Holy shit! Is God talking to me?

Mt Rushmore

When I was younger, I got to visit South Dakota while traveling with Habitat for Humanity on a spring break trip to paint houses on the Rosebud Reservation. There were about 15 of us. We’d paint by day, share potluck meals, and then explore the black hills area on day trips with some of our hosts from the reservation. On one trip, a man named Elvis took us to see Mt. Rushmore. As we all stood there, at the base of the mountain in awe of this symbol of our Nation, Elvis, who was quick with an easy smile and a humorous anecdote, casually said: “imagine there was a statue of the man who raped your mother in your living room. Imagine you were forced to carve it.” He looked at us, we looked at him. A silent moment passed between us before he lightened the mood with a joke I can’t remember, and we all moved on.

I’ve never forgotten that moment. That casual and brutal glimpse into a perspective so different from my experience of American culture has served as a reminder of the enormity of what I don’t know (and can never truly understand, regardless of what I read) ever since.

Which is why, when we got to Mt. Rushmore, we not only talked to the girls about the great things Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln did for our country, we also told them about how the mountain was a sacred place for the Lakota called 6 Grandfathers. That it was named by Black Elk to represent the love and wisdom of the scared directions: North, South, East, West, Above, and Below. We talked about how each of the men on that rock were notable leaders who were also flawed and that American history is riddled with atrocities as well as triumphs. They listened.

Then we had hot dogs for lunch. We had fresh-squeezed lemonade. We had ice cream. Living the American dream at one of our National monuments. We didn’t stay for the fireworks. On the way out, though, there were a ton of wishies flying by. Wishies always remind me of my mom. When I see them, I feel like it’s a tiny message from her saying: I’m here with you still. Keep going.


I have to admit to being a bit of camp snob before this trip. When I was younger, and camping more often, we avoided KOAs like the plague, opting for forest access spots and other off-the-beaten-path sites. But, I’ve come to embrace the functionality and ease of a KOA, first out of necessity (32 foot RV and all) and now (and maybe there’s a little Stockholm syndrome at play here) I truly look forward to seeing that yellow square symbol with the tee pee. It means WiFi, and a shower, and laundry, sometimes a pancake breakfast in the morning.

Well, the KOA near Mt. Rushmore is next level. It’s a kid-topia. There’s a climbing wall, a bounce dome, two pools, a water slide, mini golf, bike rentals, a giant chess board (where we played one of those games that starts off surprising and then fizzles out because everyone missed their winning moves). There’s horseback riding, restaurants, and candy stores. The girls were in heaven. Yes, we were the only family masked, but we did all the things. Even tacos and margaritas in the community tent! The girls rode the coolest “jeep” bikes around the bike trails (I rode a beach cruiser). We even went to church. Yep. Church.

Now, if you know my family, you know we are spiritual but we don’t belong to any religion. Personally, I’ve always identified as “residually catholic,” only because even though both my parents rejected the church, that catholic guilt runs deep.

But, if you’ve been following along on this blog, you also know that I’ve been trying to pay more attention to the little thoughts that bubble up—those little moments that feel like you should listen a little more and not let pass by without doing something about them.


Here’s how I ended up at church: On Sunday morning, I woke the girls up early so I could take them to get pancake breakfast and we could rent bikes one more time before we left. We brought the pancakes back to the RV (so we could avoid the crowd) and then we all walked to the bike rental to be first in line— we thought it opened at 9.

But when we got there, the bike rental was closed because all of the camp employees (in their bright yellow t-shirts) were under the pavilion right next door…at church.

I need to pause here and backtrack to the night before, on a walk back from dinner. We had just had the tacos and margaritas, and the girls and I somehow got to talking about how, back home, Carol would be getting up the next morning and heading to church. Willie, our doggo, would bark at her when she pulled out of the driveway (he loves barking at Carol). I mentioned that Carol has invited us to go to church with her and I told the girls that one of these days I’d like to go.

Carol a feisty lady in her eighties who’s outside every day tending to her permaculture property (flowers in the front yard, berries, fruits, and vegetables in the back. No yard to mow). Carol waves to the girls every morning when they get on the bus during the school year. We share a driveway and once she caught me soaking up the sun in our back yard (practically naked) and when I hurriedly covered up she told me her favorite way to garden is topless.

She’s kind of awesome. So yeah, I’d check out her church. How do you say no to a lady like that? You don’t.

That brings me back to the KOA on Sunday morning, outside of the bike rental.

There may have been a time when I knew KOAs were churchy… but I did not retain this information. We certainly didn’t experience it at all during the many nights at KOAs during this trip. But, when the girls and I got to the bike rental at 9am and found it closed, what we saw instead was a very awake young woman jazzer-sizing for Christ while a bunch of people did their best to follow along (is it normal for churches to include Richard-Simmons-style calisthenics for the Lord?) A little a-frame sandwich board sign in front of the pavilion said: “Welcome to Church!” in marker bubble letters.

Normally, I would have kept on walking back to the RV, keeping my distance from such shenanigans. But I’m trying something new. I’m trying to pay attention to little synchronicities. (I mean, what else do you do to pass the time in the middle of nowhere? I think I’m beginning to understand the heartland…) So, if you’re keeping track, just the night before I had said these words to my daughters: “I think I’m going to go to church sometime soon.” At the time, Iris had responded with: but church is sexist and they try to brainwash you. And I had said: well, maybe not all churches. I’d like to go to one and check in. And now, here I was…at church.

Holy shit, is God talking to me or am I just losing my mind?

So, instead of walking back to the RV, we all stood on the sidewalk in front of the bike rental (which also happened to be the entrance to the pavilion) while my brain processed my options: stay? Or jet? My family stopped with me. And after the dancing was done, a young man in a yellow KOA shirt started talking. He said that he was part of a church group that works at KOAs. That they serve us our food, and clean the bathrooms, and rent us bikes, and they try to just be lights in the world for people during their summer vacations. And then, on Sundays, they pray together. He welcomed us all and introduced a young woman who was going to run the service. He said she came from everywhere.

The woman took the mic. She said her name softly and I didn’t catch it. Then she described how she grew up and still lives on the road with her family. She’s in her last year of college (remotely) with a major in religious studies. Eric had walked back to the RV by this point, but the girls stayed behind with me. Iris was intrigued that a young woman was giving the sermon.

The woman chose a 10-verse passage about Jesus traveling through Jericho and meeting a tax collector named Zacchaeus. She talked about how Jesus wasn’t even supposed to stop in Jericho (he was passing through) and how, even though the townspeople despised Zacchaeus and called him a sinner, Jesus called him by his name—And Zacchaeus means pure and innocent. Listening to this young woman traveler tell this story and convey that no matter what we’ve done in our lives, or what we’re going through, that we are innocent and pure in the eyes of God was… moving. And yes, I cried (because I have tears for miles)

And then something weird happened… I had the thought (or heard a voice?? —dammit, I am crazy) that I should go up to this woman and thank her. So, when she was done, and everyone was leaving, I went up to her and thanked her for the service. She smiled and said you’re welcome. I tried to turn and leave it there. And then she said: can I give you a hug? (Ugh. Dammit. So close.) I said sure, I could use a hug. And then, you know it: I tried to keep it together, but nope. Big ugly tears. All the young kids in yellow shirts, with their lights shining bright, dropped their jaws and clutched their chests as if to say: “we got one!” I smiled. Thanked her for the hug and got the hell out of there. But honestly, if me crying my eyes out in the arms of some strange young traveling preacher woman at a mt Rushmore KOA helps those earnest kiddos stay on a path of service, then I think that’s okay. (Divine plan, and whatnot) As for me, I was preparing myself for the biggest hurdle of this trip so far: telling the girls that their dear cat died while we’ve been away.

Next stop, the badlands. Because what better place to process grief? (Besides the arms of a stranger in a make-shift church in the black hills of South Dakota

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