You Are Here: An Exvangelical’s Self-Care Sunday

Returning to the site of a summer Bible camp—now a wellness spa—and making peace with the past.

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Mary Ladd / John Pilge

When I arrive at 1440 Multiversity for a day of self-care this summer, I am greeted by Steller’s jays amid the strawberry trees that fringe the campus of this luxury wellness center nestled in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The place resembles any other woodsy California resort, with Craftsman-style buildings and stunning landscaping that highlights native plants. But as I pull up, I am also met by memories of the three angsty summers I spent here as an evangelical teen in the 1980s when the site housed Bethany Bible College (later Bethany University). I’d been a skeptical and irreverent camper, searching for fun and liberation. Perhaps revisiting this place that had changed so much might help me make new sense of the lifetime of anger I’d been carrying from being in conflict with the church members who crushed me in spirit and body.

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Bethany alums were devastated when the college shuttered in 2011. Since then, they’ve waxed poetic online about how their campus showcased God’s handiwork. The focus of the place now is not on Christ but instead on “healing arts,” like yoga, meditation, and forest bathing. There is even a giant beatific Buddha.

The difference is stark. Instead of the severe three-hour church services I used to attend here, I can happily wear and do whatever I want as an “exvangelical”—one of the many people who have left the church as a way to protest evangelicalism, discrimination, and abuse.

Bethany was an outpost of Glad Tidings Temple in San Francisco, which had been founded five years after the 1906 earthquake by evangelist Robert Craig. My parents, after accepting Jesus as their Lord and savior in the early 1970s, ran a church-affiliated shelter in the Haight. In my East Bay church and school, I’d raise my arms to Heaven and speak in tongues (a practice I found odd and funny) and work in the nursery, peering at the pastor through the glass as I held a baby on my hip.

We were reminded that God knows exactly how many hairs are on our heads.

I was expected to become a docile and cheerful baby machine myself. But my ongoing willful disobedience led to my being choked and dragged at home and beaten with wooden spoons and paddles at my church-run school. Mainstream books, culture, and “the devil’s music” offered a respite from subjugation and also a portal to possibilities I rarely mentioned around my parents.

At the amphitheater in Bethany’s ancient redwood forest, hundreds of campers wearing bright, beachy clothing sweated through sermons pushing mission work at home and in far-off countries. Girls rocked frosted perms and crispy bangs, while boys donned baseball caps in homage to sports royalty. Some campers reflected the Bay Area’s Latino, African American, and Filipino base, but from what I could tell, the majority were white. When bored, I’d take up acceptable worship practices: cry, laugh, proclaim how much I loved Jesus, jump and dance in the spirit. But I’d also crack jokes as I remembered that so many kids in the public school had much more freedom: sleeping in on weekends, going to the mall, playing video games, watching TV.

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The campus grounds at 1440 Multiversity, located on the former site of Bethany Bible College.
1440 Multiversity

My day at 1440, by contrast, shows me a much more gentle reverence. At a printmaking session for 15 guests, a redheaded art teacher named Stacy wears a white flowing top and a beautiful green necklace. Stacy kicks things off in the most Northern California of ways: before crossing a “meditation bridge,” we each pick up a pebble from a glass bowl and meditate on what we want to let go of. As dragonflies dance and buzz around clusters of lavender, I rub the smooth stone before dropping it into the stream below the sanctuary. My intent is to leave behind sorrow and anger. When the pebble plops loudly, I want to apologize to any riverine creature receiving four decades of pent-up angst.

I rejected art for years because my mother, an art teacher, remained my toughest relationship while she was still alive. Now Stacy shows us how to make prints in an airy kitchen furnished with clusters of candles, a Boos block cutting board, bottles of Ridge wine, hang-drying herbs, and 14 huge spice jars. Bethany’s Craig Memorial Chapel had two stacked stone columns, a common design feature from that era. I remember that the humble off-white and tan buildings seemed more like an aging budget hotel, yet the occasional cross or giant silver globe drove home the overall mission. Stacy’s slideshow details tree art from around the world but also highlights the nearby redwood amphitheater’s 1,200-year-old Mother Tree, which I used to sit under as a Bethany camper. Back then, we were not encouraged to explore our creativity. Instead, we focused on reading, listening, and praying so that we might become a cog in the Christian machine, made whole by being a part of it. We were reminded that God knows exactly how many hairs are on our heads, which only made me feel uncomfortable

As an adult, I am free to think and do what I want on a Sunday.

Today, with that experience behind me, my guard is down. Stacy repeatedly encourages us instead of commands, which makes it easy to get into the creative flow. The session wraps with a hyperlocal organic three-course lunch, where a fit blond man directs us kindly, “Chefs prepared your meal. Be sure to talk to them, ask questions.”

At Bethany, by contrast, lunch wrapped up with a faceless student receiving my tray through a small square opening I thought of as a kind of food-service glory hole. I was still a horny virgin then, but just thinking about glory holes in that setting felt subversive and powerful.

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One of the group art classes at 1440 Multiversity.
1440 Multiversity

After Stacy’s class, I hike to the Mother Tree and gasp at how tall the surrounding redwoods are. It is deeply therapeutic to walk in a quiet forest as a way to further let go of the trauma that was caused by my upbringing. Just remembering that today, as an adult, I am free to think and do what I want on a Sunday is freeing. When I pick up my art pieces back at the fancy indoor-outdoor classroom, I am elated and dripping with sweat from hiking both the campus trails.

It’s the end of the day, and the skies are cloudy, the weather still muggy and humid, which triggers so many youthful summer memories of feeling tired during camp from all the long sessions and walks. My body knows this place, its ways and weather. I am grateful for the mist and wipe my face, realizing that it’s almost as if I came in with a heavy emotional backpack filled with rocks and have left just a few of them behind. Stacy’s gentle and open wisdom helped me resume making art as anger left my being. In the 1440 gift shop, a title on radical forgiveness catches my eye. The idea makes sense. Approaching my car, I am more relaxed than I’ve been in months and realize that I don’t have to argue or believe in God to see the beauty of this land, which has hosted so many different creatures over the decades. It’s such a gift to experience this of my own free will, on a Sunday.•

You Are Here is a monthly column that examines ideas about place and places in the West, written by members of the Writers Grotto.

Mary Ladd is a member of the Writers Grotto and the author of The Wig Diaries: An Irreverent Cancer Book, with Bad Reporter illustrator Don Asmussen, which debuted at number one in Amazon’s New Releases in Breast Cancer in 2019.
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