Jesus Weekend

When teens encounter Christ, all hell breaks loose

When my mother, a public high school teacher in rural Iowa, entered her classroom to find the occasional Bible verse or Jesus-themed riddle scrawled on the whiteboard, she thought little of it. After all, the doodlers were without exception exceedingly polite and well behaved. And in conservative northwest Iowa, bold proclamations of faith were hardly novel.

But when a subset of students quit their sports teams in order to spend more time with Jesus, and swore off prom based on their conviction that the ritual was a ruse concocted by the Devil himself, it became apparent that something beyond Sunday school was at work.

The more zealous students had all recently attended Teens Encountering Christ, TEC for short (pronounced "tech"). The three-day Christian gala was becoming the Jesus retreat for kids of all denominations.

Ryan Kelly
Ryan Kelly

I knew a few kids who signed up, and the personality changes were dramatic. In the span of 72 hours, they transformed from hilarious, debauched rapscallions into timid, scripture-spouting ninnies.

We heathens—those of us who could barely endure one hour of church per week, let alone three continuous days of droning scripture verbiage—couldn't help but wonder: What the hell went on during these things? What had they done to Rich? And just where were we going to buy our pot now?

Adding to the mystique was the TEC alums' uncompromising secrecy. They told us they weren't allowed to divulge the weekend's goings-on because it would "ruin the secret." And since they had sworn off drinking, efforts to loosen their lips with Bacardi 151 proved futile.

The TEC leadership is equally cagey. Here's what we do know: The first TEC weekend was held in 1964 in Lansing, Michigan. The brainchild of Father Matthew Fedewa (now a Twin Cities resident), TEC sought to "bring the essentials of the Catholic faith into clear focus for high school seniors and young adults." In late 1984, the National TEC Conference assembled a study group to create an "official TEC manual." It took more than 12 years to hone and refine the final draft. On June 8, 1997, the group introduced the Official TEC Manual at the National TEC Conference in Roseville, Minnesota. Interestingly—and by that, I mean "suspiciously"—the only people allowed to read the manual are insiders.

"The manual has a license agreement that goes with TEC community," explains Ron Reiter, the executive director of the TEC Conference. "My predecessors didn't allow for it to be disseminated, and I don't either. It's licensed to us and us only."

There was only one choice: go undercover. Which is why I infiltrated a weekend retreat held by the Twin Cities TEC, a chapter based in West St. Paul. But unlike the true believers, I had no intention of keeping secrets.

THREE WOMEN BEHIND the registration table beamed at me as I stood before them. A backpack stuffed with three days' worth of clothing, bedding, and toiletries lay at my feet. The women's smiles seemed genuine, but a hint of suspicion crept into the crinkles of their eyes. Perhaps this was because I was late. More likely it was because I was nearly a decade older than most of the other campers.

"Hi, welcome to TEC!" said a perky young woman, the maternal tone of her voice refusing to acknowledge my age. "Sign in right here and you can make your way to the gym!"

I entered the small gymnasium to find about 50 guys and girls in their mid-teens to early twenties perched on folding chairs arranged in a circle. I resigned myself to a brutal reality: I was doomed to spend the weekend as That Guy, the person too out-of-place for others to approach and yet too unassuming to refer to by name (i.e. "Anyone know what the hell's up with that guy?" "What guy?" "The old guy." "Oh, that guy.")

I took a seat and looked around at my new brothers and sisters in Christ. A few chatted nervously with their neighbors. Most just stared at the floor, as if the circle of chairs was a giant clock and they were watching the seconds tick by. Only one in ten exhibited anything resembling a willingness to be there.

Just when it seemed a mass walkout was imminent, a gargantuan, pear-shaped twenty-something—we'll call him "Robert"—shouted in a booming baritone, "Everybody follow me!"

He led us out of the gym and up the stairs to a spacious conference room containing eight round tables, a couple of leather couches, a PA system, and much Jesus-themed paraphernalia. As we entered, a middle-aged man stood off to the side strumming cheery chord progressions on his acoustic guitar, belting out his desire to see Jesus lifted high.

The guitarist turned the podium over to the perky young woman who had registered me—we'll call her "Suzy." She told us that this was to be a "retreat from society." This prohibited the use of clocks, cell phones, watches, and witchcraft.

"You are to have a stress-free weekend, and part of that means not having to worry about time," she explained.

We soon learned there were more pressing things to worry about, such as rapists.

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