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"Because of the crazy stuff in the news, we ask you to be with at least two other people if you have to use the bathroom," she continued. "If it's an emergency, come to the leadership table, and we'll send someone with you."
With that, we were divided into eight groups, one per table, and introduced to team leaders called "resources." Our team leader was the amiable, dark-haired 40-year-old who had been playing guitar. He introduced himself as "Charles" in a deep, unwavering voice. His blue eyes darted behind his glasses as the five of us took turns introducing ourselves.
There were Peter and Paul (not their real names), a pair of slight 16-year-olds bearing vague resemblances to Harry Potter, attending to fulfill a requirement to get confirmed. Next to them sat Red, taller with curly auburn hair, attending for the same reason. He looked the least enthused to be here.
Immediately to my left sat Tom, an athletically built college student wearing a black-and-white Twins hat and green Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirt. At 21, he was the oldest in the group (besides me). In explaining his motivation for attending, he was disarmingly frank.
"I've been dealing with seasonal affective depression my whole life," he said. "I've gotten mixed up with drugs and alcohol because of it. I'm here to get a fresh start."
Across the table, the Harry Potter twins straightened reverently in their seats. They were in the presence of a bona fide bad-ass.
"Thanks for your honesty," said team leader Charles.
Surprisingly, TEC organizers allowed tobacco on the premises, assuming you were at least 18. Tom and I were the only ones over 18, and luckily, he smoked. During smoke breaks, we could talk candidly without minders hovering over our shoulders. We were on our way to our first one when a TEC leader walked by and did a double take.
"Man, I hope they don't look at me like that the whole weekend," Tom said as we passed through the vestibule. "I hate that judgmental shit. One of these times, I'll take a cig break and never come back."
I learned a lot about Tom during the next 10 minutes. I found out that he had attended Hill-Murray Catholic high school in St. Paul, which he hated because of its strict, repressive atmosphere. I discovered that he was attending Bemidji State University up north, but was planning to transfer. That he suffered from bipolar disorder and used pot to self-medicate. That he had recently sworn off drugs after a horrifying psilocybin mushroom trip. That he was seeing a therapist, but that she "wasn't doing shit" as far as helping him. The guy was an open book.
"What I'd like to do more than anything is become a motivational speaker," he said, stubbing out his Parliament Light. "Coming here is the first step to getting my life in order. I've got the smarts. I just need to make use of it."
We headed inside for the next lecture. There we were told that "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John, 12:24). We also learned that today was "Die Day," a critical first step in which we were called to "follow Christ by dying to ourselves." This was achieved during the course of the day through song, prayer, small group discussions, meditation, and a rousing game of dodge ball in which I dominated mercilessly.
That evening we participated in Reconciliation, a.k.a. Confession, a ritual in which we were to recite our sins to a priest. But before we could do that, the TEC leaders put us through some serious guilt-tripping.
They filed us into a dimly lit ballroom serving as a makeshift chapel. We lined up for Father Tom to mark our foreheads with ash and then sat silently before the altar. On the wall behind the pulpit hung a big screen TV—about 10 feet wide—that came alive with oozing pastel colors and the sound of a marching drum being played over what sounded like Pink Floyd's "Echoes" sans the tortured duck calls. A succession of blurry sentences materialized on the screen. Standing off to the side with a microphone, Father Tom read the words aloud in a lackadaisical, nasal voice. "Have I denied my faith?" Dramatic pause. "Do I have false gods?"
The inquiries grew more and more obscure.
"Have I been involved with horoscopes?" (What?) "Have I encouraged impurity by stares?" (Who?) "Have I thought about suicide?" (Not until about 10 minutes ago.)
Directly to my right sat an impossibly frail, mop-haired kid named Skyler. As the ritual progressed, Skyler began emitting whimpers of escaped air from his mouth. Intrigued, I leaned forward and looked sideways at him. That's when I realized Skyler was crying. Not uncontrollably so, but there was no mistaking the tears glistening in the dim candlelight.
The priest's voice continued.
"Have I stolen?"
Skyler nodded his head emphatically, admitting his guilt for everyone behind him to see.
"Did I curse?"
Skyler confirmed it with the enthusiasm of a bobblehead doll.
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