Showing up to give confessions, not take them
I am not saying you should put up a tent at the next wild party that goes on. Maybe you should just go into the party and be Jesus there. I don’t want to say much, because I don’t want this to be about the four of us who were there that night. I want to show what happened.
Swarthmore College, just outside Philadelphia, is not known for its parties. It’s a school where studies come first and social activism takes a close second. It is appropriate, then, that the greatest debauch of the academic year occurs at an academic summit—the Sager Symposium for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Studies. Ask any student of the college, however, and the word Sager will bring up only the party that ends the conference.
The party’s unofficial motto is, “Guys wear a dress, girls wear less.” The party’s theme that year was, “The Seven Deadly Sins.”
We decided to build our confessional there. Inspired by Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, we decided to sit out on campus and be a visible Christian presence in the party that had spread to three buildings. Our tent was on the path that connected them all. A guy in a black cocktail dress asked us what we were doing.
“We’re here to confess, to apologize.”
“We follow Jesus, and we want to apologize for any times we haven’t been like him. The church has done some bad stuff and given lots of people the wrong impressions about Jesus, and we want to apologize for that, too.”
I never expected it to happen. Just the idea of people assuming they were being asked to confess could fall flat on its face. But one night the idea just spilled out: “What if we did this confessional thing?”
“What will we use for a confessional?” Jeff asked.
“I’m going to ask my parents to bring our tent.”
I had second thoughts: We will be ridiculed and chased off campus by a drunken mob; and third thoughts: I could never do something like this; and fourth thoughts: I shouldn’t try, because this is really just about my pride. On Wednesday, I decided I should pray about it.
The party was Saturday.
“If anyone wants to help with my confessional idea,” I said, “could you just hang out after small group for a little while?”
“We’ll be praying for you,” said everyone.
Only Jeff, Cecelia and Erik stayed behind in the campus coffee bar.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I said, “and I’ve been trying not to do any prep work, but it looks like God wants this tent to go up, and if you guys want in, I’d appreciate it.”
They agreed they were in this for good, completely together in prayer (Acts 1:14, The Message). The tent arrived Thursday morning, and at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, I wrote the word CONFESS in duct tape on a white box lid. At 9:45, we pitched the tent, a few hundred yards from the party.
“I didn’t want us to be right in the thick of things,” I explained, “in case people get rowdy or something. And nobody will be going down right at 10, so we should have time to set up and pray. My mom sent us some cookies.”
We had our first visitors at 10 sharp. Jeff and I were in the tent. Erik and Cecelia were praying in a nearby building. We planned to take 15-minute shifts.
Jeff and I bumbled our way through our “talk”—the planned speech about what we were doing here with this sign.
“Do you want a cookie?” I asked our guest. She was nice about asking why we had a tent and a CONFESS sign.
“I’d love a cookie,” she said, “but as a member of the queer community, I would like it even more if you would actually go down to the party for a while.”
“I will,” I said, and I meant it. I wanted to thank her for not burning our tent down.
“It’s kind of creepy inside,” said another visitor. “Maybe you could sit outside the tent. But this is really cool what you guys are doing.”
We got some folding chairs, and I brought my djembe. Someone asked if we were starting a hippie commune. Things were quiet.
“Do you think maybe we should move more into the center of things?” said Jeff.
“I think that would be good,” said Cecelia. I had some reservations. I liked things quiet. But I took a tent pole, and we hiked into the space among Greed, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Gluttony, Pride and Anger. We set up right in the thick of things, on the main path to the party. Every partygoer passed by our tent. Guys wearing dresses and girls wearing less.
“As your sister in Christ, I want you to come inside and dance with me,” said one.
Although I knew her from Swarthmore Swing Dancing, I had never seen her at a Christian Fellowship meeting. We entered the first floor—Envy. Green lights highlighted photos of nearly nude models scrawled with obscenities.
“Envious of beauty,” she said.
“Why isn’t the food and alcohol in the Gluttony room?”
“They need to spread the drinking around,” she said.
When I looked into the dance crowd, I could see why people were not staying at our tent to talk. This party was great—strobe lights, swing dancing, costumes (many of which were beginning to fall off). I was surprised, when I returned, to find people were still at the tent.
People looking for their roommates, people tired of the party scene and friends wanting to talk stopped by. Our cookies did not last long.
A guy in a trench coat and a black tutu walked by, supporting a stumbling drunk.
“Do you want a hand?” we asked. Inside the health center, Trench Coat Guy patted the drunk on the shoulder, holding the trash can to catch the vomit.
“A friend of yours?” I asked.
“Nah, he’s from out of town, but I figured we should get him some help, keep him out of trouble. Gwen’s the real hero.”
“The one who went to the hospital with him.”
“Oh, I thought she knew him.”
“No, she goes here. She just found him sitting out back and called me to help carry him over here.”
“And she rode in the ambulance with him?”
“Yeah, she probably won’t get back till tomorrow morning.”
Jesus was at Swarthmore: a guy in a trench coat and a tutu carrying a visitor to the health center; a student giving up her whole night to ensure the health of a stranger. It made me wonder what we were doing at our little tent. If we should even have set it up.
“Would Jesus come to the Sager party?” Cecelia asked.
“Hell yeah! Jesus loved to hang out with prostitutes.”
That was not the only time we asked that question. We left the tent up. Paul mended tents.
Ours seemed to say, “Come talk to us. We have a tent.” People told us they respected what we were doing, that they appreciated our presence, that they were Christians from local colleges, inspired by what God was doing at godless Swarthmore. It was 2 a.m., one hour from the party’s close.
“What are you guys doing here?”
“It’s, well, it’s to apologize, but it’s also for accountability.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re saying that we’re Christians and that we want to follow Jesus’ example. You can call me out whenever you see me doing something Jesus wouldn’t do.”
“How will I know?”
At three in the morning, we took down the tent, and even as we struck the poles we were talking about Jesus and how we wanted to be like him, how we were sorry for all the times we hadn’t been like him and for all the times Jesus’ name had been abused.
We were among the last people to leave the party. The tent had left a square of flattened grass. Everything else was piled in our arms or slung on our backs.
“We did it,” I said.
“God did it,” someone said. “We didn’t have anything to do with it.”
I’m not saying you should put up a tent at the next wild party that goes on. Maybe you should just go into the party and be Jesus there. I don’t want to say much, because I don’t want this to be about the four of us who were there that night. I want to show what happened. God will take things from there, in the same way he has brought us here.
Greg Albright is a member of Whitehall (Pa.) Mennonite Church and a student at Swarthmore College.