“Yes, I am,” I replied, wiping a drop of sweat off my forehead. It was a sweltering 80-some degrees in the sun, and the camp registration canopy provided little protection.
“Please sign here. Your unit will be Messengers of Light, just down that path.”
I bent down to sign the yellow
paper. Leaning on the table relieved my tired back. My jeans and shirt stuck to my sweaty body, and my stomach grumbled for even a crumb of food. Forgetting all that, I turned in the direction the woman had pointed. As I chugged downhill along the dusty gravel path with my bags, I looked forward to my two weeks at camp, full of learning, sleeping under the stars, and outdoor survival.
“Jessica, I’m your counselor, Angie,” my short, tanned unit leader said as I approached. “I’m glad that you’ll be staying in my unit for the first week of camp. You can put your bags in this tent and get ready for unit sharing. Some of the girls are already inside,” she added, motioning to the tent.
I stared in dismay at the old tent, which already had several mosquitoes inside it. Is this where I’m going to stay? What is “unit sharing”? My mind whirring, I stepped into the tent.
“Hi, everyone,” I said.
“Hey!” the girls answered. They were all getting ready for bed or sitting on their cots.
“Hi, I’m Ruth. Have you been at camp before?” asked one girl.
“No, it’s my first time,” I replied, setting my heavy leather bags down on the dusty ground. A spider crawled across the floor. Before I could ask my questions, the girls peppered me with answers.
“Have you seen the restrooms yet? Well, they’re outhouses, I guess. They’re over there, three trees away. Also, you need to always wear your name tag, and, um, what else?” one spilled out, still combing her hair.
“Oh, I’d better show you where the shower block is,” Ruth joined in. “You have only five minutes to take a shower in the morning. But don’t worry; it won’t be too hard. We’ll let you go in first!”
Just then several other girls walked in. The tent came alive with hugs and laughter.
“I haven’t seen you since last camp!” one girl exclaimed.
“I love how you cut your hair.” another girl commented.
“These are the rest of the girls in our unit,” Ruth whispered. “They’re staying in the other tent.”
Once we were all settled, the counselor started. “I’m glad to have you all in my unit this year. We have two new campers: Jessica and Dina. Let’s remember to be friendly to them.”
I looked over at Dina. She had a curtain of jet-black hair covering part of her face and her small, squinty eyes. She didn’t say much the whole time, but sat cross-legged as if to take up as little space as she could. From behind her curtain of hair she looked out on the world, seemingly taking everything in and working it into some sort of scheme.
What a mysterious girl, I thought.
As the curfew horn blew and we separated for the night, I lay down and pondered the girls. I didn’t consider myself a prejudiced person. I knew people with various looks from many different cultures, and some were even my close friends. But that girl, Dina, sent shivers down my spine. I made up my mind to have as little contact with her as possible. With that, I went to sleep.
The next morning I rose
to the gentle call of
my counselor and the constant buzz of cicadas. “Wake up, Messengers of Light! It’s time to rise and shine. Remember we have 30 minutes before our showers.”
I’d better get there before Dina does, I thought. That way, I won’t have to wait in line with her.
As promised, the other girls let me go first. After a quick shower I walked up the hill to the breakfast area with my partners. As we took our seats at the picnic table, I made sure I was not seated next to Dina. Just remembering the strange look on her face the previous night made me relive the repulsion I felt against her.
As the days slipped by I continued to avoid Dina. Each day was filled with adventures and fun. I experienced what it was like to turn pink when bathing in mountain water, rush to the bathroom at 1:00 a.m. without a flashlight, and battle wasps in the outhouse. I learned how to say chum reap suor (“Hello” in the Khmer language of Cambodia), how to cook over an open fire, and how to deal with a case of hypothermia.
We all hoped the last day would never come. But it did. For the last time we gathered around the fireplace, ready to listen to the speaker for the night. As the camp leader stepped to the front, all fell silent.
“Before we have our speaker come up, we’re going to give you all a chance to share your experiences this week at camp,” he announced.
Several people went up to the microphone, describing how their week had turned out like an artist’s masterpiece. As I looked out on the scene—the lake reflecting the sunset, trees towering above our heads, and fresh air rejuvenating us—I smiled with deep satisfaction.
Then it happened. Dina went up to the front. My smile disappeared, and my eyebrows crinkled. What did she have to say? She’d worn a frown all week and had only commented about how disgusting things had been. Based on her conversations I had overheard, gossip was her thing. She’d even asked our counselor if she could leave camp earlier than planned. What would she say now?
As she reached for the mike, the fire crackled. “I really didn’t want to be here,” she stated. We all knew that. “I, um, had been having some struggles at home, uh, with my parents, and I was, well, I wasn’t seeing any way through.” She stared down at the fire as if it would devour her painful comments. The cool night air seemed to chill even more as Dina continued.
“I was getting really frustrated and was thinking of going down to the lake at night and doing something I shouldn’t do. I wanted to end my life.”
My eyes widened like loonies (our Canadian dollar coins). Many people gasped. End her life? At camp? Why?
She continued. “But yesterday, when Ms. Lin came to tuck us all in, she came to my cot, knelt down, hugged me, and said, ‘Dina, I love you.’ She said it in a way that my mom has never told me before.” A tear trickled down her face. She returned to our bench and sat down.
I was frozen. Each of her words seemed to slap my face. I ran to hug her in a desperate attempt to undo all the thoughts and feelings I had harbored against her.
Before returning to my seat, I looked at her face. Her squinty little eyes were now full of tears. Other campers and counselors were crying too.
How much pain Dina had inside!
I didn’t hear any of the other testimonies. Even the speaker seemed on mute. All I could think about was Dina.
That night she and I swapped roles. She slept; I cried. I moved my pillow three times because of the tearstains. How could I have guessed how shattered she felt within? Had my attitude toward her hurt her even more? Jesus would never have acted that way! He had told a sinner threatened with death, “Neither do I condemn you,” and had prayed, “Father, forgive them,” for the people who crucified Him!
God, forgive me! I cried. Forgive me.
I still remember Dina. When I meet people, I remember that pain might live behind their veils. When I start to judge, to throw the spear, I pray. I think again. I remember Dina.