When my Campfire troop leader left town in 1977, my neighbors pounced at the chance to recruit me to the scout troop formed under the auspices of their fundamentalist church. Thus began my foray into what would later become the world's largest Pentecostal denomination. I became a full-fledged "Missionette." Armed with matches and evangelical pamphlets, I learned to cook potatoes in foil over an open flame, while taking on Unitarian heathens picnicking at the local lake.
Sunday school and the Bible Quiz team fit the natural progression. I committed the entire Book of Romans to memory, and toured the state of Michigan with others who had a penchant for the Gospel and a competitive spirit suitable to the game show milieu. We sat at tables and answered Bible questions, citing chapter and verse. Quickest hand on the buzzer could catapult a kid to the championship. As an add-on, the coach kept a steady supply of Dunkin' Donuts in our traveling van.
These were the days of Donny Osmond and the Jackson Five. We played our 45s until they scratched and skipped, and occupied our time with Barbie dolls, Scooby-Doo and afternoons collecting crayfish in the fields of our Detroit suburb until the land was razed for "Kmart Coming Soon." Kids on my dirt road gathered under a tree at the house of a neighbor lady who read us stories about creation. She did housework in the nude because it was her duty to submit to her husband's requests, per the Book of Ephesians. On her front lawn, we learned a bit about the birds and the bees. My mother confirmed the most implausible details; anatomy books from the library corroborated the rest.
Innocence notwithstanding, the sparks began flying not only in the direction of our toasting marshmallows but toward our brother ministry, the Royal Rangers. And there was one member of this boy group who was more than happy to initiate our breast-budding flock into some Glory Hallelujah with a kiss on the side. He had a strapping 13-year-old physique, talked smooth as sundae syrup at an ice cream social and had unfettered access to his parents' RV, which sat unattended in the church parking lot during the many services we were compelled to attend. Joey D moved through the ranks of the evangelical male adventurers and occupied a noble position only a few degrees short of that occupied by the Preachers' Kids, known colloquially as PKs.
'Round about the time that girls were trading turns for hot and heavy kisses with Joey in the motorhome, we began transitioning to the youth group. We were rapidly becoming teens. I added Sunday and Wednesday evenings to my roster of fellowships, then Monday nights at the Youth Pastor's home. Pastor and his wife led Bible studies. They admonished us to give up worldly music, though they themselves possessed a Barry Manilow album—an anomalous indulgence I presumed sanctioned by God, reserved solely for those joined in matrimony for the purpose of procreation.
One day, the pastor announced an event that found me sorting wistfully through my own collection of albums, musing over which would go and which would stay. There would be a record burning. My friends were going and Joey D would be there too. Fleetwood Mac and my entire collection of Foghat made the cut but, in the end, I was faced with a bonafide Sophie's Choice of music: Because I needed something to bring to the party, Peter Frampton had to go.
We began to tread lightly into the world of dating. Our worldly music having been tossed to the pyre, there was now room on our Aerosmith-devoid turntables for something with a beat and a powerful message. We gravitated toward an emerging genre of Christian rock music and the accompanying righteous concerts. The year was 1979 and I turned14. It was spring break in high school when I joined our teen group in a yellow church bus. We headed south to the Jesus Festival—a weeklong extravaganza in Orlando that drew thousands of youth to a revival of gospel and "Christ is relevant today" sermons. Giant speakers thumped out calls to repentance and the show-stopping vocals of Jessy Dixon singing, "Operator / give me Jesus / on the line."
On the long ride back to the Midwest, I sat next to a charismatic woman in her early 20s. Her smile was radiant and her kindness magnetic. I would not be the first who would find her warm hands a draw to the Lord. Our heads pressed together in prayer, I confessed my sins and teenage angst while she gripped my fingers and wept on my behalf. She shared a narrative of her own sins, the carnal details of her adulterous betrayals to a former husband. I was captivated. She prayed for me as I emptied my soul of its transgressions; and in the space formerly occupied by the sins of my young years, a curious yearning took shape, one that would later define my sexuality.
Back home, I made a new friend through the church, my age. We attended a street ministry where a leader named Angel comforted young women during screenings of films that foretold the End Times. There was a steady supply of Chick cartoon tracts—comic books that condemned the non-believer to the flames of hell. We passed out brochures at airports. But her mother put the brakes on our endeavors, after the girl lost a sibling in a mall and had a panic attack; she was terrified that "the Rapture" had come, and that she had been left behind.
High school let out, and I missed several shotgun weddings while in college across the state. It seemed that the holiest among us were the least protected from the hormonal maelstroms that inevitably rose, as we got older: to carry a condom would have been to admit to premeditated fornication. The exception to this rule was Joey D. He carried a supply of cheap balloons that served as makeshift rubbers for those girls shifting from pre- to post-pubescence—for those who wanted to get a taste of how the moving parts might fit together. (After all, a scout must be prepared.).
Fast-forward to decades later. I spotted a familiar last name on an email from my sister. A woman she worked with had the same last name as Joey D. I was flabbergasted to learn that they were indeed related. I typed back, eager for news of my Royal Ranger. Minutes later, a photo appeared in my inbox. He was 50, married with kids, hints of the outdoorsman evident in his baseball cap and graying mustache shaped like an upside-down horseshoe.
If I had flirted with the idea of making any reconnection, the inkling was squelched months later when a Facebook algorithm landed me at a post, by of all people, his mother.
It was a photo taken by NASA's Hubble, and she was convinced it was the New Jerusalem entering our atmosphere. She admonished her friends to keep their lamps full of oil, prepare for the Bridegroom and blow the trumpet in Zion. As I scrolled down the names of those cheering her posts, I thought of former acquaintances, gone on to spend decades searching for signs, now taking their cues from the stellar winds.
I set the computer in sleep mode and with lights out for the evening, the memories, briefly unfurled, found their rightful place again in the back lot of a church, and under a tree on a lawn overgrown with weeds and concrete. As for those Unitarians that I tried to convert in my youth, somewhere between then and now, I attended their congregation with my daughter, drawn to the company of people eager to put concerns for social justice into action.
I did, however, leave the pamphlets and uniform behind.