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The Difference Between Tolerance and Acceptance This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

This past summer I was offered a job washing dishes at a Christian summer camp. There is nothing I hate more than washing dishes, let alone dishes for 300 people, three times a day. I am also not Christian, not in the least. But, fueled by my desire to be away from home and my need for cash, I accepted the offer not really knowing what I was getting myself into.

The morning I left for camp, I was anxious to say the least. In addition to having to leave the comforts of home, I was going to a place where I knew absolutely no one. I would have very little contact, if any, with my friends and family for over a month. And then there was the issue of my faith, or rather my lack of faith. I calmed my nerves by naively assuming that these teens I would be working with would be just like every other teenager I knew: socially liberal, a bit rebellious, and open minded.

I have never been more wrong.

When I arrived at the camp, a nice facility nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I walked into my dorm to find my roommates listening to music by Christian rapper Lecrae. The girl in the bed next to me had brought three copies of the bible, each one carefully selected for the commentary in the margins. She had two sprawled across her bed, happily reading aloud and sharing. She was reading the bible for fun! At orientation, I was shocked to learn that body piercings, secular music, and tank tops were strictly forbidden. In talking to my coworkers, I learned that all of them had been home schooled and raised in conservative, Christian households. Some were even the children of missionaries who had grown up spreading the gospel in South Africa, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

Due to my upbringing in the notoriously liberal San Francisco Bay Area, the ideas and values of what I had labeled "Bible thumpers" and "Jesus freaks" weirded me out. I had never met a teenager who didn't support same sex marriage. I had certainly never met a teenager who thought something as innocent as holding hands with a member of the opposite sex qualified as adulterous. And I had never met anyone who actually thought that some guy named Methuselah died at the ripe age of 969! But what was even more of a shock to me, was that I was the odd one out. I was the one who was different.

And they pegged me as a nonbeliever immediately.

At first, it was rough. My coworkers, out of nothing but genuine concern for my well-being, tried to show me why Jesus was the only true path. Often I would find myself engaged in lengthy discussions regarding their faith and my disbelief, as well as spirituality and religion in a broader sense. I would share with them different ideas from other religions and they would recite a Bible verse and a very detailed argument explaining why I was wrong. It was beyond frustrating. I was alone; completely isolated by my lack of beliefs.

But as the weeks muddled on, I slowly warmed up to the rest of staff and they warmed up to me. I suppose it was only a matter of time. Given that I was far from cell service and high speed internet, my only option for entertainment (aside from washing dishes) came in the form of social interaction with these crazy Christians. I had been reluctant to mingle, for fear that I might say something wrong and it would prompt yet another lengthy discussion, but I am glad that I did. Although I wasn't aware of it yet, I was gradually starting to forget our differences. I came to know the "Jesus freaks" as teenagers struggling with the same things I was--school, parents, and friends. They may have believed and trusted in a God that I was not even sure existed, but who was I to think any less of them for it? Christianity is something that two billion people worldwide believe in, so maybe it is not just some made-up fairytale. Another two billion Hindus believe in reincarnation, which is not a bad postmortem option if you ask me.

On my last night at camp, a friend and I were playing cards. It turns out we were both familiar with the same game. I knew it as Presidents, he knew it as Scum. And while there were a few that were different, the ideas and the majority of the rules were the same. He was very quick to tell me that my version was wrong and that we should play by his rules. I looked at him, and I said, "Samuel, you can't assume that versions of games that vary from yours are wrong. They aren't. They are just different."

I was speaking to him, but those words were for me. It was at that moment that I understood the impact working at this camp had on me. I had learned to accept the differences of others--to truly accept their differences and not just to tolerate them. To tolerate a behavior is to simply adopt a passive attitude towards it, to be merely okay enough with something that it ceases to be bothersome. But to accept something is to welcome that behavior and to view it without judgement because true acceptance is born out of love and respect. Tolerance was me zoning out, nodding my head while I listened to yet another person tell me what Jesus had done in the Bible. But acceptance was me befriending that same person and asking them how they had come to know God.

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