“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later. What was this? I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos. Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video. But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.
The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built. Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF. By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects. The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.
A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter. He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer. Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject. Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that. But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that. Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane. I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport. The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.
Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF. He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana? Are you gonna go?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that. And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer. And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco. So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”
“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”
“That makes sense. You have a while to think about it and save up for it. The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November. Think about it.”
“I will. Are you going?”
“I’m planning to. Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it. It sounded really great.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around. I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well. Melinda saw me first and waved. “Hey, Greg!” she said. “How was your week?”
“It was good,” I said. “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”
“I just finished one. I hope I do well. Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”
“Come over! Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”
“A cat birthday party,” I repeated. “How does that work? Do I bring a present?”
“No. Just bring yourself.”
“I should be able to make that. Where do you live?”
“Pine Grove, number 202. Do you know where that is?”
“Pine Grove Apartments? Yeah, I know where that is.”
“Great! Come over any time after six.”
“I’ll be there! Sounds good!”
A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice. The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller. Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove. This had been a deciding factor for me. But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.
Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus. I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202. I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.
“Greg!” she said. “Come on in!”
I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual. Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there. Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.
“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.
“Not much,” I said. “I got all my homework done for the weekend. But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”
“When’s it due?”
“Not until the 29th.”
“Then why are you thinking about it now?”
“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would. That’ll take time.”
“Yeah, but you have the whole month. It’s not going to take that long.”
“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked. “That sounds awesome! Is that your major?”
“I’m a math major. I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class. And I know the professor.”
“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”
“I hope so. Tabitha is in that class too.”
“What?” Tabitha said. She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.
“I was talking about the anthro project. I said you’re in that class too.”
“Oh, yeah. Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”
“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC. That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”
“Smart,” Tabitha said. “I was thinking I might do University Life.”
“That would be funny,” Joe said. I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student. That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment. What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.
Over the next hour, more people trickled in. I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others. Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa. There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me. As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat. I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”
“He’s in my room. He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”
“But this is his party!”
Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice. “That was really just an excuse to have a party. We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”
“Oh,” I said. That thought had honestly never crossed my mind. I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.
Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them. After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly. My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed. Others generally found the buzzer annoying.
Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening. He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment. Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting. She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.” As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.
“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said. “Who wants cake and ice cream?” Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream. Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating. I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.
When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds. “Sure!” she replied. “There’s plenty.” I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me. A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit. “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.
“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked. “I made this mixtape for this party.”
“Yes. I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.” I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.
A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope. “Greg?” she asked. “Can I ask you something?
“Yeah. What is it?”
“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer. I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me. Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”
“Sure,” I said. It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer. I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”
“Are you going to Urbana? You’ll find out a lot there.”
“The video last night was the first I had heard of this. I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money. I don’t know.”
“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”
“I know. And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”
“Totally! Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope. “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I’ll read it.”
U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape. I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me. Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song. The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times. We shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.
“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto. Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing. When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.
“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott. He smiled and returned the high five.
As I looked around that room, I realized something. None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.) I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends. By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.
The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir. Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me. “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said. “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”
Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me. “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied. She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here. I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.
“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.
“It was good,” I said. “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”
“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments? I don’t remember the people’s names.”
“Yeah. Amelia and Melinda.”
“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.
“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased. “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”
“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire. “We were just holding hands. Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday? Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”
“Urbana? Yeah, I saw the video. I don’t know if I’m going to go. It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before. But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”
“Yeah, that’s it. Pete’s thinking about going. He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”
“Greg? What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire. She was also in my anthropology class.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”
“That would be interesting! Timely, too. Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”
“True. What about you?”
“I’m not sure. I have a few things in mind, though.”
I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car. Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself. When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.
“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button. “You have one new message.” The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home. I dialed the numbers and waited.
“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.
“Hey,” I said. “It’s Greg.”
“Hello! Where were you?”
“I went out to lunch with some people from church. And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”
“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes. “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”
“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party. The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”
“I see. And you said these are people from JCF? That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”
“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”
“Good for you. I’m glad you’re making friends. See? I knew you could do it.”
“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.
Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes. Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year. By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life. But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life. Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group. But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church. This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.