Previously on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was traveling to Urbana, Illinois for a Christian student convention to learn about missions and service opportunities. Read the previous episode here.
“Hi,” Matt, the small group leader, said to the remaining guys in the group who were just entering the room. Matt had long wavy brown hair down to his shoulders and wore a long sleeved button shirt and jeans. “Glad you found us. Our room smelled of smoke really bad, so Obadiah here offered to let us meet in his room. We’re all here, so we can get started now. My name is Matt, and I’m a senior at Michigan State, majoring in religious studies.”
“I’m Greg,” I said. “I’m a junior, a mathematics major at the University of Jeromeville.” Most of the others did not know where Jeromeville was, so I told them. This small group had eight other guys in it besides me, one from Canada and seven from various parts of the United States, none of which were out west near me. Matt, the leader, also led a small group at Michigan State’s chapter of Intervarsity. He pointed out that I had traveled the farthest to get to Urbana. “Did a lot of people from Jeromeville come to Urbana?” he asked.
“Wow,” said the guy named Obadiah, who was from Oklahoma. “I’m the only one here from my school. But I go to a small Bible college with only three hundred students, and we don’t have an Intervarsity chapter. I found out about Urbana from my church.”
After two and a half years at the University of Jeromeville, with twenty-five thousand students, I could not picture what life at a school that small would be like. The others introduced themselves, with half of them having come from public schools like me and the other half from private schools.
“So what did we learn about being a witness from the session tonight?” Matt asked. Some of the others shared their thoughts. One guy whose name was also Matt mentioned giving our lives for Jesus, and another guy, Pablo, pointed out that we are all witnesses all the time, because the rest of the world sees how we act as Christians. I had never really thought of it that way, but he was right. The theme for this year’s Urbana conference was “You Are My Witnesses,” taken from God’s words to the people of Israel in Isaiah 43:10, and echoed by Jesus in Acts 1:8 when he tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses, just before he is taken up to heaven. The first general session had been earlier this evening, just before this small group, and a number of speakers had discussed this concept of witness.
After this, we spent some time praying with each other. Matt, the leader with the long hair, asked us each in turn how we could pray for each other. When it was my turn, I said, “Pray that I will hear what God has for my life. I’m a fairly new Christian, and I don’t really know a lot about missions, but a lot of my friends have done mission trips, and I want to know what’s out there, and what God has for me.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Matt said. “I think God definitely has something to show you.”
We each took turns praying for someone else, then we dispersed to our rooms. Long-Haired Matt and Pablo were my roommates; I slept in the top bunk, Matt on the bottom, and Pablo on a cot that had been placed in the room specifically for this convention. As Matt had said earlier, our room smelled horribly of smoke, and with my normal difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar places, I hoped that the smell would not keep me awake.
Intervarsity was a nondenominational Christian organization with chapters at colleges and universities throughout North America. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, which I had begun attending at the beginning of sophomore year, was a chapter of Intervarsity. Every three years, during the week after Christmas, the organization held this convention, named after its location in Urbana, Illinois. I had never traveled this far east before, nor had I ever seen this much snow.
The University of Illinois campus hosted the convention. Attendees slept in dormitories that were normally occupied by students, who were home for winter break during the convention. Normally these rooms held two students, but cots had been added for this convention so that three of us could share each room. I was glad I had not been assigned to the cot. Apparently the residents of this room were smokers. The Illinois students did not have to move their things out during their break. The other Matt in my small group had mentioned that his room’s walls were full of bikini model posters, so he asked for leftover Urbana posters to cover them up. The organizers of the convention had extra posters available; apparently this was a common occurrence.
Each day of the convention began with a small group Bible study, with the same eight other guys that I had met with last night. Following this was a two hour general session with worship music and speakers, ending at noon. Dozens of smaller sessions filled each afternoon, with attendees free to choose which sessions to attend, and representatives from ministry and service organizations, as well as Bible colleges and seminaries, filled three exhibit halls. Another general session met each night after dinner, with prayer time in our small groups before bed.
On the second morning, December 28, I saw Long-Haired Matt, the other Matt, and Obadiah talking in the dorm as they prepared to leave for the general session. I asked if I could walk over with them. The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was a very large campus, spread out along the border of two adjacent cities. Many of the buildings appeared older than those of UJ back home. The buildings were arranged more densely than those of UJ, for the most part. The general session was held in the basketball arena, and I had to walk past the football stadium to get there. Both of them were much larger than the corresponding facilities at UJ, which did not surprise me since Illinois was a Division I school.
The general session began with a worship band playing on a stage where the basketball court normally was. Some of the songs were familiar to me, the same songs that we sang at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church. After the music, speakers came up to talk about various aspects of missions and being a witness. The keynote speaker that morning was an older woman named Elisabeth Elliot. She told a story about she and her husband, Jim, serving as missionaries in a remote part of South America in the 1950s. They tried to establish contact with an indigenous group so they could live with them and teach them the good news about Jesus dying for our sins. Jim and four other members of their group were killed by the people they were trying to reach, but Elisabeth later returned to live with those people for several years. As one new to evangelical Christian missionary culture, I had never heard anything like that; Ms. Elliot’s story was both inspiring and intense. I overheard Long-Haired Matt and Obadiah talking after the session; apparently the Elliots’ story was well-known among those who grew up going to churches that emphasized world missions.
I spent the afternoon in a session about keeping a prayer journal. The speaker, an Intervarsity staff leader from some other school, had a lot of good things to say, but I also came out of the session feeling a bit like a failure. My prayer times tended to be unproductive, and I did not hear God’s voice audibly. The speaker also cautioned against having an experience orientation, in which one’s faith and prayer life is focused on results instead of the mere presence of God. I knew that this was something I struggled with. That evening, I could not find either of the Matts or Obadiah or Pablo or any of the others in my group when the time for the general session came, so I sat alone.
By lunch time on December 29, I was feeling two things: discouraged and cold. We had a good small group last night, though. Multiple people prayed that I would get out of this rut of discouragement, but it had not happened yet. Long-Haired Matt reminded me about the guest services booth where I could look up dorm room phone numbers for other attendees. I made a note to look up Brian Burr, Eddie Baker, and Taylor Santiago later that day, so I could at least see them at some point during this convention.
As I left the cafeteria and headed across campus for a session about forgiveness, I realized that something looked different. The snow was melting. The blanket of white that had covered the campus when I arrived two days ago had receded to little patches of snow scattered across the greens and browns of nature and the grays of paved surfaces. The air also felt noticeably warmer this afternoon.
“Greg!” I heard someone call out as I approached the building where my session was. It was a female voice, not any of the guys in my small group. I turned and saw a girl with light brown hair in a white sweatshirt, smiling and waving to me.
“Autumn!” I called out excitedly. Autumn Davies was a sophomore at Jeromeville, who stayed in the same hotel as me on the night before Urbana began. She gave me a hug.
“How are you?” Autumn asked. “How have you been?”
“Okay, I guess. Just trying to figure out what God is telling me through all this.”
“You’ll figure it out. Just keep listening.”
“Yeah. How has Urbana been for you?”
“It’s been great! I’m learning so much! I want to go on a mission trip this summer.”
“Awesome! Keep me posted on that.”
“Hey, do you want to come sit with us at the session tonight? Some of us from Jeromeville decided to sit together, and we’ve gradually been finding other people we know.”
“Yeah! Definitely! You’re actually the first person from Jeromeville I’ve seen since we got off the bus.”
“Wow! We’ve been sitting in section 205.”
“I need to get to this session, but it was great to see you! I’ll see you tonight!”
My Urbana experience seemed to change from the moment the snow melted. A couple hours after I ran into Autumn, I saw Tabitha Sasaki and Melinda Schmidt walking toward a different session. And when I arrived in section 205 that night, it felt like coming home, being surrounded by familiar faces. Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, and Brian, our campus staff. Eddie, Autumn, Leah, Tabitha, Leslie, Alyssa, Scott and Amelia, Melinda, Ajeet, Mike Knepper, and many of the other friends I made at JCF last year. Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, and Ramon, friends from my freshman dorm who invited me to JCF in the first place. I had told Long-Haired Matt at dinner earlier that I found some of my Jeromeville friends and would probably sit with them instead of my small group; he seemed to approve of this idea.
“Greg!” Taylor said when he saw me approach their section. “Good to see you!”
“You too!” I said. “I ran into Autumn earlier, and she told me where everyone would be.”
“So what have you thought of everything so far? Are you ready to pack up and go on a mission trip this summer?” Taylor chuckled.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience. I was thinking earlier today, I should probably start with something smaller. Like maybe I could be a Bible study leader next year.”
“Oh yeah? That’s a good thought. If you’re interested in that, talk to Dave and Janet. And talk to your Bible study leader this year, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Who is that?”
“He’s not at Urbana, is he?”
“No. But I’ll talk to him when we get back.”
“Good idea. I’m going to be taking a quarter off in the spring to do inner-city missions this spring and summer, so I’ve been looking for stuff that’ll help with that.”
“That’s cool. Keep me posted about that.”
Although I possibly had the beginnings of a plan, I still felt a lot that was unresolved within me. I did not have a specific plan like Taylor. So much here seemed to be pushing the idea of going to serve God in other countries, and I just did not feel ready for that. I knew that not everyone was called to missions overseas, but what if I was just being lazy and staying in my comfort zone instead of actually doing God’s will for my life?
For the remaining two days of Urbana, I followed the same pattern of sitting with Long-Haired Matt and my small group in the morning session and with my Jeromeville friends in the evening. Although I enjoyed seeing my friends at the evening sessions, I was haunted by the words of the speaker from earlier in the week who reminded me not to have an experience-oriented faith. It was difficult to find the balance of having friends to encourage me in my faith, and for me to encourage in theirs, yet also remembering that my faith is deeper than just experiences with friends.
By the final evening, the smell of smoke from my dorm room had permeated all of my clothes and the towel I was using to dry myself after showering. I hoped that the smell did not bother my friends, and I hoped that people I came across would not assume that I was a smoker. That would not be a good witness to others.
According to the program, one of tonight’s topics was about “sending,” presented by one of the people in charge of Intervarsity. I was not sure what this word meant exactly. “You’ve probably learned a lot about Urbana about missions,” the speaker said. “But it is just as important to know that someone back home is sending these people on missions.” He went on to explain the importance of the teams who give financially to missionaries and pray for them, how they are a crucial part of the missions experience. I liked that.
The final evening session was scheduled to end two and a half hours later than on the other nights. It was December 31, and we would all take communion together at midnight to celebrate the New Year. After the last speaker, the band came back and played an extended worship session. They began with a song called “Good To Me,” a song that I had heard many times back home, but which was still just as true. God really was good to me.
Around 11:45, hundreds of volunteers spread out throughout the arena to distribute crackers and grape juice for communion. The people on stage told the story of the Last Supper and instructed us to eat the bread and drink the juice in memory of Jesus. I sat reflecting on everything that had happened this week as the worship team played music with no vocals. The burden I had been feeling, wanting to make sure I was doing enough to serve God, was lifting now that I had heard the talk about sending. Suddenly it felt okay if I was not ready to cross any oceans this summer. I could still make donations and pray for my friends who would be crossing oceans, and that was still an important part of the cause of world missions. And I was planning to learn more about leading a small group next year.
I looked at my watch after a while; It was 12:02. The date displayed on my watch said “1-1-97.” January 1, 1997. A new year, full of new opportunities and possibilities.
After the worship team dismissed us from the session, I stood up and looked around at my friends sitting nearby. Eddie made eye contact with me; he walked over and patted me on the back. “Happy New Year, Greg,” he said.
“You too,” I replied. “By the way, you were wrong when you said a couple weeks ago that Urbana was so big that we probably wouldn’t see each other.”
“I know. I guess I was.”
“No offense, but in this case I’m glad you were wrong.” I smiled.
“Me too,” Eddie replied. “So what did you think of tonight?” I told him of my realization about sending, that it did not make me any less of a Christian if I did not go on a mission trip right away. “Good,” he said. “We as Christians are saved by faith, not by our works.”
The next morning, as we packed and cleaned our rooms, the nine of us in my small group exchanged contact information and took a group photo. Most of them did not stay in touch with me, though, and the ones who did I only heard from for a couple months. Life just gets in the way, I suppose.
In one of the exhibit halls was an Urbana store, selling merchandise and books. I bought a T-shirt, with a design identical to the poster I had received in the mail when I first signed up for Urbana. I also bought three books, two written by speakers I had heard and one a devotional book to use in my personal prayer time. I began reading Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot on the plane ride home. Although I found her talk intriguing, the book came across as boring. A couple weeks later, I gave up halfway through the book, and while I still have it all these years later, I never finished it.
Although Urbana was an amazing experience that answered some of my questions about missions, I also felt like I was leaving with new questions. Was it God’s will for me to serve him overseas, and how do I separate the answer to this question from my flesh and its desire to stay comfortable? How could I serve the body of Christ back home? Would I lead a small group senior year, and how would that impact my schedule? As I looked forward to new opportunities and experiences in 1997 while traveling thousands of feet above the ground, I prayed that God would reveal his will to me, that he would show me where. And, unsurprisingly, God did reveal his will to me not too long after that, and it was not at all what I was expecting.
Author’s note: What’s the most interesting way you’ve ever spent a New Year?
Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.