Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened. My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments. It was a Tuesday morning. About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today. A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City. Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible. After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.
My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”
A few of my classmates gasped. This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected. O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend. For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy. All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted. To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.
When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building. A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad. A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore. A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk. Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.
Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything. Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard. “Hi, Greg,” she said. “Thanks for signing up to work today.”
“No problem,” I said. “So what do I do? Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”
“Yes. Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets. “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”
“I can do that,” I said. I looked through one of the pamphlets. It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman. The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.
A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign. “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said. “Can I help you?”
“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.
“We are the Newman Center. We are a Catholic student community. We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”
I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it. I was curious what made him stop at our table. Does he come from a Catholic background? Is he just interested in Catholicism? Was he just being friendly? I did not ask. I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.
“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.
“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.
“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained. “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”
“So are you done with class today?
“No. I have physics lab at 2. I had chemistry lab this morning.”
“Two labs on the same day.”
“Yeah. That’s all I have today. This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict. I thought that was kind of funny.”
“I heard he was found not guilty.”
“Yeah. I wasn’t expecting that. Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely. I’m just sick of hearing about it.”
“I know what you mean.”
Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair. “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet. “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”
“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages. “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”
“There is also St. John’s. They are a more traditional Catholic parish. The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”
“Would you like to sign up for our contact list? We can send you more information.”
“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.
“Thanks,” I said. “Have a great day.”
“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off. “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”
“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing. I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”
“Good for you! I think you’ll love it.”
“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people. But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo. And I need to get more involved in things. I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”
“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice? You two know each other besides just church, right?”
“Yes. She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”
“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”
The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road. I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th. I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.
“Greg!” Danielle called out. “You made it!”
“I did,” I said.
“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater. I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well. “Danielle told me you would be coming. We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week. Grab a songbook.”
I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass. I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones. He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home. He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.
There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble. The others introduced themselves to Phil and me. There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina. An olive-skinned girl named Heather. A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together. And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students. Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past. Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.
Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass. Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings. In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together. The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service. When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics. The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.
The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts. For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing. Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman. “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.” “We used to sing it at my church back home.”
“Mine too,” Danielle replied. “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”
After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me. “Hey, Greg?” she asked. “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas. Is that right?”
“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this. Was she stalking me? Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?
“I do too. Might you be interested in carpooling?”
“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of. Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary.
“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number. And my apartment number.”
“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays? Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”
“Sure. We can do Sundays too.” Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me. Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239. I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.
“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked. “Want me to drive?”
The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass. I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.
“Hey,” I said after opening the door. “You ready?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Which car is yours?”
“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment. “Well, technically not mine. My parents own it. You know.”
“Yeah.” As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from? Are your parents around here?”
“No. Plumdale. Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”
“Oh, okay. How far is that from here?”
“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”
“That’s not bad. I’m from down south, near San Angelo. On a good day it takes six hours.”
“Sounds right. What year are you, and what are you studying?”
“I’m a junior. Psych major. And you’re a sophomore? Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”
“Yeah. She lived one door down across the hall from me. And I’m a math major.”
“Eww. Math and I don’t get along.”
“That’s what a lot of people say.”
“I’m sure they do. Did you have a good weekend?”
“Yeah, but it was boring. Went for a bike ride yesterday.” I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.
“That sounds nice,” Heather said. “Mel and I were at a party on Friday. It was, well, interesting. You know.”
“Melanie. From choir. You met her on Wednesday.”
“Oh, okay. I still don’t know everyone.”
When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty. The early service had left already. We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music. Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.
“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived. “You ready?”
“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”
“There’s no reason to be. Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat. You’ll be fine.”
Danielle was right. I just sang, and it was fine. We sounded good. There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be. The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song. Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.
“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.
“I think so,” I replied.
“Great! I’ll see you Wednesday then.”
“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”
“Yeah. Just a minute.”
I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather. She was talking to Melanie. After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.
I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely. With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year. That meant it was time to get involved in more activities. With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.
After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor. Songs get stuck in my head easily. The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says. Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord. Maybe he finally heard me. Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends. And in the process, I was serving my community. Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.