DISCOVERY CAMP

The following is an excerpt from my memoir – SCREAMS FROM THE TREES: MY ESCAPE FROM ABUSE, ADOLESCENCE, AND RELIGION.

Because it justified my opposition to The Burkhartsmeiers, my walk with Jesus was getting more intense. It became my own private rebellion. I was praying in The Spirit as I walked the halls at school. I wrote 2-3 page letters to Jill Dutch about saving her soul from hell and stuffed them in her locker on a weekly basis. I carried a Bible to class. I was getting more involved with the Youth Group at Christian Life Ministries, spending evenings attempting to give Chick Tracts to people we felt led by The Spirit to witness to. I did this with all the confidence of a shaky puppy. They shouldn’t have made me nervous at all, they were just the weirdos on Montrose and Westheimer. But we were told they were all possessed. Not just possessed, but straight Demons from Hell dressed in human flesh, roaming the Houston streets in purple mohawks and black leather, raping and killing, eating babies in dark alleys. 

Meanwhile, things were disintegrating at home, spiraling into more violence. And this wasn’t some imaginary Demon nonsense. These were real nightmares. Mom was having a hard time keeping her bruises covered with makeup. 

People at church started to notice. There was gossip amongst the pews. Eventually Mom approached the Elders and The Board at the church. She requested a private meeting and reported the physical abuse she was receiving at the hands of Cordell. She then met with Pastor Price and his wife, reporting the same. 

She was told to stick it out. 

She told them he was impotent.

She was told to remain steadfast in prayer. 

She caught him masturbating to a maternity catalog.

She was told to be a better wife.

Who knows what scriptures were thrown at her, and would it matter? Take your pick. It’s no secret the Bible has been used to justify all matters of horrendous abuses ever since Moses smoked trees on Mt. Sinai and came back with the Ten Commandments.

Consequently, I began spending more time at Jason’s house. The only thing we did was kick the soccer ball around, raid the fridge and cupboards, and sit in his room flapping our soup coolers about girls. Of course, all I talked about was Jill. Jason talked about a new girl every week.

Jason’s parents soon became aware that something wasn’t quite right at my home. They became more interested in me personally, who I was, where I came from. They seemed genuinely interested, concerned. His dad, Mike, started taking an interest in my soccer skills.

“You can always stay here if you need to, bro,” Jason said. “Just come by whenever. If I’m not here, just wait for me in the garage. We’re brothers, man.” He gave me a hug. Jason had two brothers. The oldest was Shane, the youngest Kevin. They, too, accepted me as one of their own.

The following is an excerpt from my personal journal in 1990:

June 8

The end of my Sophomore year came with a thud. I wanted to turn back the hands of time just a little bit, just a little, damnit. But that’s not reality.

I look forward to the beginning of next year, hoping I’d be a totally different person, everybody likes me, and most of all, sweep Jill Dutch off her feet. 

Yeah…

I sat down at the foot of my bed, staring at a certain picture in the yearbook, as my “brother” Jason laid on the floor talking to his girl Tori.

Have you ever been in a situation that seems so obviously hopeless? I hate it. Because I don’t know what to do. And me? I like to know what to do. I like to be aware. And to be tied down is just torture.

But it’s summer…

Burchfield Ministries opened Discovery Camp the previous year. It was a brand-new endeavor with a large warehouse for church services and, more importantly, attractions that were a Texas kid’s dream. From outdoor basketball courts to snack shacks to water slides to horse trails and a go-kart track, just looking at the brochure for Burchfield Ministries got me excited. 

The Youth Group at my church was registered for a week at Discovery Camp shortly after the end of my Sophomore year. I had been to several summer camps as a kid and had some of the best times of my young life at them, and I was expecting Discovery Camp to be more of the same. Plus, I could finally get away from Cordell and my mom and their constant fighting. They were discussing leaving Christian Life Ministries, which was proof to me they were the hypocrites I knew them to be all along. 

We arrived on a Saturday. I was assigned a bunk in a cabin with the rest of the guys in the Youth Group. We were soon given printed camp agendas, explaining the schedule of daily events.

Most days were filled with free-time and optional classes. Church services were held every morning after breakfast and every evening after dinner.

By Wednesday night I had already rededicated my life to The Lord, again. I may have been rebaptized in water at some point, too. 

On Friday night, I was sitting in the front row of the church building as Tommy Burchfield paced back and forth across the stage, preaching into the microphone.

Tommy was a big man. He was built like a Teddy Bear and had the face of one. He was always smiling, his whole countenance resonated warmth and compassion. Even as he was bellowing up on that stage with his signature lisp convicting us of our bad thoughts and behavior, convincing us that we were not worthy of salvation but Jesus was going to offer it to us freely anyways, judging us for not meeting the mark as a Christian, even as he was downright making us feel horrible about who we were as human beings from the moment we were conceived and born to right now, we loved Tommy for it and not only agreed with him, we knew he was right the whole time. And it wasn’t that he was necessarily right, it’s that Tommy was merely confirming something we already knew to begin with. We knew it, Tommy knew it, and certainly God knew it.

There I was in that front row on our last night at camp, cheeks wet with tears, vision blurry, hands raised, praying in tongues as the worship band started playing louder and Tommy was praying in tongues and there was no way I could go back to that so-called home, back to that chaos, back to the feelings of hatred I felt emanating from Cordell, back to the lies and the hypocrisy and abuse.

I had my eyes closed tight, juicing them of tears, lost in The Spirit as the worship team steadily played my emotional strings, everybody praying in tongues, crying, howling. I was beginning to feel some sort of transcendence wash over me when The inside of my cranium began to feel like a sound chamber echoing at 528Hz and I thought I heard a low familiar voice say, Go talk to Tommy.

I wasn’t leaving Discovery Camp the next day. I knew it. God didn’t want me to go through any more abuse. I had found rest and refuge here.

Problem was, I couldn’t afford to stay at Discovery Camp. The Parental Units could barely afford the cost for the week that I was there already. And this was it, camp was over, the busses would be picking us up tomorrow.

Go talk to Tommy.

I opened my eyes just as Tommy exited stage left. He was gone.

Go after him. 

I closed my eyes.

I didn’t want to disrupt the service. I stood there, eyes shut, and gave up. 

Worship went on for another hour. Services like this never had a time limit associated with them, they were all spontaneous and led by The Spirit. The band would play, there would be an altar call, people would get saved, born again and delivered, baptized by fire and start speaking in tongues, people would get slain in The Spirit and start falling down all over the place crying and writhing on the floor. The worship band wouldn’t stop playing until the most ranking staff leader around would finally release the congregation and everything would die down and we’d slowly exit the building and enter reality again, whatever we imagined that to be.

As the kids emptied out of the warehouse church, I hopped on stage and went out the same back door I saw Tommy go through. I thought I’d have to walk down that long chert road in the dark, down that winding private driveway of his to knock on the door of his large house and have the most ridiculous conversation in my life which was certain to result in a call to Security.

I stepped through the exit door backstage. There was a small parking lot in the back, illuminated by one light pole. The lot was empty except for one mini-van parked under that pole.

I walked over.

As I came within a few feet, I could hear the engine idling. The driver’s side window rolled down.

“That you, Mr. Burchfield?” I asked.

Tommy poked his big bear head out of the window.

“The Lord told me you were coming. I was wondering if you were going to finally obey Him and come on out,” he smiled. “Call me Tommy. I know why you’re here.”

I was dumbstruck. Somehow I got into telling Tommy that I didn’t want to go back home and that I was growing so much in The Lord at camp and I think I was called to be in the ministry and I could really be a big help around the property. Tommy just smiled and patiently waited for me to run out of breath.

“Can I stay?” I asked. “I think Jesus wants me here.”

Tommy nodded his head, “I believe that’s what The Lord wants.” He reached out his hand and I shook it. Then he rolled up his window and drove off into the dusty moonlight.

The next day when the busses came to pick up all the campers and take them back to their respective churches, I waved goodbye to my Youth Group as they waved back, crowded in the windows of a big yellow school bus as they bumped down that chalky chert road. The rest of the day was spent getting prepped for the new camp week, which would start in twenty-four hours.

Now that I was a onboard full-time, wearing the coveted green t-shirt that had STAFF in bold white letters printed on the back, I moved out of the guest cabins and into one of the worker’s barracks. I got a top bunk above a guy named Jon.

My first assignment was the waterslides. I spent my days at the top, making sure the campers lowered themselves on their fannies without slipping or otherwise hurting themselves before they slid away. It didn’t take long before I attracted the eye of several female campers. 

They’d hang at the top and distract me from my duties. To get them moving along and stop goggling over me, I’d send them on errands, typically to get me an Orange Crush and a bag of Funyuns. This quickly gained the eyre of some jealous busybody and I was quickly dispatched from my waterslide duties before the end of the first week, only to be assigned as one of the lifeguards at the pool. That didn’t last long, either.

My next job was working the go-kart track. By this time it was July, and summers in South Texas are brutal humid beasts that send everything including cockroaches to the shade from 11 AM to 8 at night. After two weeks of standing around that black asphalt track exposed to the open sun with no shade, with the heat coming off the track mixed with the exhaust and the smell of melting tar, I kept getting dizzy and dehydrated so I asked to be reassigned.

My final job was working with the horses. I loved it. Our days started at sunrise when we’d get the horses out of the pasture, saddle them, then ride them or walk them to the trailhead. We’d spend our entire days out there leading trail rides or just hanging around the corral. It was a peaceful way to spend my time. I loved the animals, loved working with kids and helping them with the horses, and my coworkers were hard working and kept to themselves. I focused on my duties and thoughts. 

At the end of the day, we’d ride or walk the horses back to their pasture. We’d let them graze a bit before we put them in their stables for the night. If we had a slow day on the trail, we’d ride the horses out in that pasture for a bit and give them some exercise. There’s nothing quite like riding a galloping horse.

One time Jon couldn’t get control of his mare as we approached the pasture and the spooked horse started dragging Jon along the barbed-wire fence. His jeans were getting snagged and shredded and he was hollering his larynx out. I came up behind him and kicked his pony on the left flank with my right boot and all at once his horse lurched, Jon bailed out of his saddle, and the horse bolted off into the woods. I gave chase and eventually brought her back to the pasture. Jon was OK.

Most of our days were long. By the time we got the horses put away for the night, we’d have to hurry to the Chow Hall to catch the last of the vittles before the Chuck Wagon crew started cleaning up. We’d throw down our grub then head over to our barracks, shower, then hit the bunks. Sometimes while waiting for a shower stall to open, we’d be so tired we’d fall asleep in our racks without taking one. Our barracks room stunk something awful.

Late one night, after all of us had been asleep for a while, I heard some scratching and whimpering coming from the bunk below me. 

“Jon, what are you doing, dude?”

“I’m itchy, man.”

“Oh,” I said. Because lately I had been very itchy, too.

A few hours later I was woken up by the same scratching and whimpering. I opened my eyes and the light in the bathroom was on. The bathroom was at the end of the barracks. There was a sink and a mirror there.

Jon was standing by the sink, pants and underwear dropped to his ankles, and he was bent over scratching his inner thighs and groin like a rabid wolf. I could hear him crying.

“Jon! Are you OK?”

He looked up at me with tears dribbling down his dirty cheeks, “Dude, this really hurts!” 

The next day Jon was in so much pain he couldn’t work. That night when I returned to the barracks, I was in the same spot he was. 

We had caught a severe case of crotch rot. I had a red itchy rash that went from just below my navel, down my inner thighs, all the way to the tops of my knees. 

The next day we had to take a staff truck and drive to the Walgreens in Columbus to purchase some Blue Star Ointment. I had to paste that stuff on 1/3rd of my body and Holy Smokes it felt like I was on fire.

Speaking of being on fire, you might say that’s what I was experiencing at the camp church services. Tommy was a straight wizard to the crowds I saw come and go. Night after night he got on stage and commanded not only their attention, but their entire reason for being, their purpose and very identity.

As a green-shirt wearing STAFF member, I was expected to attend all church services unless I was doing KP. I never did KP, so I was at every church service. But I was also expected to help at every service, and that certainly meant laying my hands on and praying for campers.

I was on stage with Tommy one night. I was up there with a few other green-shirted STAFF members who were praying for some campers standing in line, coming on stage one-by-one to receive prayer. I was crying and praying in tongues.

“Look at this,” Tommy said as he pulled me towards him in a side-hug. I opened my eyes while Tommy spread his right arm in the air in a big arc across the congregation, and there it was. 

There was a fog in the room. 

A mist. 

It was hanging just above their heads. 

I watched that foggy mist move and undulate over a group of campers and one or two, maybe six of them or an entire row would fall down or backwards, hands raised and shaking.

I rubbed my swollen eyes.

“It’s like the tail end of God’s Glory,” Tommy whispered to me. “It’s just a peek.”

I spent most of the summer of 1990 between my Sophomore and Junior years at Discovery Camp. I was so absorbed in the experience I entirely forgot I had a different life somewhere in a big city far away until someone hollered at me as I was leaving the chow hall after lunch.

“You got a phone call in the office!” Sarah yelled.

I ran to the office. I picked up the phone. 

It was my mother’s voice. 

She was coming to get me. Today. 

So, I’d better pack up. 

She’d be here in a few hours.

STAY TUNED FOR MORE

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