By Stephen Meisel
On Wednesdays, my high school’s cafeteria also functioned as a chapel. On one particular Wednesday, when I was about 13, the administration informed us that this week our chapel period would function a bit differently: in fact, it was quite the special occasion. This week, they said, our Chapel would be used to spread the Word of God at a prime upload speed. A camera and audio crew were hired. An Atlanta preacher was enlisted. It was going to be a live-streamed prayer broadcasted across the world, given by the kindergarten through 12th grade of King’s Ridge Christian School. In the meantime, the preacher had been given instructions to mention the school’s budding Capital Campaign in worldwide Internet prayer.
I suppose someone in the King’s Ridge Christian School marketing department considered the PrayerCast a good idea. Even as a 13-year-old high school freshman, I could surmise that. I could even understand why my school, after incurring a mountain of debt, decided to buttress the live-streamed event with pleas for donations. After all, schools need money. And how was this money going to materialize if not with the help of God, not to mention the financial savvy of the Holy Spirit? It did not occur to anyone that querying a deity for non-profit revenue would have ramifications. But this style of oversight was typical of my school in those years. Its wealthy and highly conservative demographic had demanded it keep up with this chaotic age while maintaining a grip on morals. 21st-century Christianity had to meet 21st-century education, and hopefully somewhere in the middle.
Unfortunately, this combination often led to certain snafus. The decision to give personal laptops to high school students—intended as an aid to learning—resulted in computers mostly being used for Flash games and Facebook, occasionally porn. Evolution was taught begrudgingly, alongside Creationism, with the help of iPads. The principal offered incentives to the kids who followed him on Twitter.
I found myself somewhere in the middle of this setup. I had attended King’s Ridge since the second grade, shortly after my family moved down to Atlanta in 2001. Founded just a year earlier by a group of North Georgia oligarchs, the school had sprung out of a perceived lack of quality sites for Christian education in the suburbs north of Atlanta. Gradually, as a grand exodus of family-oriented yuppies flowed down South from the Northeast in the early 2000s, King’s Ridge attracted more attention and flourished. However, like most private schools in the area, it eventually became known around town as just another gated community of wealthy white people who paid for good grades. And given that the suburb was overwhelmingly white and wealthy, this didn’t strike anyone as anomalous.
By the time of the PrayerCast, my school had become to me a frustrating but fascinating farce. I had begun to realize that, throughout my tenure there, I had been sold a wealth of half-baked ideas. Sure, as a little second-grader I could recite Bible verses by heart for a piece of candy or a pat on the back. But ever since my Christian sex ed class in the sixth grade, where I was taught that deflowered women were like used chewing gum, I began to give up on the idea of learning any valuable life lessons from Evangelists. Megachurches and youth pastors weren’t for me. Neither were missions to build orphanages in Swaziland, despite how happy my classmates looked high-fiving Swazi kids in their profile pictures.
My own place in the nexus of Jesus Christ and the new millennium was highly dubious. I had prayed, sincerely, maybe only a few times in my life. I played bass for my school’s Christian rock band, but mostly so I could back Jesus tunes with funk licks. Outside of class I didn’t go to church unless I was forced. It wasn’t that I didn’t think about God; I thought about him often, but I simply could not understand certain inconsistencies. For example, why did God need to be explained to me in theology class as “the ultimate referee” and heaven as “the ultimate touchdown?” Metaphysically, I was banging my head against the wall.
The added conservatism of the Bible Belt didn’t help my greasy teenage malaise. It is no coincidence that the trinity of crosses, patient on the side of the highway, came between billboards for ammunition and Chick-fil-A. The large church signs that questioned in stark typeface, “Where will you spend eternity?” definitely had an ulterior motive. Those pesky pro-lifers just wouldn’t stop showing you photos of aborted fetuses. So, in all honesty, I wasn’t surprised by the announcement of the PrayerCast. The whole thing felt innocuous. Another approach to high-tech mission work. Although Jesus could never have planned for such a thing, the sentiment was inoffensive and bland enough to satisfy everyone. Of course, the whole need to broadcast a mass of schoolchildren praying seemed rather strange—but then again, look where I live.
Soon PrayerCast day arrived. Students entered the cafeteria—chapel on schedule. The AV crew had set up their equipment and waited for the primary subjects of the broadcast to take their seats. They gave the students their instructions: when this camera light turns green, look like you’re praying. This initial command struck some listeners as superficial—Why not just pray?—but then the live-stream started.
People were, understandably, pissed. No one expected the association between teaching the Gospel and a pursuit of cash. Nor did they understand the need for such rigged presentation of the matter. The story of Jesus and the moneylenders was evoked. Complaints were lodged. And little apology was given—perhaps to me the most fantastic part of this story. The school lightly admitted to subterfuge on its part and went about its business. The genuinely Christian students left feeling cheated. The others felt even more bewildered by God than before. Who was this magical God of money?
Personally, I continued to expect nothing but the best collection of absurdities. From the teachers who kept pistols in their cars in the safest of neighborhoods to the school-wide ban on crystal balls, witchcraft, and Ouija boards, I was never disappointed.