Breathing in the pungent pine scent, Jonas Lovoll surveyed the exquisite landscape of trees and brush. The camp cafeteria was perched on a slope that overlooked the amphitheater, the baseball field, the boys and girls’ cabins, and the main entrance road. No campers had arrived yet. Only a handful of staff and their children wandered the deserted grounds. It was the evening before Registration Day, the last peaceful night for the Yosemite Bible Camp counselors, cooks, teachers, and activity directors before the campers arrived, before they were to wade in Styrofoam sleeping bags, dust-caked sneakers, and fresh toiletries stored in oversized Ziplocs. Jonas, learning from the previous year’s mistake, brought a couple extra bottles of sunscreen and toothpaste in the likely scenario of forgetful children or unruly ones who defied personal hygiene.
A woman exited the cafeteria wearing tattered navy blue shorts, worn tennis shoes, and a thin red T-shirt. Mrs. Lovoll and a few other cooking staff had finished loading food, ingredients, and cleaning supplies into the pantries, cabinets, double refrigerators and freezers. Her first break since their morning arrival, she surveyed the camp grounds, at last marveling the wondrous handiwork of her Creator. The cafeteria door gave an oily squeal and an ancient slam, slightly startling Jonas. She flashed a warm grin and approached her meditative son’s side. In her hands was a large glass of grape-flavored Kool-Aid, and she offered him a sip. He politely declined, brandishing a scratched yet resilient metal water bottle.
“It’s almost time for dinner. Your father and I are heading into Oakhurst with the Riddles and Mrs. Shamblin. Care to come with?”
“The Billingsleys are going to Round Table around seven-thirty. The whole youth group’s tagging along, too.”
“D’you have enough cash? I’ll run back to cabin— ”
“It’s okay, mom. I’ve got some leftover from the Magic Mountain trip.” Jonas changed his mind and took a generous gulp of his mother’s Kool-Aid. “Do I need to take Lea with me?”
“Nah, she’s having dinner with the Goddards. I tell you, Melanie and Scott might as well adopt her. She spent last weekend with them at Pismo.”
Jonas shrugged. “Beats last year spending hours by herself, drawing sandhouses next to the dugout.”
An urgent, robust cry interrupted them. Mr. Lovoll and Pastor Riddle were waiting beside Mrs. Shamblin’s cream-colored Ford Edge. Mr. Lovoll hollered, “Beth, honey, we’re heading out!”
Mrs. Lovoll pecked her son on the cheek, gave him the rest of her drink, and headed to the SUV. “Be back in time for the devotional, sweetie.”
“Sure thing, mom.”
Jonas turned back to the vanilla peach evening sky, dedicating a few minutes to deep-breathing and grounding himself in his favorite place. His eyes wandered to the youth group playing Ultimate Frisbee in the baseball field. It was pooled at the bottom of the slope, and from his height, he heard the yelps of “Over here!” and “I’m open! Right here!” He watched his friends, particularly Ethan, Brett, and Luke, watched their bodies blur, zoom, and dash along the patched field. The frisbee zipped through the air like a piece of chipped moon, panicking with each mortal throw. Screams, exaggerated grunts, the occasional chastisement directed at a child clamoring under a fallen tree, and Luke spewing a mild curse word. His mother, passionately conversing with her own mother, shot the darkening field a death glare and bellowed, “Watch it, young man! My ears still work up here!” By then, the sweltering orange sunset had passed, submerged under the horizon. Within a few minutes, Jonas, his friends, and church family waded amidst the waning twilight, the nocturnal shadows claiming the earth in hushed sequence. There came, from a distance, a loon, perhaps a horrific screech from a mountain lion, and above the fortress of trees, an innocent plume of smoke from a cozy cabin, maybe housing a lonely housewife as she brewed a cup of evening coffee.
Nothing, in Jonas’ twenty-year lifespan, compared to Oakhurst in August. Yosemite Bible Camp was the highlight of his life. The thought of inspiring elementary children, sons and daughters of his home congregation’s members, the Hanford Church of Christ, fulfilled him. Six days and six nights, seven nights for the staff. His second year as a camp counselor, Jonas embraced his inevitable aging. It no longer troubled him that he wasn’t a camper. This was a new experience, an exciting one. He anticipated the next morning when the children, pre-teens, and adolescents would flock from their parents’ cars and church caravans, clouding the air as they hurried through the camp, dirt swirling onto sunglasses and opened Bibles. Squeals and screeches will pierce the mountainous serenity and aggravate the neighbors for a couple of nights. The true jolt was becoming a surrogate older-brother figure overnight. Jonas, at first, doubted his leadership, but with the proper guidance from fellow camp counselors, Jonas gained back his confidence. The discipline gracefully paired with his zany spontaneity, and his ability to discern between the two was developing to his satisfaction. There was more to learn, yet Jonas didn’t fret. He will adapt within time.
The deep evening unfurled. Plum-purple clouds smeared above the treetops. The early planets awoke, twinkled, commencing their light-bearing purpose. More kitchen staff arrived and hauled luggage and cooking equipment to their designated cabins. Car doors slammed, and coolers and duffle bags were dismantled from the backs of minivans, camping trailers and RVs. Jonas had memorized the sounds, the tastes, the scents, the conversations, the galloping of Converses and Keds on the pavement, and the genuine smiles from church members as well as members from other congregations. The Hanford Church of Christ shared its week on God’s Mountain with the Sanger Church of Christ, Visalia Church of Christ, and even some from the Fresno and Modesto congregations. This was home, at least an extension. This was where he idolized past campers and counselors. They were who he wanted to be. Strong. Independent. God-fearing. Flawed but resilient in their quest for divine cleanliness. Since then, he associated such aspiring attributes with forest green cabins, cramped bunk beds, and crisp, chilly mornings waking up to awful knots from improper sleep. Even the slightest turn of Bible pages, like leafing through a book of tissue paper, ingrained a sense of belonging. Nowhere else could Jonas attain a secure hideaway exclusive only to his Lord and Savior. He inhaled another breath of the pines. He listened again to the loon. It was a song he heard since childhood. It heaven truly existed on earth…
The newly-arrived cooks emerged from settling into their cabins, hands laden with glasses of ice tea and Kool-Aid. They took their place along the benches outside the cafeteria. They faced the camp wearing sunglasses, some of their limbs glimmering fake clunky jewelry, or thin quartz wristwatches. Some wore light blue, tight-fitting jeans with the bottoms rolled up a couple inches, and some wore color smeared shirts their grandchildren made them in arts-and-crafts. Jonas recognized one of the cooks, a dear friend of his father from his high school days, and waved.
“Hello there, bud!” he greeted. “Year number two, eh?”
Jonas nodded. “You betcha.”
The cook’s wife, a rather gaunt yet fierce and passionate woman, applied more bug spray to her slender arms. She glanced at Jonas and grinned. “Glad you could come back, hun. It wouldn’t be the same without you.”
A distinct cackle cracked the air like a whip. Jonas turned to the smaller group of staff near the cafeteria entrance. Most of them were congregation members from Sanger, acquaintances he occasionally encountered at camp reunions and holiday gatherings. Barely friends, if Jonas were honest. One particular man stood out among the rest. He was an elder of the Sanger congregation, in his mid-sixties. He sported a stunning nest of eggshell-white hair, the thin strands tidily combed over his shiny balding head. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and wiped them with the prescription cloth from his case. In lieu of the upcoming week, he traded his standard dress shirt, tie, and slacks, for the informal cargo shorts, peeling sneakers, and clean white socks pulled up to his calves.
The man seated next to the elder was his son and the pastor of the Sanger congregation. The assistant head counselor, Elliot Caldwell bore an uncanny resemblance to Elder Caldwell, aside from his pearly sapphire eyes. They contrasted the elder’s steely, impeding brown stare. Pastor Caldwell jeweled gaze sparkled as he recounted an event at the church office the previous weekend. He muttered an off-handed comment to the crowd, and his father reared his head and cackled again. Pastor Caldwell allowed the collective laughter to dissolve and spoke to his father, “And before I forget, Dad, I got a sermon ready for tomorrow’s services. Don’t sweat it.”
Elder Caldwell wiped tears from his beady eyes, gathering himself for some brief business. “Have you selected your men to pass out communion?”
“I’ll ask a couple of the boys tomorrow at breakfast.”
“You could start asking some of them right now. There ought to be enough. How about that man over there? Hey, Lovoll’s boy!” Elder Caldwell had spotted Jonas beyond the fortress of Sanger folk.
Jonas, not particularly thrilled at his address, replied, “Yes, sir?”
“How would you like to help out with communion tomorrow morning?”
Jonas glanced at Pastor Caldwell who returned a sheepish grin. There was only one appropriate answer. He couldn’t recall anyone willfully declining the duty, and those who did ended up filling the roles at the last minute.
“I’d be more than willing.”
“Excellent. See, I’d much prefer Hanford folk over Lemoore. Hanford folk don’t need to have their legs pulled to do something so simple.”
Jonas suppressed a potentially insolent comment. Elder Caldwell was known to give passive-aggressive flack to any behavior remotely suggesting spiritual apathy. As Jonas’ parents advised, it was better to remain silent and laugh. Jonas wasn’t as close to the Caldwells as the Dials or the Billingsleys, but such opinionated talk seemed harmless. Nothing too damaging, as long it didn’t fall on the wrong ears. As Jonas wandered closer to the Sanger group, Elder Caldwell’s entire garb was more detailed. He wore a white T-shirt with the outline of a man and a woman. The two figures stood side by side holding hands; the image was fashioned similarly to the blue gender placards over bathroom doors. Underneath the custom placard was a message:
STRAIGHT PRIDE (GENESIS 2:24).
The reaction was delayed, yet it was absurd to ignore. With festering shame and resentment, Jonas watched the imprinted message crinkle, sag, and flatten as Elder Caldwell laughed at his daughter-in-law’s joke. He watched the rest of the Sanger congregation laugh and sip their half-empty drinks and adjust their sun-visors and baseball caps. The conversation eventually steered to the shirt, and unanimous praise was gifted to Elder Caldwell for selecting a hilarious shirt. A concerned mother grumbled at the news of a former rentboy/turned activist leading an LBGT protest in front of the California State Capitol. The stout woman frowned and pinched the sagging flesh underneath her upper arm to squash a mosquito.
“Hey, Tim,” she added with a slight sneer, “you should’ve gone down there with that shirt as a counter protester. That socialist would’ve gone wild.”
Elder Caldwell chuckled. “I haven’t got time to deal with fruitcakes.”
“Imagine how that troubled man would react,” sighed another middle-aged woman seated beside Pastor Caldwell. “He’d probably attack you.”
“Or make a pass,” said the stout mother. She adjusted the black sun-visor perched upon her short, curly grey hair. “They get their kicks by seducing everyone, men and boys.”
The group succumbed to somber snickering. Jonas licked his lips. His hands trembled as he listened to suggestions on converting them. He grimaced through the talk of guiding the deluded sinners to “the path of eternal salvation”, yet he couldn’t detect any motivation or genuine concern in their voices. They didn’t appear to truly care. It was a thinly-veiled excuse for simple phrases and condemnation, merged with scoffs and irritable waving of hands.
“God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. I suppose that’s too complex of a truth for them.”
“It’s unnatural. I mean, really. No one that deranged and sad should be allowed any means of power.”
“They really need Jesus. There’s just no hope for anyone who’s adapted to that despicable lifestyle.”
“Next thing you know, they’ll want to marry animals. And that’s not mentioning their urge to molest every child they see.”
“I’m not sure what I would do if my grandson came up to me and said he was a homosexual. I’d probably look for a conversion camp in New Mexico or something.”
“I heard they made a hormone supplement they could take to revert their damaged psychoses. I hope so. God have mercy on them, they need a miracle.”
“Gay rights my foot. It’s just an excuse to validate something God truly detests.”
“It’s just flat-out disgusting.”
Jonas gripped the railing overlooking the slope. It was all unraveled because of a shirt. It was all it took to transform a serene, idyllic utopia into a bitter, isolating wilderness. What should’ve been a beautiful demise to a long day, another gorgeous, pine-scented sunset, left Jonas shivering, cold, and unclean. Jonas wanted to shower himself, but being naked didn’t seem remedial. Chilled to the bone, palms sweaty, he released his grip from the railing. In a grief-stricken trance, he wandered farther from the cafeteria, away from the conglomerated staff, until their voices trailed above the camp like the lonely cabin’s chimney smoke. He reached the bottom of the slope, maneuvering past the idle cars, stumbling over the pebbles in the makeshift parking lot. Even reaching the main road, where he could finally discern the glistening faces of his friends, Jonas remained numb, uncertain where to go. It didn’t seem possible to run away from a place he called home. He never had a reason to flee, until now.
Homosexuality wasn’t a social issue entirely foreign to Jonas. However, his knowledge of the gay rights movement, or queer people in general, was limited. As far the Church was concerned, it was merely a blotch on society which must be discouraged. He learned about the affliction in middle school sex education. The withered principal of Jonas’ private school, a graying, aged man of seventy, proudly waved a pointer at the pristine, bloody anatomies of male and female genitalia. There were columns and pages dedicated to every delicate aspect of sexual relations and purity. On the contrary, there was barely half a page allotted for homosexuality. Worse was the principal’s evident contempt for homosexuals. He gave his young, impressionable audience a disingenuous grin while reassuring them as long as they remained faithful to the Word and confided in the Holy Ghost, they could resist temptation.
“You see, fellas, homosexuality is a mental disorder. This particular disease afflicts dysfunctional families who weren’t privileged with ideal mother and father figures.
Oh, they’ll try to convince you otherwise. You can bet on that. But remember what the Lord says in His Word. Do not be dissuaded by Biblical interpretation. It’s a choice. It’s a lifestyle. It’s the linchpin of the immoral and ungodly political correctness infesting our nation. It’s the devil’s own commission to split the church.
I’m afraid there is yet to be a definite cure. The success or failure of conversion relies solely on the sinner. But he must always strive to be pure. There are grave stakes at hand, believe me. This disease is a gateway to bestiality, pedophilia, Satanism, and even recruitment for child trafficking.
If you have any further questions about homosexuality or may even have lingering thoughts of practicing homosexuality, talk to your parents. Have them notify me, and we can meet privately to get to the bottom of your brokenness. Please, children, do not wait on this matter…”
Jonas struggled with the lump in his throat. He glanced at his friends again, now within five or six feet from him. His face grimaced with envy. He found himself gnashing his teeth. It just had to be his fate. Why couldn’t they be afflicted with this curse? At least one of them, perhaps Brett or Luke, could share his affliction so he wouldn’t need to face this giant alone. His heart, flaring red with fury, darkened. Luke’s exaggerated cry, from tumbling in the dirt to catch Brett’s pass, chiseled at Jonas’ inner dam. At that moment, Jonas knew he had to cope with this disorder by himself. His only reward was eternal damnation. He didn’t want to admit it. Yet, someone else, later in his life, would pass judgment. Denial was useless.
Biting his lip, Jonas turned away from the game and walked along the main entrance road. He trudged away from the darkened camp, the voices evaporating one after the other. Although he gained a better view of his friends with each step, the forest green merged with brown, thrusting them in a wicked Macbeth stew. The impending night silenced his friends and turned them into simplistic toy figures with no distinguishable features. They bubbled and frothed, darting in every direction. The sight exacerbated his malaise until he couldn’t tolerate it any longer. He rounded the curve in the road, and the leftover voices were muted, like wisps sailing into the dying sunset. Jonas fought to forget the T-shirt, yet he could still hear the damn elder’s cackle and the scuffing of his dirty shoes along the clean pavement. He didn’t want to leave, but he feared his forlorn attitude would arouse suspicion. He couldn’t be certain if the truth wouldn’t slip out. It mustn't, not at this moment, not the night before his favorite week of the year. Exercise wouldn’t distract him, yet he couldn’t find an alternative. He wiped his nose and continued down the asphalt road back to the camp entrance.
Walking away provided some relief, but Jonas realized the foolishness of his haste. Bringing someone else would’ve alleviated his mood; additionally, if he were to encounter unwarranted danger, he would’ve had someone to send for help. Even then, few of Jonas’ friends would’ve shown interest, for hardly any of them enjoyed nocturnal strolls. This reality compounded his depression, and he wanted to cry. Brushing away his fresh tears, he allowed himself a single sob. His mother’s voice heralded inside his head: “Never be ashamed to cry, Jonas. It might seem weak, but it’s healthier than swallow all that pain. Who knows? I may make you stronger.” Jonas scoffed. Perhaps he had wanted to cry. It mattered little. No amount of tears would console him.
Rationale encouraged him to confess to his friends, his parents, the Head Counselor, the elders, someone, anyone who would just listen and not judge him for such a transgression. Jonas’ mind halted, as did his body. His self-loathing intensified. There was one other party who needed to know, but he instantly cringed. No, not Him. The Lord God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit. No good would come from confessing to Him. Yet, within him, he sensed a stirring. A feeble optimism, a flame grappling with the ghastly void of darkness. A step, possibly, closer to a plausible future. Confessing to Him not only was the right thing to do. It was the most sensible. Jonas deemed it absurd that the Lord would divulge his secret, or any secrets, to another soul. It was another dimension of confidentiality. Only He would know, and only Jonas could decide who he should tell, when, and how.
But where to start? How would Jonas even say it? Maybe there was no specific method.
No, God, it’s not Margaret; it’s me, Jonas. Do You have a moment? There’s something I need to tell You.
“I am gay.”
Jonas exhaled another sob. “I am Your son, and I am gay.”
Eventually, Jonas approached the camp entrance and stood at the three-way junction. A solitary compact vehicle passed him, providing a courteous breeze to cool his fevered head. He wiped the sweat on his brow but ended up smearing the droplets into a sticky sheen. The sky had faded to a muddied rouge, and Jonas briefly watched the rorschach clouds stain the sublime fabric. He shut his eyes and drained the weight from his body. He imagined his soul, unshackled from his skin and bone, surge into the ethereal rafters and watched himself leap across the scattered cumulonimbus. He imagined compassionate eagles and hawks sparing him scraps of their meals. He envisioned opening his mouth to swallow a tuft of ice-cold rain from a thundercloud, fearless against the daggers of lightning bolts stabbing the earth.
A careless gay phantom roaming the mighty expanse the Lord created. A phantom couldn’t be damned. A phantom wouldn’t labor under the duties of moral obligation, ethics, sovereign power, finding a home —
Jonas’ eyes snapped open. Clusters of stars joined the planets and dazzled the evening sky. The saturated beauty of the forest elicited the sorrow he experienced back at the camp. Regardless of his vessel, be it a celestial or mortal body, he was homeless. In his case, there were no inns, no havens, no fortresses, no shelter. Nowhere to lay his head. His church, his Bible camp, were merely well-constructed roofs. Whatever accommodations they provided were cluttered with useless junk and futile trinkets. The vast space would crush the possessions into a intriguing, ugly mass. Jonas, finally recognizing the illusion, mourned his loss. Yosemite Bible Camp was never his home away from home. It was just a primitive dwelling place.
Perhaps it was better if he did leave. Jonas stared at the infinite stretch of highway and immediately conjured the album cover of his favorite Christian artist. A portrait of wanderlust, the infinite quest haunting every mortal’s dreams. For Jonas, the path had surprised him, as if he had just noticed it. He didn’t feel prepared, but it seemed foolish to equip himself for something incredibly ambiguous. Jonas ceased his contemplation, concluding that most itineraries were foolish as well. There was no map for these uncharted barrens, and perhaps there shouldn’t be one.
Jonas had to admit it. After coming out to the Lord, he didn’t care too much about what would happen when his family, his church, and his friends discovered the truth. Not that he didn’t fear their reactions, more like he couldn’t summon the effort to deal with their shock and disdain. Jonas felt a pang of guilt and considered praying. A frigid night wind gushed through the trees and winding road. It rustled the loose bangs over his forehead, causing his perspiring body to shiver and his teeth to chatter. He took hold of this moment of clarity and attempted to pray but couldn’t bring himself to prostrate himself. There didn’t seem a need to pray. It seemed more like a time for gratitude.
How strange. My future now seems, well, rather boring.
A blunt buzzing interrupted Jonas’ flow of thought. The left front pocket of his jeans was vibrating. Someone was calling him. There were only a handful of people with decent reception in Oakhurst, so when Jonas fished out his phone and took the call, he already guessed who it was.
“Hey, dude!” Luke sounded breathless. The game was finished. “We’re about to head over to Round Table. Where the heck did you go?”
Jonas didn’t reply. He absentmindedly touched his face. The tears had brimmed over his eyes and trailed down his cheeks.
“Weren’t you watching us from the road? Ouch! Watch it, I’m talking to Jonas.”
“Where is he?” The contrasting baritone boom of Brett. “I’m starving, and the devo’s at nine.”
“Seriously, dude, where are you? How far did you wander off?”
Jonas, with a vague start, remembered he was standing at the three-way junction. In his trance, he had stepped up to the edge of the corner as if waiting for someone, anyone to take him away. He knew where he needed to go, but his feet were rooted at the spot. And as Luke and Brett’s garbled voices demanded his presence, Jonas turned to the careening road, noted the familiar solid black and yellow lines. His gaze locked on the divide. Two lines, two directions, left or right. Or maybe forward and backward. Jonas wanted to take another step, but he wasn’t sure which path to take, and more importantly, how far he wanted to go.
And yet, Jonas couldn’t help smirking. His friends became permanent pillars of static as he ended the call.