So most of my summer days were spent in the pool, wearing board shorts and a black t-shirt (because I’d learned wet white t-shirts did little to hide problem areas), casually glancing upward at the tan amorphous blob in the lifeguard stand, cursing both my forbidden attractions and my poor eyesight.
The single bright spot of the summer was Vacation Bible School at the Methodist Church, where we’d spend the week praising the Lord through crafts. This was back when your Big Mac still came in a Styrofoam clamshell, and I can attest from experience that there are five hundred different ways to praise Jesus using a hamburger container and a few common household items.
My weeks at VBS were the only time during my childhood that my complete lack of athletic or musical ability was not a hindrance. God did not care if I couldn’t play baseball or swam in a t-shirt. God knew the only instrument I showed aptitude for was the clarinet, which in a Mississippi small town was actually worse than not being good at anything. All God asked of me was a willingness to glue Q-Tips and dry pasta to fast food containers, so that I might better appreciate the story of Blind Bartimaeus.
By junior high, I’d graduated to summer UMYF service trips. We’d pile into the church van, drive deep into the Appalachians, meet up with other youth groups from all over the South, and do basic home repairs for mountain people. I’d sign up for every single one of them.
I’d held a lifelong aversion to manual labor, but suddenly I could think of nothing more delightful than heading out to hillbilly country and building a retaining wall with a bunch of teenagers. My parents were delighted with my altruism, as well as my desire to move for more than three minutes at a time, both of which were new. But they didn’t know the secret behind these mission trips.
Those retaining walls were being built by a bunch of fags. Not exclusively, mind you. There were still popular girls who managed to squeeze in a week of painting between cheerleading camps, and the golden boys who didn’t mind repairing sheetrock before summer football practice started. But the regulars, the ones who would gleefully sign up for a week of forced labor as long as it took them away from their hometowns? Yeah, they were a bunch of screaming queens.
These were the first of my kind I ever encountered. I’d spent my life dealing with the idea that I was a big freak (a belief my peers were happy to reinforce,) but amongst the bottle trees and painted tires of mountain homesteads, I’d managed to discover I was far less alone than I’d feared. None of us knew at that age what we would do with that information, but in the moment it was enough to know.
This experience is one of the reasons my faith remains a central part of my life. I believe this was God’s intervention, providing us with much-needed reassurance. We went home stronger, clutching each other’s addresses with promises to write, and the seed of an idea: If a bunch of sissies could get together and build a porch, what could we accomplish if we really got organized?
Topher Payne is an Atlanta-based playwright, and the author of the book “Necessary Luxuries: Notes on a Semi-Fabulous Life.” Find out more at topherpayne.com.