Through the lense of a former 90s youth group kid.

If you're a long time reader you probably know I grew up in a conservative evangelical church. I was also a teenager in the Seattle suburbs during the grunge era. Those years were the Wild West of youth ministry. Youth pastors today want to be relatable and relevant. Youth leaders back then wanted to know how much crazy shit they could get teens to do before the kids revolted. If youth pastors were mad scientists, we were the guinea pigs.

One of the most predominant highlights of any church youth event during the 90s is what I’ve lovingly (and regrettably) described as pudding through the nose games. They didn’t actually consist of slurping pudding through your nose, but the nasal consumption of a Snack Pack was always a possibility. These games were designed to induce a gag factor, inspire PG-13 levels of comedic violence, or encourage what modern youth leaders call “purple.” No idea what I’m talking about? Allow me to provide some examples.

The Toothpick Lifesaver relay. Teams lined up boy/girl/boy/girl with toothpicks in our mouths. Without using our hands, a package of Lifesavers had to be passed toothpick to toothpick from one end of the line to the other. And we had to start over if the candied fruit flavored ring was dropped. First team to pass along all 14 candies through every member wins.
image courtesy of Sterling College

Or The Chip Race. In this game, a boy and girl held a potato chip between their lips while trying to reach the finish line before the other couples. If the chip broke or was dropped, the pair had to start over.

Or Wink’em Blink’em. Everyone of one gender stood in a circle while kids of the other gender sat in front of them with one empty seat. The person behind the empty chair winked at someone who tried to escape the grasp of the person standing behind them to sit in the empty seat. Originally, the rules stated the fleeing player would be stopped with a tap on the shoulder but my generation never liked rules. When we played this game (it was a favorite at Marysville Naz) we played it like a full contact sport. The standing player could use any means necessary to stop the runner. Nights with Wink’em Blink’em on the itinerary usually ended with pulled hair, scratches down the back, torn t-shirts, and rug burns on the knees and elbows. Ironically, the popular kids were more likely to be tackled or dragged than the uncool kids like me.

Or the Caterpillar Relay. Teams laid face down and shoulder to shoulder on the beach to form a human caterpillar. (Note: I said caterpillar, not centipede. That's something wildly different.) The person at the end of the end of their team's line rolled over all of their teammates to the front of the line where they resumed the face down position as other players rolled over the top of them. New competitors began rolling as soon as they were the last in line. First team to get their whole caterpillar across the finish line won.

Or Eat That Food. This was played like Name That Tune but with food. Teen versus adult volunteer took turns claiming they could eat a food item in a certain number of bites, each challenge lower than the previous. If that number reached a point where one player couldn't eat the food in fewer bites than the other, they dared the other player to "Eat it." If a player scarfed the item within the promised number of bites, they won. They would lose by failing to complete the challenge or throwing up. I saw people eat a whole can of spam in one chipmunk-cheeked bite, pour an entire tin of Altoids into their open maw, chomp a foot long raw carrot with a diameter of their in three bites, cram a king size Snickers in their mouth while drinking a can of Pepsi, and chug a large jar of applesauce in a single gulp. There was always a garbage bin on stage for vomit.

And Shaving Cream Wars. A section of the football field was cordoned off to separate spectators and warriors. Teenaged campers and adult leaders purchased hundreds of cans of shaving cream to battle each other in a one vs all battle royale. Combatants ran around with aerosol cans of shaving cream, filling their hands with foam, and smearing it into the faces and onto the bodies of other willing participants. Extreme players Duct taped their shaving cream cans into their hands with fingers hovering above the spray triggers.
image courtesy of Baltimore Sun

Between the inappropriate entertainment, the purity culture teachings, and attempts to dictate what kinds of movies we could watch or music we could listen to, my generation was subjected to an ongoing clash of contradictions and double standards. It is no surprise why so many of my peers have left the church in the decades since then.

Youth group was weird enough bit summer camps is where it got really awkward. Teen camp had a different theme every year and games were tailored to match the theme. One year our theme was “The Doctor is In.” Bed pans (if you couldn’t already tell where this was going) were used in a majority of the games that year. One of those bedpan games was a root beer relay. Teams lined up 20 yards away from a bedpan filled with root beer. Everyone was given a straw to hold with their mouth. First person in their team’s line ran to the bedpan, laid face down with hands behind their back, and drank through their straw. As soon as they sucked up as much root beer as they could, they ran back to their team and the next person sprinted to lie down and chug through their straw, then repeat until their team drank all of the root beer. First team to finish a half dozen 2 liters won.

If you’re thinking it would have been funnier for the camp organizers to use Mountain Dew, I agree. However, despite the shades of violence and confusing sexual boundaries, there were still lines that Nazarenes were not brave enough to cross.

I thought this game would be easy. I could guzzle a can of Dr Pepper in one shot - proved it a couple times before. Drinking soda should be easier with a straw, right? Wrong, so very wrong.

When my turn came, I ran the 20 yards as fast as my scrawny teenaged legs would carry me. I laid down in the prone position, hands clasped behind my back, dunked my straw into the warm brown liquid, and began to sip. Then I discovered something: I couldn’t drink. I could barely breathe. Gravity pulled my body weight down onto my lungs and I lacked any alternative to support that weight because my hands were clasped behind my back. The position of my hands also stretched out my chest cavity and tightened my pectoral muscles making it difficult to expand my rib cage. My ability to draw a breath was smothered.

Instinctively, my brain knew breathing was more important than drinking soda. My desire to live outweighed my hopes to win a pudding through the nose game. I couldn't drink even if I wanted to. I got up, ran back to my line, and hoped everyone else on my team had better luck than me.

To be clear, while I was scrawny weakling, I was also healthy. I kept fit by spending summers hiking all over the Northern Cascades and walking/biking everywhere during the school year. I didn’t have asthma, didn’t smoke, didn’t suffer any underlying health issues. I was a normal (even if socially awkward) teenager, spry and energetic. Yet despite everything in my respiratory favor, I still struggled to breath when laying prone with my hands behind my back. I can’t imagine doing the same thing with a police officer kneeling on my neck.

I have frequently pondered this story from my youth while watching the Derek Chauvin trial over the last couple weeks. It’s been heavy on my mind. Watching the videos, listening to testimony and cross examination, I keep imagining myself in George Floyd’s place.
image courtesy of Dazed & Confused Magazine

Laying prone with your hands behind your back isn’t like getting a back massage as Chauvin’s lawyer claimed during closing arguments. If it was difficult for me to breathe in that position as a healthy teenager with no weight on my neck, logic leads me to believe it would impossible for George Floyd to do the same under the weight of Derek Chauvin.

That is a conclusion any reasonable person should be able to understand. Thankfully, the jury agreed.

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