Was I the victim of a born-again brainwashing scheme?

I had a complicated relationship with religion – and God – as a kid.

You see, my mom is a Christian – the born-again, Evangelical type. But my dad is an atheist – the church-hating type.

That created more than a little conflict in my childhood. They fought constantly about religion.

I vividly remember both of them trying to get us kids over to their side. My mom would bribe us to go to church with candy… but then again, if we stayed home with Dad, we got to sleep in and sometimes get on our dad’s good side for once.

We typically went to church with Mom because she was our favorite – but sometimes, laziness or wanting to curry favor with Dad would win out. This went on all throughout my childhood into my HS years. Thankfully, neither seemed to hold a grudge when we sided with the other parent on a particular Sunday morning.

Then, in my senior year of HS, I got invited to go on a spring break trip to Florida with my best friend Jen and her church group. Well, it wasn’t exactly a church group – it was a born-again Christian group not affiliated with any particular church.

The idea of spring break in Florida far outweighed any misgivings I might have had about going on the trip with a Christian group.

Even back then, I loved to travel. I was gung-ho about the Vero Beach trip – and my mom was super excited about the idea of me going with Campus Life/Youth for Christ. I don’t know what she was hoping for, but I guess she figured it would be good for me.

Side note: I don’t think my dad realized it was a Christianity-sponsored trip; he must have thought I was going with school or a friend (he was a pretty uninvolved parent for the most part).

My friends and I had an absolute blast on that trip. There was a lot of fun in the sun, including games in the pool, time at the beach and even a full day at Disney World. The chaperones and kids were all super friendly and nice.

But there was also a lot of non-optional Christian propaganda, preaching, music and singing (I honestly liked the last two).

Every night, in particular, they ramped up the religion and things got pretty intense. There were several evenings toward the end of the trip that were focused wholly on “saving our souls” and converting us to born-again Christianity.

After evenings of preaching and testimonials, there was encouragement and pressure from the leaders, not to mention loads of peer pressure, to go down to the front of the room and give our hearts to Jesus. There were counselors waiting at the front of the room to pray with us and help us get saved.

I didn’t go down to the front on that first night. I remember thinking, “I don’t need to do this. I’m already a Christian. This is for other people.” But the pressure continued – subtle, yet unrelenting. Other friends were getting saved and having amazing, inspiring, life-altering spiritual experiences.

In the mornings, kids would get up and speak about their encounters with Christ. So-called “troubled” teens got the most applause after telling their stories, but even ordinary kids like me had stories to share. I started to feel left out.

By the end of the trip, I was desperate to feel the same euphoria my friends all seemed to be experiencing. I didn’t feel comfortable going down to the front of the room with the counselors – it felt somehow intimate and creepy to me. But I also wanted to be saved like everyone else.

After one of the evening conversion sessions, I went back to my hotel room in great distress. All alone, I prayed and cried, wanting that same amazing, life-changing experience.

And then I had it. Mine was a little different – I had a headache, prayed for a sign and a miracle, and had a vision about Aslan the lion instead of Jesus. My headache disappeared, and when my roommates came back to the room, I told them what had happened. They told me I was saved! I was a new person, born anew in Christ. They celebrated with me and made me feel fantastic!

My friends then told the counselors, who also celebrated me and made me feel great. The next morning, they asked me to go up in front of the whole group and share my testimony. I have never been shy about speaking in public, so I did it – and the whole room went crazy applauding for me and my story. It felt so good!

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I came home from that trip a different person. I was saved and born again. I started reading the bible daily, praying a lot and trying to live as a good Christian. I continued going to Campus Life/YFC events and got my boyfriend and other friends to go, too.

I became a little conversion factory, telling everyone I know about my experience and trying to get them to get saved, too. I shared my testimony at many events after that trip; I was always happy to do it and feel that warm glow of approval. Yet deep down, I always had a nagging question: was it real, or had I imagined it all to go along with the group and feel approval?

When I became an enthusiastic born-again Christian at the age of 17, my dad was livid. He didn’t understand why I was suddenly like my mom; I’m sure on some level he felt betrayed. But he clearly didn’t realize it had happened on that Florida trip, because my brother got invited to go his senior year just like I had. There’s no way my dad would have let him go if he’d known that’s where I got “infected.”

Here’s where it gets really interesting. My brother, who was super anti-religion like my father prior to his Campus Life trip, also got saved in Florida. When he came home a Christian with bible in hand, my dad just about lost his mind. My mom and I were also super surprised; somehow, my conversion seemed even more suspicious to me now that it had happened to Graham, too. My mom likely just saw it as God’s will.

But somehow, the born-again thing didn’t stick with my bro. Although I held onto that experience and kept reading the bible and calling myself a Christian for several years after my conversion trip, my bro “snapped out of it” about a week or two later.

He immediately became adamant that it had been a brain-washing scheme and that he and I had both been victims of contemptible, cult-like behavior on the part of the group leaders.

For years, I struggled to reconcile my experience – and all the good, warm feelings I had felt on that trip – with my brother’s account of cult-like brainwashing. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Getting high school kids to accept Jesus into their hearts and become part of the Christian conversion machine seems pretty unethical when it’s done through tactics like enticing them with a Florida spring break trip and then piling on intense pressure once they can’t escape.

But at the same time, I’m sure the ultimate goal was to help kids stay on a good path for life and avoid things like drugs, bad choices and teen pregnancy.

I don’t think the leaders of that particular Christian group were bad or evil people – I think they had good hearts and wanted good things for us kids. But, the tactics used were a little disturbing.

Over my four years at college, I slowly grew to understand that the “born again” variety of Christianity wasn’t for me. I still considered myself a generic Christian for a few years after that, but eventually realized that I’m just not comfortable with many teachings of the church – or many of the tactics it has used and continues to promote.

It’s complicated, though, because both my mom and my HS best friend are still born-again Christians – as are other family members. I don’t judge anyone for their spiritual beliefs, I simply can no longer claim that for myself. I’m glad my spiritual journey continues to evolve and move me forward.

I still have questions about those spring break trips. Did the chaperones/counselors have “quotas” for how many kids they were each supposed to convert and save? If a kid had simply refused to attend the mandatory evening conversion sessions, would they have been sent home or punished in some way? And if someone had stood up and said “this is a brainwashing cult, wake up, sheeple” what would have happened then?

It’s definitely a bit of a mystery from my past. I don’t plan to send Xage on any spring break trips with Christian groups, just in case.

What do you think – were we all truly brainwashed at those events or were the counselors simply trying to help us to see the light? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or over on Facebook or Instagram.

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About the author

Proud and loving midlife mama. Lucky and devoted wife. Dog, cat and snake mom. Travel nut. Natural born writer. PR and social media pro by day - tattoo doula by night.
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