I love county fairs. Always have. I love everything about them: the food, the games, the rides (well, most of them), the animals, the contests, ALL. OF. IT. I even love the weird stuff that always seems to occupy the fringes of these events (mostly). As we scoot right up the rump of Thanksgiving, let me show you some of that weird stuff I encountered there once–and then what happened afterward.
Travelers! Set your WayBack Machines for the summer of 1980!
Stuff Cas Likes: County Fairs.
I lived in Northern California for a few years. Today’s story occurred not long after Mount St. Helens erupted that one time, but somehow the fallout of that disaster skipped my part of the Pacific Northwest. It remained a gorgeous, mountainous, forested paradise, and I ruled that paradise as a skinny little suntanned, scratched-up, resin-stained, freckle-faced, stringy-haired nymph.
When I lived there, I lived for the county fair every year. Me and my sister and our friend(s) would go and have the time of our young lives. What wasn’t to like? There, we found everything we needed to have a great time. After one wild ride too many on stomachs abuzz with fried foods and soda, we’d lurk all through the funky-smelling barns and contest tents.
Eventually, we’d end up on the outskirts of the fair. The organizers located some of the rides needing serious real estate there, like the giant slides, as well as the cut-rate hucksters’ tents that couldn’t afford the higher prices of the well-traveled areas.
That’s where we encountered the evangelism tent that year.
Stuff Cas Hates: Greedy Opportunists.
Remember, we were little kids. We had plenty of justification for thinking that this tent contained something like a fortune-teller or a sideshow to gawk at.
Instead, it looked like a classroom. Seeing it now, I’d almost certainly peg it immediately as a storefront church or something. But back then, I had never once seen any church besides Catholic ones. Thus, I possessed absolutely no cultural experience here that could have interpreted what I beheld: fold-up chairs arranged in rows in front of a podium.
The people running the tent didn’t dress like any carnival or fair workers I’d ever seen, either. They dressed like normal people, maybe a little stuffier: suits and ties on the uncomfortable-looking men, and the kind of dresses on the nice-seeming ladies that I’d seen my mom wearing for work.
They reminded me of the older neighbors and relatives I’d encountered in my very short life, people who meant well but had no real idea how to cope with a little kid, especially a spirited girl like I was. Generally, they defaulted to the social equivalent of gifting me with bubble bath in bottles shaped like cats (“you like cats, right?”). So I defaulted in turn to politeness.
That’s the social contract that evangelists count on. These evangelists–for evangelists they most certainly were–were no exception.
Stuff Fundies Like: Evangelism Tents.
I remember little of the entire encounter, only that we left a little confused about what had happened.
That, too, may well have been an intentional result.
Christians have been talking about this concept for years. Here’s a huge 1952 archived article from Ministry, a journal for pastors, that discusses “Evangelistic Opportunities in Small Fairs.” The various contributors to it devote quite a lot of effort to examining every conceivable angle and benefit to the idea. One guy brags that many churches ran booths that sold food, but his church was the only one that only offered preaching and exhortation. I’m sure that the fair-goers thought this was a super-blast. He reports no conversions at all, but acts like he expects a mass flood of success any day now.
That’s pretty par for the course for how these efforts have gone. The church organizes something, people have to volunteer to keep it running, and finally it somehow doesn’t result in a lot of new members. Nonetheless, the church celebrates because at least they did something and now more people know they exist. Mostly churches have, for years, simply sought to poach Christians–since pretty much everyone’s always been Christian until recent years.
And worse yet, Christians still talk about it!
Stuff Kid Cas Could Do Without: Confusing Encounters.
“Try This,” blares a more recent headline on Outreach Magazine‘s site. “Open a Booth at Your State or County Fair.” It suggests a number of activities that might well be enjoyable: face painting, free food, picture-taking with backdrops and props.
The particular tent I experienced featured none of these. Remember, this was 1980. I don’t think they even had a television. As I remember it, the people there scaled down the usual preaching, whatever that might have entailed. They didn’t freak us out with threats of Hell or anything, or if they did the attempts rolled off of us like water off a duck’s back.
Instead, they sat with the three of us (me, my little sister Shelly, and my best friend Jenny whose family ran a farm or something and weren’t in the Coast Guard, which blew my mind) and showed us picture books of Bible stories. They promised quite a bit, and as you might recall, as a child I was very susceptible to those promises. They could introduce me to Jesus himself! And they knew exactly how to do Christianity!
Then they released my kryptonite:
“If you want, you can give us your address and we’ll send you packets in the mail of things to read!”
Stuff Kid Cas Could Not Under Any Circumstances Resist: Reading Material.
I remember the offer catching me under the chin, arresting me.
Wait, what? STUFF TO READ?
WHERE DO I SIGN UP?
CAN I SIGN UP TWICE?
I bounced out of there, overjoyed. And here I’d thought this whole thing would be a weird waste of time, just something to whisk through on the way out of the fair! I don’t remember a single other thing I did, except for throwing up after disembarking from the Zipper, while hanging onto Jenny for dear life as she did the exact same things in mirror reverse. (Jenny, if you’re reading this, I’m still not sure I forgive you for insisting we ride that death machine.)
From there, I waited for days and days and days you guys OH MY GOD for my packets. I don’t even think my mom had any idea what had happened.
Stuff Kid Cas Discovered About Herself: And HOW.
Finally, the packets for us arrived! Yay! I raced into the house and gave Shelly hers. Then, we tore them open and began poring over the stuff inside.
To the church’s credit, they’d sent age-appropriate Sunday School sorts of materials.
And that was their undoing.
My reading level at that point (4th grade) was very nearly upper-high-school. It wasn’t always ice cream and sparklers and I’m not telling you this to brag, because that’d be a silly thing for a woman in her 40s to brag about. I’m just saying that was my reality as a child. If the story had at least been marginally engaging, I’d have powered through it. But it wasn’t even that.
So I remember exactly nothing of the contents except colorful pictures, text that was way below my reading level, which disappointed me greatly, and stuff to color and blanks to fill in, which interested me even less. I’d expected something far grander from the evangelism tent’s bombastic sign rhetoric.
So guys. You know what this means?
This is HUGE.
This church had figured out how to get me to not want to read something containing legible text in a language I understood. All things told, that’s actually impressive.
Stuff Kid Cas Doesn’t Remember Much: Visiting Another Church.
My mom, who I might have mentioned was a lifelong and fervent Catholic, probably realized quickly that we’d gotten sucked into something involving another church.
As it turns out, though, the church organizing all this stuff turned out to be the one that a young schoolmate of mine, Dennis, attended with his older brother Nick and their family. I felt fascinated by Nick, who was a couple of years older than the lot of us; he qualified as “a big kid,” but wasn’t a solid chucklehead bully like them.
Dennis and Nick’s parents were Coasties and lived in base housing like my family did, and somehow all of these factors flowed together to mean that Shelly and I attended church with them for a month or so. Dennis’ family picked us up and dropped us off afterward in their car each Sunday. I sat in Sunday School with Dennis, since we were the same age.
I barely remember those few weeks–in fact, I can’t even remember the name of the church or what flavor it was! It was bland. Its people were nice, but nothing there inspired me.
(Plus, I had very mixed feelings about the distinct lack of statues and props there. I barely registered the place as a church. Plus, no missals to read meant I had nothing to do during services. You would be shocked how quickly I lost interest at that point.)
Now, looking back, I strongly suspect that Shelly and I constituted the only net gains that entire fair booth made that year.
After we stopped attending, at some point the packets stopped coming. I never entered another such evangelism tent after that, either.
Stuff Cas Loves Beyond Breathing: First, Kittens.
But something else happened as a result of my encounter with the fair booth.
Actually, three somethings.
First, thanks to the small talk on the way to and from church, I discovered that Dennis and Nick’s family cat had JUST HAD KITTENS. And early that fall, one of those kittens went home with me: a tiny little Siamese she-cat with grey tabby somewhere in there and just a hint of a crook in the tip of her tail. I named her Ling Ling, after a panda I’d read about. The name somehow morphed into Ming the Merciless when I saw Flash Gordon not long afterward. It fit better.
Though imperious and aloof with all other humans, Ming put up with anything from me–right down to wearing homemade costumes and being trained to walk on a harness. I threw myself into loving that cat with all the force of a volcano’s eruption, and she returned every bit of that love. I’ve carried her memory with me ever since. Hell, I still have her harness!
Second, Dennis turned out to like the same sorts of proto-D&D-style and video games I did. With more people to play with than my oblivious younger sister, that liking blossomed for me into a lifelong hobby. Maybe I would have gotten into gaming anyway, who knows. But definitely that sped things along. Ever since, that hobby has led me into a life that’s brought me so much fulfillment, fun, meaningfulness, and enjoyment, made me so many friends, led me to love like I sure never knew in Christianity, and brought me here–to you, my friends, and to the opportunity to do something with my life that is exactly what I have always wanted to do.
Annnnd that’s the third thing.
I am thankful this week for the weird way that things flow together for us sometimes, and fit together every so often. I’m simply amazed that life’s brought me here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Here’s to another grand year!
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