I lost my faith on the Nantahala River on the annual church youth group rafting trip. When one is trying to be that which one is not, this may or may not be a good thing in the end, but what’s most criminal now is that I don’t remember the river.
The youth group was part of a Southern Baptist church in an outer suburb of Atlanta, led by a polished, hyperactive and overly-tanned little man and his Karen-haired and equally-as-overtanned wife and their two perfect (and overtanned) daughters, and they were keen on expanding the flock. They would eventually build a megachurch.
The youth ministry also provided meals and fun things to do and other drifty teenagers to flirt with and so was worth the tradeoff. They liked to feel pity for poor kids. I put on my Jesus face and they acknowledged me as trying. I went rafting.
This is not to say I didn’t give back. It was work.
First the all-day bus ride, then the awkward choosing of sleeping arrangements and seats during meals and the trust falls and touching and talk circles, and of course the ever-present option to come to Jesus after dinner if you hadn’t already, and if you hadn’t yet exhausted things to feel insecure about in groups.
But for those hours on the river, for the brief excitement of Class 3 rapids, of shouting and shouting with joy as we bounced and splashed and coursed down the river, of shouting and shouting to please, please stop when the youth pastor used his paddle to splash freezing water on me from another raft. I did not enjoy it and he did not stop until I screamed at him with rage. God. Stop. Please stop. Stop.
But even so, the joy of discovery, thirty-some years later remembered. My body of water is the river, indeed, and the things that feed the river and that feed me. Negative ions, phytoncides and watersong, wildflowers, fish and birdsong. Movement and flow and stillness. The story and solidity of stone. But there is more.
We concluded our rafting trip pruned, sunburnt, cold, and exhausted, and got ready to eat and pack up for the drive back to Georgia the following day. I was looking forward to sleeping the whole way home, or reading a book not the bible but probably just sleeping so i didn’t have anything to explain. My things were facing toward home already. I had organized and packed with intent, to go home carrying the river in me even if it meant extra vigilance. And then we docked.
By the boat launch, a dog had been tied to a tree with a cardboard sign. “My name is Molly,” it said. “I need a home.” We were at a rafting camp in the middle of a national forest.
The dog was emaciated. Sobbing, I went to the little supply store and bought hot dogs and tuna. I asked for a plastic container and some water. They were apathetic when I told them what I was doing. I didn’t understand. I went to feed Molly. I promised to help.
The next morning, Molly was still tied to the tree. She stood and wagged her tail when she saw me and I went off for more hot dogs, tuna and water and brought it back, trying not to cry. I sat petting her while she lapped up water and scarfed down the last meal I was sure of.
Finally, the youth pastor came looking for me. The bus was packed, where was I.
Molly was lying by my side. I asked him if we could bring her somewhere she had a better chance of finding a home. I knew my mother would understand. We’d always had dogs, mostly obtained in circumstances equally as traumatic as this. It was something my family did. It was the Christian thing to do.
He said no.