The air was muggy and damp as we walked along the dirt path surrounded by trees. I walked with a small cohort of pre-teen and early teenage girls, presumably of whom I was in charge. As one of the youngest adult women at our tiny church, I had been asked to accompany them to the summer youth camp that year. I was a young, married woman with no children, and thus, the perfect candidate to be “relatable” and still something of a role model to make the trip with them.
We slept in our bunks in a warm cabin at night. We had our meals 3 times a day in the mess hall area with everyone else. The camp took place in a largely wooded area in a rural part of the state. There were many churches that had sent youth groups to this event. Due to the large number of campers, they had broken up into smaller group classes during the day. We ended each evening with a large group worship time. I so enjoyed the worship time, all the voices singing hymns together in harmony made me feel so connected to everyone.
That day as we walked to the small group class together, I watched the girls from our cabin. There were only a couple from our church, and several more from another church that were in our building with us. As a long-trained people pleaser, I tended to gravitate towards the girls who did what they were told and followed the rules. I felt safer when people followed the rules. My own not-too-distant past, as yet unaddressed in my own life, had followed me there just like everyone’s past follows them everywhere they go.
There was one girl in our cabin who had come to camp with her friend, who was a member of another church. The young woman had a real desire to bend every rule she was presented with, if not flat out break it. She snickered when everyone was quiet. She talked about trying to skip out on required activities. We always gently steered her back to the task at hand. If eye rolling was sport, she would have been a world class champion. I kept my eye on her, worried she would do something crazy under my watch.
We made it to small group one hot and dusty afternoon. That day, there was a woman waiting to teach our class. We all sat in a circle beneath one of the smaller pavilions. The woman teaching that day was older than me but not old. She was likely the mother of another camper, recruited to lead a small group. Her lesson for the girls was a lesson about chastity, presumably the benefits of waiting for marriage to be sexually active. It was a Baptist camp, so of course no one specifically said those words. She talked about the importance of waiting for the one special person God had chosen for each of them. The girls were mostly quiet with some uncomfortable shifting around.
The girl that had been problematic earlier sat eerily silent as the woman talked. The leader reached down and drew from the canvas bag at her feet two large red apples. One was smooth and firm, the other had dents and bruises marring its skin. “Think for a minute about going to a grocery store. You could go in yourself and grab whichever apple is closest to you and then you just get what you’re stuck with. Or you could let the grocer in charge of produce carefully select an apple for you that is perfect and without blemish. Which apple do you want?” She then passed the apples around for all the girls to look at. I looked at the girl who had been the rule bender just in time to see the casual expression on her face fall. As the silence of teenagers dragged on the way it does when shy teenagers are asked a question by an adult, the group leader asked again, “Which apple do you want to eat?”
Looking her right in the eye, the girl with the ever rolling eyes adamantly said, “I want THAT apple!” pointing to the one that was bruised. Several heads turned and looked at her in surprise. It obviously wasn’t the answer the teacher was looking for to prove her lesson on chastity. Surprised herself, the teacher responded back, “But why would you want that apple when you could have the perfect apple?” The girl sat in her seat with a heaviness wrapped around her like a blanket that hadn’t previously been visible. To my eye, she was afloat in her own misery, her past clearly having followed her here to camp. “I don’t know, I just do. I want that one!” she insisted. The group leader didn’t understand and replied, “No, you don’t. Everyone wants the nice neat smooth apple!” “Well, I don’t!” the young girl insisted. The moment was charged. The other teenagers watched the exchange with stunned faces. I sat in my seat, annoyed with the group leader for not understanding.
At an impasse, the group leader just hurried on to the next section feeling annoyed that her object lesson was ruined. It was in that moment my connection to the girls shifted. It was clear to me that the young girl felt a connection between herself and the bruised apple. In the moment of awkwardness where she felt useless and unwanted, she valiantly and defiantly chose the bruised apple. She wanted to be picked. I could not blame her. I had felt like the bruised apple sitting incongruously among bushels of perfect fruit before, an imposter disguised to fit in with everyone else.
At long last the time allotted for the group came to an end and we went on to the next activity. The rest of the camp experience would remain nothing but a blur in my memory.
Over the years my mind has returned to that girl who chose the “wrong” apple. Part of growing up is learning how to behave responsibly, and I understand the point the group leader with the unfortunate theology was trying to make. I’d be lying though, if I didn’t want to go back in time and tell a different story to that girl. I wish I could have pulled her aside and let her in on the secret. We are all bruised apples. Hope is not found when we are chosen for being good. Hope is found in knowing you’re the bruised apple and God wants you anyway. His specialty is trading beauty for ashes. He loves us with reckless abandon. He longs to give us a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured right into our laps. No amount of posturing and pretending makes any single one of us more deserving of such.