The time I was hired to go on a Christian singles cruise
by Lyndon Froese
There it was: the MS Liberty of the Seas, the nearly $1 Billion cruise ship where I was to spend five days on the Caribbean Sea with thousands of Christian singles. I was on assignment for a small Christian magazine.
I admired the magazine and its editor, Aiden. Months before, he cold called me and introduced himself. I already knew who he was. He wasn't world-famous, but he was famous to me. He used to be a managing editor at Adbusters, the magazine that birthed Occupy Wall Street. Now he had a Christian magazine called Geez. Tagline: "Holy Mischief in an Age of Fast Faith".
I had done creative projects of all sorts on my own, but this was the first time I'd been chosen.
Aiden the Editor told me he'd had this idea for a long time, to send a reporter on a Christian cruise. He would build an issue around the story. I didn't feel qualified to do it, but what was I supposed to say? No?
It was my job to book the tickets. I asked Aiden if it would be okay to make it a Christian singles cruise. I thought that having an angle like this would make it easier to make it entertaining for everyone. It was my job was to make a little mischief, just like in the magazine's tagline, and I was going to try my best.
"Take me into your master bedroom and f* me" - Song of Songs 1:1-4 (paraphrasing)
A friend of mine, who has a masters in theology, helped me find Bible verses about romance and sex -- such as the one at the top of this section. I thought I could share some passages with the Christian singles, perhaps some gals would even be interested in some one-on-one Bible study. I also had some photos printed of myself: me playing basketball with my friend's child; me painting a church; me doing dishes. My Christian female friends said it was attractive to see a man in a collared shirt with his hands in suds, and I didn't question it. The idea for the pictures came from some book I read by a dating expert. The author suggested carrying around an envelope of prints showing you doing attractive things. It would be really natural and not weird at all. I thought I might be able to help the gents out with some of my great techniques and then write down what happened.
The February morning came. My friend Mike pulled his mom's old Camry behind my house onto the icey gravel patch behind my house. Mike was coming along as the photographer. He did somewhat figure out how to use the camera, but mostly this was just another chapter as Mike as my lifelong partner-in-crime.
Time to go to Florida.
We drove south through the day and the night and the next day -- North Dakota, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana. The ice covered fields and gave way to the green grass. We kept driving -- Kentucky, Tennessee -- until that night when we took a wrong turn and accidentally got kind of drunk in a bar in Georgia.
Locals asked us what our deal was. Coincidentally, the guy on the stool right next to us was actually an expert in meeting Christian singles.
“I used to prey upon sexually repressed Christians in college," he said. "How do you think I met my wife?"
He said that all you really have to do is come across as sort-of Christian.
"A common expression among Christian women around here is ‘I never do this,’"
We slept in an orange grove and awoke to heavy dew. The early morning sun shone through the trees lining the wet highway as we made our way into Florida.
At the docks in Fort Lauderdale, the ocean sparkled ahead -- and that alone was really something for a couple of small-town-raised prairie rubes. Wearing t-shirts was really something for us guys, who were, just two days ago in a city in the midst of a frozen season of death. And then there was this assignment to go on this cruise ship.
We had our tickets and had done all we could to prepare.
A real shame I booked the wrong cruise.
And wasted all that money from the bank account of a small independent magazine.
The first sign of trouble were the seniors. There were coupled-up freedom-65ers boarding the boat we presumed was ours. There were families with children walking up the ramp. We asked the fellow taking tickets whether we had the right ship. He said yes and I began to feel ill.
I'd booked the tickets through a website called AllChristianCruises.com, yes. But if I had booked the right thing -- the thing that Aiden the Editor had been envisioning -- there would have, for sure, been t-shirts being handed out and water bottles with a Bible verses on the side. Not here. This looked like a normal cruise.
I wondered if there might be just a group of Christians on board that were going to have activities together.
You know... there had definitely been signs that this wasn't a real Christian cruise even before we left home. I was too cowardly to tell anyone about my concerns. Pro tip: When you pretend to not notice warning signs, sometimes you end up 3600 km away from home, standing in front of a fake Christian cruise. I had the stupid photo prints in my pocket. My shirt read "110%" in big letters and I had on these wrap-around shades to signal that I was ready to have a fun time.
Might as well go to Haiti.
There did turn out to be a group of Christian singles on the boat, almost entirely middle aged or older. We found them in the dining hall that evening. It was a boat of thousands of ordinary vacationers, all oblivious to the fact there was a group of about 25 who had special Christian tickets and that I was there to make mischief on the big singles cruise.
The Christians seemed happy to get to know each other. We joined in. On the first full day, we saw world-class triple axels at the figure skating rink theatre. After dining with the Christians on escargot and lobster, it was off to the theatre to see a reasonable facsimile of Cirque du Soleil.
The group were welcoming and seemed fascinated by us: Two young and curious chaps had come to write a story about the cruise! We danced together, swam in the pools and ate all we could eat. We went to the mall and the casino. To provide entertainment, I sang karaoke at a piano bar and entered the cruiseline’s "World’s Sexiest Man" competition. Without contact from the outside world, far away from our neighbourhood back in Winnipeg in the midst of a frozen season of death, we explored the ship, felt the ocean breeze on our faces and interviewed conservative Christians.
When the ship stopped for a day at a beach in Haiti, I asked my new Christian pals whether they thought Jesus would visit impoverished island nations on a floating mega-resort. Some didn't get off the boat because the recent earthquake had been allegedly caused by Haitian voodoo.
I asked Cynthia, the organizer of the Christian cruise, whether she was concerned about the fact that the ship was doing damage to Coral Reefs and other parts of God’s creation, or if she was aware of the industry’s reputation for bad treatment of employees, all of whom I understood were Children of God. Lower ranking employees weren't supposed to talk to passengers like us, but we found a couple of Colombians who said they felt they were trapped on the ship, lured in away from their friends and families by the lies of the cruiseline's recruiters.
During our day in Jamaica, the setting of Cool Runnings, the cruise-goers provided a good number of entertaining quotes for the piece, perfect for any writer who prefers to write a piece that makes fun of people rather than returning without a story at all.
Sandy, a woman from California whom I featured prominently, asked a Jamaican cab driver to take us to where the women carry the jugs on their heads. The driver kindly suggested that Sandy might be thinking of that place across the ocean where the other black people live.
John, another one of the Christian singles, mentioned to that same cab driver that American children "aren't allowed to pray in the schools". Not understanding that John actually meant that students wouldn't be forced to pray publicly, our driver told us that Jamaican students can pray as often as they want.
"Ah, that's good to hear", John said in his New York accent. "The missionaries did a good job over here"
On the ship, we had many friendly debates. Us, the alien liberals vs them, the conservatives. For fun and sport, they took to asking as many questions about what we believed as we asked of them. I remember Sandy California asking me if there was anything at all that I believed was sinful.
Mike mentioned his roommate was gay. We'd planned this one in advance. That's all it took to get them to say things I could write down in my notebook. Perfect material for the satanic choir who read Geez.
One of the Christians, Moe, had a successful electrician business. I asked him whether he thought a luxury cruise was an ironic location for a Christian retreat -- you know, considering that Jesus rode a donkey and had no possessions, other than a cloak and a cool pair of Birkenstocks.
Moe seemed pleased I brought it up.
“God is a good God and he wants the very best for us," he said.
Moe explained he was "100% for absolute prosperity".
"This is cruise is of the harvest,” he said.
What I thought might qualify as glutinous was actually part of the point for Moe. Luxury was central to his faith. He was, as he put it, "a King's kid".
"And this is only the beginning," he said. "I'll meet you in 10 years and I'll have my private jet."
On the last evening I still felt like I didn't have much of a story. Mike and I sat in the ship-sized hotel room that had been our refuge. It had been the one place we could drop the act and speak candidly. I sat at the tiny desk, Mike on one of the two single beds. This was evening was our last chance before we'd have the pleasure of a long drive back to Canada wishing we would have done everything we could to bring back a story.
Since that wasn't an option, it was show time. That night at dinner I stood up and invited all the Christians to the chapel for a special event: my own testimony.
Everyone came. There had been several activities planned for the Christian singles and this one it was by far the best attended event on the entire Christian Singles Cruise. I was horrified as I watched them keep coming in and the pews filling. Somehow I thought it would be fine for a few to show, but not everyone. These folks were taking time out of their final opportunity to enjoy a cruise, their vacations. They were doing this because they cared. I was doing it for my story.
At this point, we were already here. I switched on my recorder. (Yes, I have this on tape.) I opened my mouth began to speak.
I explained how I grew up in a loving Christian home and that in my early 20s I started doubting that God really heard my prayers. I described the relief I felt when I finally stopped trying to believe. I told them why I felt I was better off now that I didn't expect answers to prayers and didn't worry about eternal damnation.
When I was finished, the whole group tried to save me. With tenacity, they took turns helping me to understand. They were good -- but every time they went in for a slam dunk, I put my hand up with another question.
Cynthia the Organizer was rightfully suspicious.
“Is this more of an interview or is it something you’re looking to learn? Your mind is already shut to the word of God.”
I still have no idea what I would have said had the others not simply persisted with what they wanted to say.
“Prayer is not like a gumball machine where you drop in a quarter,” said New York John. “I’ve been asking God for a wife for 12 years now.”
A man who liked to read about psychology, Scott, said, “First, I want to tell you that what you’re doing takes guts. I can tell you’re honestly seeking.”
“Yes, he is,” said Sandy California. Sandy had become my best cruising bud. She had confided that, like me, she was disappointed that it wasn't a real Christian singles cruise. She had felt misled by AllChristianCruises.com.
Scott went on: “It’s hard for us men to surrender. We’re taught to be self-sufficient, that we shouldn’t need anyone, that real men don’t cry and all these lies. You don’t want to surrender; life is good, so why change it?”
That sounded about right.
“But yet everywhere we went," Sandy jumped in, "whether it was Haiti or Jamaica, somebody who knew Jesus started a conversation with this man about Jesus. So you may think he’s here for an interview, but it’s not a coincidence that every single person in Jamaica and Haiti that we talked to decided to tell him about Jesus.”
Someone in the middle bench of the chapel asked if I had ever been led into salvation. Everyone had their own angle to try.
"What's salvation?" I asked.
There was a distinct “Wow” from the rear bench. But I honestly did not know what that meant.
Moe the electrical contractor gave it a go: “Because you were brought up in a church," he said "you’re not at the point where you’re saying ‘I evolved from monkeys.’”
There was some chuckling.
“You believe in Creation,” Moe said. “Give us that much.”
The whir of the ship's engine became audible as everyone waited to hear what I was going to say.
“I believe," I said slowly, "we evolved from monkeys.”
Clamour filled the room.
“See! See! His mind is shut! His mind is shut!” I heard someone calling out. Others disagreed.
A southern woman's voice from the back of the room cut through the commotion: “Don’t fuss... don’t fuss…" she said loudly. "Don't fuss because God is not the author of confusion."
"But I will say this to you," she said, her eyes now on me. "You might have had your own agenda for comin’ up here, but God had a special plan and purpose for you bein’ here.”
People's faces crept into smiles. She had unified two opposing beliefs, those who thought I was open and those who thought I was shut.
“Do you want to accept Christ?" asked Cynthia the Organizer. "If not, we’ll have the men pray for you and we’ll be dismissed.”
The men rose and gathered around me near the pulpit. Their hands rested on my shoulders from every direction. It is unusual to be touched by strangers, particularly by men. It's unusual to be touched by anyone. One of the men said a prayer for me. I remember it was a kind prayer, not a condemning prayer. He said Amen, but the last word went to the same southern woman in the back pew: “Interview Jesus! He gonna give you all the answers!”
People laughed and clapped.
When the sun rose, passengers waited in line to settle the bills they’d racked up over the course of their vacations. They'd all soon be on flights back to Monday morning.
Mike's mom's car was still in the parking lot when we set foot back on the continent. We were happy to be off the boat.
That evening we rolled into Tampa. We saw Lightning jerseys on the sidewalks all around -- there was an NHL game about to start. What luck! We figured we could find cheap tickets since we presumed Floridians wouldn't be so interested in hockey. We were wrong. The box office was sold out and scalpers getting high prices.
I decided to ask Jesus for tickets in the way the Christians taught me to pray. Minutes later we were handed free tickets to the game. No -- really! Soon we were sitting in the stands watching superstars I had only ever seen on TV.
This twist felt like manna from Heaven. I could make as much irreverent fun as I wanted since I would end with the story about the Jesus tickets, which would cast doubt over everything I said earlier.
Leading up to the release of the article we made a trailer video with Mike saying to me "You might have to keep your pants on" and me replying, "Well, sometimes they just have a way of coming off" and me saying "They're all going to be desperate" then showing footage of women appearing to be fawning over me, poolside. There was footage of me using strips of condoms a bookmark in a Gideon Bible.
Geez received an unprecedented amount of feedback from readers about my piece, a lot of it negative. Some said that middle-aged folks who go on a singles cruise are unlucky, deserving of sympathy rather than being exposed in my article. Some thought conservative Christianity is evil and delighted in the piece. In their eyes, I had portrayed a deserving villain.
One blogger said the Bible predicted that there would be people like me mocking Christians and that I would get what I deserved in Hell.
The Vancouver Sun's headline read "Canadian seeks truth, justice and sex on 'Christian' cruise".
I received legal threats from Sandy. The magazine was advised to lawyer up as well. I spoke with Sandy twice on the phone. I listened to her as best I could.
I ran into a childhood mentor of mine whom I hadn't seen in years. She told me that she had to be honest that she was not happy to see me. She said she was disgusted by my article.
I wish I would have written a different piece.
I was critical of these Christians for what I perceived as hypocrisy -- saying they were followers of Christ and then they showed up in Haiti on a luxury cruise. It seemed un-Christlike for Cynthia the Organizer to not be concerned about the wellbeing of the staff of the cruise line. I also didn't think it was fair to blame Haitians their alleged voodoo for their own misfortune, and to attribute the wealth of Americans to the belief in Jesus.
But we already know what we think of that.
Another side of the story is that Sandy California tried to connect with the Haitian children she met, while I waited with my notepad, ready to jot down anything dumb she may say. It is not an admirable strategy to take the weakest of what someone says and argue against that.
When I wrote about Successful Moe telling me prosperity was coming to anyone who follows Jesus, I conveniently failed to mention that part of the deal is you have to give the first bit back to the Lord. He said your first instinct should be to look to who you can help with anything you receive.
I made fun of their views on sex/gender roles, but I'm not so blindly progressive that I can't also see that the tradition of male-female partnerships have served humanity well. Even though they may be ripe for change in the 21st century, in past decades and millenia, it may have been helpful that males were compelled to bring home bacon and keep threats away, even though self-interest might have them only taking care of themselves. And maybe it was helpful that women of yore fostered the next generation, even though they may have had yearnings to do other things. It's quite a thing to say that there was no sense in the way all those past humans lived.
Cynthia the Organizer sincerely believed that she was doing the right thing when she said that if she could save one soul, the environmental destruction of a cruise would be worth it. I drew devil horns on her, but she was doing the best she knew how.
And, guess what? Everyone thinks they're right.
But we are all almost certainly wrong.
Just like we don't understand the humans from a few years ago who thought it was a really good idea to own slaves, I believe future generations will have a hard time with what we're doing today. To be looked upon with compassion, our only hope is if our motivations are taken into account. Hopefully trying our best to do the right thing counts for something, even if the outcome of our actions sucks. Paying attention to motivations is one of the central points that Jesus made and it is still counterculture today.
Who knows whether these Christians were into that Jesus. But I can say for myself that I wanted these Christians to say and do outrageous things. It was my only hope to save myself from a long drive north without a story.
This article appeared in print in Geez: Overboard: Geez sends rogue desciple on a Christian cruise.
They also had me write a reflection on it for their ten-year anniversary issue.