Transcript

147:

A Teenager's Guide to God
Transcript

Originally aired 12.17.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/147

Act One. Exodus.

Ira Glass

Not long ago, the guy who headed the youth group at Covenant Presbyterian Church decided to hold a debate. Half the kids in the youth group had to argue for Christianity. Half the kids had to make the case that Christianity was all made up, a fairy tale. And the Christians lost.

Dan Adamson

And I think the number one reason why is because they tried to just come at it with a lot of facts.

Ira Glass

Dan Adamson is the youth leader.

Dan Adamson

And it was amazing to watch these-- the ones that were debating Christianity said, Jesus is real. There's people that found him, and there's proof on this, and they-- evidence.

Ira Glass

Archaeological records.

Dan Adamson

Archaeological records. And what was so awesome, by the non-Christian debate team, is they said, fine. We totally acknowledge that Jesus is real. But so was Mohammed. So was Buddha. So was this. And the Christians were like, yeah, but Jesus is real. And he died on the cross and he rose again. And the non-Christians came back and said, well, there's people that believe that. But there's also people that believe Mohammed was this. And what I wish the Christians would have done, would have bee said, here am I. I believe God is real because He's changed my life. And put myself on the witness stand and say, here's what I was before God and here's who I am now.

Ira Glass

The problem is, for the teenagers in this youth group, the phrase, here's who I was before I found God, it has no meaning. They all come from families that discuss the Bible at dinner. They go to church every Sunday. They come from the kind of homes where all the kids can tell you how many swears are in the movie Titanic, because every TV show and film is pre-screened.

Dan Adamson

I have kids that are willing to serve, kids that know the Bible, kids that know their theology. This is the only truth they've known. They've been told from the very beginning God loves them, God has a plan for them. Jesus is their Savior. They've been singing "Jesus Loves Me" since they've been five years old.

Ira Glass

It's time for them to develop their own faith, not just to parrot back what their parents say. Dan says this. Most of the parents say it. They need to question what they've learned and come to their own conclusions. If they don't do it now, Dan says, they'll do it later, without parents and a youth pastor to nudge them toward God. So Dan decided to take them to West Virginia. It will be a mission trip, the youth group's first mission trip. They'd have to help poor people. They'd have to testify about God's word to strangers. It would be hard, and hardship can make you turn to God. And they'd see the kind of things that make people engage serious questions about their faith.

Dan Adamson

If they begin doubting because they look in this world and they see hard lives in West Virginia, they see people that are hurting, and they see this and they look up and they think, why would God allow that to happen? That's like an example of I think where I'd start seeing more growth.

Ira Glass

So that was the plan. Now, let's meet some of the teenagers. Kelly Hoover's age 14, long brown hair, braces, lip gloss. Kelly's outgoing and bright and she's somebody capable of saying exactly what is on her mind.

Kelly Hoover

Well, I really want to meet the kids there and just-- because I mean, I don't want to sound snotty or anything but-- I'm more privileged than most people. I mean, I live in a big house. I have a pool. And I don't really see kids a lot who don't have as much as I do. And I really just want to see what it's like, and how living with them is. And I really just want to teach them about Jesus, because I don't know how I could live without Him. And sometimes I think how blessed I was to be born in such a family.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, A Teenager's Guide to God, the story of five adults, 11 kids, and six days in West Virginia. Of adults trying to mold the faith of teenagers and things not working out quite as planned.

It's an odd fact of religious life in America that in this country founded by Christians, in which a majority of people say they believe in God and identify themselves as Christians, that so many religious Christians feel that they are an oppressed minority. They say the media doesn't share their values, that secular institutions undermine their beliefs. And the job of raising Christian children, they'll tell you, is like trying to do God's work from behind enemy lines.

Today we are devoting our entire program to the kids that they're struggling to bring up. This American Life producer Susan Burton and I spent a week this August recording these teenagers, day and night, throughout their mission trip. And we bring you this portrait of what it means to be a Christian teenager in America, for some kids anyway, around the turn of the millennium. Stay with us.

Act Two. Unto The Uttermost Part Of The Earth.

Ira Glass

Act One, Exodus. The youth group is part of Covenant Presbyterian Church here in Chicago, a city church with lots of members who live out in the suburbs. A number of their parents were founding members of the church, less than two decades ago. These teenagers are 13 to 17. They all grew up attending Christian schools or homeschools. Our trip began with a 14-hour drive in two rented vans to West Virginia.

Girl 1

Can we hear LFO? Because Ira has never heard it. Ira, have you heard the summer girls song? Summertime girls? Oh, it's so funny. Where's my bag?

Ira Glass

We were barely in the van 10 minutes when Marisa and Kelly asked Dan to play the song that became the unofficial theme song to our trip. It wasn't by Jars of Clay or dc Talk or any of the other Christian pop bands whose CDs we'd brought. It was a rap song, by a white, one-hit wonder boy band called LFO. Everybody spent the ride down trying to memorize the lyrics.

[MUSIC - "SUMMER GIRLS" BY LFO]

Girl 1

Ah! I missed it! I missed the Billy Shakespeare-- that's the-- I wait. Sonnets! OK, OK, OK -- start it over. I got it. So it's after the Larry Bird. What does he say?

Ira Glass

Dan is 29, married, with a new baby. But in the van, he's more like a counselor adored by his campers than youth pastor. The girls strain their necks and try to meet his eyes in the rear-view mirror as they talk, asking what he and one of the other leaders, Dave, were like back in college together at the evocatively named Moody Bible Institute. Teasing him about the songs he likes, which, as far as they're concerned, are impossibly old-- 10, maybe 15 years. He tries just as hard as anybody to learn the words to "Summer Girls."

Dan Adamson

[SINGING] Macaulay Culkin was home alone.

[MUSIC - "SUMMER GIRLS" BY LFO]

Dan Adamson

[SINGING] --was Alex P. Keaton.

Girl 1

What is that from?

Girl 2

You know, Family Ties?

Girl 1

Oh, I never watched that show.

Girl 2

I did. Sometimes. And Mallory, and what was that other girl's name?

Ira Glass

That's too '80s for me, Arden says, I couldn't watch it. These girls are the children that the Christian right has in mind when it holds press conferences on what's at stake in America's culture war. They are cannon fodder in that war. Just a few years before they were born, a child psychologist named Dr. James Dobson founded a group called Focus on the Family. It is an enormous religious organization based in Colorado Springs.

Dobson's genius is that he offers exhaustive, concrete advice on everything from child discipline to movie-going to a generation of parents who are trying to raise their kids in a new way, or rather, in a very old way. As part of that, Dobson has built an entire superstructure to shield young people from Hollywood, from rap music, from the WB. Focus on the Family publishes an ongoing encyclopedic guide which evaluates pop culture from a Christian perspective for parents. In addition, they've created an empire of Christian pop of their own-- original radio dramas and children's videos, books, websites, and several magazines.

It is a remarkably effective social experiment. These teenagers don't even fight with their parents about what they can watch and listen to. At this point, they generally agree that certain films and shows are bad for them. And if you ask them about any of the TV shows targeted at and beloved by so many of their 14- and 15-year-old peers-- Dawson's, Buffy, Felicity-- you can hear their parents' voices and Dr. Dobson's voice in their replies.

Girl 2

You feel really guilty walking away, that you just totally perverted your mind with all this stuff.

Girl 1

It's so unrealistic and sick. The fact that a boy is sleeping with his teacher, and he's like 15 years old. I mean, and these people are supposed to be 15 and 16 years old. And if that was how my life was, I would be dead right now. Because that's just ridiculous. Everybody is jumping in bed with everyone else and is all switching. I mean, by the middle of the series, I was hearing through rumors that so-and-so, who had been with the teacher, is now with this girl, who was actually on depressants. I mean, I have no idea what's going on.

Ira Glass

It's Andie, one of the supposed non-viewers pipes up from the back. What's so interesting about these girls is the odd mix of Christian and secular pop in their lives. Despite their Christian schools, despite their carefully monitored TV viewing, they do not seem out of touch. They're not un-hip. And here is the most important thing that they would want you to know about them. They like being Christians. This is Lauren.

Lauren

It's hard for people to understand that we really enjoy this religion. That us, as teenagers, who are the ones who are out to have fun and whatever, that this is actually something that means something to us, and that we are having fun doing this.

Ira Glass

As they've gotten older, some of them have taken more steps, carefully measured steps, into the secular world. Ruth and Jessica and Anna go to a public high school, and it isn't that kids at the school are hostile to Christianity, as they were, Dan says, when he was a teenager. These days, the attitude at the school is, if Christianity is your thing, that's fine, just so long as you don't push it onto other people. Of all the teenagers in the youth group, the one struggling the most with how to live as a religious person in the secular world is one of the two boys on the trip, Joel.

Joel

I've had my share of dealings with kids who've been at public school, and I just don't really like what I see.

Ira Glass

Joel's 13 and probably the most sheltered person in the group. His mother's always homeschooled him because, he says, she feels that Christian schools only teach Christian values during Bible class. She feels it should be enunciated in all the subjects. Joel's getting out more and more. Just this summer, he spent three weeks away from home for the first time in his life. And it was with non-Christian kids on a soccer trip to England.

Joel

I don't know. I mean, I learned a lot of stories and jokes and stuff. But they were all really nasty and unrepeatable, if that gives you an idea of, you know, what kids learn in public schools. And it's like, the boys are always talking about sex or things that have to do with sex. And you know, I mean, at this age, yeah, I'm starting to think about that, but still I don't like talking about it.

Ira Glass

A typical joke? The only one that I could drag out of him involved a boy, a girl having her period, a car late at night, a policeman, and a pizza. Believe me, you don't want to know.

Joel

It was just incredible. I mean, they were-- it's just, they were the most-- and they didn't-- but--

Ira Glass

He is literally at a loss for words.

Joel

And then some of the guys just got a kick out of acting like they were gay or something. On the bus ride they found out that that annoyed me, so they did that the rest of the trip. Acting like they were after me, if you know what I mean. They would say stuff in kind of an exaggerated, effeminate kind of accent. There was one guy who would always wink at me. And I'm like, Matt, knock it off. And he's like, oh, come on. You know you want it. And I'm like, no, I don't.

Ira Glass

Up until this point, you've been homeschooled. You haven't been around other kids. And so, was this literally the first time this had happened to you?

Joel

Yes.

Ira Glass

Compared with all the other kids on the trip, Joel's family is much more fundamentalist in the way that it incorporates the Bible into their daily lives. Whatever benefits he gets from that, the kids whose parents try to balance secular and Christian influences all seem way more at ease in themselves and in the world.

[MUSIC - "SUMMER GIRLS" BY LFO]

Multiple Girls And Boys

[SINGING] I like girls that wear Abercrombie and Fitch. I'd take her if I had one wish.

Ira Glass

For the rest of the drive, the girls sing the LFO song every few hours. They ruffle through the pages of Teen People, read stories out loud to each other, close the magazine in their laps, flip it over and begin again. By the time we arrive in West Virginia, this is the first accomplishment of the trip. Nearly everybody has memorized all the words.

Multiple Girls And Boys

[SINGING] New Kids on the Block had a bunch of hits. Chinese food makes me sick. And I think it's fly when girls stop by for the summer, for the summer.

Ira Glass

These are the vessels that God has chosen to come here to help others.

Multiple Girls And Boys

[SINGING] I'll take her if I had one wish. But she's been gone since that summer, since that summer.

Act Three. Wise As Serpents And Harmless As Doves.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Unto the Uttermost Part of the Earth. Everybody stays at an old 4-H camp that had been taken over by the Presbyterian Church of America's national missionary organization, Mission to the World. Kids and adults from all over the country filled the various cabins. Prayers were held in the campfire circle. It was green, shady, spectacularly pretty, with daily sermons from a tattooed ex-Marine everybody called Pastor Kenny.

Pastor Kenny

We've had people come up here for-- this is our sixth summer. And every year, someone comes with the idea that we're going to win West Virginia over to Jesus this week. I'm serious. Now this is true. I'm here to tell you that's not going to happen. It's not going to happen. But if you will open your heart to God this week, God will change your life, and you will never be the same.

Ira Glass

Right now there's a boom in church projects like this one, that send people on one-to-two-week mission trips. This boom crosses all denominations. There are no great national estimates, but in this one Presbyterian denomination, not the biggest one, the number of short-term missionaries has more than doubled in just three years. Now it's over 5,000 souls. 750 of them came through this West Virginia summer camp this year, and the number's still climbing.

And so, among certain groups of Christian teenagers, going on a mission trip has become a rite of passage. There are upbeat articles and ads in the Christian teen magazines. One of the Chicago girls, Anna, says that of the 11 girls in her class at her old school, a small Christian junior high, all 11 went on mission trips this summer. And when they got to where they were going, they often got a jolt of culture shock. Our group found itself in a small town fixing up a house that had a beautiful sloping yard, apple trees, two porches. Sure, there were trailer homes up the street, but this house was, all and all, not what the kids thought of when they signed up to help the unfortunate. One girl said that she had envisioned something more like Cabrini-Green, the high-rise Chicago public housing project. Kelly, the one whose family has a pool, put it this way.

Kelly Hoover

I didn't picture-- I mean, this house is a lot bigger than I thought it'd be. I thought it'd be like a rundown little shack. I mean, I didn't picture like, rat clothes, you know?

Ira Glass

Rat clothes, did you say?

Kelly Hoover

I don't know. Like, I don't know, like dirt poor. I mean, but it's nice. I mean, it definitely needs some painting work, but you know.

Ira Glass

You might think it would be awkward for the recipients of this charity work. If nothing else, to have all the neighbors see a team of out-of-state church kids working on their house. But as it turned out, the neighbors saw the kids and thought that perhaps they were from some kind of work-release boot camp kind of program, like they saw on NBC Dateline, they told us.

Pebble Cunningham

My dad-- not my family, my husband's family-- all worked in a coal mine.

Ira Glass

Pebble Cunningham is 80 years old. She lives in the house that the Chicago group was painting, along with her daughter, who is in her 50s, and her granddaughter, Angie.

Ira Glass

I would expect, for somebody like you, whose family's always worked, is it strange to have these people come in and help you out like this?

Pebble Cunningham

It's strange, but it's nice. Because we have no man-power at all. We ain't got no men to help us. This house was going down fast.

Ira Glass

But I would think that because you've always been a working family, the notion of having people come in and help out and do charity--

Pebble Cunningham

First time. But we loved it. Because we needed it, you know.

Ira Glass

Now, were you worried, having all these Bible kids come to you, that they'll be trying to preach to you the whole time?

Pebble Cunningham

Nah, let 'em talk about it. I [UNINTELLIGIBLE] to look forward to Jesus. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] got to look forward to.

Act Four. Your Name Is Ointment Poured Forth.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Wise as Serpents and Harmless as Doves. Back in Chicago, Dan had said that part of what would bring everybody on the trip closer to God was facing hardship together. And, as if on schedule, the difficulties began our first morning.

Girl 1

Give me yellow hair. No, give me-- give me blue hair.

Girl 2

You've got to give me like-- you've got to give me Scully hair.

Ira Glass

The girls sit on the porch of their cabin, bent in concentration with crayons and paper, drawing a get-well card for Dan, with everybody on it. They also gave him Gatorade.

Girl 3

Dan's probably going to have to go to the hospital.

Girl 4

Yeah, he's really sick. He's like vomiting, barfing, vomiting, violently.

Girl 3

Maybe the Gatorade will just do a--

Girl 5

Yeah, maybe the Gatorade will work miracles.

Girl 4

Miracles can happen. That's like in our devotion.

Ira Glass

Dan has some sort of food poisoning. When he goes into the hospital, it sends the four adult leaders on the trip lurching into a dispute over what to do next. And some of Dan's best-laid plans begin to go awry. Take the vacation Bible school. The original plan for the week was that, every morning for a few hours, the kids would split into two different groups. Half would work on painting the Cunninghams' house, half would work on what they call a VBS, which is church-speak for Vacation Bible School, which itself is church-speak for trying to bring the word of God to local kids with games, skits, candy, a brief lesson.

Anna

What do we say?

Lauren

We say, we're doing a club. We're a youth group from Chicago.

Ira Glass

Anna and Lauren practice what they'll say to round up kids.

Lauren

If you have any kids-- should we ask if they have any kids? Or just say, if you have any kids-- if you're interested--

Anna

Feel free to have them come.

Ira Glass

But the group got bad advice about where to hold the vacation Bible school. We set up about a 10-minute drive from the Cunningham house in a big, empty public park. And as we went knocking from door to door to advertise the event to kids, it was like a fairy tale, where at each house, the person at the door was slightly more infirm, slightly more elderly, than the person at the house before.

Old Woman

I don't have any children. I don't have any grandchildren here and I don't know anybody that has kids.

Girl 1

OK. Thank you.

Girl 2

Hi, we were wondering if you had any kids that wanted to come to the backyard Bible club at Worthington Park.

Old Woman

I don't have any.

Girl 2

Do you have any kids? Do you have-- do you have any children?

Ira Glass

And the next day, when we went out to hold the vacation Bible school, with props and costumes and games, with a pre-rehearsed skit and more candy than you might imagine, Karen, Marie, Jessica, Nora, Laura, Kelly, and Arden sat on the edge of an outdoor stage in the park, waiting. Nobody showed up. The closest they came was when a white pickup turned into the parking area.

Girl 1

Look it! Child! Child?

Girl 2

Looks like it could be a family vehicle. [INTERPOSING VOICES]

Girl 3

Oh, please!

Girl 4

Maybe they have seven kids.

Ira Glass

They didn't have seven. Or even one.

Girl 1

Oh well.

Girl 2

So are we going to come back every day if nobody comes? Is this going to be like three hours of wasted time every day?

Girl 3

Two. Two hours.

Ira Glass

One of the group leaders, Nora, gathers them around.

Nora

You know, I think that anyone who is led to pray should pray. Chris, can you start us off? And then Laura, can you just finish? Thanks.

Ira Glass

They bow their heads. Here's one of the advantages of Christian life over secular life-- that at any moment of trouble, when somebody might get frustrated or mad, or for that matter, at any turning point in the day, when one thing ends and another's about to begin, our group takes a quiet moment and reflects.

Chris

Dear Lord, we came here today, and we were really hoping that we'd be able to teach some kids about God, but it didn't work out that way. And maybe you're just showing us that it's better to go back to the house and work with the family there. But please show us some more signs.

Laura

Dear Lord, I want to thank you so much for this day, and that it was nice. And I just pray that we won't be discouraged that no kids will come. And that maybe-- well, you said that everything is worked for the good. And maybe we needed more time on the house, Lord. And I just pray that whatever happens, that good things will come out of this and we'll all do it for your glory.

Ira Glass

Talking with the kids afterwards, I found that the lesson that they took from this experience was not that they could have chosen a better location or done a better job finding kids. It was not that they could have tried harder. What they all told me simply was, was that this was God's will.

It's a lesson that seems, to a secular person, strangely at odds with the job of raising children. It seems, in fact, to be exactly the opposite of what you would want to teach a child. Raising kids is, after all, a process of convincing them that they have to be responsible. That if something goes wrong, they have to figure out if there was anything they could have done to prevent it. I talked to Dan about this. I talked to the other adult leaders about it. And finally, the only person on the trip who says anything convincing about why this notion of God's will might be a good thing to teach teenagers is Ruth, the oldest girl in the youth group.

Ruth

That helps me through the day. Because you see kids who don't care at all, you know, about Jesus and all of that, and they seem to be doing just fine. They seem to be doing a lot better. Because I'm in this really competitive program. And a lot of the kids are not Christians. And a lot of kids do really well. One of my classmates, I think, scored a perfect on the ACT. And I didn't. I mean, I wasn't very close. And I may take it over, I may not. The point is that, I don't know, they seem to be doing better. And sometimes I think, boy, I wish that I could do that well. And I guess it wasn't God's plan for me to do that well. It just seems like just knowing that, it's not all under our control, and that maybe that God does have a plan, so whatever He chooses-- though I may not like it, and I certainly don't like not coming out on top or not being the best.

Act Five. The Substance Of Things Hoped For.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Your Name Is Ointment Poured Forth. One great thing about staying in a camp with 130 other Christians, if you're a young Christian girl who has never had a boyfriend, is the much-better-than-in-school chance of meeting a nice, cute, Christian boy. Though, of course, camp rules prohibit anything more than having a crush from afar. This turns out not to cramp the style of the Chicago girls, however. A crush from afar is exactly as far as they could handle.

Monday night, after services and after devotions, everybody is milling around the volleyball court in the center of camp. There are boys and girls there. And one of the adult leaders, Nora, comes down carrying a word game for everybody to play. A word game. What could be more embarrassing?

Kelly Hoover

First, Nora comes out. She's like, anyone up for a game of Boggle? She comes marching down. These kids start staring at her. And now everyone in our [? deal ?] just starts laughing.

Ira Glass

Kelly, who cheerfully describes herself as the most boy crazy of the group, explains that it was Anna, who just didn't care what anyone thought, who spoke up to say that she liked Boggle. Which turned out to be a master stroke.

Kelly Hoover

--Boggle. And so then we end up starting to play this Boggle game and other people come by. Like--

Girl 1

These two guys from Virginia.

Boy

Ran.

Girl 2

I found barn.

Girl 3

Sun.

Girl 4

Nor.

Boy

Shay. Band.

Kelly Hoover

First it started with Lauren and Ruthie. They like Jimbo. I mean, he's too old, but he's really cute. Then there is Andy, who Jessica and Anna think is cute. And then there's Ben who's really-- everyone thinks he's cute. But not-- but they all have their first choice. But he looks like-- Jessica thinks he looks like an Abercrombie model. He does.

Boy

All right, yes. I am extremely ticklish. Thank you for reminding me.

Ira Glass

During the game, a girl came over and started rubbing Ben's shoulders.

Kelly Hoover

His little massage girlfriend came over and was massaging him, and he was like, you know what? Stop. Didn't he get a little aggravated? Well, he did get a little aggravated.

Susan Burton

Did you guys make eye contact or talk?

Kelly Hoover

Yes, we did! He first-- it was eye contact. [INAUDIBLE] Hey, she asked me! And so first, we were like, we were playing Boggle. You know how to play. You find the words. And I was like, oh, I found a word. And he's like, I already found that word. I was like, oh, I'm sorry. And so then, at the end of the game, he was telling me how he really stunk at the game. And that was basically it.

Ira Glass

Not very romantic, Kelly admits. But after that, every night after their missionary work, the Chicago girls shower, apply lip gloss, and blow dry their hair straight, so they're ready for the volleyball court after devotions.

Joel, who has the most protective parents of anybody in the group, is not indulging any crushy feelings very far on this trip.

Joel

This plan I'm kind of laying off, because my parents-- they're kind of strict on this issue. So like you're not allowed to date until we're dead. Seriously, I'm not allowed to date anybody until they're dead.

Ira Glass

Until they're dead?

Joel

Until they're dead.

Ira Glass

That is not the rule.

Joel

That is too. I'm not allowed to date. They're into this new-- this courtship idea where the families, both the families get together, and then the two people get to know each other in the family setting. But you know, not going out by ourselves where our parents can't keep track of us. I mean we can sit and talk, you know, with our parents across the room or whatever. And it starts getting farther and farther away until-- as we get older and more responsible and more mature, then it starts getting a little more one on one. As we get more responsible then it's going out to dinner and stuff.

Ira Glass

Joel says that he's going through a period of questioning his faith right now. And the most emotionally charged questions that he's asking have to do with sex, the outright ban on premarital sex. What is a 13-year-old boy supposed to think? Joel says that he's planning on reading all the Biblical references on it so he can understand the reasoning and so he can see for himself if there's any wiggle room in the whole thing. He borrows his mom's theological books on hard subjects like this. When producer Susan Burton asks him if he has a Bible verse that's a particular favorite, he pulls a scrap of paper from his wallet.

Joel

I have it written down. I always keep it with me. My mom gave it to me, actually.

Susan Burton

So this is a-- it's a little piece of paper cut out in a circle. Is that your writing?

Joel

No, this is my mom's writing. She wrote it down for me. 2 Timothy 2:22. "Flee also youthful lusts. But pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart." Which basically means, for me, stay away from what I want to do at this time.

Ira Glass

It was sometime early in the week that Susan and I met Matt [? Gerkin ?] and Eric [? Highland. ?] They saw us standing with our Chicago interviewees, holding our tape recorders and boom mics, and strolled right up.

Matt

We were thinking we heard something in the woods here last night. We're investigating it.

Ira Glass

This is just weeks after the movie Blair Witch Project hit theaters. Matt is 18, Eric's 23, and it becomes clear after some questioning that, in fact, they have no intention of going into the woods. They just said that, trying to get on the radio.

Matt

So what really gets on the radio? Do you have to do something dramatic to get on the radio? Or you want real life?

Ira Glass

We explain that we're doing a documentary story, which means we tell him that he'd have a better chance of getting on the air if he goes through some sort of change over the course of his week of missionary work.

Eric

So if we can find something that would really change our lives, and we wanted it documented and broadcasted across the nation, we'd call you guys, and we'd like--

Ira Glass

If something happens to you this week that changed your life, you find me, and you'll be on the radio.

Eric

Really? Wow. So you know what we need to do, is just check in with you every half hour and let you know how we're progressing and how things are happening with us. Change is bad. What's the name of this show? Change? What's with this change talk? If we want to change--!

Ira Glass

After that, as you'd expect, we ran into them every single day. And every single day, they had so much to say to us about all the changes they were going through.

Coming up, how even M&Ms and Starburst can serve the Lord. In a minute, on Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Six. The Evidence Of Things Not Seen.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today we are devoting our entire show to just one story about a group of suburban Chicago teenagers on their first church mission trip to West Virginia to fix up the house of a family who needs some help, and to witness for God. We've arrived at Act Five of our show. Act Five, The Substance of Things Hoped For.

By Tuesday, Dan's feeling better, and one of the first things he does at the work site is drop in on the neighbors.

Dan Adamson

I'm Dan. What was your name again?

Girl

Crystal and Paula.

Dan Adamson

And this is Marisa.

Marisa

Hi.

Ira Glass

When Dan came out during the winter to see the house that they would be fixing up, he met these teenage girls. Back then, one of them, Crystal, said the month that Dan was bringing the group out was going to be the same month as her birthday, and Dan came back prepared.

Dan Adamson

Well, are we going to celebrate the birthday? You said we were going to celebrate when we came here.

Ira Glass

His accent migrates below the Mason-Dixon as he explains.

Dan Adamson

We actually have a little present for you. Because we knew it was going to be your birthday, so one of the girls went out and got a little present for you. So. Well, if you guys ever get bored and want to come over there, there's a bunch of people. We're going to be here all week. We'd love to talk to you. We got some candy and stuff. Introduce yourself to them. And if you want to come by, we're going to be eating lunch. What time do we eat lunch?

Marisa

Like 12:00.

Dan Adamson

12:00. We got some-- you can eat with us. We've got some candy and food and drinks.

Ira Glass

Back next door, everybody works on the Cunninghams' house. Scraping off the old paint, rolling on the new, trimming back bushes, climbing up ladders. Everybody dressed in surgical scrubs, those blue-green cotton pajamas that you see the doctors wear on ER. That is, if your faith allows you to watch ER. They're light, they're disposable, and they let you call each other doctor all day long.

The work goes quickly. At some point, to dislodge some ancient paint off aluminum siding, the adults drag in an industrial power washer that they warn the kids about so frighteningly, some get sort of spooked.

Girl

I don't know. I'm afraid to use the power hose thing. Because I feel like I'm going to kill somebody. And I mean seriously kill somebody.

Ira Glass

Lindsay stands in line, deciding if she'll take a turn.

Lindsay

I don't want to see it.

Ira Glass

Once the power washer gets going, Ruth is the first one to use it to actually remove paint.

Ruth

It's fun, yeah. I'm the oldest, so I like the power.

Ira Glass

Among an earlier generation of Christian women, or among more fundamentalist Christian women, there might be some question about whether it is a woman's place to run the power tools in the family. This question is so irrelevant to these Presbyterian teenagers that when I bring it up they literally do not know what I'm talking about.

While they all work on the house, every now and then somebody from the Cunningham family is spotted. And every single time, it is like the experience that you have when you spot a minor celebrity. Your heart leaps. It's all you can think about. And then, if you're brave enough to stroll over and chat, you try to play it casual. Like, oh, we're just talking here. I'm relaxed. It's just like talking to anybody. After all, they are here to minister to this family.

When the Cunninghams' daughter, Angie, comes out on the porch one afternoon, Kelly and Jessica do their best to be friendly. And for once, Kelly's mother might feel like she did the right thing buying her daughter all those Backstreet Boy CDs. Because now they get the chance to talk Backstreet Boys on the Lord's behalf. Paula and Crystal, the girls from next door, bring over a Backstreet Boys poster. Angie owns a t-shirt from the '98 tour.

Angie is actually in her late 20s. She has a small disability in one of her arms. It's shorter than the other and her hand on that arm isn't fully functional. Most days she stays at home, watching TV. It is inherently difficult for the Chicago teenagers to figure out how to interact with, even how to react to, somebody from such a different background. And there's a certain amount of raw confusion as they feel their way forward. Every night back at camp, after prayers and devotionals, they all debrief about the day.

Dan Adamson

So anyone have any thoughts about today? Positive, negative feedback? Anything?

Ira Glass

Kelly uses the chance to speak up.

Kelly Hoover

I thought, at first, it was kind of hard to talk to Angie, just because, I mean, I didn't like staring. I mean, I didn't want to. And it's not just because of her arm. It's because it is hard to understand her, and she didn't really get what you said sometimes. But at first I was kind of doing it out of pity for her, and then that didn't feel right, you know? I didn't want to do it out of pity for her. And I don't know if it's wrong or right to do it out of pity for her. But that's how I'm doing it. And I don't know if that's right. I just-- and it makes me so happy when I see her smile. And it's just-- I guess I don't know if it's right or wrong to do it out of pity. I know I keep asking that. So someone answer.

Ira Glass

Nobody does for a while, until later, when Dan says the perfect thing, that when Jesus walked the earth, he didn't feel pity for the sick and handicapped. He felt compassion, empathy. Lauren offers this optimistic thought.

Lauren

She obviously has a lot of problems with her deformity and whatever. And I was just thinking, in heaven, she's not going to have any deformity. And if we can reach her that way--

Ira Glass

Over and over, Dan tells the group that their main purpose in coming to West Virginia is to minister to the family whose house they're working on. Getting to know Angie is important, he says.

Dan Adamson

Remember the names. I know I need it. I kept telling Carol, Carol, what were their names again? Really, they love that they're going to know their names. I thought it was great you guys were showing your boy bands. I thought that was great. I thought that was great. And they say they go to that church. I asked them if they have youth group events and they said they've done a couple youth group events. So I think, you know, if the timing is right, I think you have a good opportunity to just ask them, well, what do you think about God? I mean, I don't think it would be awkward at all. I just think I would encourage you, and be praying about it, that if you feel like the motivation is there, man, just plant a seed. Just see what happens, and maybe you're going to go with it.

Ira Glass

Listening to all this, I imagine how disturbed Angie and Crystal and Paula might be if they overheard all the scheming of how they'll be befriended. From their point of view, after all, their interaction with the Chicago girls is as simple as, they seem sort of cool. They like them. But missionary work is, at some level, like any sales work. There's no way to do it without discussing some sort of sales strategy. All of these evening sessions end with prayer, in which anybody who wants to say something simply speaks up. And a lot of the prayers are about Angie, and the two neighbors, Crystal and Paula. Kelly was among those offering a prayer.

Kelly Hoover

I just pray that tomorrow we'd really get to talk to Mrs. Cunningham and Angela and just really be a witness for you, Lord.

Woman

I especially pray for Angela, and just help us to ask the right questions, and to think of things to say and talk about with her. And to find out exactly what makes her tick inside and what makes her special.

Girl

Pray for Angela, that she'll just really get to know us. That we won't be like every other group and that we'll just really, really get to know her as a really good friend.

Ira Glass

And from there, everybody headed to the volleyball court, where-- I am sorry to report-- the Chicagoans lost. Lauren's second serve went straight to the guy she sort of had a crush on, and he spiked it like he didn't even know she existed.

Girl

Come on, Lindsay!

Ira Glass

Susan, meanwhile, is watching the volleyball game from the sidelines when those two guys, Matt and Eric, who want to be on the radio, show right up.

Matt

All right, the game is getting very exciting at this point.

Susan Burton

Yeah, why don't you guys narrate the rest of the game for me, OK?

Eric

All right. It has been-- [INTERPOSING VOICES]. Ball returned to the Chicago team and Chicago returns with a bunt over the net! It is returned! And it is on! Chicago has done it! Oh! [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

Ira Glass

Afterwards, naturally, they insist that-- guess what?-- this has changed them.

Eric

This game just now has made us appreciate volleyball even less than we ever did before.

Matt

--on the American volleyball team. I'm going to be the official spiker.

Ira Glass

The evening ended the way every other evening did on the trip. In the cabin, the Chicago crew sang a doxology and then one other song.

Multiple Girls

[SINGING] When I say that I want it that way.

Ira Glass

The Backstreet Boys, "Tell Me Why."

Multiple Girls

[SINGING] Tell me why, ain't nothin' but a heartache. Tell me why. Ain't nothin' but a mistake--

Act Seven. Made To Stumble Because Of Me.

Ira Glass

Act Six, The Evidence of Things Not Seen.

Dan Adamson

Well, if any of your buddies live around here that didn't get candy, you let us know and we'll get them some.

Ira Glass

This is Dan, trying to attract kids to vacation Bible school, literally by walking down the street and passing out handfuls of candy.

Dan Adamson

You guys just been hanging out?

Ira Glass

Which turns out to be surprisingly effective.

Dan Adamson

Is this your brother? You got some candy, too, Christopher? Excellent.

Ira Glass

The idea is give up on their first location where nobody showed up for Bible school. Just do it around the corner from the house they're painting. And what clinched the whole deal, the two teenage girls from next door, Crystal and Paula, took Dan and the Chicago kids from door to door, rounding up prospects. In all, about a dozen kids showed up Thursday morning for games, t-shirt painting, and a lesson from the Bible presented in the form of a skit.

Dan Adamson

So let's everyone close their eyes and we're going to pray. God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for everyone that made it here today. And I pray that we can have a fun time now, we can learn through your skit, and then we could also enjoy doing our craft and playing some more games, and having a snack. In your precious name, amen. Now, with no further ado--

Ira Glass

The whole Bible school turns out to be really fun, for the West Virginia kids and the Chicago ones, too. The games go over great. The crafts absorb everybody. Some of the kids clearly have hard lives and are excited at all the attention they're getting. The only thing lacking is nonbelievers. All the kids say they go to church. When it comes time to make beaded faith bracelets, they already know what all the beads stand for. During Dan's homily, most of the kids know the Bible stories he tells.

Dan Adamson

You guys know the story about the Red Sea, though, right? Well, here's a good story about the Red Sea.

Boy

He just tapped the water and--

Dan Adamson

Right, tapped the water and what happened?

Boy

It split.

Ira Glass

Later, Carol and Marisa are kneeling in the grass doing Bible study when Angie and Crystal just walk right up to them. This is pretty much a situation that any missionary would regard as ideal. And, having no choice, as if a greater plan is, in fact, at work, the Chicagoans get down to the hardcore work of talking about religion. Crystal goes home to get her Bible. One of the adult leaders, Carol, does most of the talking, with Jessica and Kelly and Marisa piping in from time to time.

Carol

Does Paula have a Bible, too, that she reads? Yeah? So that's interesting that your school gave you a Bible. Is it like-- [INTERPOSING VOICES] a religious school? Your school did it, too. Is it a religious school? Do they talk about God at school?

Crystal

No.

Carol

No? They just gave you a Bible? That's kind of cool.

Girl

Yeah, if any of the public schools gave us a Bible in Chicago, they'd be in trouble. They're not allowed to do that.

Ira Glass

During breaks, all the girls chat happily with the neighborhood kids. And later, back at camp, Dan congratulated them all.

Dan Adamson

You guys did so well today. I'm so proud of you, of how you guys were. All of you just seemed to-- really, when you saw them, you were very friendly. With Paula, Crystal, and with Angie. Thank you so much. And let's keep that up tomorrow. This is a great-- I mean, I would say that, of all the people, including all the VBS kids that we've had, the most seeds that we've been planting have been with those three girls.

Ira Glass

It had been Dan's hope that on this trip, the group's faith would deepen. That they would make a step toward having a faith that was independent of what their parents taught them. This would partly happen through service, by helping others, and partly by being forced to articulate their faith to others. And it would happen by facing hardship on the trip and turning to God to help with the difficulties. But the fact is the hardships on the trip turned out to be not very hard at all, and most of them only had to articulate their faith to six-year-olds, who had mostly already accepted Jesus into their hearts. This was not enough to launch a round of soul searching and prayer.

Instead, what happened was that the kids who didn't doubt their faith at home didn't doubt it here either. And the kids who had all sorts of questions at home continued to gnaw at those questions on the mission trip. The teenager with the most doubts was Arden, who mostly kept her doubts to herself.

Arden

Which is really, it's frustrating. It makes it hard. To be-- wanting to be part of the group, and being part of the group, and yet knowing that in some way you're not part of the group because you question what the group is about.

Ira Glass

Arden holds a special symbolic place in her church. She was the first baby born to the young congregation, 15 years ago. Whenever the kids in church formed their own ad hoc church youth groups, Arden was always president. But about a year ago, even this carefully raised girl started to grapple with doubt. And her doubt began, not because of something she saw on television, not because of peer pressure from attractive, cigarette-smoking, alcohol-drinking, pornographic-website-using fans of the South Park movie. No. Her doubts began at church camp. She was there for six weeks, at a program called Discipleship Training, which sent her and five girls that she'd never met before into the woods for two weeks of camping and hiking and canoeing together.

Arden

And we were really tight. I mean, we just did everything together. We prayed and we would sing songs together at night. And when we'd get lost, I mean, the first thing we'd do would be like, it's time to pray. And when we got to Lake Superior at midnight, we were like, it's time to pray. We were just really-- I mean, it was a wonderful experience. I had a lot of fun.

Ira Glass

And if you had to describe your feelings about God during those first two weeks, how would you describe Him?

Arden

He was incredibly real. I felt like He was there. That was the only way I could describe it, is that He was really there for me.

Ira Glass

After two weeks, Arden and her five new friends came in from the woods to rejoin the rest of the camp.

Arden

My friends suddenly changed, like who I'd thought they were-- they suddenly became different. And I don't think-- I think it was just that I hadn't seen them with other people besides our group. And they were-- they would-- it all became-- you know, there was the popular one, and then there was the really helpful one, and there was the boy chaser. I mean, it was just like, I didn't know how to handle it. I was still hoping to have that intimate friendship among the five of us. And I thought I was going to die. I just couldn't take it. And then I sort of dropped into my spiritual low. And so I started having trouble praying. I didn't want to pray. And I was starting go, well, you know, what's up with this? What is real? If I can't even-- when I feel like God's there, and then I suddenly feel like He's not, where is He this whole time? You know? So that's when I really started to question. And I had all these doubts and I felt like God wasn't anywhere near me at all and He didn't care.

Ira Glass

One of the traditions in Christianity is that great faith often comes only after great doubt. The New Testament is filled with one story after another like this. Even Jesus grapples with his conscience in the desert before he begins his ministry. He prays again in Gethsemane. And listening to Arden, I begin to wonder if all new believers have to go through that trial in the desert themselves if they're going to arrive at a mature faith. This is what Dan and a number of the parents believe will keep Christianity as part of these teenagers' lives as they grow older. But it is enormously difficult to go through this kind of doubt. It makes Arden unhappy. She says she does not want another big spiritual moment, feeling close to God, like she had in the woods.

Arden

I don't trust that anymore. I don't trust, you know, just your emotions, and where they may take you.

Ira Glass

And at the same time, she knows that without a pure leap of faith, she's nowhere.

Arden

That's the thing that worries me the most, is that I may never find what I'm looking for. I may never find out who God is. And that worries me. Like sometimes I think, oh my gosh, you know, because I don't know where I would be. I don't know. I'd have to start all over again.

Pastor Kenny

Abraham our father answered his Hineni when the Lord commanded him to offer up his son. He took the wood and fire and journeyed to Moriah, and there he built an altar to complete what he'd begun.

Ira Glass

Pastor Kenny actually broke into song during his sermon on Thursday. The subject of the sermon was how the Lord calls certain people to serve him, and how when he does, they usually do not want to go. We hear the story of Abraham being called to slay Isaac, of Moses being ordered to go to Pharaoh. Kenny talks from the heart about the moment he felt he was called to preach. And then he asks all of us to look into our own hearts. Has God been speaking to us during our week in West Virginia?

Pastor Kenny

Maybe God is speaking to you. That you want to be a missionary. Now over here under my Bible, I've got a legal pad. And if you think that God is calling you to serve Him, maybe that's what God wants you to do. I'm just going to leave this pad out here and I want you to just come put your name on it. I'm not going to sell your name to any list. I'm not going to turn it in to Mission to the World. This is between-- I think you need to do that. You need to make that commitment, if God is calling you.

Ira Glass

After the service ends, a few people mill around. The Chicago teenagers head off to the cabins, except for Joel, who walks over to the legal pad, picks it up, and writes his name. I catch up with him a few minutes later.

Ira Glass

So I saw what you just did.

Joel

Yeah, I signed the list. It was-- for me-- to me-- it was the most powerful sermon I've ever heard.

Ira Glass

Joel tells me he now knows what he wants to do with his life. Although parts of his faith clearly still chafe at him, although he's always saying how hard it is for him to talk to people, although he still has a long way to go before he's actually at ease in the bigger secular world, he's the one member of the youth group who decided that he wants to head out into that world, as a missionary teaching in another country.

Joel

When Kenny was praying, I was just like, man, what have you been thinking all these years? No, I'm not going to be a professional soccer player. That's totally out now.

Ira Glass

Is that what you thought up until that point?

Joel

Yeah, it is.

Ira Glass

Given how restrictive-- I hope you don't take this the wrong way-- but given how restrictive your family is, I can see why you might jump at a chance to go overseas and get away.

Joel

Yeah, I mean, some of the rules I can understand why. I accept it because it's a good idea. But it is getting kind of restrictive now that I'm getting older.

Act 7.

Ira Glass

Act Seven, Made to Stumble Because of Me. All week I kept running into those guys who wanted to be on the radio, Matt and Eric. And on the last morning in West Virginia, I see Eric out by his car. The night before, he had driven some kids from his VBS back home after dinner. Eric's group was running this huge vacation Bible school at a place called Windmill Park in a tough section of Fairmont, West Virginia. Eric had gotten close to a lot of the kids.

Eric

Yeah, it was really hard last night, taking them home. Some car was coming too close and they're like, it's a drive-by! And they're ducking under and they were scared. One of the kids left his bike at the park and he was all afraid that it was stolen. And stuff like that. And while we were pulling in there, they were like, keep your head low because there's bullets around here, and stuff like that. It's just really hard to think of these little first through fourth graders having to deal with this stuff every day. And we gave out prizes on our last day and a kid had to run home so that he could get the prizes to his house without having them taken from him. So it's rough. I mean, that's why I think, I'm almost-- I was almost like kind of down on the whole idea of VBS, because it's like you invest in these kids for a week, and they get close, and relationships are built. And then it's cut off. So I just felt like emotionally, it was just too hard on them. And last night I was really struggling with that whole idea.

Ira Glass

That's interesting. Earlier in the week, we were talking about if you guys were going to change, and in the end, you did see something you hadn't seen before.

Eric

Definitely. I mean, definitely. Because that was really hard. I was very broken up by the thought of whether it's right to do these one-week VBSs. And invest in this kids just to then leave them.

Ira Glass

At the end of their week, the Chicagoans are feeling proud of how far they've come-- with the vacation Bible school, with Angie and Paula and Crystal, who they invited to dinner out at the campsite on the last night. People promise to write to each other. When we ask Crystal which parts of the Bible did she think that she would be reading, now that Carol had pointed out some sections to her, she can't remember which sections Carol had said. She says she doesn't really read anything on her own.

At services that last night, some kids from the East Coast get up to perform a song. They're in a band called Iris and the song is about one of the unique burdens of being a teenager and a Christian.

Boy

So, hopefully, I'd like to encourage you all to not let it stop here, but when you go back, if you have friends or family that you can witness to, continue to share the love of Christ with people.

Girl

[SINGING] Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Are you so self-assured in everything you confide? Are my beliefs so absurd? I would not try to hide. I'm not trying to push you, but I hate to see you like this. I love you too much to let you die in ignorance. You're on a ledge and the ground beneath is breaking. You try to swim, you're sinking slow but surely grab his hands. Hey, friend, I won't have your blood upon my hands. Hey friend, what can I do to make you understand? To make you understand?

Ira Glass

As for whether the Chicago kids are up to the task of actually proselytizing their non-Christian friends, they do not seem eager or ready. It's one thing to befriend strangers in another state. It's another kind of commitment to their faith to try it at home. It's a sacrifice. But on the long drive home, Joel, the future missionary, says he doesn't think it'll happen with the group.

Joel

Either the people won't want to come, or at least as far as I'm concerned, I'm too nervous to ask them. And I already-- and I also-- in the case of most of my non-Christian friends, I already know what their answer would be. They don't-- they're fine with me being Christian. But they don't have any interest in it themselves, at least not at this point.

Ira Glass

In the four months since the trip, only one member of the group has brought a non-Christian friend to youth group. As for contact with Crystal and Paula and Angie, an adult leader wrote a letter to Angie, and sent a Bible that they all signed. There hasn't been a lot more. And maybe this lack of proselytizing energy is not such a bad thing. If Dan is going to stick to his goal from the trip, helping the kids examine what they believe, the real tests of faith for most people are not usually in interactions with people hundreds of miles away, or with people they're trying to convert. Real tests of faith happen with the people closest to you, with parents and friends. It was a bunch of Christians who made Arden question her faith. It's a desire to kiss a nice Christian girl that made Joel question his. Those questions are likely to continue.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced and reported today by Susan Burton and myself, with help from Alex Blumberg, Nancy Updike, Blue Chevigny, Starlee Kine, and Todd Bachmann. Julie Snyder was our editor on the story.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

To buy a cassette of this or any of our programs, call us here at WBEZ in Chicago, 312-832-3380. And if you're still somehow mulling over that perfect Christmas gift, even today, our double CD, Lies, Sissies, and Fiascoes, The Best of This American Life, is available at our website, at www.thislife.org. At the site you can also listen to our program for free, and listen to more music from the Christian rock band, Iris. Thanks to Elizabeth Meister who runs the site.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who taunts me-- taunts me!-- all the time.

Boy

Oh, come on, you know you want it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

Boy

And I'm like, no, I don't.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.