Ivanwald, which sits at the end of Twenty-fourth Street North in Arlington, Virginia, is known only to its residents and to the members and friends of the organization that sponsors it, a group of believers who refer to themselves as “the Family.”
To the Family, Jesus is not just a name; he is also a real man. “An awesome guy,” a Family employee named Terry told the brothers over breakfast one morning. “He excelled in every activity. He was a great teacher, sure, but he was also a real guy’s guy. He would have made an excellent athlete.”
On my first day at Ivanwald, on an uneven court behind the house, I learned to play a two-ball variant of basketball called “bump” that was designed to sharpen both body and soul. In bump, players compete at free throws, each vying to sink his own before the man behind him sinks his. If he hits first then you’re out, with one exception: the basket’s net narrows at the chute so that the ball sometimes sticks, at which point another player can hurl his ball up from beneath, knocking the first ball out. In this event everyone cries “Bu-u-ump,” with great joy.
Bengt began it. He was one of the house’s leaders, a twenty-four-year-old North Carolinian with sad eyes and spiky eyebrows and a loud, disarming laugh that made him sound like a donkey. From inside the house, waiting for a phone call, he opened a second-floor window and called to Gannon for a ball. Gannon, the son of a Texas oilman, worked as a Senate aide; he had blond hair and a chin like a plow, and he sang in a choir. He tossed one up, which Bengt caught and dispatched toward the basket. “Nice,” Gannon drawled as the ball sank through.
As soon as the ball bounced off the rim, Beau was at the free-throw line, taking his shot. Beau was a good-natured Atlantan with the build of a wrestler; as a bumper he was second only to Bengt.
“It’s okay if you bump into the other guys, too,” Gannon told me as my turn approached. “The idea’s kinda to get that tension building.” Ahead of me Beau bent his knees to take another shot. The moment the ball rolled off his fingers, Wayne, also from Georgia, jumped up and hurled his own ball over Beau’s head. As he returned to earth, his elbow descended on Beau’s shoulder like a hammer. “Bump that, ” he said.
Bump was designed to bring out your hostilities. The Family believes that you can’t grow in Jesus unless you “face your anger,” and then abandon it. When bump worked right, each man was supposed to lose himself, forgetting even the precepts of the game. Sometimes you wanted to get the ball in, sometimes you wanted to knock it out. In, out, it didn’t matter. Your ball, his, who cared? Bump wasn’t horseplay, it was a physicalized theology. It was to basketball what the New Testament is to the Old: stripped down to one simple story that always ends the same. Bump, Jesus. Bump, Jesus.
I stepped to the line and, after missing, moved in for a layup. Wayne jumped to the line and shot. “Dude!” he shouted. I looked up. His ball, meant to hit mine, slammed into my forehead. Bu-u-ump! the boys hollered. They had bumped me with Christ.
Bengt bumped. Beau bumped. Gannon bumped. I was out of contention. Gannon joined me, then Beau. The game was down to Bengt and Wayne. When Wayne threw from behind Bengt, he hurled the ball with such force that it sent Bengt chasing his ball into the neighboring yard. “Tenacious Wayne!” Gannon roared. Wayne scooped up his own ball, leapt, and slam-dunked Bengt out. “That’s yo motha!” he hollered.
Trotting back to the court, Bengt shook his head. “You the man, Wayne,” he said. “Just keep it calm.” Wayne was ready to burst.
“Huddle up guys,” said Bengt. We formed a circle, arms wrapped around shoulders. “Okay,” he said. “We’re gonna pray now. Lord, I just want to thank you for bringing us out here today to have fellowship in bump and for blessing this fine day with a visit from our new friend Jeff. Lord, we thank you for bringing this brother to us from up north, because we know he can learn to bump, and just–love you, and serve you and Lord, let us all just–Lord, be together in your name. Amen.”
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).