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. Also I am not Christian. But, fueled by my desire to be away from home and my need for cash, I took the job without any idea what I was getting myself into. The morning I left for camp, I was anxious, to say the least. I was leaving the comforts of home and going to a place where I knew absolutely no one. I would have limited contact with friends and family for a month. And then there was the issue of my faith – or, rather, my lack of it. I calmed my nerves by telling myself that surely the 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 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 and was happily reading aloud and sharing. At orientation, I was shocked to learn that body piercings, secular music, and tank tops were forbidden. In talking to my coworkers, I learned that all of them had been homeschooled and raised in conservative Christian homes. Some were even the children of missionaries and 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 those I had labeled “Bible thumpers” and “Jesus freaks” were completely alien to me. I had never met a teenager who didn't support same-sex marriage. I had certainly never met any who thought holding hands with a member of the opposite sex qualified as adulterous. And I had never known anyone who thought that some guy named Methuselah actually died at the age of 969. But here I was, the strange one. I was the odd one out. And so they pegged me as a nonbeliever immediately. At first, it was rough. My coworkers, out of 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 different ideas from other religions and they would recite Bible verses and detailed arguments explaining why I was wrong. It was beyond frustrating. I was alone, completely isolated by my lack of beliefs. But as the weeks wore on, I slowly warmed up to the staff, and they warmed up to me. I suppose it was only a matter of time. Far from cell service and high-speed Internet, my only option for entertainment (aside from washing dishes) was social interaction with my coworkers. At first I was reluctant to mingle for fear that I might say something that would prompt yet another long discussion. Although I didn't realize it at the time, I was gradually forgetting about our differences. I came to know the “Jesus freaks” as individuals struggling with the same things as me: school, parents, and friends. They may have believed and trusted in a God that I was not sure existed, but who was I to think any less of them for it? Christianity is something that two billion people worldwide believe in. Another billion Hindus believe in reincarnation, which is not a bad postmortem option, if you ask me. My last night, a friend and I were playing cards. It turns out we both knew the same game. And while there were a few differences, most of the rules were the same. He was quick to tell me that my version was wrong and that we should play by his rules. I replied, “Samuel, you can't assume that versions of games that are different 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 of this camp. I had learned to accept the differences of others – to truly accept them, not just tolerate them. To tolerate a behavior is to adopt a passive attitude, to be okay enough with something that it ceases to be bothersome. But to accept something is to welcome that behavior and view it without judgment because true acceptance is born from love and respect. Tolerance was me zoning out and 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 person and asking him how he had come to know God.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the September 2014 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.