It’s been a while since I sat in the front seat of a bus full of exhausted teenagers on the way home from a week of church camp. In the interest of full disclosure, I must say I am not upset about this: fundamentalism and, honestly, corporate worship and organized religion in general, and I parted ways long ago. This has been growth toward God for me, though it’s often been painful.
But, as I read of the horrific crash that claimed the lives of three people who were serving God according to the dictates of their own consciences by giving themselves to teenagers, I remembered all of those bus rides home:
There’s a stink on that bus that can not be removed: it’s the smell of ponds and boys and too much Bath and Body spray and airheads and sand and Monsters and socks that can stand up all on their own. The Bus Smell can not be removed with Lysol, Febreeze (which I wielded in impotent fury, knowing my efforts were futile), industrial strength Mr. Clean, or hand grenades. Ask the bus driver. His sigh will reveal all…
In my experience, the bus driver was also the music leader, the sound guy, the go-to mechanic, the head boys counselor, the pianist, and the preacher’s unseen right hand. His wife is the reason I didn’t commit a series of violent felonies. She was serene and gentle and tender and good. Her name should have been Grace. They served in that capacity (and still do, actually), never asking for recognition or thanks, for over twenty years. One can’t fake love like that.
By the time the driver had ensured the bus was packed, the kitchen staff at our camp would gather in front of the bus, singing us love songs, loudly of course, and complete with hand motions. Children and dogs would be running wild, and teenagers would be even more full of life than they had been upon arrival. Loud…oh, they were so loud. The laughing, the yelling, the crying, the shouting: all of it was loud. The scene was always a beautiful chaos. I loved it. Teenagers were the best part of the ministry for me.
There’d always be some kid in the driver’s seat of the bus, grinning, and a stowaway pretending they wanted to come home with us. The kids, many of whom had come to camp a bit hard and jaded, usually now intermingled with the weary counselors and each other, even though in the Real World, they’d probably rarely interact, much less become friends.
The bus would begin to move, and soon thereafter, a guitar would emerge, and the singing would start. Again: loud. The voices betrayed the spirit of the singers: some seemed to be trying out for a talent show, others were just enjoying the songs, others were reveling in their new-found ability to be uninhibited: love makes it easy to sing aloud. Songs would go on and on for geological ages, until my husband returned to his seat and promptly fell into a well-deserved coma.
Then, I’d sneak out the camera…
I’d walk through the bus, meeting the gaze of kids who now knew me as something of an actual person, rather than just an authority figure. Some glances held private sorrows I now helped to bear, others secret dreams and hopes, and some gleamed with joy and private jokes. There was girl who fell in love and thinks no one knows…the boy whose dad will never understand his decision…the sisters who forgave one another…the guys still laughing about that duct tape incident…the lonely and confused…the broke bus-kids just trying to blend in…and the sleepers.
There is so much life housed on a returning church camp bus.
I remember some of the conversations on those rides, with my counselors, my friends, my teens who felt like they were my own children…how deep they were in their simplicity. The laughter was fuller somehow, thick with the love and the stench of that aged bus that still somehow miraculously got us home. When I saw that news story the other day, I smiled and thought,
“What a wonderful way get home.”
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