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They pulled guns on us at kid church
And then we sang Third Day, flirted, and played red rover.
Wednesday night youth group. Suburban Southern Baptist megachurch. Middle school, maybe eighth grade. Late-’90s, pre-Columbine. Summer-ish (I think, but don’t quote me on that part).
I was sitting among the back row’s folding chairs, all the way to the left side of the big auditorium. Right here1:
Outta nowhere, we heard loud banging and shouting from the hallway doors behind us. A number of adult males entered the room with hostile force. I usually recall it being either three, four, or five men, all white. They were wielding firearms, which I usually remember as black rifles. I’m not sure if I recall exactly what they were wearing, but my memory usually fills in the haze with Oakleys, black T-shirts, and fingerless gloves. At least one gunman had dark facial hair. I don’t recall any indication that their weapons were fakes, and I’m from Atlanta and Georgia, so I kinda have an eye for that sorta thing.
The men were barking things like, “Deny Christ, or you’ll die tonight,” as they invaded the center walkway between our rows of folding chairs. They stormed toward the front of the room, grabbed someone by the collar (I sometimes remember their captive as being a fellow child, and sometimes remember it as being one of our more beloved elders). They dragged him out of the room and into the hallway, continuing to yell the same variety of threats the entire way. “Blaspheme out loud, or we’ll shoot you.” That kinda stuff.
From the hall, we heard more shouting, a scream, the sound of gunfire, and a loud thunk, like a body hitting a floor.
At some point (I don’t recall when, who said it, or exactly what they said), this was revealed to be nothing but a skit. A stunt, an object lesson, a fear tactic, a piece of ambush theater, a warning. Nobody’d been shot. These guys were just friends of whoever assembled the idea, and in a megachurch as big as ours, it’s understandable that not all of us immediately recognized any of the fast-moving men through their disguises.
That story sounds weird to you, probably.
To me, here’s the weirdest part: For many years after that day, I didn’t think much of it.
Seven years ago, I told the story on the Shutdown Fullcast, and I now find it wild to go back and hear how plainly funny I considered it at the time2. Spencer Hall’s reaction — “What the smoking hell?” — was entirely clear-minded, as was Ryan Nanni’s observation (framed in expert comedy) that this absurd moment could’ve escalated into legit physical violence.
It wasn’t until two years ago that I told Emily, who’d already been my best friend for roughly half my life. (She wisely does not listen to the Shutdown Fullcast.) I hadn’t been intentionally hiding anything. That’s just how rarely any of this stuff crossed my mind. You’d think it would’ve come up in conversation at some point, right? You’d think.
I’ve since mentioned that Wednesday night to a few friends who’d probably been sitting near me in those folding chairs. They usually reply with something like, “Ohhh yeah. Man, I haven’t thought about that in forever! Church was pretty strange sometimes.”
Here’s one reason that moment failed to register for us as a really big deal, something insane and dangerous, a mass-traumatizing outrage that should’ve led to lawsuits and firings and arrests3:
It felt like just another day at Evangelical church.
They already threatened our souls every Sunday morning, so why would I be alarmed by them threatening our lives on a Wednesday night? Especially considering the implied promise that to lose my life would be to save my soul? Once guns entered our youth room, things were looking up!
We were born into the constant end of the world. The Cold War, 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988 (and ‘94 and ‘99 and 2000 and so on), the late/great planet earth, the new world order, Mark of the Beast bar codes, DC Talk’s book of Christian martyrs, LifeWay shelves full of songs about yearning to be killed for Jesus, youth pastors asking us to raise our hands around the campfire if we were willing to spill our blood for Christ, Halloween Hell houses with maximum-pressure conversion sales pitches, Frank Peretti’s swarms of very literal demons, abortion clinic bombings, late-‘70s Rapture horror movies, endless propaganda about the Satanic horrors around every corner in public school, warnings of Christians being guillotined by imminently inbound Russians or environmentalists or Muslims or feminists or witches or whoever, guns/church being inextricably linked forever, and on and on and on and on. Without ceasing, panic and angst and resentment and suspicion were hard-coded into our bodies years before the instantly fetishized legend of Columbine Cassie or even the first Left Behind novel.
So when men paraded around me, waving rifles, asking if everyone believed in God, and declaring they’d kill anybody who said yes, do you know one thing my preteen-ish body felt?
Relief, I guess.
Finally, after 13-ish long years, I was about to be killed for Jesus. I’d prayed for this. I’d trained for this. Unfortunately, this meant I’d never see a boob in real life or sign with an NBA team, but I accepted these costs.
My brain has always been too rules-based, puzzle-unpiecing, and consistency-obsessed to understand the m a n y semi-conflicting versions of salvation4 that’d been explained to me by that point, and I’d spent long nights doubting I’d actually followed the correct procedures with the proper oomph. But I knew one hard and fast rule: being shot in the head because of devotion to this specific version of this specific religion is an instant ticket to Heaven, essentially a medical procedure, a transaction.
So, probably wearing a way-too-big Charlotte Hornets shirt and Nikes like Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson’s, I surely looked at those rifles and thought, “Bring it, Satan. Fuck you, bitch.”
But then the game was over.
Ah well. Time to try a score a hug from whichever girl named Ashleigh Grace I liked at the time, then go home and argue about No Limit Records on AIM.
Just another night at church.
What reminded me to revisit this story in public, for the first time since 2015, was this thread by someone who experienced a pretty similar incident:
After I shared that thread, I personally heard from a half-dozen other millennials who’d been threatened, chased, and even tackled by armed men during similar religious-conversion theater. These people grew up in various states and in several different (mostly white) Evangelical denominations.
But this kinda thing isn’t just an American Evangelical problem. Catholics used extremely violent evangelism tactics for hundreds of years all around the planet, you’ll recall. (We learned it by watching you, padre!!)
The Baptist/Catholic/etc. sex-abuse problem is a natural product of shitty theology that says men are deputized by a single-gender God to rule women. In the same way, these fear-based conversion spectacles are a natural product of theology that says eternal Hell is an extremely literal consequence for people who disagree with specific religious doctrines.
If Hell is real, anything that keeps people out of it is justified, right? That was the thinking during the Spanish Inquisition.
And, um … that math adds up.
I will look you in the eye and tell you I think you’re being lazy and selfish and logically inconsistent, if you say you believe the (biblically dubious, theologically incoherent, fantastically cruel, and relatively recently invented) doctrine of mass eternal damnation but aren’t screaming warnings into faces every minute of every day. If you obey any social norms whatsoever, I’m not convinced you actually believe in an eternal Hell.
When I stood in our kitchen and told Emily about one of the times (haha yeah) I was threatened by guns as a kid, the horrified look on her face instantly started changing my life. I began realizing the vague outlines of a thought that eventually became something like, “Wow, a lot of people similar to me have kinda totally buried a lot of legit trauma.”
Like, there are other stories. All the time. And so many people, especially women and LGBTQ people, have stories way worse than any of mine.5
That moment in our kitchen ended up telling me to start unburying things. It ended up creating our Vacation Bible School Podcast, giving me a weird sense that I have people to speak up for, producing my two-years-and-counting religion hyperfixation, and assigning me a novel to write. (I’m sorry for mentioning the book vaguely in like every edition of this newsletter, even though it still might not be public for years because of various Business reasons, but … I dunno, I think about its already-sprawling and thus-far mostly unseen fictional universe every single day. I’m so mad at real guys, I’ve invented an additional world of fake guys to also be mad at! What a ridiculous situation! Why would somebody do this on purpose?)
I eventually realized a whole lotta people grew up like me in a lotta ways, refugees and rebels from the white-Evangelical-industrial complex, and we should all let each other know we’re not alone. And I realized the rest of the country should know how many of us have chosen rebellion against that machine. So please aim your anger at the indoctrinators, rather than the indoctrinated.
The enduring lesson for me, decades after that night, is this: Think twice before assuming Evangelical kids are lost causes, even the kids conditioned into hoping for death.
Yes, of course there’s a “Solid Rock Cafe.” If you ever find yourself ~17 years old and stuck at a church lock-in, this sort of room should rank among your top five unauthorized-access destinations.
I still think much of this story is darkly hilarious, but I no longer tell it the same way, to say the least.
At least, this is how the story’s described to me, after I report it to people who were grownups in the very same well-lit building at the time and apparently never heard a word about it.
However many ideas you’ve heard in church and/or pop culture about how salvation works, there are more. For example, here are only the most popular theories on how only one facet of salvation, the crucifixion, works.
And I haven’t even told you the most brain-breaking detail of this youth-group gunplay story. I might never share that detail with anybody but Emily, idk.