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.
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.
"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.
"Have I wished evil upon other people?"
Yes, yes, yes, agreed Skyler's nodding head.
"Am I guilty of masturbation?"
Skyler froze. At that point he decided it was a good time to keep his answers to himself.
THE NEXT DAY—"RISE DAY"—marked the time in which we were "free to live for Christ." But such sentiments were pushed aside that morning at the breakfast table. With no camp counselors in sight, the kids lapsed into profanity and tales of adolescent debauchery. I sat silently between the Harry Potter twins, picking at my sausage patty.
Legendary stories of passing out drunk in absurd locations and circumstances were told and retold, as were accounts of sexual conquests, dope smoking, and other sinful revelry. Other than Peter, Paul, and me, the only one who stayed silent was Vince, a meek, lanky kid with braces.
Then, in an uncharacteristic flash of boldness, Vince interrupted the one-upmanship: "How many of you believe in God? Raise your hand."
Everyone at the table put their hand up.
"Then why would you do all that?" asked Vince, visibly shaken. "How can you all talk that way?"
A theological debate broke out as to whether drinking was a sin ("Why did Jesus turn water into wine and not the other way around?") and so forth. When we were dismissed, Vince walked off alone and frustrated.
We were herded back to the conference room for more song, led again by Charles. The morning's lecture centered on explaining the church, which, we were told, "is a mystery." The ensuing sales pitch broke down like this: The Catholic Church and Jesus Christ go together. They are not separate. To deny one is to deny the other. Therefore, the church is the only true path to Christ.
"Who has siblings?" asked the presenter, a moon-faced woman in her late 20s. Most of the room raised their hands. "Well, now you all have more siblings, because we're all family!"
Yesterday, such a claim would have elicited eye rolling and groans. But after 26 hours of bonding with one another and listening to song after peppy song, lecture after sappy lecture, the kids barely batted an eye. A few of them even snuck embarrassed looks at each other, fully committed to the premise that sexual contact between one another would constitute incest.
After the next lecture, titled "Christian Life" and delivered by Suzy, we were once again treated to a Christian rock anthem played over the PA system (after each talk, the lecturer would play a song of her choosing and explain to us why she found the lyrics inspirational). This time Suzy told us to put our heads down as the song played.
When the track ended, we lifted our heads to find 15 strangers facing us in a straight line. They were adults holding candles. And they were singing: "Carry your candle/Run towards the darkness/Take your candle and go light your world."
We learned that these cherubic strangers were called "Wheaties"—adults who had "died" during previous TEC weekends and were now reborn. Furthermore, they had been praying for us individually over the past week and had been responsible for all the food preparation and cooking. They took turns calling our names. When my name was called, I followed suit and approached the Wheatie who had called me. She hugged me and gave me a piece of paper that read, "Jesus of Nazareth lovingly requests the honor of your presence, this afternoon, at a celebration to be given in his father's honor."
I thought little of it until three hours later.
After that evening's mass, we proceeded in a single-file line downstairs toward the basement chapel, our hands placed on the shoulder of the person in front of us. The pitch-dark halls were lined with indecipherable figures, presumably the Wheaties and their cohorts. They held candles to light the way and sang in unison as we filed past them, "Oh, Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary/Pure and holy, tried and true/With thanksgiving, I'll be a living sanctuary for You."
That's when I realized the horrible, unblinking truth: We were sacrificial animals about to be ritualistically slaughtered by savage, candle-wielding perverts in a dank basement.
But I was wrong. Instead we entered a chapel devoid of chairs, benches, or furniture of any kind. Songbooks and boxes of Kleenex lay strewn about the floor. I inferred from this that we were expected to cry. Which made me feel a little uneasy. Also, old.
Father Tom told us we were about to partake in a Eucharistic adoration, a now-uncommon Catholic ritual in which parishioners come in direct, literal contact with Jesus Christ.
"This is not a symbolic contact," said the Padre. "This is meant to demonstrate the substantive presence of Christ our Lord."
Enter the monstrance. A monstrance is an elaborately designed, candle-like item featuring a golden sunburst. In the middle of the sunburst is a circular piece of glass called a Luna, roughly four inches in diameter. Father Tom placed a wafer of cornbread in the Luna, blessed it, and placed it on the altar. The wafer was now literally Jesus.
We sat in eerie silence staring at the messiah-containing monstrance while Charles strummed plaintive chords on his guitar and crooned, "Adoramus te domine, adoramus te domine," over and over again. (Adoramus te domine is Latin for "Get me the hell out of here.")
Then more silence. A girl in front of me began weeping. Through teary eyes, she grappled for a tissue and blew her nose. A kid kneeling in the middle of the room was contorting his face and pursing his lips in an apparent attempt to kiss his own forehead.
After the adoration ceremony finally ended, the collective demeanor of the kids changed entirely. No more talk of sex, drugs, or booze. When Charles led the group in song, the too-cool-for-school guys suddenly came alive and sung along. Some even invented hand gestures to correspond with the lyrics.
That night I went to bed early. I lay on the bottom bunk and tried to fall asleep. But just as I was starting to doze off, the door burst open and the sound of two voices deep in conversation filled the room. It was Tom and Vince, who was freaking out.
"I feel so stressed and unhappy all the time, y'know?" he said. "Sometimes I'll just lie in my bed and stare at the ceiling. I won't even get out of bed."
He went on to tell Tom that he was seeing a therapist. Tom tried to reassure Vince by recounting his own struggles with seasonal affective and bipolar disorders.
Problem was, Vince's troubles didn't stem from a chemical imbalance.
"It all started with my older brother's screensaver," Vince said meekly. "Now it's an addiction! I just—I can't stop. I'll do it every week. And every time, I'd feel so bad afterwards."
Before long, a 22-year-old group leader sporting a sandy blond faux hawk walked in and joined the discussion. After listening to Vince's pleas for advice, he explained to Vince that a lot of guys deal with that same problem. That he would pray for him. That the best remedy was to attend confession. And don't forget to show up for mass every week.
"THE WORLD WE LIVE IN doesn't belong to Christ," Jenny, a TEC leader, told the room on the final day, "Go Day." "You have to choose between God and the world. You're going to be faced with people who criticize the church, people who will say it's all lies. You have to stand up to them!"
A few kids scribbled notes in their journals. Others just stared solemnly ahead. Robert, a looming TEC counselor in his early 20s, lumbered to the podium to relay the next set of instructions.
"You're all going to go into separate rooms with your groups for what we call the 'Affirmation Session,'" he boomed. "You'll be leaving and going back into the 'real world' today. We want to build you up before society tears you down."
Our fearless group leader Charles led us into a vacant dorm room. The six of us—me, Charles, Tom, Red, and the Harry Potter twins—sat in a circle on the floor. In the middle lay a crucifix.
"Okay, guys, we're going to take turns going around the circle pointing out the positive qualities of each other," Charles said softly. "Try to focus on personality traits and avoid pointing out superficial things like clothes and appearances."
Fifteen minutes of awkwardness ensued. It was difficult to conjure detailed appraisals of one another's souls—after all, we had only known each other for three days and the brothers Potter had refused to talk. Everyone seemed perfectly agreeable, to be sure, but for all I knew, they could've been juvenile delinquents or even Lutherans.
Next, we took turns kneeling in the circle, while the rest of the group placed their hands on our shoulders and prayed for us. The whole ordeal was carried out with utmost sincerity and reverence, so I hesitate to disparage it. But I will say this: It was weird. It was definitely weird.
With that came one more meal (leftover casserole, pizza, and soup), a couple more Jesus chats, and one more Mass thrown in for good measure. Then it was time to go.
Before we went our separate ways, I joined Tom for one last cigarette break. As we stepped out into the arctic February air, I asked him what his overall impression was of the weekend.
"To be honest, I'm not sure who to believe," he said as he glanced back through the glass doors. "I never have been. Being raised in a strict Catholic home and going to a strict Catholic school were kind of what screwed me up in the first place."
Tom took a drag from his cigarette and lowered his eyes to study the tops of his Nikes. He looked up and said, "But I think this weekend helped me to get a fresh start. I think I've found my spiritual center."
He stamped out his cigarette and walked back inside.
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