Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A Fundamentalist at BJU: A Bill Rice Ranch Excursion

Although there are several other posts in this series, Part 1 of my BJU posts can be found here. Part 2 can be found here.

It was May of 1996; I had just finished my second year as a dorm student at Bob Jones University, and I sat at home unsure of what to do next. And by “next,” I literally mean “next.” I needed a job, but somehow my car had become my brother’s. My parent’s best friends owned the bakery in front of our trailer[1] where I had worked over Christmas break a few months earlier, but, and I don’t remember which, the bakery was either in the process of closing (it did close later that summer, but more on that later, and by "more on that later," I mean the next post) or my brother had taken the only available job. Either way, I was having trouble finding a job when the Bill Rice Ranch called me.

Our parents, who made very, very little money, made a deal with us – even though they were helping me and my siblings pay for college, we could each take one summer to work at a Christian camp or go on a BJU missions team. Since I had worked at the Bill Rice Ranch the previous summer, my summer of ministry had already been cashed in. So, when my dad told me that the BRR had called for me, I returned their call out of politeness.

The BRR didn’t want me to come back as just a counselor, though. While I would have a cabin, I was told that my main job would be training the new full-time staff member who had been hired to run the kitchen and dining hall. Since I had worked two summers in high school as a team leader in the dining hall, and since I had proven myself the summer before as a counselor, I was qualified, I guess. Anyway, because of my extra job duties, I would actually be getting paid. Well, paid compared to the other counselors. Although considered volunteers, the BRR gave counselors an “allowance” that was enough to do laundry, buy essentials, and have money to eat out with on the weekends. It was fair, and, in my opinion, anyone who complains about it should not be taken seriously. When I told my dad about the offer, he said that as long as I agreed to set aside the money for college, he didn’t have a problem with me working at the Bill Rice Ranch for another summer.

The Ranch asked me to arrive a week before the rest of the staff so that I could get the kitchen and dining hall ready for the summer staff. I showed up at the BRR completely different, at least externally, from the previous summer. Instead of a BJU preacher boy, I was now some sort of speech major[2]; instead of preppy Tommy Hilfiger clothes and loafers, I was back to my Doc Martins, Dickey’s, and a wallet chain. I also had begun wearing CK tshirts. At the time, Calvin Klein was anathema for good fundamentalists. The over sexuality in the CK ads, the androgynous nature of the brand, and the accompanying heroin chic image associated with the CK models made wearing Calvin Klein a great way for me to declare my rejection of Fundamentalism/Christianity. I even went so far as to stay up late so that I would have rings under my eyes and people would think that I was doing heroin.

The new John Ellis was confusing to the Bill Rice Ranch; I know this, because I was told this. In fact, Mr. Stover, the camp foreman, didn’t put me in charge of my own cabin like I had been told; I was placed in a cabin with another camp counselor. The official reason was because I was going to be too busy in the kitchen and dining hall to devote the time needed to my cabin. But I knew the real reason. The stupid thing (the very, very stupid thing) was that even though I didn’t want to be in charge of a cabin, and even though I knew that there was no way that someone like me should be over a Christian camp cabin, I was offended.

During that same conversation, Mr. Stover “joked” about my “new look,” and said, “You know that you’re going to have to shave everyday and keep your shirt tucked in?” I replied that I understood, thankful that he hadn’t told me that I had to remove my wallet chain. I was thankful because most of the summer staff that year were BRR rookies, and I wanted to craft my image as that of the cool, rebellious non-fundamentalist; and when you’re required to keep your collared shirt tucked in and your hair short, it’s hard to do that without a wallet chain, I thought. I’m not sure what the new summer staff thought about me; I never really got to know any of them. But I do know that my friends from previous summers were concerned about the changes they saw. Over the course of the almost month and a half that I lasted at the BRR that summer, several of them graciously and lovingly talked to me about the changes that they could see in me. Besides the obvious externals, many of them noticed that I never attended any of the services. My ready-made excuse was that I was too busy at work – I would arrive at the kitchen around 6:30 am, have about an hour off after lunch before returning for the dinner service, and then stay in the kitchen until the evening service was over. The truth is that I didn’t want to go the services, and so I would find reasons to stay at work. My friends saw through this and I could tell, but I didn’t care and they never confronted me about my lying; instead, they tried to love me back to the fold, so to speak.

I pretty much sequestered myself away in the dining hall from the rest of the summer staff. That didn’t stop the others from being interested in me; which, I had discovered, my self-imposed exile only heightened. Well, that and the rest of my co-workers were the good kids at their Christian colleges; that’s why they were spending their summer breaks volunteering at a Christian camp. And, so, these good kids were naturally curious about the one among their midst who didn’t look like they did, didn’t sound like they did, and didn’t play the game they way they did. I would give vague and incomplete answers to their questions, and would ignore their entreaties to join them whenever I happened to be outside of the dining hall. There were the occasional moments when I would drop my aloof fa├žade, and enjoy being the center of attention. One of those moments happened two weeks before I was gone.

Most of my free time on the weekend was spent with the head counselor, who was a friend from previous summers. He and I would usually leave camp alone, or with one other friend from previous summers, after lunch on Saturday. As head counselor, it was necessary that his charade was even more controlled than mine was. There was no way that he could run the risk of the wrong person hearing the music he listened to in his car. He knew that his unsanctioned activities were safe with me, and we even went so far as to go see Mission Impossible in a local movie theatre; probably within a few days of him telling campers something to the effect of avoiding movie theatres. Since I no longer cared about pretending to be a Christian, my hypocrisy ran a different way. That’s how I earned the special privilege of hanging out with the head counselor on the weekends. I don’t remember why, but two weeks before I was gone, the head counselor was gone for the weekend, and so I was stuck riding the bus into town with the rest of the summer staff not fortunate enough to have access to a car.

Occasionally the Bill Rice Ranch would rent out a skating rink for its staff. Next to the skating rink was a shopping center where we could buy necessary items. One of the counselors, I think her name was Tory, was a speech major at Pensacola Christian College. I was also a speech major, of sorts, and so she attempted to bond with me over theatre on the way to the skating rink. This was before I decided to be an actor, and it was way before I actually knew anything about theatre, but that didn’t stop me from pretending to be an expert. Somehow it was decided that it would be fun for her and I to stage a fake marriage proposal in K-Mart. Now, as a big fan of the Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, that sounds like an excellent idea. At the time, however, I was scared shitless, but was too committed to portraying myself as the cool, reckless non-fundy dude to say, “no thanks.”

Tory, or whatever her name was, went into K-Mart first and hung out near the customer service desk. I went in a few minutes after her, and walked up to customer service. I explained to the kind and confused lady that I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, and asked her if I could use the store’s loudspeaker system. She agreed and I introduced myself, using my real name, to all of K-Mart, and told my fellow shoppers that I wanted to ask my girlfriend, using her real name, to marry me. Understandably, the store got really quiet and everyone within sight of me began staring and other people began materializing from the aisles. Tory came out from where she had been waiting, her hand over her mouth, and a look of horror on her face. Now, we had decided beforehand that she would have to say “no” to my proposal; otherwise the other customers would expect us to kiss. Kissing was against the rules at the Bill Rice Ranch. She approached me, and I got down on one knee, took her hand, and asked her to marry me. She screamed “Why are you embarrassing me like this! No!” and ran out of the store. The part of the scene that I had forgotten to think through was my exit, so I stood there for a second with everyone staring at me, and then ran for the door, screaming her name.

The best part about the whole thing were our co-workers who hadn’t been privy to our plans. They were very confused. Going back to Theatre of the Oppressed, I’m resisting the urge to hijack my own post and delve into the audiences reactions. At the time, I was just happy it was over; although, I had fun. In fact, that whole evening ended up being the highlight of the summer.

The middle-aged man whom I had been brought in to train resented me from the moment he met me. In the issue of full disclosure, my perceptions of him and our relationship are the perceptions of a confused, angry, rebellious kid who was rejecting his Creator; in other words, the tension that existed may have been entirely my fault, I just don’t remember it that way. The day I met the man, I got the impression that he believed that my presence was superfluous. He resisted all my suggestions, even though, in all honesty, I did know what I was talking about. The Ranch brought me in for a reason. The man’s background was a chef in a restaurant, and there is a big difference between preparing meals and running food service for a restaurant and that of a camp that some weeks had around a thousand campers plus staff. He didn’t get that. Things like food presentation were very important to him, and he didn’t want to hear from me that taking the time to make the fake eggs look good meant slowing down the food service for a bunch of kids who were going to eat so fast that they weren’t going to pay attention anyway. He didn’t like the way I managed the high school guys who worked for us. He thought that I was too lenient on them. For one thing, he didn’t like the fact that I worked alongside of them instead of keeping a managerial distance. There was a whole litany of things that we butted heads over, and the tension kept escalating.

The last week of June he got mad at me for what he perceived was a lack of thoroughness in the after-meal-service cleaning from the crew; he lectured me in front of the guys, and announced that from now on he would be checking everyone’s work. I blew up at him, and yelled very disrespectful things at him in front of the dining common crew as well as the campers and counselors who were still eating. I then flipped over a silverware tray, and stormed out.             

I went straight to the nurses’ station; not because I was hurt, but because I needed to talk to someone, and the nurse was a friend from the previous summer. Instead of the “backing me up” that I was expecting, she expressed concern for me. She wanted to pray with me. I resisted. She told me that she and others were very concerned about the changes from the previous summer that they had seen in me. I wanted to talk about the jackass that I had to work with. I ranted and raved about how he didn’t know how to manage the high school guys who worked in the dining common. She actually agreed with me, but she said something that I have never forgotten. She said, “John, you and I both know that he shouldn’t be managing those kids, which is why you need to swallow you pride, surrender your rights, take the brunt of his mismanagement, and protect your guys.” I didn’t want to hear that, but by that time Mr. Stover had found me and wanted to talk to me.

Mr. Stover took me to an empty cabin. He was very concerned for me, as was the other BRR administrator who joined him. They really wanted to help me, and they were genuinely concerned about me. It’s not that I didn’t care; it’s just that I cared about myself even more. If I can backtrack a bit – this latest conflict didn’t take my bosses by surprise. Over the previous several weeks, the guy from the dining hall (whose name I can’t remember, in fact, I don’t even remember what he looked like), Mr. Stover and other admins, and I had met to discuss and try and resolve points of conflict between the two bosses of the dining hall. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and so it’s easy to say that the Ranch should have seen this coming, but, to be fair, one of the employees that they had hired was not who they thought they were hiring. I’m not trying to throw myself on the sword in a noble attempt at confession; the dude I worked with has his own sins to answer for, and the Ranch, for all their good motives, probably mishandled some things. But I’m the one writing my story, and I’m aware that I made many choices that didn’t help. Which leads me to the reality that ultimately, I forced the issue and caused many people pain.

Mr. Stover told me that my demand that either the dude from the dining hall goes or I go was unfair. He gently explained to me that the dude from the dining hall was full-time staff, and that the Ranch wasn’t going to fire him at my insistence. He told me that he couldn’t overlook my outburst in front of campers, but that he was willing to let me off with a warning if I would agree to let “dude” take over the direct management of the high school kids. I said that there was no way that he should be over the high school kids, to which Mr. Stover replied, “You’ll still be there, and you can always come to me about any problems.” But, I was a coward. I knew that Mr. Stover meant it when he said that I could come to him. I knew that my nurse friend was right when she said that I should swallow my pride in order to act as a buffer. But I didn’t want to make the decision. I didn’t have the courage to stay, and I didn’t have the courage to leave, so I forced Mr. Stover to do it. I told him that I wanted to run the dining hall, but that I would only do it by myself. He told me that I had to leave.

I heard later that my leaving was the cause of quite the logistical headache for the Ranch. Without boring you with all the details of specific job duties in the dining hall, I had been doing certain things that couldn’t easily be done by the dining hall dude nor the high school kids. Other summer staff had to be reshuffled to fill my role. And that was on top of the gossip and confusion about what had happened. There is no way around the fact that I screwed people who had been nothing but kind, gracious, and generous to me, all because of my pride and my inability to be honest about what was really bothering me.

My dad had to come pick me up. For all the distance between me and him and our lack of communication, when he picked me up I could see very clearly in his eyes his fear for me. We didn’t say very much during the over eight hour drive back to Pensacola. He did ask me how much of my money I had saved. I replied “none,” but I told him that I wasn’t planning on going back to Bob Jones University. I told him that with some fear, but his response surprised me. He didn’t say a word, but I could tell that he was holding back tears. By the time we saw the Welcome to Florida sign, I was jubilant that my longed for freedom was clearly in sight, and I didn’t care who had been hurt in the process.   

[1] My dad’s church had split, and he was with the faction that had to vacate the premises. Our trailer was on the church property, which meant that we now lived behind a bakery in someone else’s double-wide.
[2] I think it was called Interpersonal Communications, and I’m not really sure why it was my major.


  1. Thanks, man! Much appreciated.

  2. Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I think it's fair and captures many of the problems with the camp. I spent 10 years as a camper there, and 1 summer in the kitchen. I saw the issues in infrastructure; but the main problem to me is the religious oppressiveness that is too often forced upon those who work there. You are not the only one to be relieved that they are out of that environment.
    I say this all with respect as you did, as there are nice people who work there, some of them with good intentions. Good writing! Keep speaking the truth in love.

    1. Daniel, thank you for reading and for commenting. I'm curious, you wrote "You are not the only one to be relieve that they are out of that environment." I wouldn't characterize my feelings as relief. Nor would I accuse the BRR (or fundamentalism in general) of religious oppressiveness. There are several things, if not many, on which traditional fundamentalism and I disagree over, but our unity in the Gospel trumps differences over music standards, dress standards, and other externals. Have you read the rest of my story? If not, I think it will give you more context for me and my relationship with the fundamentalism that I grew up in. Here is a link to the post that provides links to all my "memoir" posts. Thanks again for reading and commenting.