February 24-28, 1997.  Cambria’s anthropology paper, and Bible study begins falling apart. (#122)

For the last few weeks, I had been setting my alarm for 5:30 in the morning.  I kept hearing from my Christian friends about the importance of starting every day in Scripture, so I had been trying to do that.  Shawn and I shared the largest bedroom in this apartment, and Shawn woke up just as early to travel across the Drawbridge to Laguna Ciervo for student teaching, so I was not waking him up by doing this.  I wondered, however, how effective my Scripture reading really was, considering that I spent much of my extra time being miserable about having gotten so little sleep and nodding off while I tried to pray.

I decided to try something else today.  I did not wake up quite as early, and I packed my Bible in my backpack and brought it to school with me.  After my first class, I had an hour free, the perfect time to spend with God.  I also had the perfect place in mind.

The University of Jeromeville Arboretum extended for a mile and a half along the south end of campus, following a dry creek bed that was now functionally a long, narrow lake.  On its banks were planted trees and plants from around the world, a long, narrow strip of nature right on campus.  I walked directly south from my class in Wellington Hall, past Shelley Library, past Evans Hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met, past the administrative offices in Marks Hall, and past the law school building, which backed up to the Arboretum.  I turned right and walked westward along the path on the north bank of the creek.  A large oak tree stood to the left with a cluster of succulents on the right, and the water tower loomed about two hundred feet away.  I continued walking a little ways and found a bench on the side of the path, in front of some kind of large bush, overlooking majestic oaks on the other side of the path. I sat down and opened my Bible.

In December, I traveled to a conference held by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. All attendees received a Bible that included a plan to read the Bible in a year, a few chapters from different sections each day.  Today was February 24, but I was quite a bit behind at this point; the last day I had read was February 12.  I read the passages from February 13 next; I was not trying to catch up anymore.  I was beginning to accept the fact that I would not finish in a year, and that was okay.

After I read, I prayed for a while.  I thanked God for this beautiful place to sit on campus, with birds chirping, squirrels running up and down trees, and ducks swimming by.  I prayed that I would stay calm and focused in studying for upcoming midterms.  I prayed for the urban missions project that my friend Taylor Santiago would be part of this spring and summer.  I prayed that I would know the career that God was leading me to.  I prayed for anything and anyone else I could think of, including Chloe, my Bible study co-leader who had recently stepped down from that position without sharing why.


The rest of that day was uneventful in a good way.  I had been home for about half an hour that afternoon, sitting at my desk working on math, when I heard the doorbell ring.  I was expecting a visitor, but it always made me nervous having someone enter my private home and see how I lived.  I had gotten used to the idea of sharing my home with roommates since the four of us moved to this apartment in September, but it still did not feel ideal.

I walked down the stairs to answer the door, but Brian was already downstairs; he got there first.  “Hey, Cambria,” he said.

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

“I’m here,” I said, walking down the stairs.

“What are you guys up to today?” Brian asked.

“I’m interviewing Greg for a paper I’m writing,” Cambria explained.  “You ready, Greg?”

“Sure,” I replied.

Cambria Hawley was a freshman; I knew her from JCF.  She appeared to have mixed European and Asian heritage.  She was of average height, with brown hair and an athletic build from having played water polo in high school.  Cambria was named after a beach town in central California; her parents had vacationed there before she was born, and they liked the town’s name well enough to use it for their daughter.  I do not remember if I knew the story behind Cambria’s name yet at the time she came to our apartment.

Last week at JCF, Cambria had asked me if she could interview me for a paper she had to write in an anthropology class.  “I need to interview someone who experienced a change in their culture or belief system,” she had told me.  “Like someone who moved to another country, or someone who practices a different religion than they grew up with, or something like that.  I remember that you said you grew up Catholic, so I think you would have an interesting perspective on this.”  I had told Cambria that, yes, she could interview me, and this was why she had come over now, three days later.  She sat at the dining room table and took out a notebook and a pen from her backpack; I sat next to her.

“How old were you when you left Catholicism?” Cambria asked.  “And what exactly would you call yourself now?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “‘Christian’ seems a little vague, since technically Catholics follow Christ too.  ‘Evangelical Christian,’ maybe?”

“That’ll work.”

“It was a gradual process at age 19 and 20.”

“So this was recent?  I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.  Last school year.  I lived alone, and I wanted to stay in touch with my friends from freshman year now that we weren’t all in the dorm together.  They were all involved with JCF, so I started going to JCF large group with them.”

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

“Yeah.  1995.  As I started making friends at JCF, I started hearing a lot about having a relationship with Jesus.  And something about my JCF friends just seemed different, in a good way.  One day during winter quarter, I was having a rough day, I saw Janet McAllen on campus, and we just got to talking.  She started asking me if I knew Jesus.  I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained to me how sin created separation between God and humans, and Jesus died to pay the price for that sin so that we could have eternal life and a relationship with him.”

“So it was mostly the influence of friends, more so than family or a pastor?”

“Yeah.”  From the way she asked that, I wondered if she was connecting my answer to something specific that she had learned in class, such as a list of ways that people may be influenced to leave their belief systems.  “Well, the McAllens are campus ministry leaders, that’s kind of like pastors in a way, but they’re friends too,” I added.

“Were you part of a Catholic church before?  What happened when you left?”

“Yes.  I went to Mass at the Newman Center.  And I didn’t leave right away,” I explained.

“Why not?”

“I didn’t feel like I had to.  Catholics believe in Jesus too, and the things I was learning at JCF helped me understand the Catholic Mass better, how all the rituals have their roots in deep worship experiences.”

“Interesting.  So why did you leave?  You go to Jeromeville Covenant now, right?”

“I started seeing more and more that the Catholic students didn’t really know Jesus, and many of them didn’t want to.  To them, Catholicism was just part of their culture; they weren’t really serious about living out their beliefs.  And the people in charge at the Newman Center had some questionable interpretations of what they claimed to believe.  I was in a place where I needed to learn more about the Bible from people who were actually living it out.  And just like with JCF, I had a lot of friends who went to J-Cov, so I started going to church with them.”

“And when was this?”

“October.”

“Just this last October?  Wow, that really was recent.”

“Yeah.”

“How is being a Christian different from being Catholic?” Cambria asked.

“There is much more of an emphasis on my personal relationship with Jesus, on really knowing Jesus personally.  And there is less of an emphasis on rituals, saying the right things at Mass, going to Reconciliation, stuff like that.”

“Reconciliation?”

“It’s also called ‘confession.’  You talk to the priest about ways you have sinned and what good things you can do instead.  Evangelical Christians focus more on telling God your sins yourself, in your personal prayer time.”

Cambria wrote some notes, then proceeded to ask me more questions, including asking about my family and friends’ responses to my newfound Christianity, and about changes in my everyday life that came about as a result of this.  After about half an hour of talking and answering questions, she told me that she had enough to write her paper.  “Thanks for letting me interview you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” I replied.  “I hope that helped.”

“What are you up to this week?” she asked.

“Just the usual.  It’s gonna be another busy week of school and work.  I have The Edge Wednesday and Bible study Thursday.”  I chose not to tell her that tomorrow I was going to University Life, another Christian group on campus run by a different church.  I had been feeling disillusioned with JCF at times, and I had been checking out that other group.

“What’s The Edge?”

“The junior high youth group at J-Cov.  I met some kids from there after church one week.  And Taylor Santiago is going away for the spring and summer to do a mission trip, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot on the youth staff.”

“That sounds so cool!  I would love to be a youth leader!”

“It’s been a lot of fun so far.  I’ve only been there a couple weeks.”

“Whose Bible study are you in?  Is this a JCF group?”

“Yeah.  Evan Lundgren is the leader.”  I started to say that Chloe had been the co-leader, but I thought her recent decision might not be something to share with the world. I just said, “He had a co-leader, but she quit last week.”

“Quit?  Really?”

“Yeah.  I don’t know what was going on.  Evan said she wouldn’t be part of the group anymore, and that she had some decisions to make.  From what he said, it makes me think that she isn’t a Christian anymore..”

“Oh my gosh,”  Cambria said, sounding concerned.  “It sounds like there’s gotta be something else going on with this girl.”

“Yeah.  But it wasn’t my place to pry.  We were down to just five people last week.  Me, Evan, Jonathan Li, Jill Nguyen, and Amy Kilpatrick.  And I’m hearing that they want to keep expanding the Kairos ministry next year, and add other small groups that are specifically for certain kinds of people.  I’m not in any of the cliques that get picked for the Kairos ministry, and I don’t fit any of those categories, so I don’t know if there will be a Bible study for me next year.”

“I’m sure you’ll have a group next year,” Cambria said.  “They have to have one for everyone.  I’m gonna be in a Kairos group, but I know there will be other groups.”

“No offense, but why do they have to handpick future leaders like that and have separate groups for them?  It just feels exclusionary.”

“Hmm,” Cambria said.  “I had never thought of it like that.”

“I’m sorry.  I’m just frustrated with the way this year’s group is falling apart.”

“Five people in a small group doesn’t have to be a bad thing.  You can have a more involved discussion.”

“That’s true.  I could probably step up and be more involved in the discussion, too.”

“There you go.  It’ll be a good group for the rest of the year.”


Evan and his roommate Jonathan hosted our Bible study at their apartment fall quarter, but in January Evan said that their other roommate needed the house for something on Thursdays, so they would not be able to host anymore.  I volunteered my apartment, after checking with my roommates to make sure it was okay.

On the Thursday night after Cambria interviewed me, I put my studying aside and went downstairs with my Bible after I heard Evan and Jonathan knock on the door.  While the three of us made small talk about how classes were going, Jill arrived and joined our conversation.  A few minutes after that, Evan said, “We can get started now.  It’s time, and I think it’s just going to be the four of us tonight.”

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

“No,” Evan said.  “Do you know Glen Marshall?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Since being involved with JCF and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had heard multiple talks and lessons warning against becoming romantically involved with non-Christians.  Glen’s housemates all went to JCF, and I had heard them repeatedly mention that Glen was not a Christian, particularly whenever the lesson at JCF or church involved sharing the message of the Gospel with friends.  Why was a Christian girl like Amy interested in this Glen guy?  And why do these rules, which seemed to make it even harder for me to find a girlfriend, not apply to others?  Of course, I knew that I did not want a non-Christian girlfriend in the first place, but it still bothered me that people were not following the rules.

We had begun a study of 1 Corinthians in January, at the beginning of the quarter, and it appeared likely that it would take us the entire year to finish.  During the study, my eyes drifted ahead on the page to a part of the book that we had not studied yet, where Paul wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.”  It seemed like my Christian friends often made jokes about this verse, and the gift of singleness, but many of them ended up in relationships, so they obviously did not take it literally at face value.  But it was hard not to feel like God had forcibly thrust the gift of singleness upon me, and upon few to no others.


Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met the next night, and afterward I asked Cambria how her paper turned out.  “I think I did well,” she said.  “I wrote about how you went from a more ritual-based belief system to one based on an individual relationship.”

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

“And you went from a complex belief system to a simple one.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  Something about the way she said that surprised me.  I wondered if “complex” and “simple” in this case had specific meanings in that field of study, because I had never really thought of evangelical Christianity as being any less “complex” than Catholicism.  But maybe she was right.  Evangelical Chrisitanity offered a simple plan of salvation: just believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.  Catholicism had hoops to jump through and sacraments to perform, or at the very least a much stronger emphasis on these than evangelical Christianity.

But if Christianity was so simple, why did I feel like there were so many rules to follow?  Why did some people get picked to be in Kairos groups and others did not?  Why did I have to get over the head with messages about how being single is a gift from God, and how Christians should only be in relationships with other Christians, only to see Amy skip Bible study to go on a date with a non-Christian?  Something about this did not seem simple to me.  From what I heard, Amy and Glen did end up in a serious long-term relationship.  I do not know if Glen ever found Jesus.

And if it were actually true that Chloe had turned her back on Christianity, what would happen to her?  Could one who was saved by Jesus Christ be lost?  I had heard that Christians interpreted the Bible differently on that topic.  Regardless of one’s position, it was entirely possible that Chloe was really good at following the rules to give the appearance of being a good Christian, but had never had her heart completely transformed in the first place.  Only God knew what Chloe really believed in her heart.  I prayed that night that she would find her way back to Jesus.

I spent all weekend thinking about what I really believed.  I did not feel like I had an unusually strong or close relationship with God, but knowing that a Bible study leader like Chloe could just walk away from Jesus made me wonder if my faith was strong enough.  Was I a good enough Christian?  Did it mean anything that I often got left out of the cliques at JCF?

I knew that Christianity was not a religion of following rules.  But I was seeing more and more that many Christians acted like it was.  They also acted judgmentally toward those who did not follow the exact same rules as themselves. I recognized that I was judgmental sometimes as well, such as how I disapproved in my mind of Amy’s date with Glen.  It was difficult to discern sometimes which rules were God’s actual commands and which were cultural.

I do not know what happened to Chloe; I did not see much of her after she stopped attending JCF.  I hope she found her way back to Jesus somehow.  While I still had a lot of unanswered questions about myself, I knew that all I had to do was keep seeking the answers in prayer and Scripture.  God’s Word would never steer me wrong


Author’s note: Have you ever made a major change in your cultural or religious beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments.

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Early May, 1996. A stressful week. (#82)

A few months before every Olympic Games, the Olympic torch is lit by the sun on Mount Olympus in Greece and brought across Greece and the country hosting the Games that year.  In 1996, the upcoming Summer Olympics would be held in Atlanta, on the opposite side of the United States from Jeromeville. The torch would travel across the United States by way of a relay.  Thousands of people would carry the torch for a short distance, then pass it to someone else, with crowds of onlookers watching as the torch made its way across their parts of the country.

On the day before the torch passed through Jeromeville, I sat alone at a table at the Memorial Union, eating a burrito and doing the crossword puzzle in the Daily Colt.  I had work to do, I had a combinatorics midterm coming up in a few days, but I was not in the mood to do work, given everything on my mind.  I had been looking for a house for next year, with no luck so far, and I was starting to worry about this.  (This was before I talked to Shawn about looking for an apartment instead.)

I walked into combinatorics class about five minutes before it was scheduled to start; this was the last class before the midterm.  I was a quarter ahead in math entering the University of Jeromeville, so I did not take freshman calculus in large lecture halls with people who were taking math on schedule.  Because of that, this combinatorics class, with about eighty people, was the largest math class I had taken at UJ so far.  I looked around the room and saw Andrea Briggs, who had been in a few classes with me before and lived in the dorm next to mine last year. She sat next to an open seat, so I walked up to it and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” Andrea replied.

“How are you?”

“I’m great!” she said.  “Jay came to visit this weekend, and he proposed!”  Andrea held up her left hand, with the third finger now bearing a diamond ring.

“Congratulations!” I said awkwardly.  Was that the right thing to say in response to this?  I was not sure.  As far as I knew, she was the first of my friends to get engaged.  This was a completely new experience to me.

“What about you?” she asked.  “How are you?”

“My week hasn’t been nearly as exciting.  I had a quiz in my other math class this morning.”

“Which class?  How’d you do?”

“167, with Dr. Ionescu.  I’m getting an A in that class, but I feel like I’m not learning anything.  Most of what we’re doing is just review from 22A.  And the entire grade is based on surprise quizzes every three or four classes, so there’s no reason to remember anything.”

“Yeah, that’s weird.  But at least you’re getting an A.”

“Yeah.”

Gabby, the combinatorics professor, began lecturing about generating functions for recurrence relations, so I stopped talking and began taking notes.  Dr. Gabrielle Thomas was my favorite math professor at UJ so far.  She was fairly young, I would guess in her thirties; she spoke English clearly; and she told us to call her Gabby, which seemed refreshingly informal to me.  That made her feel more like a human being, whom I could relate to, compared to many of my other professors.

I tried to focus on what Gabby was saying, because of the upcoming midterm.  I still had not mastered recurrence relations, but I thought I would probably do fine once I took the time to study and practice the material.  However, I had a hard time concentrating today.  I kept wanting to sneak glances at Andrea’s left hand, not because of any particular curiosity about what her ring looked like, but because she had one in the first place.  I was over Andrea as a possible love interest; I found out over a year ago that she had a boyfriend.  But it just felt weird, and discouraging, that I was at the age when my friends would be getting married.  Andrea would soon be committing herself to one man for life, probably starting a family with him after she finished school, and I had still never kissed a girl.

After class, as I headed back to the Memorial Union where my bicycle was parked, I saw Danielle Coronado and Claire Seaver from church sitting at a table talking.  Danielle was one of the first friends I made at UJ; she lived down the hall from me in my dorm last year.  “Hey,” I said as I approached them.

“Greg!” Danielle said, smiling and waving.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire said.  “Have you started your project yet?”

“Kind of.”

“Which math class do you two have together?” Danielle asked me.

“Anthro 2,” I explained.  “Not math.”  Danielle’s assumption was warranted, however, because Claire was a music major with a minor in mathematics.

“That’s right, anthro,” Danielle said.  “With that professor who did a class for the IHP last year.”

“Yes.  Dick Small.”  I still found that name hilarious, because of my extensive background in dirty jokes.  “I’m going to observe and write about the IRC channel FriendlyChat,” I continued.

“Is that that thing where you talk to strangers on the computer?”

“Yeah.  Internet Relay Chat.  I was in FriendlyChat earlier today, and there’s some kind of complicated leadership structure with who gets to be a channel operator, and all these rules that they get mad at you for not knowing.  And when I kept announcing that I was doing an anthro project, as the ethics of anthropology require, some of them got mad at me for spamming.  So I’m off to a frustrating start.”

“Well, hopefully you’ll figure out a way to get your project done.”

“I hope so.  I’m just stressed about a lot of things.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I want to go see the torch tomorrow, though,” I said.

“Oh yeah!  When is that supposed to be?”

“It’ll be passing along Fifth Street between 1 and 2.”

“I have class,” Danielle said, feeling slightly disappointed.  “But have fun!”

“I will!  I’m going to head home now, but I’ll see you guys soon.”

“Bye, Greg,” Claire said.

“Bye,” Danielle added, waving.

I waved at the girls as I walked to my bicycle and went home.  I was riding a little more slowly than usual.  I felt weighed down by my upcoming midterm, the anthro project, looking for a house, and my fear of being left behind now that people I knew were getting married.


I had most of the next day free.  After I finished my one class, I planned to stay on campus and get work done until around noon, eat lunch, then go find a place to watch the Olympic torch.  I walked into the Memorial Union after class and looked for a table.  I saw Sarah Winters, whom I knew both from the dorm last year and from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sitting by herself at a table, reading, with a notebook and textbook open.  I walked to her table and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Yeah!” Sarah said.  “How are you?”

“I’m stressed,” I said.

“What’s going on?”

“I’ve been trying to find a house for us next year, I’ve looked at a bunch of places, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.  And I have a big midterm for Math 145 tomorrow.  And I’m frustrated in general with Applied Linear Algebra, Math 167.  That class is a waste of time, and I’m not learning anything.”  Sarah began writing something as I continued speaking.  “And I just found out that someone I know, her boyfriend proposed.  I’ve never even had a girlfriend, and now I have friends who are getting married.”  As Sarah continued writing, I wondered if I was bothering her, if I should let her work on whatever she was doing.  “And I have this big project for Anthro 2 that I need to work on, and what I wanted to do hasn’t been working out so far.”  I stopped talking now, because Sarah was clearly busy with whatever she was working on.  I got out my combinatorics textbook and began looking over the section that would be covered on the test tomorrow.

“This is for you,” Sarah said, as she placed the paper she had been writing on top of my textbook. I read what she wrote:


“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.  In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your path straight.”
Proverbs 3:5-6


I looked up and saw Sarah looking at me with a peaceful, contented smile on her face.  “Thank you,” I said, attempting a smile in return.

“Everything’s gonna be just fine,” Sarah said.  “Really.”

“I know,” I said.  “But–”

“You’ll be okay.”

I took a deep breath.  “I’ll be okay.”

We sat there for the rest of the hour studying, occasionally making small talk.  “What are you doing the rest of the day?” Sarah asked at one point.

“I’m done with classes for the day.  But I’m gonna go see the torch.”

“Fun!  I can’t.  I’ll be in class during that time.”

I looked again at the note that Sarah wrote.  God had a plan for me.  My grades, my house for next year, my future wife, all of this was in God’s hands.  Trust God.  The second verse, from Proverbs, was a little bit familiar to me already, because there was a song we sang at Bible study sometimes based on that verse.  I had made a decision that I was living my life for Jesus, and now it was time to trust him to make this all work out somehow.  

Sarah left to go to class a bit later.  As I continued studying combinatorics, I really did begin to feel better about tomorrow’s midterm.  At noon, I got out the sandwich I had packed that morning, and when I finished that, I headed toward Fifth Street at the northern edge of campus.  Crowds waiting to see the torch were already beginning to line the street.  I found a spot next to an aged olive tree and leaned against the tree, waiting.  I had my backpack with me, so I continued studying combinatorics while I waited for the torch to arrive.

After I had been waiting for about forty minutes, I saw police cars approaching slowly, stopping drivers and pedestrians from entering or crossing Fifth Street.  This must be it.  Behind the police cars were a number of official vehicles with US and Olympic flags; a truck from Coca-Cola, the event’s sponsor; and finally someone wearing running shorts holding the Olympic torch.  I did not know if the torchbearer was someone famous or not.

I looked up at the torch in wonder.  That flame was ignited on the other side of the world and brought all the way here, continuously burning.  That felt kind of surreal.  This was a symbol of one of the biggest athletic events on Earth.  In two months, the world would be watching athletes from every inhabited continent competing for Olympic glory, and this same flame would burn over the shiny new stadium that Atlanta had just finished building for these Games.  People cheered at the moment that the torchbearer passed in front of them, and I joined in as he passed me.

A few minutes after the torch passed, when the entire entourage had moved beyond where I was standing, I turned around to go back to the Memorial Union, where my bicycle was parked.  “Excuse me?” a man asked me.  He had a fancy camera on a strap around his neck and a small Coca-Cola logo embroidered on his shirt on his chest to his left.

“Yes?” I asked.

“Can I get a picture of you holding this?”  The man handed me a full, unopened Coca-Cola plastic bottle.

I was confused.  “Why me?” I asked.

“No reason.  I’m just looking for people to photograph with Coke bottles, for our promotional materials.”

“Okay,” I said.  I smiled at the camera, holding the drink up, as he clicked the shutter a few times.

“Thank you!” the photographer said.  “You can keep the Coke.”

I walked back toward my bike as I drank my free Coca-Cola.  To this day, I never saw my picture in any Coca-Cola advertisements, so I do not know if they ever ended up doing anything with the picture.  But I got a free drink out of it.


When I got home that afternoon, I turned on the computer and connected to the campus Internet, listening to the whirs and clicks of the modem dialing the access number.  I opened a text terminal and connected to Internet Relay Chat, then entered the FriendlyChat channel using my usual screen name, “gjd76.”  About a minute after I joined, I copied and pasted the same message I copied and pasted every fifteen minutes while I was working on this: “I am working on a project for an anthropology class, making observations of the culture in this channel.  I will not use your actual names or actual screen names.”

“gjd76, u might not wanna tell us that, people might act different if they know ur studying them,” one person typed.

“true, but my professor says it’s unethical not to tell people they’re being studied,” I replied.

“Let me know if I can answer any questions for you,” one of the channel operators said.

“i will,” I typed back.  So far, this was going much better than yesterday; people were actually being helpful.

As I reached for my notebook in my backpack, I found the note that Sarah had written to me, with the Bible verses on it.  I read it again.  Plans to prosper you and not to harm youTrust in the Lord with all your heart.  Good advice.  I took two push pins and attached Sarah’s note to the bulletin board above my desk.  That way it could be a reminder for me while I was sitting here at the computer; I could look up and see those Scriptures.

I spent about an hour and a half in the FriendlyChat channel, and this time I was able to make much more meaningful observations and have more meaningful interactions with the people in the chat than I had yesterday.  If I had a few more days like this, I would have plenty of material to use to write my paper.  I also felt much better about my midterm for combinatorics, after having studied today.  I had still not heard from any of the houses I was looking for, but the more I thought about this, I decided I would talk to my roommates for next year and find out if they would be willing to look for an apartment instead.  They were fine with living in an apartment, and we did end up getting one, as I told before.  And while I was still discouraged with my own lack of romantic relationship in light of Andrea being engaged, the Lord had a plan for her that was not his plan for me, and I was not ready to begin thinking about marriage with anyone right now.  I was better off trusting in His timing.

I would learn later in life that the quote from Jeremiah is often derided as one of the Bible verses most frequently taken out of context.  Reading the chapters around it reveals that God declared those words to a specific group of people at a specific time, not to everyone reading them throughout all of history.  However, statements like that reveal the character of God, and although Jeremiah was not writing to me, the God who had a plan for his people thousands of years ago did also have a plan for me in 1996. The precise concept of “prosper” may not have involved material wealth in my case, but I just had to trust that God knew what was best for me.  Those two verses became ones that I have known from memory ever since.

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding,” I began singing under my breath.  I liked that song, the one I had heard at Bible study before.  I did not know any of this at the time, but the original vocalist of that song was the same age as me, and still a teenager when the song was recorded.  The guitarist, who actually wrote the song, was not much older.  The two of them and their band would go on to have a major pop hit a few years later, which would confuse me a little in a time when I tended to draw very strict lines between Christian and secular music.  But that is a story for another time.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly. (#81)

“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.”

“It would!”

“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?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“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.