Tuesday, January 07, 2014

The Summer of Flies

During the summer after seventh grade, I went on an eight-week mission trip with Teen Missions International. I and about thirty other teens went with five adult leaders to Pakistan. It sounds ludicrous now to take a team of teenagers to Pakistan, and it wasn’t much less crazy then in 1995. People thought my parents were crazy, but my parents trusted the organization and believed in its cause. The summer prior I had taken a trip to Venezuela with TMI and helped refurbish a Christian school. This year, we would be running a two-week training course with local Pakistani Christian students in the still developing town of Gujranwala (now one of the largest, most prospering industrial cities in the country) and afterwards building a garage for a local Christian mechanic in Jhelum. Then, as it is now, people could not come into the country as Christian missionaries but were permitted as tourists who might volunteer their time helping Christians already living there. We weren’t allowed to do any proselytizing but could encourage those already struggling as the religious minority in a Muslim nation.

I was the youngest kid on the team, one of only two thirteen year olds. I was extremely immature. I didn’t like washing my own clothes in a bucket. As if the flies weren’t bad enough already, I wore the same dirty socks for days and days without a mother to do my laundry for me. I still had that weird sense of humor but now also a “bad girl” persona that I thought suited me. I said a few swear words. I was utterly boy-crazy too. I was irresponsible and moody. I was, believe it or not, a typical thirteen year old.

Two of my leaders, Pam and Sam, rhyming names, were a stuffy British couple who took an immediate dislike to me. I was probably a little difficult to handle. That’s not to say I didn't try though; on the contrary, I tried hard. I may have seen myself as a little bad and daring, but in reality, I was still almost perfectly squeaky clean. I was still afraid to ever do anything really bad. I ended up with a sort of boyfriend on the team, which is a TMI major rule-break. Still, even though we gave each other little notes declaring a little affection for each other, and even though we sat together at lot on buses and at meal times, we never held hands or kissed or did any of the actual boyfriend/girlfriend stuff. We got split up repeatedly. For days at a time we were forbidden to speak to each other. The older girls on the team, particularly Jane, took me under their wing and were wonderful to me, and tried to help me understand why this rule existed. I tried not to “pair off”, but I couldn’t help it. I was friends with nearly everyone on the team, but any conversation lasting longer than a few minutes with Tim was picked on by my leaders and separated we’d be again. I also got in trouble repeatedly for “pairing off” with the other thirteen year old, Laura. She and I were instant best friends, but even best friends were prohibited. I spent a lot of time separated from the two people I cared most about.

I wasn’t trying to break the rules. I never tried to break the rules. Not until one weekend when our team took a special break and visited the beautiful town of Murree. Only two of the younger adults, Martha and Jack, accompanied us there. (Daniel, our sixth leader, was hardly ever in sight. I barely remember him.) TMI has a lot of rules about how team members behave and look on mission trips. We had to wear eight-inch tall army boots at all times, making us stick out like crazy religious thumbs everywhere we went. Besides the ‘no pairing off’ rule, there were others like no secular music, no discussing theology, no piercings (other than one set of earrings on ladies), no sleeveless tops or skirts that showed the knee. As members of the Pakistan team, we all wore shalwar kameez to avoid offending the Pakistani people – a rule I believed in then and still do today. Yet, while we were in Murree, the rules all seemed to relax a little, with our stuffy British leaders out of the picture. We stayed in a Western Christian boarding school for missionary children, and spent the evenings in the common room listening to Snoop, Nirvana and Beck. We spent time in rooms of the opposite sex playing cards (two more broken rules). Everyone was involved; I recall no one abstaining from the debauchery.

One afternoon, in my dorm room with Laura, Tim and one other guy, someone suggested we play strip poker. It was silly. We removed socks and boots and hair bows, that was it. Not so much as a hairless boy’s chest was revealed; I was far too prude to go any further. After our silly game ended, I headed back to the common room for some more forbidden secular music and dancing (so many broken rules) with other members of the team.

We returned to Jhelum and our project. Our project, as mentioned before, was to build a car shed for a local mechanic. We mixed and poured concrete, we dug holes, and we broke bricks with hammers. We wore hard hats and boots and shalwar kameez. We drank water by the canteenful and sweated and suffered heat rash. Building this car shed for our mechanic missionary was hard labor, but we loved it. We had fun testing the limits of our youthful bodies. We fought over who got to turn the enormous cement mixer. We laughed and chased each other and sang praise songs while we worked. We had a higher mission; we were working for the glory of God.

During the afternoon monsoons, we stayed indoors for Bible Study and laundry and shower time. In the mornings before the sun blazed too hot, we had our “devos”.

“Devos” were an integral part of the Teen Missions experience. Every morning, before breakfast, we broke up for personal devotions. For thirty minutes, we sat alone, in any inspirational and comfortable place we could find for silent reflection, prayer and Scripture reading. I loved devos. I felt they brought me closer to the Lord -- except for when it put me to sleep. I found it so hard to stay awake so early in the morning, silently reading the Bible and praying in my head on an empty stomach. I often found it hard to know what to read or pray about. Many times I was asking for forgiveness for falling asleep, or for wanting to fall asleep. I found if I moved very far away from the rest of the crowd, I could whisper my prayers, and that kept me awake. I was also distracted by all the flies. If you sit still for any length of time in Pakistan, you will be quite literally covered in resting flies. I got used to it, but when they covered my Bible, it was hard to read for all the swatting. I was also terrified to put my Bible down. I’d been chastised by a Pakistani pastor for doing devos with my Bible on the floor for they believe that is highly disrespectful to God. I couldn’t show the bottoms of my feet either, so finding a place to sit on the ground, with my Bible elevated, the soles of my boots facing down and my shalwar kameez discreet, I was never very comfortable. It was remarkably still conducive to sleep though.

When I wasn’t nodding off, however, I was growing closer to Jesus. I was taking in his words – the Gospels were my favourite – and I was maturing in a slow, honest way. Things that challenged me I really took to heart. I was a child, but when Jesus said hating your brother was as bad as murder, I repented of my hateful feelings towards others.

One particular morning, during devos, I had a wonderful experience. I was praying for God’s power, when the sun broke through the clouds and a ray of sunshine poured directly onto me. In my mind’s eye, I remember a sunray like a yellow painting, coming from a holy cloud, warming my body and my spirit. I basked in it, as the cool of the morning burnt off me in comforting, spiritual tenderness. After devos was over, I was eager to share my heavenly experience with the rest of the team. The older girls were thrilled for me. I told my leaders. The younger adults smiled, the careless British ones blew me off.

I don’t know how long after that experience the next thing happened. Laura, Tim, our other male friend and I were called up to speak privately with the leaders.

Stuffy Pam asked, “Lori. Did you break any rules while you were in Murree?” Baffled as to why I was being singled out about this, I stumbled over my answer as the other three looked off into the fly ridden sky.

“Um, yes, ma’am. I, well we, I mean we listened to secular music. We played cards, and we danced.” I was blushing horribly with the guilt and embarrassment of being so unfairly, singularly scrutinized.

“Anything else?” I thought hard. Shamefaced, I added, “Boys were in girls’ rooms.”

“And?” I was baffled now. I couldn’t remember anything else we’d done. I looked to my friends for help but all eyes were cast down.

Sam helped me out. “We have been made aware you were also involved in playing strip poker?” Petrified, and afraid I’d looked like I was lying by omission, I tried to explain.

“We, well, I mean, yes, I guess we did sort of play strip poker, but I mean, we didn’t take anything off! I mean, I’m so sorry, I just forgot about that, because we didn’t do anything...” No one was giving me any help as Sam and Pam glared down their noses at me.

I was then informed that if we weren’t only one week away from the end of our trip, I and my partners in sin would have been sent home early. My stomach nearly dropped through my colon. I burst into tears. How could I have been so stupid! Of course strip poker is strip poker, even if nothing came off!

After the others confirmed my story, they were dismissed. I was held back. Pam watched me coldly as she said, “I’m sorry, Lori, but I really just don’t think you are a Christian.”

I turned to leave. My boots dragged through the dirt, too heavy to lift, as I trudged back to my dorm for laundry and shower time. Tears dripped down my dusty, tanned face. I was suffocating in a blubbering fog of misery and disaster. Sobs burst out of my chest as I tried to control my crying. How dare she tell me I wasn’t a Christian! All because I did stuff everyone else did too! All because I played a stupid game where I didn’t even do anything wrong! But worse than the mortification and resentment I felt for that mean, terrible woman was the fear in my heart that she was right.

What if I wasn’t a Christian?

But that sun! That light! It had to mean something, right? Or did it? Back in the dorms, I was comforted by the other girls. I told them what Pam had said to me. Jane, the oldest girl on our team, looked me directly in the eyes and told me to ignore what she had said to me, that she had no right. I hugged Jane for her kindness, but the damage was done in my vulnerable little spirit.

How could I ever know if I was truly saved?

They forced us to call our parents and tell them what happened. It wasn’t until afterwards that I learned the whole, miserable story, compounding my humiliation and anger all the more. As it turned out, after our little game of stripless poker in my dorm room, the same group got back together later that evening with a different girl, Tracie, taking my place. In a dark closet, the four played real strip poker and got half-naked together. The rumour had gotten out somehow, and I was placed at the scene of the crime instead of Tracie. How? Because one of our leaders, Jack, had passed by my dorm room that afternoon and peaked in. He saw us playing cards, waved to us and shrugged it off, untroubled by our double rule breaking. Yet when the rumor of the four kids playing strip poker broke out, Jack remembered what he’d seen in my room. Remembered we were barefoot and named us four the offenders.

Hence the reason my friends refused to speak up. Not wanting to incriminate Tracie too, no one admitted there were two games going on and I was innocent of the indecorous one. I was infuriated by the betrayal, both of hiding my innocence and of Tim seeing two other girls in their bras. Tracie was never punished, but the incident was recorded on my permanent TMI record. There really is a permanent TMI record.

I left Pakistan that summer with the disgrace and shame of a depraved thirteen year old non-Christian heathen who never liked to wash her socks. I left with the yoke of uncertainty for where I would be spending the afterlife – in heaven or in hell.

This is an excerpt from something I'm working on, which may turn into something larger. Also, the names have been changed just, you know, in case.


  1. It seems to me that Christian organizations are often unwise in how they set up leadership, and somehow especially so when it involves leaders of children and/or teens. I am a big believer in inter-generational worship where age groups are not segregated and they don't use the leaders-in-training on the kids (instead of "real" developed leaders).

    Nobody living the Christian life on earth has arrived. Everyone fails, some by breaking rules and playing strip poker, and some by breaking the second greatest commandment of Jesus (love your neighbor as yourself) and inflicting prideful judgmentalism on children. Everyone fails, and we all need grace. Somehow, those who fail because of pride are often the last to think of grace.

    Just a question: I often avoid writing things on my blog that I may want to publish someday, because I was not sure what Blogger has the rights to. I'm not sure if that's a silly concern? I just thought of that when you said you were working on this for another project, and wondered if I should warn you to be careful. But really, I have no idea.

  2. I remember looking into it once, and Blogger didn't have rights to what you post. But I will be sure to look into it again now that you've said that!


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