my friend Derrick on Saturdays, because my “new friends” insisted that I join them in their weekend activities. The unsought new attention from the female counselors sweetened the deal, though, and so I allowed myself to become their project.
It was a little weird to find myself re-immersed in cultural fundamentalism after a few weeks of what had been the most freedom I had ever enjoyed. While that time period only lasted about three weeks, it felt much longer. Having always felt like a visitor in the world of Christian fundamentalism, there was now a sense of finality to my visit. This time, unlike my entire life up to late spring and summer of 1996, the tattered remains of my facade allowed more of the real John Ellis to be revealed. My new friends were aware of it, even if they weren’t sure how to interpret what they saw and felt. And I wasn’t entirely sure how to communicate who I was and what I believed.
To be fair, I never pretended to be one of them. In fact, I relished the outsider aspect of my relationship with them. It was obvious that I was different. From their perspective, something was deeply troubling about me and, to their credit, during those few short weeks, they poured themselves into my life attempting to “fix” whatever ailed me.
They noticed that I rarely bowed my head when meals were being prayed over. Even though I began going to the evening services, my demeanor in the pew portrayed my contempt for what was being said from the platform. They would express concern about how I openly ignored the dress code and how I openly flaunted my dismissal of rules regarding music. I shrugged their concerns off. Turns out, my unwillingness to argue had the “negative” effect of stoking their concern for me.
It didn’t take long before I started to resent that I had become their own personal ministry project. As my resentment grew, my growing overt rejection of the things they held dear, primarily their faith, only served to prompt even deeper concern for me. I unwittingly found myself in a cycle of concern and mini sermons that I couldn’t seem to escape from.
Years later, whenever darkness threatened to overcome me, I would think back and peg that summer and the kindness of those counselors as the last stop in my life that experienced happiness and a sense of feeling genuinely wanted by others. During the summer of 1996, though, ping ponging between enjoying hanging out with new friends who, to be clear, were a fun loving group, and irritation at being the object of concern, I did not have a grasp of where my life was headed. I did not realize that my longed-for freedom had costs beyond my ability to bear. Because of that, because of how the Holy Spirit used them in my heart, I look forward to the day when King Jesus returns, and I can find them and thank them for their kindness and concern. While irritating at the time, their care, concern, and friendship did mean a lot to me and it means even more to me now.
That being said, in 1996, as much as I appreciated their kindness I had zero desire to conform to their greatest wish: that I live in a way that reflected the fact that I was summer staff at the Bill Rice Ranch; that I look and live like a Christian as defined by fundamentalism. Unbeknownst to them, my main and only problem was that I was not a Christian.
During that same time period, the tension in the dining hall began to surface. It didn’t help matters that my growing irritation at being singled out by so many of the counselors began to spill over into my work. It first raised its head because the man I was training chewed out my right-hand guy.
Taking his cues from me, the teenage boy had decided that he owed no respect or deference to the man. He believed that he was untouchable and could dismiss whatever any authority figure not named John Ellis told him. And, so, when the man ordered him to clean out the walk-in, the boy told the man to do it himself, explaining, “It’s not my job, man.”
That, of course, enraged the already unhappy man. A shouting match ensued. Summoned by the noise, I arrived at the scene to discover my right-hand guy fighting back angry tears and the red-faced man screaming pejoratives at the boy. Words like “useless,” “idiot,” and “scum” were used to describe him.
The kid was wrong, no question. And even though a lion’s share of the blame falls on me because of how I empowered him, not to mention the example I set, he should have responded respectfully and cleaned the walk-in, whether it was technically his job or not. However, the way the man handled it was also wrong. In fact, I think an argument could be made that his response was worse than the boy’s disobedience. It’s never okay for an authority figure to mock and belittle those in their charge. It’s never okay for authority figures to scream and berate kids. Never. And, as young as I was at the moment, basically a kid myself, I knew that.
Unfortunately, my bad attitude, overall belief in my superiority in the dining hall, growing personal dislike for this man who couldn’t seem to get it through his head that he was working in a camp kitchen and not a high end restaurant combined with my understanding of the unjustness of the moment as well as my growing distaste for the constant pressure to conform and pushed me to the brink. I wanted to be left alone to run my dining hall the way I saw fit without the interference of others. In anger, I unleashed on the man. In front of the staff.
Essentially, I informed him that he was not allowed to address my guys unless he had cleared it with me. That my right-hand guy had been entrusted with a specific role and jobs in the dining hall and that being ordered to clean out the walk-in contradicted what I had told him to do and I was not going to have that. As a final dig, I reminded him that he answered to me and not the other way around. While technically true, my role of running the dining hall and training the man was not a license for me to treat the dining hall as my own fiefdom. Nor did the Ranch intend for me to lay waste to the respect and deference demanded by age difference and the fact that the man was a full-time staff member while I was not.
Momentarily cowed, though, the man retreated to his office and my staff, emboldened by my presence and tone, jeered.
About an hour later the camp foreman showed up and asked me into the dining hall’s small office. After the three of us sat down, he calmly asked what happened.
One of the things that I learned early on in my life was that in situations like that, you never speak first. The first person to speak often comes across as the most defensive – ergo, guilty. Also, allowing the other person to speak first gives you an advantage. Not only do you have the opportunity to better formulate what you want to say, but the other side is also providing you the points you need to interact with. So, I let the man go first.
He spilled his guts, including how he didn’t think that I knew what I was doing. That probably turned out to be the biggest mistake that he made that day. I knew what I was doing in the dining hall, and that was obvious to everyone, including the camp foreman. During his diatribe, the man came across as petty and jealous.
When it was my turn to speak, I quietly explained how I had trained the staff a certain way to do certain jobs and that my system was the cause for the success of the dining hall. I accused the man of undermining my authority and of refusing to listen to my advice about how the dining hall should be run.
In the end, the camp foreman told me that I was wrong to yell at the man in front of the staff and said that I needed to apologize. I agreed but insisted that I had just been carried away by my desire to protect the boy from the man’s unkind words.
Turning to the man, the camp foreman affirmed that my role was to help him learn how to run the kitchen and dining hall and that it was to his advantage to listen to me. He also told him that he did need to run changes of policy and work assignments by me so as not to inadvertently disrupt the flow of the dining hall. The camp foreman then kindly dismissed the man and asked to speak to me in private.
After a few seconds of his stern gaze making me increasingly uncomfortable, my boss quietly yet firmly spoke.
He started out by thanking me for my hard work that summer, saying that the success of the dining hall had been noticed and that the Ranch had received more positive feedback from the church counselors about the meals than they had during previous summers. He then told me that it was incumbent upon me to work with the man and to encourage and instruct the staff to view him as their boss, too. “After all,” he added, “he’s going to be around after you’re gone. Technically, this is his kitchen and dining hall and not yours.”
At that point, his already serious look and tone became even more grave, and he informed me that he had heard that I rarely attended the services.
I had been ratted out by my new friends, I believed.
After running down a list of concerning things about me, including my refusal to abide by the Ranch’s dress code, he told me that he and the rest of the Ranch’s administration were very concerned about me.
“I don’t know what’s happened between last summer and now,” he said, “but know that I want to help and am willing to listen anytime you want to talk.”
His words stung. As I mentioned above, this was a man for whom I had (and have) the utmost respect. Throughout my years in fundamentalism, very few authority figures’ opinions meant as much to me as did his.
As he wrapped up, he ordered me, making it clear that it was an order, that I was to attend at least the evening services, even if that meant that the work in the dining hall didn’t get finished. “I’m less concerned about the dining hall being spotless than I am about you,” he added.
Closing in prayer, he reiterated that he was available to talk whenever I needed, told me that he would be praying for me, thanked me again for my hard work, and left.
I was mad.
Although I don’t think that I realized this at the time, my anger was really directed more at myself than at the camp foreman. At that point in my journey out of fundamentalism and into atheism, I couldn’t allow any self-doubt and so I directed my anger at my boss.
Years later, often while high, miserable, and lonely, I would think back to the camp foreman and his care and concern for me, even as I hurt him. I owe that man an apology for what I did less than two weeks later and a thank you for how he responded. Even during the height of my rebellion against God as an adult, I knew that I was in the wrong that summer and that my boss had been in the right. Most importantly, the Holy Spirit used his words and actions that summer to never let me forget the love of God.
Things went quickly downhill from that point.
Neither the man nor I took our boss’s words to heart, and the tension between us blossomed into full-on conflict.
I think the dining hall staff, comprised mainly of teenage boys, saw the handwriting on the wall before I did. The “good” kids, tired of being, well, bullied by my right-hand guy and probably tired of having an obvious reprobate (me) as their boss, began to align themselves with the man. By the end of the following week, there were essentially two crews in the dining hall.
The situation reached its breaking point the day of our first health department inspection.
Usually, at least in Middle Tennessee during the 90s, the first inspection results in a lower score than desired, the inspector provides a list of “fixes,” and then comes back a few days later, at which point you receive your “A” to hang up. This inspection was no different.
We got marked down for silly stuff like having trash in the trash can, a light bulb in the pantry being burned out, and water stains on the silverware. Nothing major, and I had experienced it during my two summers as a Ranch Hand during high school. I didn’t see the inspection as a problem. The man, however, did. In hindsight, after having since worked in fine dining myself, I understand the desire to get an A on the first go around. The only expectations churches have regarding meals at summer camp are vastly different than those of people paying $50 for a steak. That being noted, the toxic dynamics of our personal and working relationship created an unnecessarily wide divide between our perspectives regarding the inspection.
It was early afternoon when the health inspector left. We had finished cleaning up from lunch and were wrapping up the preliminary prep work for the dinner shift. As some of my guys were asking me to inspect their work and release them for the rest of the afternoon, the man stormed out of the kitchen and loudly informed me that he was fed up with the way that I was running the dining hall and that he would be taking over.
The ferociousness with which he verbally attacked me put me on my heels. As he berated me for the low inspection score, I attempted to explain that it wasn’t a problem and that we’d receive an “A” upon the return inspection. He was having none of it, though, and began to let out all of his pent-up frustration and anger on me.
As the guys I had just released attempted to creep out, the man thundered at them to stay.
“You no longer answer to John! From now on, you answer to me and I decide when you can leave.”
With that declaration, my attitude flipped, and I lost my temper. Screaming at the man, unleashing a barrage of insults which included some profanity, I flipped over several bins filled with silverware, and then stormed out. To make matters worse, some straggling campers and their church counselors were still in the dining hall and witnessed my tantrum.
Later that afternoon, and after I had been located, I was summoned to an empty cabin. That sounds more ominous than it was. The camp foreman needed a place that was completely private, which was hard to find during the middle of a busy camp week.
He wasn’t alone. My friend Derrick was there as was another camp administrator. They patiently listened to my version of the events. Derrick stared at the floor.
As he began to speak, the large, gruff camp foreman teared up as he placed his hand on my shoulder. “John, something is going on that you’re not telling us. And that worries us more than anything that’s happened.”
He then informed me that nothing that had happened couldn’t be resolved, but that there would have to be some changes. I was told that if I wanted to stay, and he insisted that they wanted me to stay, I would no longer oversee the teenage guys and I would be under the direct supervision of the man. My duties would be restricted to helping with the meal services where needed and I would be required to attend every service and obey all rules concerning dress. Furthermore, I would be placed in a cabin under the direction of one of the staff counselors, and would have required weekly meetings with the camp foreman to “talk.”
Along with my displeasure with the new requirements, I knew that “talk” meant discuss my spiritual state. I didn’t want to have anything to do with this new arrangement but was still trying to find the courage to leave.
I argued that the man was not equipped to run the kitchen and dining hall and that he was most definitely not the right person to manage the teenage boys.
The camp foreman stood his ground.
After it became apparent that I was unwilling to acquiesce, they left me alone with Derrick, and instructed me to think and pray about it because I would be asked to go home if I remained unwilling to submit.
Derrick and I sat mostly in silence. I’m sure that a part of him was worried that I would drag him down with me. For my part, I didn’t want to talk.
I loved the Bill Rice Ranch. But I was beginning to understand that I could no longer exist in two worlds. I was old enough where compliance in order to survive was no longer a valid choice. It was time to begin exiting my parent’s world.
Two days later, my dad arrived to collect me.
Prior to that day, I had never seen my dad look so tired and worried. Granted, having to make an unplanned trip from Pensacola to Murfreesboro probably didn’t help. But it was obvious that more important things were weighing on him.
We didn’t talk much on the long drive home. At one point, he did ask how much of my money I had saved. I replied, “None.” I quickly added that it didn’t matter because I wasn’t going back to BJU. He didn’t say a word as he fought back tears.
By the time we reached the “Welcome to Florida” sign, my spirits had begun to lift as I daydreamed about my coming freedom. The pain I was inflicting on others, including my dad who sat silently beside me, became less and less of a concern. As far as I was concerned, I was finally free to present myself in the image of my choosing. Getting fired from the Bill Rice Ranch was the best thing that had ever happened to me, I believed.
Addendum: my actions at the Ranch had far reaching effects that summer. Staff had to be shuffled around to fill the void created by my absence. The pain of my new friends who had begun to pour their life into me grew into confusion and anger as rumors about what had happened made their way through camp. Many years later, I discussed that summer with several people who were there. All of them reiterated that my leaving had a large and negative impact on the rest of the summer. Sin has consequences, and not just for the one who commits the sin.