Some of the major events of my life were the result of careful planning, such as getting good grades in challenging high school classes to prepare for university studies. But other major events in my life came out of nowhere and took my life in directions I had never considered before.
As church ended, I stood up and turned to Taylor Santiago, standing next to me. “What are you up to today?” I asked.
“Studying,” Taylor replied. “Two weeks in, and I’ve hardly done any reading for any of my classes. I’m so behind.”
“I have some of that to do too. But with the holiday tomorrow, and no football to watch today, I should have enough time to catch up.”
“Yeah. Who are you going for in the football championship next week?”
“I don’t really care,” I said. “The Captains aren’t in it, and I can’t root for whoever is playing against the Toros because they aren’t in it either.”
“Good point. I’m for Wisconsin. Coach Mike Holmgren is a Christian, you know. Noah and I met his kids at a church camp once.”
“Wow,” I said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Well, I should get going. Enjoy your day off tomorrow.”
“I will. Thanks.” I walked around after Taylor left, looking for someone else to talk to. I wandered outside and saw a guy named Jim talking to three teenage boys.
“Come on!” one boy with light brown wavy hair said to Jim. “Take us to McDonald’s!”
“I can’t,” Jim replied. “I have work to do.”
“Maybe someone else will take us to McDonald’s,” another boy said. This one was thin, with dark hair.
“Hey, you!” the third boy said, turning in my direction. “Wanna go to McDonald’s?”
I looked behind me, trying to see who this boy was talking to; no one was there. The boy was still looking at me. He had shaggy dark blonde hair and a wide grin. “Me?” I asked.
“Yeah. Let’s go to McDonald’s.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but have we met?”
“My name’s Ted.”
“I’m Greg,” I replied. “So why do you want to go to McDonald’s with me?”
“You seem like a cool guy.”
“Thanks,” I said, still a little confused.
“Let’s go!” the boy with wavy hair said.
McDonald’s was in the shopping center on the corner of Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, just a few hundred feet from the church. I learned on the walk over that the dark-haired boy was named Zac and the wavy-haired boy was named Danny. “What grade are you boys in?” I asked.
“Eighth,” Danny said.
“What about you? Are you in school?”
“Yeah. I’m a junior at UJ, majoring in mathematics.”
“Math!” Ted repeated. “Eww! Why?”
“I’ve always been good at math.”
“I hate math!”
“I always liked math,” Zac said.
“That’s because you’re weird,” Ted said.
“You’re not weird,” I told Zac.
We ordered and sat down. Danny started talking about something called Winter Camp. “Are you going to Winter Camp, Greg?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t think I know what that is.”
“We all go up to the mountains for a few days. And we go sledding and snowboarding and have snowball fights. And we learn about the Bible.”
“That sounds fun. Who is ‘we?’ What group is this?”
“The Edge. The junior high youth group.”
“I see. That’s the group that Taylor Santiago is one of the leaders for, right?”
“Yeah!” Ted replied excitedly. “You know Taylor?”
“Taylor and I lived in the same dorm when we were freshmen,” I explained. “Who are the other leaders for that group?”
“Adam is the youth pastor,” Zac said. I did not know Adam.
“And there’s Noah, and Martin,” Ted added. “And Courtney. And a bunch of other people.”
“I know Noah and Martin and Courtney,” I told them. “So are you guys out of school tomorrow too?”
“Yeah,” Zac said.
“What are you guys doing?”
“Sitting around all day playing video games!”
“Same,” Danny added.
“That sounds fun,” I said. “I have homework to do.”
“Eww,” Zac replied.
As we finished eating, I realized that I had no idea where, or who, these kids’ parents were, or how they were getting home. “How are you guys getting home?” I asked. “Is someone going to come pick you up?”
“Danny and I were going to go to Ted’s house. You wanna take us to Ted’s house? You can see the raft.”
“I guess. Do your parents know you’re going there?”
“We’ll call them when we get there.”
“Okay,” I said. When I was growing up, it was normal to turn kids loose to go play at each others’ houses, especially by the time they reached eighth grade, so I did not question this. The three of us walked back to my car, and I drove out of the parking lot toward Andrews Road. Zac handed me what he said was a mix tape of Christian music and asked if I would play it. A song I did not know, something about a big house, came on. “Which way?” I asked.
“Left,” Ted said. I turned onto the street, then he continued, “Turn left up here at the light?”
“This street here at the light,” Ted repeated, pointing to the traffic light at Coventry Boulevard. “I don’t know what it’s called.” I thought it was odd that Ted would not know the name of one of Jeromeville’s major streets, particularly one on the route from his home to church, but I had realized over the previous few years that many people do not pay attention to details like street signs and maps the way I do.
“Who is this singing?” I asked.
“Audio Adrenaline,” Zac said. I did not know that band, but they had a cool name.
I turned left on Coventry, crossed Highway 117, and continued driving. As we approached the four-way stop at Lakeside Avenue, the last intersection in the city limits of Jeromeville before the subdivisions gave way to fields and orchards, Ted had not given me any further instructions. “Do I turn here?” I asked.
“No. Keep going straight.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah. I live kind of far out.”
I hoped that Ted was right, and I did not entirely trust his sense of direction since he could not identify Coventry Boulevard by name earlier, but I kept driving west. If Ted was correct, then he lived pretty far out in the country.
Almost four miles past Lakeside Avenue, Ted finally said, “Turn here, where you see that white mailbox.” I saw the mailbox on the other side of an approaching bridge over a small stream; I slowed down and turned. A dirt road followed the stream, curving around to the southeast. Ahead of me, I saw a very old looking farmhouse, painted a distinct pale green color. Three tall palm trees stood at the end of the dirt road in front of the house. I walked past the trees and followed the boys to the front porch, which was up a set of stairs about five or six feet off the ground. The boys walked in the door, and I followed them, looking for an adult.
“Hey, Ted,” I heard a man’s voice say from somewhere in the house. “Danny. Zac. How’d you guys get here?”
“Our new friend Greg brought us,” Ted replied.
As I stood in the doorway, I heard footsteps approaching. A middle-aged man with unkempt brown-gray hair and glasses walked up to me. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Carl Hunter. I’m Ted’s father.”
“Greg,” I said. “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you a leader with the junior high group?”
“No,” I said, “but some of my friends are. I just saw these guys after church, and they asked if I wanted to go to McDonald’s with them. And they said something about showing me the raft.”
“Really,” Dr. Hunter chuckled. I did not know yet on that day to call him “Dr.,” but I would learn later that Carl Hunter was a professor at the university, with a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. “Do you go to the college group? 20/20?”
“Well, welcome to our home. The raft is out back, by the slough.”
I walked across the house in the direction Dr. Hunter pointed, noticing several other children of various ages. I found Ted, Zac, and Danny to my left as I stepped into the backyard, in the direction of the stream I had noticed earlier. “Are all those kids your brothers and sisters?” I asked Ted.
“Yeah. I have an older brother and four younger sisters.”
“Wow. So what’s this raft you were talking about?”
“Here.” Ted gestured toward a large piece of plywood with large chunks of plastic foam from the insides of packages attached to the bottom.
“Can that thing hold all four of us?” I asked.
“Probably not, but it can hold two of us. My brother and I were in it together before.”
“Who’s going first?”
“You and me. Come on, Greg.”
Ted and I dragged the raft down the bank of the slough, about a five foot drop in elevation. Ted stepped on the raft, holding a long pole, and placing one end of the pole in the water all the way to the bottom. The water was muddy, but it appeared to be only about a foot deep. I stepped onto the raft with Ted. I felt the raft sink a little, but it remained afloat.
“It works,” I said. “You built this?”
“Yeah. My brother and my dad helped.”
“Where are we going?”
“That way!” Ted began using the pole to push and steer the raft upstream. The water was relatively still, without much of a current. The banks of the slough were lined with bushes and trees, many of which had lost their leaves for the winter. We rowed upstream as far as the bridge where Coventry Boulevard crossed the slough, then Ted turned the raft around back toward where Zac and Danny were waiting for a turn. “Hi!” Ted called out, waving to Zac and Danny watching us from downstream. Zac and Danny waved back. “So, Greg, how old are you?”
“When’s your birthday?”
“No way. You’re lying.”
“No, I’m not. Why?”
“Because August 15 is my birthday.”
“That’s so cool.”
“And my brother is August 14, and Zac is August 12.”
“That’s crazy. So many of us with August birthdays.”
“I know! Like, what are the chances?”
I thought about this, trying to answer Ted’s question seriously. “I can’t do that calculation in my head,” I said.
“You’re such a math guy,” Ted said.
After we returned to where we started, Zac and Danny got on the raft, pushing it to the bridge and back just as we did. I asked Ted, “So what do you guys do at youth group?”
“Well, we have fun, mostly.”
“I figured that. I mean, like, what goes on in a typical youth group meeting? I didn’t grow up with a youth group, so I don’t really know.”
“We play a game. Then we sing. Then we break into groups and learn about the Bible.”
“That sounds nice,” I said. “I’m part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship on campus. It sounds kind of like your youth group, but without the game.”
“That’s too bad. The games are the best part.”
“Yeah, but this is a group for UJ students, so they aren’t going to play kid-type games. But a lot of times we hang out afterward.”
I ended up staying at the Hunters’ house for about another hour after we got off the raft. Ted showed me around the rest of the house, and I watched them play some racing video game. I took a turn myself, but did not do well, since I was not used to the controls. When it came time for me to leave, I asked Zac and Danny, “Do you guys have rides home?”
“If you can take us, that would be great.”
“You both live in Jeromeville?” I asked, slightly wary after discovering that Ted lived so far outside of town.
“Sounds good.” I went to find Ted’s parents, to tell them that I was taking the other boys home. “Thanks for letting me hang out here this afternoon,” I said.
“You’re welcome,” Dr. Hunter replied. “You’re welcome here any time.”
“It was nice meeting you,” Mrs. Hunter added.
“You too,” I said. “I’ll see you around.”
Danny lived in west Jeromeville off of Lakeside Avenue, and Zac lived off of Andrews Road about half a mile north of the church and fairly close to my apartment. When I got home, Shawn was upstairs in our shared bedroom, sitting at his desk writing something.
“Hey, Greg,” Shawn said. “How was your afternoon?”
“Weird,” I replied. “But fun. Three teenage boys from church, whom I’ve never met before, walked up to me and decided they wanted to hang out with me. We went to McDonald’s, and then we went to one of their houses, which backs up a slough, and we got on the water in a raft.”
“Wow. That is interesting. Kind of random.”
I took my Bible, the daily devotional book I had bought at Urbana, and the notebook I was using as a prayer journal and sat on the couch on the landing on the top of the stairs. I opened the devotional book and read the Scripture for the day. I began writing in the notebook, thinking of things to pray for. Seeking and knowing God’s will. Wisdom to know where God wanted me to serve. To come to terms with Haley’s rejection.
I started thinking about everything I had learned at the Urbana convention three weeks ago. I had gone to that convention wanting to learn more about missions, but also seeking some specific role to play in the body of Christ. What if this was an answer to prayer? What if God was using Ted and Zac and Danny to show me my role? Maybe God is calling me to youth ministry, I wrote in the journal.
Over the next few weeks, I kept praying about this. I also hung out with those boys after church a few more times. Sure, I was several years older than them, but they were fun, and they were interested in what I had to say. They taught me some of their favorite video games. I showed them my creative project, my comic-book-like stories called Dog Crap and Vince.
About a month later, in mid-February, Taylor approached me after church one day. “Hey, Greg, I have a question for you.”
“I’ve noticed you’ve been hanging out with Ted and Zac and Danny after church lately.”
“I’m taking spring quarter off. I’m going to be doing an urban missions project in Chicago for the spring and summer. I told you that, right?”
“Well, I was wondering, since you get along with those boys so well, that maybe you might want to take my spot as a leader with The Edge. Those boys are all in my small group. You could try it for the next month while I’m still around and do the small group with me.”
Thank you, God, for bringing another answer to prayer directly to me, I said in my head. It was at least worth a try. “Sure,” I said. A month after that day with the raft, I began volunteering with the junior high group at church, which I would go on to do for the next four years.
Readers: Have you ever had a memorable moment hanging out with random strangers?
Also, if you haven’t yet, be sure to check out these two guest posts I wrote for other blogs, about two childhood Christmases. Merry Christmas!
December 23-25, 1985. A new family tradition born of immaturity and impatience (for Tall Blonde Tales)
December 25, 1986. The decorative candles (for My Days In Montana)