Growing up in Georgia, from ages 9 to 17, I spent at least four summers attending various Bible camps. The one I’m thinking of took place the summer between sixth and seventh grade.
The details are very fuzzy, but this is what I remember: the camp was somewhere in rural Georgia, and it was open only to middle schoolers. During the day, we played a lot of random sports, and in the evenings, we sang worship songs. At night, we slept in same-sex cabins, about four campers and one adult chaperone to each cabin. We weren’t allowed to eat anything inside the cabins, presumably to avoid attracting insects and rodents; I’d always had a sweet tooth, so I’d stand on the porch of the cabin and eat boxes of strawberry and grape Nerds candy that I bought from the camp store. The chaperone for our cabin, who was a friendly, middle-aged white mom, loved to tease me for doing this throughout the whole camping experience.
There is only person from that summer camp whose name I remember in its entirety. Let’s say that his name was Ryan Hunter. I don’t recall what Ryan’s face looked like, but I remember that he was a rising eighth grader, so a year ahead of me, and that he was pale and skinny and tall-ish and had dark brown hair.
Although the camp was small, and Ryan and I ended up in a lot of sports sessions together, we only spoke to each other once. It had been a hot day, and I’d become completely fed up with the amount of physical activity that we were forced to participate in every day. I had never been an athletic person, and I hated running and sweating and throwing balls around.
That day, I’d reached my breaking point. Midway through the game, I turned around and walked off the field. None of the counselors scolded me, but I wasn’t ballsy enough to go back to my cabin, so I just settled into a squat on the side of the field and watched the others play.
A few minutes later, I saw someone else leave the game and begin walking towards me. It was — to my surprise — Ryan Hunter. He dropped into a squat next to me. “Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Cool,” he said.
Neither of us spoke for a minute, and soon Ryan Hunter was back on the field, playing again.
I developed a small crush on Ryan Hunter in the days following that, not because he was particularly cute or engaging, but because I was twelve years old and everything about my life so far had sucked. I was an Asian kid who lived in the deep South, my parents had to borrow money from other people to make rent, and I was near-sighted and had to wear glasses. My only friends were other poor Asian kids who also wore glasses.
When Ryan Hunter had asked me if I was okay that day, in the summer of my twelfth year, it was the first time that a boy had acknowledged that I might have feelings. He had actually seen me, this silent, sullen Asian kid with no self-esteem, and that realization felt surreal.
(This would happen to me only one more time: in the seventh grade, I sat next to a kid named Philip in homeroom, who had floppy hair and grey eyes and who was widely known as the Cutest Boy in Middle School. Every time he saw me, even when we were just briefly passing each other in the corridor, Philip greeted me cheerfully and earnestly by name, and this was one of the redeeming things about my difficult preteen and teenage years, that occasionally there were people in my orbit who were reliably kind.)
For the next few days of camp, I lived as I normally did, knowing from experience that the crush on Ryan Hunter would dissipate as soon as camp ended and we went back to our respective hometowns; I didn’t even know where he was from. But then something happened on the last night of camp.
We had participated in our nightly worship routine — the songs that we sang were so catchy that they remain stuck in my head all these years later — and because it was the last night of camp, the atmosphere was loose and free-flowing, and everyone was emotional and weepy. People were leaving the bleachers to wander around, and I did too. I was in a different area of camp when one of the other campers ran over to deliver a breathless piece of news: “Ryan Hunter is being possessed by Satan right now!”
This was the last thing that I expected to hear about Ryan Hunter, who by all accounts, was sporty, mild-mannered, and shared no common traits with Satan. I ran with the other campers back to the worship bleachers, and there we saw that a large space had been cleared. In the middle was Ryan Hunter, lying on his side and curled up into a ball. He was trembling violently, and from time to time, he uttered incoherent, pained, raspy noises that sounded as though there was a foreign creature inside him, scratching to get out. Two of the camp’s pastors were bent over him; they each had one hand on him, and the other hand lifted in prayer.
“What’s going on?” I asked one of my camper friends. I had never seen anything like this before and was terrified.
“An evil spirit went into his body,” she whispered, “and now the pastors are trying to get it to leave through the power of prayer.”
The pastors were now speaking in tongues, while Ryan Hunter continued to moan and yell and writhe on the ground.
It was at this point that I decided I couldn’t watch anymore. I was afraid of the alleged evil spirit, and also, it felt like I was watching something that was highly personal and almost indecent. I returned to my cabin and went to bed.
The next morning, Ryan Hunter wasn’t there anymore, but no one seemed to be talking about him; he had been forgotten amidst all the packing and goodbyes. By noon, we had all climbed into different minivans, which would take us back to our respective churches across Georgia, where our parents would then pick us up. “I’m going to miss you guys so much!” a girl named Lauren yelled at me and my friend as she left, and even though I had barely spoken to her during camp, I felt a shock of warmth.
In the years that followed, Ryan Hunter crossed my mind occasionally, but I never saw him again. He became a story that I sometimes told people, about the time I saw a kid being possessed by Satan at Bible camp. I told it half with amusement, half with horror; I wasn’t a hundred percent sure if I believed in evil spirits, but then again, I had seen it with my own eyes.
It wasn’t until many years later — at least a decade had passed — that one day I realized, with a jolt of eye-opening clarity, what had really happened. At this point, I had graduated from college, was living in Washington, DC, and had seen a lot more of the world. And the truth was so clear, so obvious that I almost kicked myself for not seeing it sooner.
Of course I hadn’t seen a demonic possession that night. I had seen a kid — possibly with epilepsy — having a seizure.
Then I had more questions. Was Ryan Hunter okay? When I left for the cabin, he had still been lying on the ground, suffering from a seizure while the pastors prayed over him. Had he been ultimately rushed to the hospital? Had he died?
Even though he had a fairly common name, it was surprisingly easy to find Ryan Hunter online. The very first Google result led to a LinkedIn profile of a man who fit the description: from Georgia, one year ahead of me in school, dark brown hair.
And ever since then, every few years, I’ve continued to keep tabs on Ryan Hunter, quietly checking to see what he was doing in life. Not because of a preteen crush, but because of one crucial detail that jumped out from his profile.
Ryan Hunter lived in Georgia, still. After high school, he’d gone to a small liberal arts college, then worked some odd jobs, including for a major airline. A few years ago, he had attended and graduated from seminary school. Based on his profile picture, he appeared to be married. And now he worked as a director of activities for a Christian youth services nonprofit in Georgia — one that organized Bible camps for teenagers.
That last detail is one that will haunt my brain for the rest of eternity. For years now, I’ve wanted to reach out, to write him a message that says, hey, remember almost 20 years ago when you had a seizure at summer camp? Speaking of that, did you have a seizure, or were you actually personally possessed by Satan himself? Did the prayers and speaking in tongues really save you, and is that why you’ve gone into Christian ministry yourself?
But that would be weird and personal and intrusive, and so I don’t do it. Instead, I close my laptop, change into my pajamas, and put on a sheet mask. I am 31 years old, I don’t go to church anymore, and I have work in the morning. But still — I will always wonder.
Photo by Joshua Newton on Unsplash
Oh, this punched me in the feelings. I think it would be so great if you sent him a Facebook message and told him you still remembered him checking on you when you decided to sideline yourself during a game. As an adult, it’s so nice to hear that something you did as a child positively affected someone else and made their tough time a little easier. You don’t have to bring up the seizure, but if you did, I think you now know why he was able to extend so much empathy. He might not have received as much as you think himself from other kids. 😦
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Wait, that’s such a good point! Thank you for making the connection between the seizure and the empathy – this had never occurred to me, somehow.
There are 2 reasons that I’d hesitate to reach out. The first is that I’m so far removed from the person I was as a child/teen that it can be painful to dredge things up, to remind people of who I had once been. The second is that while I’m not an atheist, I’m highly skeptical of religion. If I were to be completely honest, the question I would ask him is “how can you still be so dedicated to the church when they told impressionable kids that your seizure was a demonic possession?” But I recognize how rude that would be to ask, so I can’t.
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