I was doing my best to wrestle my attention span into submission and listen to the speaker when I heard the gag and watery splatter to my right. I looked over at the twelve-year-old boy beside me, unsure of what had just happened. The boy was holding his cupped hands under his chin, evoking the image of Oliver Twist asking for more soup. A puddle of white, chunky liquid filled his hands, and a bit more was dribbling from his chin.
Without thinking, I wrapped my hands around his so none of the vomit would slip through his fingers and ushered him out the side door of the chapel. Thankfully that door led directly outside, because the boy lurched over and spewed again. This time, the slime splashed his feet.
His name isn’t Eugene, but I’m going to call him that. Most people at camp didn’t really like Eugene. He was obnoxious, he was loud, he was filled with boundless energy that precluded him from sitting still, and—perhaps his most egregious crime against his fellow middle schoolers at camp—he was weird. He was difficult to be around, so most people tried not to be.
This was Eugene’s second year at camp, and his first without his grandpa to look out for him. Camp is a unique place. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, about the point where you begin to wonder if civilization ever existed in the first place. That may sound drab, but I promise it’s not. At the risk of sensationalizing the place to the point of fantasy, camp is almost enchanted in its ability to make the world outside seem insignificant, if not almost nonexistent.
But I’m not naïve. I know it’s not like that for some people, and I was afraid that’s how it was turning out to be for Eugene. I think that’s what gravitated me toward him in the first place. He was excluded and frequently ignored. I couldn’t imagine he was having that great of a time.
It also helped that I was pretty used to kids who tend to bounce off the walls and speak without thinking. I like those kids. I mean, sure, they can be draining, occasionally infuriating, and usually incomprehensible, but at heart I think they’re good kids. And most of the time I’d say there’s a lot of hurt in those kids. They may not show it, and they may not talk about it, but it’s there. And in the case of Eugene, it—along with his stomach contents—was bubbling up to the surface.
I led Eugene to a circle of benches outside the chapel where his fountains of vomit could freely flow. In between bouts of escaping dinner parcels, Eugene explained to me that he really was feeling fine, he just has acid reflux and sometimes this happens to him.
“Does it happen to you often?” I asked.
“No,” said Eugene, spitting a few loogies at my feet. “Only when I eat too much.”
“And I take it you had too much to eat for dinner?”
Eugene shrugged. “I only had seven pieces of pizza.” Then he upchucked again.
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. I wanted to berate him for deliberately doing something he knew would make him physically ill, but instead I said, “Let me find you a bottle of water. You sit right here.” Then I walked off to the camp kitchen, probably muttering under my breath about impulsive kids these days who will do what feels good now without thinking about the repercussions it might have for them in the future.
When I came back with water bottle in hand, I half expected him to be gone, having been distracted by Der Führer, the camp’s resident insidious feline. Instead, he was lying on his back on the bench with his eyes closed as if he were asleep.
“You ought to sit up,” I told him as I took a seat by his feet. “If you throw up when you’re lying like that, you could drown in your own vomit.” I had intended it to come across facetiously, but in hindsight I realize it might not have been the choicest selection of words.
“I don’t care,” he replied under his breath.
Now, I’m a mental health first aid certified son of a gun, so the four-alarm fire bells were set to blaring with those words. “Why do you say that?” I inquired, trying my best not to sound intimidating or like an overreactive mother.
Eugene bolted upright in the bench, staring back at me with narrowed eyes. “Because it’s not like anyone would miss me. My parents don’t want me around, and no one at this camp wants me around. God doesn’t even love me.”
I’m willing to bet a modest chunk of change that he said that last bit just to get a rise out of me, but I wasn’t about to let it slide by. It had taken me long enough to come to grips with the fact that God loves me, and there was no way I was going to let him fool himself into believing God couldn’t love him for some reason.
“That’s not true,” I asserted. “Eugene, listen to me. It’s crazy to think about, but God loves you more than you could ever imagine. Like, you’re his kid, man. He’s totally nuts about you, no matter how other people treat you.”
“Well, it doesn’t feel like it,” countered Eugene. And, I mean, how can you argue with that? You can beat someone over the head with the truth and lobotomize it straight into their skull, but unless they truly believe it, truly know it, and truly feel it, then it might as well be a cute quote for a cross-stitching and nothing more.
I realized, then, that what Eugene needed was not someone to tell him that Jesus loves him. He probably already knew the song anyway. What he really needed was someone to show him that it was true.
And, wouldn’t you know it, it appeared that for all intents and purposes God wanted me to be the one to do that. Now, I said earlier that I was naturally drawn to Eugene, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t find the kid annoying as hell at times. I say that only to clarify that I might have been a willing participant in this story, but by no means a hero, or even all that solid of a person. But I digress.
Eugene and I didn’t go back inside for the rest of the chapel session. We just stayed outside, talking back and forth in between fits of Eugene’s distasteful expulsions. Eventually his gastrointestinal disgorgements became more like bubbly baby spit-up, the chapel session ended, and the rest of the campers filtered outside.
One of the other counselors came up to me and asked me what had happened. Apparently to one sitting at the rear of the chapel, Eugene’s and my exeunt had the look of disciplinary action, like I had finally grown so exasperated by Eugene’s incessant brouhahas that I was taking him outside to provide some less-than-therapeutic interventions. While amused by the misinterpretation, I quickly revealed the true reason for our hasty escape. After all, I’ve always spoken out against overt violence enacted upon defenseless and undeserving children.
For the rest of the night, Eugene was surgically sutured to my hip. It kind of felt as if God was saying, “Hey, you, moron, this is what I want you to do.” And, honestly, I really did enjoy Eugene’s company. He is a hilarious kid, albeit over the top at times, and perhaps a little desperate for some attention. But I believe God softened my heart to what would have otherwise been an infuriating few days of knowing I’m being played like a fiddle but not wanting crush a kid’s already precarious self-perception. It was obvious to me that the need for attention had to come from a deficit somewhere, and if it was within my power to fill that void in some way, shape, or form, then I would be remiss if I ignored the opportunity.
That night when the lights went out and the boys in my dormitory were finally quiet (but surely by no means asleep), I struggled to fall asleep myself. Eugene had shared a few tidbits of his life with me earlier that evening that were utterly heartbreaking. I couldn’t stop thinking about how hard it must be for him to handle difficult and confusing feelings about himself, puberty, a biological disorder that severely limits his ability to initiate and maintain solid, meaningful relationships, and the knowledge that he’ll always be different from and misunderstood by his peers. It wrecked me, especially when I realized that this was just a cruelly finite week at camp and that he lives a good two hours away from me. It may have been a bit of a messiah complex, but I believe it was well-intentioned.
The next evening, I was enjoying a pleasant dinner surrounded by unwashed early teenagers when I saw a blur rush past me and out the door of the dining hall. Figuring that it was none of my business, I continued my quest to convince a kid to sniff his food so I could shove his face into it, as any camp counselor of estimable merit very well should. But then the camp nurse came up to me and said, “Eugene just went outside. He got real mad because I told him he needed to slow down on the extra helpings so his acid reflux doesn’t flare up. Do you think you could go talk to him?”
Full disclosure: internally, I was thinking, “Finally someone notices and appreciates my youth mental health coup de maitre,” while I responded externally by saying, “Sure, let me see what I can do.” Yes, yes, I know, it is truly shocking that I would have such a criminally prideful moment, particularly in youth ministry. I’m certain I’m the only one to struggle with that…
Anyway, I went out to the swings where Eugene was, running over the game plan in my head. I’ve dealt with my fair share of angry children, and have also been dealt my fair share of angry blows to the head, gut, crotch, etc., so I felt minimally confident in my ability to mollify Eugene.
“Can I swing with you?” I asked.
Eugene grunted in response. As a product of my postmodern culture, I applied my truth to that reply and took a seat on the swing beside him. Then the truly Christ-like brilliance of a cute little segue cleverly disguised as a ballin’ anecdote of elementary courage and dedication took over.
“You know, I get really sick on swings?” I said. When Eugene failed to respond, I continued. “When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I decided I was really sick of being at school one day. So, I devised a plan. At recess, I sprinted to the swings and began to pump my legs like a pro. A few minutes later, I got so sick to my stomach that I threw up on the playground and got to go home.”
[True story. You can high five me for my cunning the next time you see me.]
That got Eugene to laugh, and I made a mental note to include that story in my first Comedy Central special.
“Here’s the thing though,” I went on, ready to knock this thing out of the park. “Getting to miss school because you’re throwing up is cool and definitive proof of God’s existence. But missing out on chapel at camp because you’re throwing up? Not nearly as cool, because there’s some really important stuff being talked about in there that we don’t want you to miss. You want to tell me why we’re out here and not in the dining hall with all the other campers?”
“The nurse wouldn’t let me have fourths on chicken nuggets,” Eugene explained, his voice cracking with understandable grief over the situation.
“That’s because she didn’t want you to get sick,” I replied, leaving out my own grief that I was also missing out on fourths because I was out here with him.
“I don’t care if I get sick,” said Eugene.
“Well, unfortunately, we do, and we’re the law around here.” (Sometimes, when I get on a power trip, a simple disagreement over gluttony becomes, in my mind, a potentially explosive hostage situation. It is what it is.)
“But it’s my body!” or something like that, Eugene argued.
“Listen, you can try to fight this battle with me, Eugene, but I promise you that I will win,” I proclaimed. (It’s okay to admit that you just got chills reading that. I know I did.)
Eventually, I was able to convince Eugene that purposely turning his stomach inside out and dumping it all over the ground was maladaptive behavior, and he rejoined the rest of the campers in the dining hall.
Only he threw up that night in chapel too. And every other night for the rest of camp.
It was frustrating, for sure. I knew he was doing it on purpose, and yet I followed him outside each night to let him regurgitate whatever he could. But those times were opportunities for me to prove to him that, no matter what he did, said, or vomited, I cared about him. And more than that, I was able to show him through my actions that he’s truly worth caring about. He’s worth spending time with, even if there seems to be something better than I could be doing. Something like not watching a kid throw up his guts every few minutes.
Eugene caused me to feel a lot of emotions that week, which says a lot about him. I am not particularly emotional (a fact about which my coworkers love to tease me and that drives my wife crazy), but that kid made me experience the full gamut. He even caused me to lose my temper, which I almost never do (more out of embarrassment at externalizing such intense emotion rather than a particularly long fuse). To tell the story succinctly, at campfire a few kids began joking about throwing Eugene into the fire. I overheard this conversation and positively lost my mind. I can’t remember what I said; I just keep hoping that I didn’t use any swear words or say, “HOW WOULD YOU LIKE IT IF I THREW YOU IN THE FIRE, HUH, KID?” I’m just going to keep telling myself I was living out Isaiah 1:17. Whether or not that’s true is neither here nor there. Moving on.
When the last day of camp was upon us, I began preparing myself for an emotional farewell with Eugene. After all, it had been a long and eventful week, filled with good talks, fart jokes, a few tears (his, not mine, mind you), and a never ending well of puke (he turned out to be the well that never runs dry). In all honesty, I was expecting something similar to the Grey Havens in The Return of the King. (You know the scene, the one you cry at every time.)
Then, finally, the moment came for Eugene to get in his church van and head back home. But first, saying goodbye. I took a deep breath to steel myself. I will not cry, I coached myself. I will not cry. Eugene approached me. This is it, I thought, biting down on my lip. Here we go.
Eugene gave me a high five and said, “Bye, Zach. Maybe I’ll see you next year.” Then he got in the church van and went home.
So much for my beautiful moment.
But that’s okay. That abrupt goodbye was exactly what I needed to knock me off my high horse. See, I was flying pretty high, because I was the guy who hung out with the difficult kid and figured out how to handle him. I was basically thinking that surely there must be a special lounge in heaven for guys like me, with Havana cigars and good beer. I was a hero to this kid, so someone should give me a certificate or something.
Here’s the thing though. None of that’s true. I’m not Eugene’s savior; that job is for someone else. I wasn’t a hero to him or anything like that either. In fact, it wasn’t even about me. It was about Eugene and him knowing that there are people in the world—oh yeah, and a God—who truly do care about him. I was just the guy who was lucky enough to studiously examine Eugene’s vomit and treat him like a normal human being, no matter what.
Anyone can do that.