"The Outing" continues in the same world and with the same cast of characters as the first story, "The Rockpile," but in this story the brothers Roy and Johnnie are teenagers. In this story, too, the title also refers to the setting of the narrative, here an outing organized by the congregation for which their father, Gabriel, is a deacon. The outing is a yearly event put on by the church as a way for congregants to enjoy nature together and praise God in a wide-open space. Usually they take everyone to a park, but this year, they opt for a more extravagant option and charter a large boat to sail up the Hudson and deposit them for the day in Bear Mountain. The outing is open to all people: the "saved" members of their congregation, the unbaptized, the sinners, Greeks, Jews, and gentiles alike.
Roy, Johnnie, and Johnnie's friend David pool their money to buy Sylvia, a girl who is a member of their congregation, a birthday present. They decide (without a consensus, as Roy thinks it looks "cheap") on buying her a gold-plated brooch in the shape of a butterfly and plan to present it to her during the outing. It's clear that Johnnie is more excited about the outing than Roy; the morning of the outing, Roy considers staying in the city, but Johnnie hopes he joins them, knowing that if Roy stays in the city, he'll be forced to stay as well.
Once aboard the boat, the so-called saints of the church, the pastors and deacons and devout elders, gather in cliques and discuss the need for a revival in the community. They lament the laxness of the youth and their resistance to accepting the church into their lives. David, Roy, and Johnnie (and especially David) are dismayed to find Sylvia in the constant and clinging company of the young Brother Elisha and her protective mother, Sister Daniels. At the start of the trip, Gabriel introduces himself to some visitors from outside the congregation as well as to David and his mother, Mrs. Jackson. The introduction is tense and awkward because it's so clear that Gabriel favors Roy over Johnnie. Gabriel insinuates that Roy brings David to church on Sundays rather than Johnnie, and seems to suggest that David is Roy's friend, when in fact all the boys know that David and Johnnie are the close friends of the bunch. As the boys turn to go, Gabriel says pointedly, "You kids enjoy yourselves. Johnnie, don’t you get into no mischief, you hear me?" Johnnie responds, his voice full of unmasked hatred, "Don’t worry about me, Daddy. Roy’ll see to it that I behave." Sensing the obvious disrespect and vitriol meant with the statement, Gabriel asks Johnnie to excuse himself, and privately assures him that if they weren't in the company of the congregation, he would knock him out for how he spoke to him.
The boys continue on their way, milling about the boat, occasionally having to stop and talk to a few older people about God and entertain their suggestions of going to a service, agreeing that yes, eventually their souls will need saving. Gabriel stops Johnnie's mother and demands that she talk to him. Internally, she feels anger towards Gabriel; she knows that surely he instigated the encounter, and she has no idea how she would admonish Johnnie for what he said. At one point in the boat ride, David finds Johnnie alone and trembling on a deck. He holds Johnnie, and Johnnie buries his face in David's shoulder and tells him that he loves him. It's clear from the scene that they have a previously established romance.
A church service takes place on the boat before they reach Bear Mountain. The service is spirited and moving for those who believe. Brother Elisha plays the piano and is overcome by the Holy Spirit; he praises the Lord for the very things he told David and Johnnie earlier that they should praise the Lord for having. His youth, his health, the ability to be saved at a young age. David and Johnnie are late to the service, but when they arrive they see Sylvia dancing and testifying. Gabriel had asked to lead the service, but the pastor denied him.
Once they reach Bear Mountain, it's harder still to get a moment alone with Sylvia so they (especially David) can give her the gift of the brooch. Johnnie grows impatient with the whole game of waiting for her to be alone; he doesn't understand David's fascination with her anyway, and feels insecure about it. So he walks off, hoping David will follow him, but he doesn't. David continues to lie around and wait for Sister Daniels and Brother Elisha to leave Sylvia be for a moment; the moment finally comes. Sister Daniels leaves to use the ladies' room, Brother Elisha goes to get some lemonade, and David and Roy approach Sylvia. They give her the brooch, and she is brought almost to tears by the surprise and their thoughtfulness.
But much to David's surprise, Sylvia quickly asks him why he doesn't just get saved already, if he's always hanging around the church anyways. Part of why David likes her so much is because she never asked him about religion, but in the company of all the religious people in her congregation, she suddenly turns the conversation to his salvation. So he nervously navigates her series of inquiries and condemnations, finally agreeing to attend revival meetings if he's allowed to walk her home afterward. After his encounter with Sylvia, David goes and searches for Johnnie, who he finds alone again, upset again. Johnnie again buries his face in David's shoulder, but this time the feeling is different. The story ends on this note of difference, concluding with the image, "David put his arms around him. But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened."
Compared with the previous story, "The Rockpile," containing the same core characters, "The Outing" contains far more biblical allusions, religious references, and overt religious themes, which makes sense seeing that the setting of the story is a church function, rather than a short, domestic sequence of events. Johnnie and Roy's relationship has developed into a complex, perhaps unexpected dynamic, more loving than resentful, wherein their father, Gabriel, is regarded with mutual disdain. Of course, Roy's disdain for Gabriel is more sympathetic, because Gabriel favors Roy so heavily over Johnnie.
The religious themes in the story quickly emerge as the core characters, Roy, Johnnie, and David are introduced. Baldwin writes, "These three tended to consider themselves sophisticates, no longer, like the old folks, at the mercy of the love or the wrath of God." This line introduces the notion that religion, in this community, is changing along generational lines. In the eyes of the church and the churchgoers, the younger generation is losing its religion. Of course, this notion is quickly challenged with characters like Sylvia and Brother Elisha, who demonstrate, in their various stages of youth, high degrees of devoutness. Furthermore, the boys who consider themselves "sophisticates" all experience estrangement from the particular religious experience championed by the likes of Gabriel and Sister Daniels in different forms for entirely different reasons. For example, the most prominent religious person in Johnnie's life is Gabriel, who is a deacon, an arm of the church, and also a man who makes him feel lesser every day of his life simply because he was fathered by another man. In addition to the fact that Gabriel, an antagonist in Johnnie's life, is also a representative of the church, it's clear that Johnnie has strong romantic feelings for David, and his church likely condemns homosexuality.
For David, on the other hand, religion clearly doesn't factor very much into his daily experience. It's something that he's merely willing to endure for the sake of getting closer to something he wants, in this case, a relationship with Sylvia. And for Roy, who everyone refers to as "saved" and who plays the tambourine for the service, religion is just as baffling as it is for Johnnie; however, it doesn't antagonize him, it embraces him. In other words, it's easier for Roy to simply accept his father's religion on a superficial basis than it would be to openly dissent. Thus, this idea that religion is something generally rebelled against by the umbrella group of youth is false; rather it's an individual experience for each of them.
The narrative itself has a critical tone—sometimes verging on ironic—regarding religion. Once the congregants and guests are on the boat, Baldwin writes, "The children, bored with the familiar spectacle, had already drawn apart and amused themselves by loud cries and games that were no less exhibitionistic than that being played by their parents," thus explicitly calling the congregation and group discussion of God and salvation an ostentatious game.
The boat itself serves as a provocative interstitial space for this drama to play out, and the fact that their destination is a mountain harks to Exodus and the biblical Mount Sinai, where Moses receives the Ten Commandments from God. In Christianity, the symbolic interpretation of "the mountaintop" is a place where one has direct conference with God, where one can see the promise of an ideal future. The Exodus was a long journey that tested the faith of participants. In "The Outing," faiths are tested and reaffirmed on the journey to Bear Mountain. Baldwin references the Hudson River throughout the story as an "indifferent" force of nature. At one point, during the service on the boat, Baldwin describes the scene of worshippers and skeptics standing there as one, experiencing the whims and throws of the Hudson. He writes:
Now the hall was filled with a rushing wind on which forever rides the Lord, death or healing indifferently in His hands. Under this fury the saints bowed low, crying out 'holy!' and tears fell. On the open deck sinners stood and watched, beyond them the fiery sun and the deep river, the black-brown-green, unchanging cliffs. That sun, which covered earth and water now, would one day refuse to shine, the river would cease its rushing and its numberless dead would rise; the cliffs would shiver, crack, fall and where they had been would then be nothing but the unleased wrath of God.
This scene demonstrates how both "sinners" and "saints" experience the same tumultuous world; the difference is in their perspective, and not their sensation. Both groups feel the water rise and fall, but one rejoices at the power of their Lord while the other watches in varied states of skepticism.