Paradise Lost, or Why I Never Want To Return To Kansas

History is full of moments where the best laid plans have gone awry: Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the Bay of Pigs, Deloreans, and that time you dropped your expertly crafted sandwich on the floor are all prime examples. Failure touches everyone, in every profession, and every walk of life. Some are incredibly harmful (the Titanic), and some are pretty harmless (RIP your poor poor sandwich), but all leave some kind of mark. This story is one that left more than a few. This is the story of Paradise.

In the summer of 2008, I was interning in the youth ministry at a large Southern Baptist Church. I was incredibly excited about the opportunity to serve and have a lot of fun in the process, because this church is one that pulls out all the stops and really desires to serve kids and point them to Christ. In my first ever Monday staff meeting, my boss comes to us with this brilliant proposition: his friend Richard Ross (the guy who started True Love Waits) had approached him with an idea. Allegedly Ross had a VISION from God, and saw a throne in the geographical center of the country with thousands upon thousands of youth standing around it and worshiping God. After doing some investigating on where the geographical center of the United States was, he found that it was located near the town of Paradise, Kansas (population 49 according to the 2010 census). Soon he had gotten permission from the farmer who owned the property and decided to help fulfill his vision there.

Now, I have always been somewhat skeptical whenever I hear about someone having a “vision from God”. I believe God absolutely can work that way, but I also know guys like Benny Hinn have “visions” of your money buying him a private jet, so I was a little hesitant to jump on board with this. My skepticism was about to deepen into “weird” territory. Some of us on the staff decided to do some digging into what exactly Paradise 08 was going to be, and what we found was a little… strange.

This was what was presented to us:

  • In a field in the exact geographical center of the country, a large altar and throne was going to be built for Jesus to “symbolically descend “to.
  • There would be a slew of well-known musicians and guest speakers, but they were all going to be hidden from view by some sort of veil so no one would be distracted from worship.
  • Apparently thousands from around the country would come to this thing, and it would cost kids around $100 to go.

When the word got out to the students about this event, naturally there was a rush to sign up. Actually no, people were weirded out by it. We ended up taking around 30 kids and 15 adults. As one of the new staff, I was required to go. I was not really thrilled about it, but I put on a good face because it was my job and I wanted to do well.

The day before the event, we left the church at the crack of dawn and began our roughly 12 hour church bus journey deep into the heart of Kansas, unsure of what exactly we were getting ourselves into. Here is an important detail: our boss, the one who was friends with Ross, did not go on the trip. His wife went, along with a couple of upper staff members and the new interns, me included.

On the bus ride to Kansas, after going through classic church bus movies such as National Treasure and The Chronicles of Narnia, we learned that the venue of the event has changed. It’s no longer in Paradise, but was instead being moved to another field miles away. We pondered on this news as we looked upon the glorious Kansas scenery out of our window, and by glorious I mean a vast expanse of fields. Fields of all kinds, fields of every variety: flat, slightly less flat, flat with a couple of trees way off in the distance, flat with corn, flat with wheat, flat with nothing but dirt, and flat with a cow or two standing in them. To say the ride was boring was understatement, sitting an hour in a waiting room with only a cheap watercolor painting of some flowers was a thrill ride compared to this bus ride. I counted to 423 before getting bored and trying to find something else to do. This boredom spread like a disease through all of us on the bus, and by the time we got to a mall in Kansas to eat everyone was on the verge of anarchy.

It was around 8 PM when we got settled into our hotel, and as much as I would have loved to watch the NBA playoffs, I and the rest of the staff spent the rest of the night making pack lunches for everyone until around 1 AM. Wake up time was 4:30 AM, and we needed to get out the door so we could experience Paradise by sunrise.

When we arrived at the location down some flat Kansas back roads, I looked out the window expecting to see a crowd. Instead, we were dropped off at what looked like the entrance to a farmer’s property, a lonely looking barn staring down at us as we unloaded in the early morning. The field and the event were a half mile up the gravel path, and we began the walk as we noticed dark clouds forming over our heads.

We came over a hill (the first I felt like I’d seen in Kansas) and saw Paradise. The throne and veil that we were promised was not there, and what we got instead was far more interesting. The field and stage was surrounded by a halo of wooden crosses that looked as though they have been thrown together with logs from the nearby woods and bits of string. As we approached the barrier with our chairs, coolers, and various Christian equipment, we were told the ground rules of Paradise. The circle of crosses was meant to be a sort of “spiritual barrier”. Photography, cell phones, video, and eating were not allowed inside the circle so no one would be distracted. I found it somewhat strange, but I understood the reasoning. We crossed over the threshold and started picking our spot as the dark clouds continued to grow and build. It was around 6:30 in the morning. As I sat in my chair, I noticed the field had not been very closely cut. The grass in many places was to our ankles (this will be important later).

As soon as we all got settled, a large thunderclap rang out, and then lightning and rain came. Here we were, sitting in the middle of a field at 6:30 in the morning, being pounded by a driving thunderstorm. The nearest trees were 100 yards away, but I knew I was safer from lightning in the field than I was under a tree.  This free time gave me a moment to survey the “throne”. It was a haphazardly put together stage, with a sort of wall of tarp hiding whatever speakers and musicians that were supposed to be behind it. It all felt bizarre, but I tried to be optimistic. After the 50th or so lightning strike, a voice came over the loudspeaker saying that if the storm didn’t let up in half an hour, they would cancel the event and offer full refunds to all in attendance. The organizers said they were expecting almost 5000 to show up (maybe 2000 actually attended). By this point there were around 800 or so folks from different churches from all over the country huddled under umbrellas or the trees that surrounded the field. So we sat in the thunderstorm and counted down the minutes, all of us praying that they would cancel so we could go back to our hotel and salvage the day.

At 26 minutes, the clouds miraculously disappeared, and then a nuclear blast worth of sunshine fell down directly on us. The temperature went from 70 degrees to around 100 in less than an hour. Then, the ticks came out.

Remember how I said the field hadn’t been cut? This meant the ticks had free reign. Within 20 minutes of the rain ending I was finding them all over me, and the kids were finding them too. Morale was low.

I was going through strategies to escape when suddenly a giant screen slowly rose up from behind the veil, and a message of “Good Morning” came across it. The screen then explained that it would be providing instructions for the day, and then ordered everyone to break off into small groups and discuss what they wanted God to do that day. I took a group of guys to the trees and found a small creek about 20 yards in the woods. As I sat down, a copperhead snake slithered away less than 5 feet away from me. I remained calm (remember, I had to put on a good face) and tried to steer the conversation back. A few minutes later, another copperhead swam down the creek a few feet from one of the kids. By this point they were all nervous and distracted, so I said, “If we see another copperhead we’ll head back to the field and the rest of the group. Deal?” Literally 30 seconds later one went right past my foot, and I calmly got up and led the boys back into field, contemplating ways I could make this day go by faster.

When we got back, the screen said at 9 AM everyone needed to spend the next 2 HOURS praying and reading our bibles in silence to “prepare ourselves for the spirit”. At this point the sun was sucking the life out of me like a vampire who had just been released from a starvation prison, so I managed to scrounge up an umbrella from a group that had left during the thunderstorm and duct tape it to my chair that I had set up. It was a crude system, but it worked to block me from the sun. I set up my chair next to my boss on the trip (the middle school pastor), cracked open my Bible, and started reading to keep myself from going insane. Around 9:15 I blacked out.

I woke up to the sound of singing. For a moment I thought I had died, but then realized I had fallen asleep reading my bible and was sadly still in Kansas. Apparently the worship portion of the day had already begun. I checked my watch. It was 12:30 in the afternoon. I had been asleep for over three hours, and the worship service had started at noon. When I woke up no one looked at me or said anything. They either hadn’t noticed or didn’t care. As I came out of my coma, the strangeness of the worship service became very clear to me.

Because we couldn’t see the musicians, the screen was telling us what to do along with showing us the lyrics. Between songs, the screen would recite scripture to the crowd but in the first person, before giving the crowd scripture to recite back in response. This whole experience became extremely weird. It also became apparent that these “well known” musicians were not as well known as we expected. They were messing up lyrics, completely out of key or tune half the time, and often giggled when messing up a song. The “distraction free” worship service was becoming awfully distracting, be it the heat stroke, the army of ticks trying to eat me alive, the 1984/Hunger Games-like scene with the screen that was unfolding before me, or my general unhappiness with all of life in that moment.

This worship service was scheduled to go on for four hours. During this time I contemplated leaving the faith and moving to Alaska so I wouldn’t have to see another soul for the rest of my life. Then, toward the end of the service, a fire truck came to the property and started SPRAYING THE CROWD during the worship service (apparently the leadership had gotten complaints during the day from the lack of water and cooling equipment). This appearance only enlivened the group of literal hippy-flower wearing Christians who had set up shop next to us and had been flower and hula hoop dancing for Jesus for the last hour. The fire truck made the group go wild. They ran over and started dancing in the spray, their arms spread wide and spinning while staring into the heavens. This Christian event had just become Woodstock, and the Korean church near us was in complete shock and soon began packing up their things. Around 5PM, the music stopped and the screen announced that we would be taking a break and there was another worship time set aside for sunset.

This caused an exodus. It felt like literally everyone in the field packed up their things and left. We were one of the last groups to leave, and we hauled our tick bite sunburn holy spirited out bodies the half mile back to the road, where we spent the next hour sitting by a barn waiting for the bus to come pick us up.

Once the bus came, we got on and drove straight to Memphis. Everyone was tired, sunburned, sweaty, smelly, and miserable. I passed out soon after sitting down on the bus and was woken up to eat at an iHop somewhere in Arkansas around 2 AM. I remember getting pancakes and feeling a tick crawling up my calf in the middle of the meal. When I got back to the bus, I passed out again. We didn’t get back to the church until around 6 in the morning.

Our tick bites and sunburns became the physical evidence of the emotional scars that Paradise gave us, and it became a rallying cry whenever things got bad at any point over the rest of the summer. If kids were fighting at camp: “Hey, it’s not as bad as Paradise.” When a mom complained about something stupid and wouldn’t stop calling the office: “At least it’s not Paradise.” When paperwork piled up at the office: “Thank God it’s not Paradise.”

Paradise is something that people don’t talk about, mostly because it’s almost impossible to find evidence of it on the internet. All of the websites related to it are shut down. While a few articles are floating around, there is nothing really substantial. To my knowledge a similar event was never planned again, and at the church I worked at few beside the ones who went know anything about Paradise.

To this day I can look at people who went on that trip with me and just say the word “Paradise” and they look back at me solemnly and nod with a soft “Paradise.”

And that’s why I never want to go back to Kansas.

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