MANDAN, N.D. — The Rev. Becky Fischer runs a children’s summer camp that isn’t about making crafts, roasting marshmallows or telling scary stories around the campfire.
At the Kids on Fire summer camp in Devils Lake, it’s about “taking back America for Christ.”
Children as young as 5 years old squirm in spiritual ecstasy, speak in tongues, sob for salvation and dance with their faces painted in camouflage as part of “God’s army.”
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Fischer is convinced the children in her ministry will help fix this “sick ol’ world” — so sure that she allowed filmmakers an inside look at her work, the result of which is the documentary “Jesus Camp,” released last month.
Since then, the film has received generally good reviews, and Fischer, a charismatic Christian, says she thinks it’s a fair if not entirely accurate portrayal of her ministry. But the movie also has exposed her to attacks from both the right and the left, she said in an interview at her F.I.R.E (Families Ignited for Revival & Evangelism) Center in downtown Mandan, just outside Bismarck.
“It’s not just wackos ripping me for child abuse — I’m taking hits from the Christian community,” Fischer said, calling Christian conservatives who dislike the film “knuckleheads.”
“The one thing that people are really tripping over is the emotion they see in those kids,” she said. “It’s unbelievable for someone who doesn’t know Jesus.”
The 55-year-old former art teacher and sign business operator is an animated, outspoken woman who acts as a drill instructor for her religious recruits at the summer camp. She uses stern lectures, and props such as globs of goo to show what impure thoughts do to a child’s brain.
“Harry Potter would have been put to death,” she tells the children at one point. “Warlocks are the enemy of God!”
In one scene, teary-eyed children pray to a life-size cutout of President Bush and ask God to place “righteous judges” on the U.S. Supreme Court. In another, children are shown at an anti-abortion rally in Washington, D.C., their lips sealed with red tape.
“I want to see young people who are as committed to the cause of Jesus Christ as the young people are to the cause of Islam,” Fischer said in an interview.
New York-based filmmakers Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady shot the documentary over a year starting in April 2005. The summer camp part of the film was shot during a weeklong session in Devils Lake, in northeast North Dakota.
“We were looking for a film that would let us explore faith and religion through the eyes of children,” said Grady, who is Jewish.
The Kids on Fire camp has averaged about 150 campers a year.
Sixteen-year-old Samantha Riel and her sister, Jessica, 8, sold Pizza Hut coupons to pay for the $185, four-day camp, which accepts 5-year-olds to adults. The girls live on a dairy farm in Raleigh, in southwest North Dakota.
“There is just no way to describe it,” Samantha Riel said. “It was awesome — you get so totally pumped up with God.”
Fischer moved to Bismarck 22 years ago to open a custom sign business after stints as an art teacher and motel and radio station manager in Montana. She is single and has no children — she said she couldn’t stand baby-sitting as a teen — and has been a children’s minister for about 15 years.
“I’m the most unlikely candidate to end up in children’s ministry,” she said. She felt her calling — which she calls “my anointing” — after working with youngsters as a teacher.
The filmmakers said they found Fischer and her ministry after Web searches and talking with pastors across the country. “Her name kept coming up,” Grady said. “We called her up and went and visited her and thought she was an incredibly charismatic — not in the religious sense — colorful person on a profound mission.”
Ewing, who was raised as a Roman Catholic, said the reaction to the film depends on the audience. “Some see it as salvatory and another group sees it as terrifying,” Ewing said. “There is a lot discussion on all sides, so we think it’s a job well done.”
Fischer said she plans to invite pastors from area churches of all denominations for a private screening of the documentary in Bismarck before it is released in theaters there. She understands the film has been upsetting to some viewers, but remains firm in her convictions.
“My goal and my vision is to change the way the Christian church disciples her children,” Fischer said. “The devil goes after the young. We have to have more than coloring pages of Adam and Eve or we’ll lose them.”