(Andy’s story is in 6 parts. Names of his peers have been changed while the names of staff members have not.)
One of the earliest memories I have is of my brother’s funeral. I remember the flowers and the blue casket and the sullen tone as I sat seated in the front row of the rather spacious room. Life wasn’t the same after that and I was only three and a half years old. Time is the best weapon against tragedy. I got a dog and later on a sister. We packed up and moved to a new city when I was seven and I spent the next few years of my life in different home school groups, a private school, eventually public school where I would have a little bit of a difficult time assimilating myself into the real world. From a very young age I always wondered why bad things could happen to God’s children. It wouldn’t be until my late twenties till I finally had an answer.
Hurricane Andrew hit shores about the time I was just getting settled into public school for the first time. After being home schooled on southern baptist curriculum and attending very charismatic christian summer camps, similar to the one featured in the film Jesus Camp, it was clear I needed to be involved in youth groups since the school kids still were on another planet. Luckily for me the pastor’s son was in my class of this new church my mom wanted me to attend. I was on my way to being socialized – but not like in the movie Mean Girls – it was much slower and not as entertaining.
Thankfully I went to school when you didn’t have online friends, you just had real friends, and you knew who they were. There was no guessing, no mind games, no wondering. I didn’t have a ton of friends since I’d been pretty sheltered and wasn’t up to speed on all the social norms of a 12 year old boy. My parents were getting divorced and I did the best I could with the situation. My parents tried to socialize me to the best of their ability – I was put on sports teams. I did baseball and basketball and for the most part I was pretty awful. I did drama and choir and eventually moved up on into dance. In the seventh grade I was on the drill team and in the eighth grade I did school gymnastics – yes folks – gymnastics. I did school plays and by the time I was in high school the only thing I was interested in was academics, dance team and Jesus Christ.
I went to the “Jesus Camp” every year. That’s where I got baptized in the holy spirt and started dabbling with speaking in tongues and trying to understand words of knowledge and wisdom and what the heck the difference was between the two. The church I attended through most of junior high had a falling out and that one friend I had in elementary school got home schooled for the rest of his academic life – so I never saw much of him after that. After a series of (un)fortunate events I ended up at a really small church but the youth group seemed to be intense. You know how some youth groups might have 80 kids and then there are like 15 or so leaders – well we were just a youth group of young leaders – a great precursor to the Honor Academy. Our youth pastor was fairly good at speaking and bringing us together. I really adored his two children. I loved playing with them and having fun with them at church. There were some other girls in the youth group that got along fine with them as well – and they had the opportunity to baby sit the kids from time to time. I was told that since I was a boy that I wouldn’t be able to do so. That was a lovely thing to have in the back of my mind as a member of the group. So since I wasn’t into football or basketball and all the manly stuff, I sort of found myself on the outside. One fine day the youth group announced that we would be attending an Acquire The Fire Youth convention. They had been going for several years and I of course jumped on the bandwagon. Who wouldn’t want to go to an awesome weekend of Church camp. I think that first year at ATF I was mesmerized – as it was designed to do. I bought the books, the CDs and I wanted to be on fire for God. I wanted to go on a missions trip so badly. I wanted to go to the Honor Academy. It was all stuff I wanted like nothing else. Our youth group went home with the songs and did them in church and for awhile we were all pretty passionate. At some point the spiritual fervor subsided and we were back to becoming a cultish youth group. Hearing messages that our group was going to start a revival in the area and that we were all really special kids and what not. Most of the youth group also went to my high school so we saw each other mostly everyday at lunch time and would sit around and talk.
One day I was home sick and I turned on the TV to see that a high school in Colorado was under attack. It was unreal watching the footage on TV of kids trying to escape out of windows and being ushered out of the school like it was a war zone. Little did I know that it was a war zone. So many lives were lost that day and two stood out to the Christian world: Cassie Bernall and Rachel Joy Scott. It was said they were targeted for being Christians and that at least Cassie had died with a gun to her head asking her if she was one. “She Said Yes” spawned books and messages to inspire young people to stand up for Christ. After all the tears I shed you could say I was inspired. So that next ATF season during my senior year of high school Ron Luce told everyone about Rachel Joy Scott and how she had been accepted to go on a missions trip that summer of 1999 with Teen Mania – but that since she had died she couldn’t go. It was this big presentation of how we all should go in her place. So I was floored to go on a trip now, I just couldn’t let Rachel down – let all that be in vain. Melissa and Trevor were in my youth group and they both decided to go to the Honor Academy. So it ended up that we were all going to be on the same missions trip the next summer. Back in the day you had to complete a Teen Mania trip before you could set foot in Garden Valley as in intern – something that eventually changed.
That next summer arrived and I quickly found myself in Garden Valley for MA training. For the outsider out there reading this – Teen Mania trips are composed of Project Directors (they run the entire trip), Team Leaders (one man and one woman team leader are over a team – several teams per project. These individuals are usually older than 21 and have been selected by Teen Mania). Then on each team you have the Missionary Advisors (MAs) and they are each responsible for a group of 5-8 kids. I could go on and on about Global Expedition rules – but none of them matter. The only thing that mattered is how they terrified you into obedience so that you wouldn’t get sent home. So I met a girl at training with whom I got along well. We had so much fun together. Pretty soon I found myself being confronted because I was having too much fun with a girl, and Lord knows that we could be flirting. I was in tears. Mostly out of fear because I didn’t want to get sent home from this wonderful, magical place because they thought I was into a girl and not Jesus. After all I was on this trip for Rachel Joy Scott so I couldn’t mess it up. Right before my trip her parents had published a book of her journals and such and I had brought it with me on the trip. A few days before our departure – Haiti was experiencing much unrest – so our trip cancelled and they rebooked us to go to Panama. Most of us were disappointed but of course we regrouped. We went on the trip and it was pretty uneventful. That girl I got along with so well – she was on another team and I was on a team with some pretty good leaders. One of whom was a TM Staff Member and another was coincidentally someone I knew from back home who was a HA alumni at the time. Our trip got back and we were all on fire for God of course. I wasn’t too thrilled with the actual ministry of the trip however. We did the drama a few times a day and never really got to know people. We did go out into the jungle for a few nights where I was literally terrified of the spiders and we did go out to some remote church in the mountains to share them the gospel. Since I was with some of my Benny Hinn cohorts from Jesus Camp we got to have an “alleged” exorcism with some villager. Nothing a bunch of little missionary kids from the sticks couldn’t handle. Trevor and Melissa were on the two other teams so we got to take back some of the Teen Mania magic to our youth group. Trevor started the internship a few weeks later while Melissa and I got to twiddle our thumbs for a few months until we both joined the ranks of interns in Texas the following January. I don’t think I really knew the gravity of what my Teen Mania time was going to have on my life for the next ten years but it didn’t matter to me because all I wanted was to be in that TMM auditorium worshipping God – no matter the cost.