November 1-3, 1996. Discovering a dark side to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

“Welcome to the Intervarsity Regional Fall Conference!” Lars Ashford announced from the stage.  JCF was part of an organization called Intervarsity, with chapters at colleges and universities across three nations.  Six schools attended this conference, which began Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon, and Lars named each of the six, which was followed by cheers from those in attendance from each school.  There seemed to be many more people here from Jeromeville than anywhere else, about as many as all the others combined.  As I walked in, I was wondering why only our worship team was playing, and not anyone from the other schools, but now I assumed it was because our group was so much larger than the others.

A guy who introduced himself as being on staff with Intervarsity at Bidwell State gave a talk about hearing God’s voice in the middle of a busy world.  He based his talk on the passage from the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was hiding from those who wanted to kill him.  Elijah heard the voice of God not in a heavy wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but a gentle whisper.  That was what I needed; with how busy I was with classes, I needed to remember to listen to the gentle whispers of God.

After the talk, we sang a few more songs, and then people mingled around the room as others trickled out the door back to their rooms.  I turned around and said hi to Eddie Baker, sitting behind me.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.  “How are you?  This is your first time at Muddy Springs, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d heard of this place before, because my dad grew up in Bidwell, but I’ve never actually been here before.  I want to see what it looks like outside in the morning.”

“You’ll love it.  Hey, I want to catch up, but I have to meet with the Kairos groups to talk about some stuff tonight.  I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sure,” I said.  I did not know what Eddie’s meeting was about, or even what a Kairos group was.  The word was completely unfamiliar to me.  I saw Haley Channing a few rows away, talking to Kristina Kasparian.  I walked up to them and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Kristina said.

“What’s up?” Haley asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “This is my first time here.  Just hanging out.”

“We were actually just on our way to a meeting,” Haley said.  “We need to talk about stuff for Kairos.  But I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure,” I said, faking a smile.  Whatever this Kairos thing was, it involved a lot of my friends, and they had to meet in private.  I walked around the room, looking for people who might not be meeting privately.  Most of the people from the other schools seemed to be staying together, not mingling with the Jeromeville people.

Behind the back row of chairs, a group of people from Jeromeville stood around: Scott Madison, Amelia Dye, Brent Wang, Autumn Davies, a sophomore named James whom I had met a few times, and a few others.  They were not with the Kairos people, so hopefully they were not about to leave.

“Hey, Greg,” Scott said.  “James is teaching us a game.  Want to play?”

“What kind of game?”

“It’s called Silent Football,” James said.  “I was just about to explain it.”

The nine of us standing there sat in a circle cross-legged.  James was barefoot, just as he had been on Sunday when I saw him at church, and also at JCF last week.  Apparently this was a thing with him.  I was curious why James was always barefoot, but it did not feel like it was my place to ask.  As James explained the game, I realized quickly that it had little to do with actual football.  There was an imaginary ball that we had to keep track of, and the person with the ball could pass it to different players by making certain hand gestures with weird funny names.  Each gesture corresponded to passing the ball a certain number of players in a certain direction, or other things like that.  If a player made an illegal move, like passing the ball when someone else actually had the ball, the game would stop.  James, as the game leader, would give the offending player a penalty, which meant doing something silly and embarrassing.

James started with the imaginary ball.  I carefully kept track of who had the ball, and when it came to me, I gestured to pass the ball to the player on the right, who was Autumn.  Autumn then passed the ball further to the right, to Amelia.  I was safe for now.  Amelia gestured to pass back to the person who passed it to her, and Autumn did not respond.  “Autumn,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you didn’t pass it.”

“Huh?” Autumn replied.  “I passed it to Amelia!”

“And I passed it back!” Amelia said.

“Exactly,” James continued.  “Autumn, your penalty is that you have to act out a scene from a TV show or movie of your choice.  Stand up.”

Autumn giggled and stood.  She took a deep breath and giggled again, then she started screaming at random people.  “No soup for you!” she said, pointing right at me.  I knew, from overhearing people quote this, that Autumn was performing a scene from the TV show Seinfeld, but I had not seen the episode myself.  I always thought that show was annoying.

Autumn sat back down, and we began another round.  James passed the ball to a guy named Matt, who was not paying attention.  “Matt,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you did not pass it.  For your penalty… I’ve heard you sing the really fast verse at the end of the song ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler.  So now, you will serenade us.  Ready?  Suck it in.”

“Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in, if you’re Rin Tin Tin, or Anne Boleyn,” Matt sang.  He got a couple more lines into the song before he flubbed the lyrics and everyone started laughing.  James started another round and passed the ball to me.  I attempted to make the gesture to pass the ball back to whomever had it last, but I ended up flailing my arms in a way that was not exactly what I was supposed to do.

“Greg,” James said, mimicking my botched gesture.  “What exactly does this mean?”  Everyone laughed, as I just sat quietly, knowing that I was about to get a penalty.  “You are a mathematics major, correct?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“And I have heard that you can recite pi from memory to three thousand decimal places.”

“Not quite that many,” I said, laughing.  “Maybe sixty or so.”

“Well, then, let’s hear what you can do.”

I took a deep breath.  “3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923… is that good?”

“Well done.”

We continued playing a few more rounds of Silent Football.  It was frustrating, and the whole purpose of the game was for the person leading the game to embarrass the others, but it was also strangely entertaining.  I continued playing as long as everyone else did.

As I left the meeting hall, I noticed that the Kairos people were now in the lobby sitting around the fireplace talking; their meeting appeared to be over.  Eddie, Kristina, Tabitha Sasaki, Sarah Winters, and Liz Williams were sitting around the couches.  Ramon Quintero sat in a chair playing guitar, and Haley sat next to him, singing harmony.  The two of them seemed completely engrossed in what they were doing, tuning out the rest of the world.

I went upstairs and went to bed, not even trying to talk to anyone.  This was not supposed to happen.  This Kairos thing felt like a clique of insiders, not letting anyone into their secret dealings.  Some of my closest friends had felt more distant lately because of being in this Kairos group, and now one of them was moving in on Haley.  Ramon and Liz were among the first friends I made in Jeromeville, and they had been a solid couple for almost two years until just a few months ago.  Ramon was not supposed to be a threat to girls I was interested in, but now he was.  I could not compete with Ramon, with his cool curly hair and all the musical instruments he played and languages he spoke.  I went to bed feeling distraught, and did not fall asleep quickly.


After breakfast and another worship session, all of us at the retreat were given a worksheet with directions for a guided meditation and prayer.  The first line said to find a quiet place outside, so I left the building, seeing the grounds of the retreat center in daylight for the first time.  Muddy Springs was a two-hour car trip from Jeromeville, tucked into a canyon in the foothills ten miles north of Bidwell.  It was named after a natural spring on this property; the indigenous inhabitants of this area used the mud from the springs for its supposed healing properties.  In the early 1900s, some enterprising Americans capitalized on that legend and built a resort here, and in the 1960s, when their business had dried up, they sold the property to a group that turned it into a Christian conference center.  Officially, it was now called Wellspring of Life Conference Center, but most people still called it Muddy Springs.

The dormitory that we stayed in was the original resort hotel, a towering brick building four stories high with two more floors below ground.  People said that it reminded them of the hotel from The Shining, but I had not seen the movie or read the book, so I did not know.  The land sloped downward behind the hotel, toward a creek, so that the lower floors had windows facing the back.  Additional cabins were scattered around the property behind the hotel, along with basketball and tennis courts and a meeting hall detached from the hotel building, where we met last night.  The surrounding hills were dotted with a mix of oak and pine trees, and covered in brown grass, since it had not started raining yet this winter.  I sat on a low stone wall looking out toward the other side of the canyon.

I opened my Bible and tried to follow along with the instructions on the handout, but I was having trouble concentrating.  The events of yesterday, being left out of the inner clique of the Kairos groups and wondering what was going on with Ramon and Haley, kept running through my mind.  “God,” I said quietly but aloud, “I pray that I will focus on you and not get distracted.  Not my will, but yours be done.”  I sat there for the whole hour, trying to put my concerns aside and listen to what God was telling me, repeating to myself, “Not my will, but yours be done.  I did not get any clear response from God.

I wandered back into the building and toward the dining hall when it was time for lunch.  The people from the Kairos groups were all sitting together, and I did not try to break into their clique again.  Instead I took my tray of chicken nuggets and French fries over to a group of three people I did not recognize.  “Hi,” I said.  “Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” a blonde girl said.

“What school are you guys from?”

“Great Basin State,” she replied.  She continued talking to her friends, and none of them said another word for me.  They got up and left after my lunch was about half finished.  I finished eating, then just sat with my plate as the room gradually emptied.

Cheryl, one of the adults on JCF staff, saw me sitting alone and approached me.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Are you okay?  You’re sitting by yourself, not eating.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I already ate, and my friends are all busy right now.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  Can we go for a walk?  I wanted to talk to you.”

I was not expecting this question.  What could Cheryl be wanting to talk to me about?  Was she going to ask me to be a part of something, like when Tabitha asked me to be the worship team’s roadie at the last retreat?  Maybe she was going to invite me to this Kairos group thing, whatever it was?  “Sure,” I said.

Cheryl and I walked out of the hotel downhill down the road.  The weather was mild, with big puffy clouds in the sky, signaling the quick transition period every November where the weather turns abruptly from summer-like to winter-like.  The first cold and rainy day of the winter would probably arrive in a week or so.  “So how’s the weekend going for you?” Cheryl asked.

“Kind of disappointing, honestly,” I replied.  “What exactly is a Kairos group?”

Cheryl looked like she was not expecting that question; apparently I was not going to get invited to a Kairos group.  “It’s a new ministry we started last year, with six sophomores, and we’ve been gradually expanding it as more students grow through it.  It’s a small group for training and discipling student leaders,” she explained.  “‘Kairos’ means something like ‘the time something happens.’  It’s in the Greek for the passage where Jesus said, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.’  Mark 1:15.”

“How was it determined who gets to participate in Kairos groups?” I asked.

“When we were first starting this, at the beginning of last year, the staff picked six students who we thought we would be interested  Then at the end of the year, they split into three pairs, to be the leaders for this year’s Kairos groups, and each pair selected four more sophomores and juniors to fill their group.  So now we have three groups, and we’re going to do that again this year, so we’re hoping to have nine Kairos groups next year.”

“So the Kairos groups are just going to take over all of JCF?” I asked.  “What happens when there aren’t enough people?  If each group grows into three groups the following year, it’ll only be…” I did some math in my head, then continued a few seconds later.  “In less than a decade, there won’t be enough students at Jeromeville to fill all those groups.”

“That’s why we need to pray that God will bring people to us, and we need to invite our friends and tell them about Jesus,” Cheryl replied.

I agreed conceptually with telling people about Jesus, and I knew that it was good to pray that people will come to JCF and get involved, but I also knew that Cheryl’s math was off.  The Kairos group was not a sustainable model for ministry.  But I did not expect my mathematical argument to convince Cheryl at the moment, and that was not my issue in the first place.  “What happens to someone like me, then?”  I said.  “If you can only join a Kairos group as a sophomore or junior, will there be any groups left for seniors next year?”

“There will be a group for seniors.  And for people who aren’t in Kairos groups.”.

“But even so, doesn’t it kind of send the wrong message that these Kairos groups are invitation only?  Some of my friends, I’ve hardly gotten to see them on this retreat, because they’ve been doing stuff with their Kairos groups the whole time.”

Cheryl paused.  “That’s kind of along the lines of what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.  “I’ve noticed that you seem to like to be the center of attention.”

This was definitely not what I expected to hear. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Remember at Outreach Camp, when you grabbed the microphone?” Cheryl asked.

I did remember.  During one of the worship sessions, the band said at the end of the session that they were going to stick around for some more informal worship music if people wanted to continue worshiping.  I stayed, and at one point I felt like I wanted to sing, so I asked if I could have a microphone, and I sang lyrics that I had just made up, to the tune of the song they were already playing.  I felt a little embarrassed afterward, that I had actually done such a thing, and I never spoke of that night again.  “Yes,” I said.

“I think sometimes you’re too worried about what other people think.  You’re thinking about what you want, not what God wants for you.”

I processed this as we continued walking downhill.  “I’m a shy introvert,” I explained.  “I’m not really the kind of person who naturally wants to be the center of attention.  But I think you’re right.  Sometimes I am paying more attention to what I want instead of what God wants.”

“And you told me you’re worried about your friends in Kairos groups leaving you out.  They’re still your friends.  You aren’t worth less because you’re not in a Kairos group.

“Yeah, but that’s not what it feels like.”

We turned around and walked back uphill, toward the hotel.  “What if we had some kind of sign?” Cheryl asked.  “If I think you need to step back, focus on God, and not be in the spotlight, I’ll just look at you and tap my ear.”  Cheryl demonstrated, moving her right hand to her ear and tapping the top of it.  “I don’t have to call you out.  It’ll just be our little thing.”

“I guess,” I said.  I still did not think that I was a habitual attention hog by nature.  But, on the other hand, Cheryl had a point; I definitely did have some of these tendencies when I was in the right situation with the right crowd.  And focusing on God and not the self is always something that is naturally difficult for most people.  “But I still think it’s wrong to have the Kairos groups if they’re going to be exclusive like that,” I continued

“Just because no one picked you for a Kairos group doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a place for you.  Keep praying, and God will show you how you can serve him.”

“Then why even have Kairos groups in the first place?  You tell me not to be the center of attention, but the people in these groups, they get to be part of some exclusive club.”

“I don’t think anyone else sees it that way,” Cheryl explained.  “But I’ll bring that up in our staff meeting, to make sure we don’t turn it into something like that.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  I could see that I was not going to bring down the entire Kairos ministry, much less become one of the cool kids and make Haley want to go out with me, just from this one conversation with Cheryl.  But I voiced my concerns, and I learned something about the way people see me that I needed to work on.


Cheryl and I returned to the hotel after spending the rest of the walk just talking about life and classes.  When we returned, I found some people behind the hotel playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. They were playing on a paved surface, given the lack of flat grass on the grounds, so I had to be a little careful, but it was fun and I did not fall down.

Later, at dinner time, I walked down to the dining hall.  The people from the Kairos groups were still sitting together, and I still felt frustrated enough at the situation that I did not bother to ask if I could join them.  I found a group of three freshman girls from Jeromeville with an empty seat next to them; maybe they would be more friendly than the Great Basin State students, since we had seen each other before.  “May I join you?” I asked.

One of them, I thought her name was Carrie, looked up at me and smiled.  She was somewhat taller than average, the tallest of the three but still at least six inches shorter than me, with straight medium-brown hair and dark brown eyes.  “Sure!” she said.  “Greg, is it?”

“Yeah.  And you’re Carrie?”  Then, to the girl on Carrie’s left, I said, “And you’re Angie?  And I don’t remember your name,” I said to the third one, who then introduced herself as Susan.

“How’s your weekend going?” Carrie asked me.

“It’s okay,” I replied.  “I’ve had some frustrating stuff happen lately, but I think God is teaching me something through it.”

“God does that,” Angie said.

“Yes he does,” I replied.  “How’s yours?”

“It’s great!” Carrie said.  “This place is so beautiful!  We went for a walk this morning down to the creek during the quiet time.  It was so nice.”

“Yeah,” Susan added.

“That’s good,” I said.  “I’ve never been here specifically, but I’ve been to Bidwell many times, because I have relatives there.  This part of the state is so beautiful.”

“That’s cool,” Carrie said.

I did get to talk to my friends from the Kairos groups a little bit that weekend, since they were not meeting together that night.  It was mostly small talk, but it was better than nothing.  Other than my clique-related frustration, the weekend was good overall.  It was nice being away from Jeromeville for a couple days.  Silent Football was fun and silly, and I made friends with some freshman girls, one of whom I am still friends with today.

Cheryl only had to use the ear-tapping thing twice for the remaining years that I was involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The incident she mentioned was not my normal behavior, but it was true that JCF should not primarily be a social club.  I was here to grow closer to God among friends as we encouraged each other’s spiritual growth.  Being social with Christian friends is not inherently bad, but it should not be the goal in itself.  God would lead me to a place where I could serve him, even if it did not involve a flashy attention-getting position.  He already opened the door for me to be the worship team’s roadie this year.

A few months later, God led me to a new place to serve.  He opened this door when I was not looking for it, and this ministry was not part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But that is another story for another time. Even though the Kairos groups were cliquish, I did stay friends with those people.  Being cliquish is part of sinful human nature.  And in the fall of 1998, when I heard that JCF was dropping their Kairos ministry completely, it felt like a victory.



Author’s notes:
What are some stories you guys have about being left out of cliques?

Also, I never knew what the actual lyric was after “Rin Tin Tin” until I looked it up while writing this episode.  It always sounded like “rambling” to me.  I’ve been singing those words wrong for a quarter-century.  And I really did type pi from memory when I wrote this.

Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year.

“Welcome, Greg!” Janet McAllen said.  She and her husband Dave, the full-time paid staff who led Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sat at a folding table overlooking the dirt parking lot and the entrance to Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center.  “You’re in Cabin 4.  You can go put your stuff away there.  Dinner is at six o’clock, and we’ll be meeting after that.  Until then, we’re pretty much just hanging out.”

“Cool.”

“How was your summer?”  Dave asked.

“It was good.  I took a class first session, Intro to Software.  I got an A.”

“Good job!” Janet said.  She pointed out the general direction of the cafeteria, meeting room, and cabins, and I headed toward Cabin 4, carrying my sleeping bag, pillow, and suitcase.  The suitcase was not really a suitcase, since it had soft sides, and it was not really mine, since it had my grandfather’s initials embroidered on it.  I had taken it with me two years ago when I first moved into my dorm as a freshman, since I did not have a suitcase, and I still had it.

The cabin held six campers in three bunk beds attached to the wall.  I was six feet, four inches tall, and the beds looked a little short for me.  I would not fit in the lower bunk at all, because the short ends of the bunks were a wall of solid wood instead of a wood or metal frame, so that my feet would press against the inside of this wall instead of dangle over.  Two of the top bunks already had people’s things on them, so I climbed to the last remaining top bunk.  My feet hung over the end a little, but if I turned at a slight diagonal, I would at least be a little bit more comfortable.

I went outside and found Brent Wang getting people together for a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee.  “How’ve you been?” I asked Brent.

“Great,” he said.  “I’m playing keyboard on the worship team this year.  After this game we’re gonna go practice.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “I’m just glad to be back.”

I spent the next hour running up and down the field, catching and passing the flying disc, as I saw more and more of my friends from last year arriving, mostly coming from Jeromeville in organized carpools.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was about a two hour car trip from Jeromeville, northeast into the mountains.  I had never been to this part of the state before.  The parking lot, field, and basketball court were spread out over a meadow, with the meeting room, cafeteria, and cabins set against the foot of the mountains that surrounded the grounds on three sides.  Beyond the parking lot, the road on which we drove in sloped downward.  The pines that covered the mountains gave the area a distinct scent not present down in the Valley.

I was dripping sweat after we finished playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I walked around and spent about another hour catching up with people, watching others play Ultimate Frisbee, table tennis, and basketball.  At dinner time, I wandered toward the cafeteria.  The inside of the building reminded me a bit of the dining hall at the dorm from two years ago, but with fewer options.  As I walked around looking for a place to sit, I heard a familiar voice say, “Greg!  How are you?  Want to sit here?”

Melinda Schmidt sat at a table with two other senior girls, Amelia Dye and Lillian Corey. “Sure,” I said, sitting at the empty seat.  “How was your summer?”

“It was pretty good!  How was yours?”

“I was in Jeromeville taking a class.  Where were you this summer again?”

“I was home.  In Blue Oaks.  You drove through it on the way here.”

“No.  I thought you were going on a mission trip somewhere.”

“Oh… I was going to, but I had to cancel it because of a family emergency.”

“I’m sorry.”  That phrase “family emergency” always felt awkward to me; I never knew whether or not it was okay to ask for more details about what happened.

“It’s okay.  I’ll have lots of time to look at mission trips for next year,” Melinda continued.

“Yeah.  That’s good.”

“Have you ever been on a mission trip?”

“I haven’t.  I’m pretty new to all this stuff.  But I’m learning more about what kind of things happen on mission trips.  One thing I was hoping to find this week is what role God has for me in the group this year.”

“That’s good.  Just keep seeking God.”

As the afternoon continued on into the evening, I kept my eye out for Haley Channing to arrive.  I had not seen her in over three months now, and I was hoping that being together on a retreat for five whole days would give us time to talk and hang out.  Maybe, if things went well, I could tell her how I felt about her.  I had assumed she would be here, since she was friends with all the people who were in JCF’s inner social circles, but I never knew for sure whether or not she would.  I had gotten one letter from her during the summer, and she never mentioned Outreach Camp at all.  By the end of dinner, I had still not seen Haley, and I began to resign myself to the fact that she was not coming, and that I would have to wait until sometime next week to see her again.


We studied Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Bible studies at Outreach Camp.  We did something called a manuscript study, where we were each given a copy of the text of Philippians without chapter or verse numbers.  We were supposed to look at the text without those distractions, so we could find connections between different parts of the text and mark them in different colors.  I did not quite understand what I was looking for, and no one could give me a clear answer.  As the week went on, my manuscript looked more and more like the bulletin board of a conspiracy theorist connecting seemingly unrelated details.

After the first Bible study time, we got into groups for prayer requests.  Amelia was in my group, along with Liz Williams, a junior like me who had lived right down the hall from me freshman year.  Also in my group were Eddie Baker, a junior who had been there for me on a particularly rough night, and two sophomores named Jennifer Chong and Todd Chevallier.

“I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately,” Liz began.  “I want to make sure that I am living entirely for God, because I’ve been letting too much get in the way.”  Liz seemed to be struggling to get her words out.  Finally, she continued, “Ramon and I broke up.”

The next few seconds of silence among those in our group said more than words ever could.  For almost two years, since the first quarter of freshman year, Liz and Ramon had been the strong Christian couple whom everyone liked.  They had also been among the first friends I made at the University of Jeromeville.  “Pray that we will both use this time apart to seek God wholly, and to know what he has for us, whether we end up together or apart in the end,” Liz continued.

“Any other prayer requests?” Amelia asked.

“I have one,” I said, a little hesitant to follow Liz’s major announcement.  “Pray that God will show me what my role is within JCF.  Now that I’ve been going here for a year, I want to know how I can get involved.”

“That’s a good one.  We’ll pray for that.”

As the six of us prayed, we could hear other groups finishing and the worship band setting up.  After prayer, we all spent some time singing before concluding for the night.  I looked around, unsure of what would happen now; was everyone supposed to go to bed, or were people going to stay up hanging out and talking for a while?  I sat watching others, trying to figure out what to do.  After a few minutes, Tabitha Sasaki spotted me across the room while she and the rest of the worship band were putting away their instruments.  She came over toward me and said, “Hey, Greg.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“That big red Bronco in the parking lot, that’s yours, right?”

Uh-oh.  Last week, Brian made me the driver for our toilet-papering adventure specifically because no one in the house we hit would know my car, so that we could park outside and listen for their reaction.  Did I just get caught?  Was Tabitha there that night, and I did not realize it?  “Yes,” I said uneasily.

“Lars and Brent and Scott and I were just talking about how the worship team needs a roadie, someone to help us load and unload all our instruments and equipment each week.  We were trying to think of someone who has, like, a big truck or something like that, and I thought of you.  I thought you had a Bronco.  Would you be interested in doing that for us this year?”

I was relieved that Tabitha’s conversation with me had nothing to do with the toilet-papering incident, but I saw that something else was happening here too.  “Yes!” I replied.  “That sounds perfect!  Just earlier tonight, in our small group, I was praying that God would find a specific way for me to get involved.  This is an answer to prayer.”

“Yay!  I know, we were praying about it too, and I just thought of you.  That’s totally a God thing.”

“So what exactly would I have to do?”

“We practice at Lars’ house on J Street, so just come there every Friday an hour before large group starts, and help us load everything.  Then help us unload once we get to campus.  And do the same thing afterward.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  Having to unload afterward meant that I might be a little late if anyone did anything social, but that was no problem as long as I knew what was going on.  This was exactly what I had been praying for.  My mom always said that God works in mysterious ways, and this was one of them.


The rest of the week was more of the same; lots of time hanging out at this beautiful retreat center, playing Ultimate Frisbee and table tennis, sitting among the pines reading Scripture, and singing songs of praise and worship.  One day, I was sitting alone on a bench reading the Bible, and I spotted Ramon doing the same on a bench about a hundred feet away.  I thought about him having broken up with Liz, and about Haley not being here at all, and I realized that maybe Haley’s absence was God’s work too.  Maybe God wanted me to really focus on him this week, and he knew that having Haley here would be too much of a distraction for me.  I smiled and thanked God silently.

For the Wednesday evening session, we split into groups that each had a specific focus for the first week of school.  Small group Bible study leaders met to plan their outreach and their studies for the first quarter.  Another group met to discuss having a table in the Quad to hand out flyers and get contact information from interested students.  Another group made plans to show up around the dorms on Sunday and offer to help students move in.

My new position as the roadie did not fit neatly into any of these groups.  I walked around the room, trying to figure out which group to join.  Brian Burr, my roommate who had graduated last year and was now on staff with JCF, saw me and motioned for me to come over.  Their group also included Tabitha, Liz, Todd, Jennifer Chong, and Scott Madison, who was the worship team drummer and Amelia’s boyfriend.  “Which group is this?” I asked.

“We’re planning a skit for the first large group,” Brian said.

“Yeah,” Scott added.  “I’m gonna be Scooby-Doo.”

“This is gonna be funny,” I said.  “What’s the skit going to be about?”

“So far, the Scooby-Doo gang is helping freshmen move in, and one girl’s dorm room is haunted.  And we’ll chase the ghost around, just like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and then take off the ghost’s mask at the end.”

“That’s a great idea!  What’s the spiritual lesson in this?”

“There isn’t one,” Tabitha said.  “It’s just for fun.”

“Sounds good, I said.

We spent the next hour, as well as some time after the Thursday evening session, outlining the plot of our skit.  We got Lars Ashford, a senior who played in the worship team, to be the bad guy in our skit.  A few days after we all got back to Jeromeville, we all met at Scott’s apartment one night to write the script and rehearse.  We watched old Scooby-Doo cartoons on a rented VHS tape for about an hour, to help us perfect the mannerisms of our characters.  We painted cardboard props, including the Mystery Machine van.  The others tried on their costumes, which they had assembled from thrift store and costume shop products.

“So, the funniest thing happened at the costume shop,” Liz said.  “I told the guy I was looking for orange hair dye.  But I said, not like real hair color, like a cartoon orange.  That was all I said.  And he asked the other guy working there, ‘Do we have any orange hair dye, like Daphne from Scooby-Doo?’”

“That’s hilarious!” I said.

“I know!  I said, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

The first JCF meeting was on the first Friday night after classes started, a week after we got home from Outreach Camp.  The room was full of new freshmen and transfer students from community colleges, as well as returning students from last year.  After the opening song, Dave McAllen introduced himself and made announcements; then it was time for our skit.

I stood at the front of the room, wearing a large oversized button on my shirt that said ASK ME.  Jennifer Chong walked up to me.  “Hi,” she said.  “Is… is this Baxter Hall?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m an RA here in the building.  Are you one of my residents?”

“Yeah.  I’m Jennifer.  I’m in room 319.”

“Great!  My name is Greg.  Just come find me if you need help with anything.”

“I will!”

I sat down in the front row after this; that opening scene was my entire role in the skit.  The rest of the group walked in from the back of the room carrying the Mystery Machine: Brian as Shaggy in a green shirt with unkempt hair, Liz as Daphne with dyed orange hair, Todd as Fred with a white shirt and scarf, Tabitha as Velma in a turtleneck, and Scott as Scooby wearing a hideous brown thrift store suit and fake dog ears.  The audience cheered wildly.

“Zoinks!” Brian said to Jennifer.  “We’re, like, here to help you move!”  The audience laughed at Brian’s impersonation of Shaggy.

“Hi,” Liz said.  “I’m Daphne.  What’s your name?”

“Jennifer,” Jennifer said.

“What building and room are you in?” Todd asked.

“319 Baxter.”

All four of the other human characters gasped, and said in unison, “319 Baxter?”

“Ruh-roh!” Scott added.

“Like, that’s the room that’s haunted by the ghost of Alexander Baxter!” Brian exclaimed.

“And the key to room 319 also opens a treasure chest that Mr. Baxter hid in the basement!” Tabitha said.  In real life, Baxter Hall had no basement.

“G-g-g-ghost?” Jennifer said, trembling.

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Todd said.  “Come on.  Everyone grab a box, and let’s carry this stuff upstairs.”

As everyone walked offstage, Lars stood in a corner, wearing a trench coat.  His face was covered with a ghost mask made from a paper plate with eye holes.  Jennifer held her room key, which Lars snuck up and stole before returning to his hiding place.  “Let’s unlock the room so we can get in,” Jennifer said.  “Huh?  Where’s the key?  I just had it.”

“Zoinks!” Brian shouted, pointing at Lars.  “Ghost!”

“Raaaarrr!” Lars screamed, jumping out of his corner.  Everyone started running in place for a few seconds, then they simultaneously took off in the same direction, just as they did in old cartoons.  Lars chased the others, also running in place first.

Brian, Scott, Liz, Tabitha, and Todd ran back to the center of the stage.  “W-w-where’s the ghost?” Tabitha asked.

“Let’s split up,” Todd suggested.  “Shaggy and Scooby, you go that way, and the rest of us will go this way.”  The group walked off stage in opposite directions.

Lars picked up a cardboard soda machine prop and hid behind it.  Brian and Scott walked by.  “Like, look, Scoob!  Soda!” Brian said.  Scott made dog noises in return.  Brian put a coin in the soda machine, and Lars handed Brian a soda from behind the machine, his hand clearly visible.  “Like, thanks!” Brian said.  The audience laughed.

“You’re welcome,” Lars growled from behind the soda machine.  Brian and Scott looked at each other, then back at the soda machine.  Lars tossed the soda machine aside and screamed, “Raaaaarrrr!”  Brian and Scott ran away.

Next, Todd, Tabitha, and Liz walked in from the other side of the stage.  Lars stood right in their way, unnoticed by them.  “Have any of you seen anything strange?” Tabitha asked as she walked with her head turned, facing the others.  She bumped into Lars.  All of them screamed and began chasing each other back and forth across the stage.

Eventually, all of the mystery-solving friends and Jennifer came back to the front of the room, with Lars across the room from them, not seeing them.  “Okay, Scooby,” Todd said, holding a woman’s dress.  “Put this on and seduce the ghost.”  The audience cheered and whooped at this suggestion.  I remembered that our script said “distract,” not “seduce,” and I hoped that Todd’s Freudian slip would not get us in trouble, since we were supposed to be a Christian group promoting Biblical values.  (No one ever said anything.)

“Ruh-ruh,” Scott replied, shaking his head.

“Like, would you do it for a Scooby Snack?” Brian asked, holding a box of crackers.  The audience cheered at yet another silly Scooby-Doo reference.

“Mmm!” Scott said, eating a cracker.  He put on the dress, prompting another round of cheering from the audience, and walked toward Lars, batting his eyelashes.  “Roh, Rister Raxter,” Scott said, combining the usual extra Rs of the Scooby-Doo voice with an exaggerated high falsetto.  Lars turned around to look at Scott, distracted, as Todd, Liz, and Tabitha put a rope around Lars and tied him up.

“Let’s see who you really are,” Tabitha said, pulling Lars’ mask off.

“It’s, like, my history professor!” Brian gasped.

“And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddlin’ kids!” Lars said.  The audience cheered.

“That wraps up that mystery,” Todd said to Jennifer.  “Now we can go back to helping you move in.”

“Thanks, guys,” Jennifer replied.  “I just hope I don’t have any classes in haunted classrooms!”  All of the actors made fake exaggerating laughing noises, and the audience cheered.

Tabitha had told me there was no particular spiritual illustration in our skit.  Not every act of Christian service or ministry has to have a direct teachable illustration.  This silly performance brought a moment of much-needed levity into the stressful lives of a room full of university students beginning a new academic year.

Even fun moments like this meant solely to create a welcoming environment can have far-reaching spiritual consequences.  A freshman named Seth Huang sat in the audience that night.  Seth would give his testimony at JCF large group a few years later; he said that he attended a number of different Christian campus groups the first couple weeks of school, but the reason he chose to get involved with JCF was because of the Scooby-Doo skit.  The people listening to his testimony laughed at that, and I felt honored to have been part of something that made a difference to him.  Seth went on to spend about a decade after graduation in full-time ministry at two other schools in the area, leading chapters of the same campus ministry organization that ran JCF.  Hundreds of students received spiritual guidance from Seth, all because some of us decided to act silly and perform a Scooby-Doo skit.  God certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Greg (left) and Brian at Outreach Camp, September 1996

Author’s note: For my readers in other countries, six feet, four inches equals 1.93 meters.

Scooby-Doo and all associated properties are trademarks of Hanna-Barbera, who was not involved in the production of this work.

September 2-3, 1996. Moving in and getting mail.

“This is the front door key, and this is the mail key,” the woman in the office at Sagebrush Apartments explained, placing the keys on the desk as I filled out paperwork.  “Looks like you have roommates; are they all moving in today?”

“Shawn should be here later today,” I said.  “Brian is moving in later this week, I think.  I’m not sure about Josh.”

The office employee took me around the grounds, showing me where to find the pool, laundry room, and mailboxes, and where to empty garbage.  She handed me a brochure, the same brochure I got when I first came here in May, but this one was the actual color printing, not the blotchy black-and-white photocopy that they had given me on that day when they were out of color copies.  The brochure had a map of the complex on it; she circled my apartment’s location, as well as the locations of the communal areas she had shown me.  “Just come back here if you need anything.  We’re open until six.  And once you get your phone connected, you can call this number.”  She underlined the office phone number.

“I will,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I walked back to the car in the office parking lot.  Mom and Dad were parked next to me, waiting in Dad’s gray pickup truck.  “I have the keys,” I said.  “Follow me.”  I drove my red Ford Bronco around to the back of the complex and parked next to building K.  Sagebrush Apartments consisted of around a dozen small buildings, named with letters, each containing six to eight individual apartment units.  While I waited for Dad to find a parking place, I looked through the brochure that I had gotten from the office.  Inside, on the second page, was the floor plan for each of the different types of apartments, and as I looked at my apartment, I saw something that made me recoil in horror and shame.  I may have made a huge mistake when I signed this lease four months ago.

On the blotchy photocopy I was given in May, when I was deciding between this apartment and another one, it looked like the large bedroom that I would be sharing with Shawn was 11 by 18 feet.  But on this clear copy, it was definitely 11 by 13 feet. The other place I had considered did have a very large bedroom, and I had told Shawn and Brian that the two places were similarly sized, and this one was less expensive.  I supposed, however, that if the others wanted to save money, they did not have room to complain about the place being a little small.

I tried to hide my disappointment at the room size when I unlocked the door and went inside, Mom and Dad behind me.  “This is nice!” Mom said.  “There’s that wood-burning stove you told me about.  That’ll come in handy when it gets cold.”  The stove was right in front of the door, with a stairway on the left leading upstairs to a small loft and the three bedrooms.  The living room was on the right, with the dining area straight ahead and the kitchen to the right of the living room, open to the living room through a bar behind the sink.

I went upstairs to my bedroom and looked around.  It was not huge, but not as tiny as I had feared.  I said to Mom and Dad, “Claire from church has a bed loft she’s going to sell me, with a desk underneath.  Do you remember Claire?”

“I’m not sure,” Mom replied.  I remembered Mom saying something embarrassing about Claire when she and Dad came to church with me freshman year, and I chose not to remind her.  

“Once I get that set up, I’ll have more room,” I said.

“That’ll be good.  You said Shawn is moving in later today?”

“Yeah.  I think so.  He’s back in Jeromeville already for his student teaching program.”

“Oh yeah, he’s going to be a teacher.  What’s he teaching?”

“High school math.”

“I didn’t know he was a math guy too.  But you met him from that Christian group, right?”

“Yes. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  He was my Bible study leader last year.”

Mom and Dad and I emptied the truck of the things we brought from home.  Next, we drove across Jeromeville to Second Street Self Storage, where I had stored everything from the old apartment.  It took us two trips to unload it all.  The Post Office was just around the corner from the storage unit, and we stopped there on the second trip.  I waited in line for five minutes, then I filled out a form to have mail forwarded to the new apartment and picked up the mail they had been holding.  Coupons and other junk mail.  Notices from utilities acknowledging that I had canceled service at the old apartment.  And a letter, in a small, off-white envelope.  When I saw who it was from, I felt an excited surge of adrenaline run through my body, and I tried to make myself look calm and normal when I got back in the truck.

“Did you get anything good?” Mom asked when she saw me holding a stack of mail.

“A lot of junk,” I said.  “And a letter.”

“Who’s it from?”

A sweet girl with pretty blue eyes, I wanted to say.  I wish I had the guts to ask her out.  And even though she’s a good Christian girl and I know it’s wrong, I wish both of us could fit on Claire’s bed loft.  “A girl from JCF,” I said instead.  “Named Haley.”

When we got home with the rest of my things from the storage unit, I put Haley’s letter and my other mail on top of the dresser.  I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to finish moving, and I did not want to read the letter in front of anyone.  I put the mattress on the floor, where the bed loft would eventually go, with my computer on the floor next to it.  That would not be particularly comfortable; I needed to call Claire soon.

We moved the rest of my furniture, what little I had, into the apartment.  The bookshelf went into the bedroom, between the mattress and the closet.  The television, the little table that held it, and the chair I sat on while watching it went into the empty living room; I would adjust it as necessary after the others brought more living room furniture.  We kept my kitchen and bathroom supplies, and my books and clothes, in boxes; I would unpack those gradually over the next couple days.  We left the box spring and the folding table I used as a desk in the truck, for Mom and Dad to take home; I would have no need for those once I got the bed loft set up.

After we finished unpacking, Mom and Dad took me to McDonald’s, where I ordered an Arch Deluxe.  “Are those any good?” Mom asked.  “I haven’t tried one yet.”

“I think so.  I like it.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“It’s on a different kind of bun, with special sauce, and supposedly higher quality ingredients.  It’s supposed to be marketed more toward adults.”

“I’ll try it next time.  I’d ask for a taste, but I don’t want to eat your burger.”

“Sounds good.”

“So what do you have going on in the next few weeks?  You’re going to that camp with JCF, right?”

“Yeah.  The camp is the 16th through the 20th.”

“Where is it?”

“A retreat center somewhere outside of Green Meadows.  About a two hour drive.”

“Is Taylor going to be there?”

“I don’t think so.  He’s been more involved with his church lately instead of JCF.”

“Are Liz and Ramon going to be there?”

“Yes.”

“Will that Haley girl be there?”

“I’m not sure. Probably.”

Mom, apparently having exhausted all of my friends whose names she could think of at the moment, changed the subject, telling me about my brother Mark and his friends and the start of their school year a week ago.  It was Mark’s first year of high school, and so far he seemed to be enjoying it.

After we finished eating, Mom wrote me a check for three hundred dollars.  “This is for when you go grocery shopping,” she explained, “and anything else you might need for the new place.”

“Thank you,” I said.

When we got back to the new apartment, we had to park several spaces down from where we were before, because a moving truck was in our old parking space.  Shawn and a guy I did not know were figuring out how best to unload a couch from the truck.

“Hey, Greg,” Shawn said, seeing me out of the corner of his eye.

“Hi.  How’s moving going?”

“We got most of my big things unloaded.  Looks like you did too.”

“Yes.  Mom and Dad, this is Shawn.”

Shawn walked over to shake my parents’ hands.  “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“You too!” Mom replied.  “We were just going to head out.  We have a long drive back to Plumdale.  And it looks like you guys have everything under control.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Enjoy the new apartment,” Mom said, giving me a hug.  “And good luck with the new school year, and with camp.  Nice meeting you, Shawn.”

Dad hugged me afterward.  “Dad loves you,” he said.

“You too,” I replied.

After Mom and Dad left, while Shawn was busy with the couch, I went upstairs to read Haley’s letter, quickly, so that Shawn would not see me.


August 29, 1996

Dear Greg,

Thanks so much for writing!  I was glad to hear about your summer so far.  Sorry it took me a while to write back. I’ve been so busy!  It sounds like your new apartment with Brian and Shawn will be good, and it’s in a good location too.  You mentioned Urbana – that’s exciting!  I’ve heard great things about it.  It’s awesome that you want to know more about how God has called you to serve Him.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going.  I really want to, but I’m just not sure if I can.

Summer has been great so far!  I’m working at a kids’ day camp, which is so much fun!  It’s been very nice to be home relaxing with my parents.  I love summer!  Tomorrow is the last day of work, so I’m really excited for the next three weeks of relaxing vacation.

Well, thanks again for your letter!  I love getting mail!  Have a great end of the summer.  I’ll see you in a few weeks!

In Christ,
Haley


That was sweet, I thought.  Haley actually wrote me back, finally.  I smiled and put the letter in a drawer, thinking about what I would say when I wrote to her next.  After that, I found the box where my telephone was, plugged it in, and dialed Claire’s number.  As I was waiting for an answer, I realized that if I got Claire’s answering machine, I was not entirely sure what number to tell her to call back.  I assumed that Brian had successfully transferred his telephone service to the new apartment, since there was a dial tone, so my phone number was now Brian’s number.  However, I had not actually confirmed this with Brian or Shawn.

“Hello?” a female voice said, making that thought a moot point.

“Is Claire there?” I asked.

“This is Claire.”

“Hi.  This is Greg.  I’m unpacking, and I was calling to ask about the bed loft.”

“Yes!  Are you ready for it?”

“I am, but I don’t know if it’ll all fit in my car.”

“My new roommate is coming up tomorrow with a U-Haul.  Can we just drop it off after she finishes unpacking?”

“Sure!  That’ll be perfect!”

“You’ll probably need a ratchet to put it together.  Do you have one?”

“No, but I can get one.  It’s probably a good thing to have around.”

“Good idea.  I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“Yes!  Sounds good!”

After the phone call, I went downstairs and helped Shawn until we got everything out of his truck.  This place was starting to feel livable, although when it was time for bed and I slept on my mattress on the floor, it suddenly felt a little less livable.


The following afternoon, Claire arrived with the disassembled bed loft in the truck.  “Here it is,” she said.  “These two big pieces go on the ends, and this long flat one is the desk underneath.  These two go across the top to support the bed, and then these three flat pieces go between them.  You put the mattress on top of those.  And those go diagonally to brace the corners.  All the nuts and bolts are in that bag.”

“I think I get it.”

“These other pieces over here, you can make a shelf that goes around the desk.  But that’s optional.”

“I see.”

“I don’t remember exactly how that goes.  My dad built this for my older sister when she was in college.  It’s been great, but I don’t need it anymore.  I’m excited to have my own room!”

“I’m a little nervous about not having my own room,” I replied.  “But this will help with both of us fitting into that space.”

“Definitely!  Should we start carrying it in?”

“Sure,” I said.

With Claire’s help, I carefully carried all the bed pieces upstairs into the bedroom.  “This is a nice place,” Claire said.  “It has an upstairs.  And a wood stove.”

“I know.  That’ll be useful in the winter.”

After several trips up and down the stairs, we finished unloading the bed; I was sweating and breathing heavily by now.  “Thank you,” I said, giving Claire the fifty dollars we had agreen upon for the bed loft.

“You’re welcome!  I’ll see you at church?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Bye.  Have a good one.”

“You too!”

After Claire left, I went upstairs, trying to figure out exactly how to assemble the bed.  First, I got out the new ratcheting socket wrench I had bought that morning.  I propped up the two large side pieces, wondering if it mattered which was the right and which was the left.  The side pieces had holes for the diagonal braces, which went in the back; I used this to figure out which one was which.  Next, I found the two long beams that went across left to right, and attached those to the right side piece, with the extra holes in the back again.  Each beam attached to each side with two bolts.  I tried to attach the diagonal pieces next, but I seemed to be missing a bolt, so I only attached one diagonal brace.  Next, I bolted each of the three flat pieces that held the mattress to the frame.  I adjusted the position of the bed in the room, making sure the back and the right were almost touching the walls, but not quite.  This would definitely make the room feel less crowded.

After that, I lifted the mattress into position.  Then I slid the desk, which was really more of a table, underneath the mattress.  The table did not attach with bolts; it rested on wood bars that protruded from the side pieces.  Finally, I shoved the unused shelf pieces under the table, and I moved the ladder up against the frame, near where the pillow would eventually go.  I took a step backward and admired my work, then I got in the shower, since I was dripping sweat at this point.  This was perfect.  After I got out of the shower, I read Haley’s letter again, then I sat at the desk under the bed, found a sheet of paper, and began writing.


September 3, 1996

Dear Haley,

Hi!  Thanks for writing!  It was so good to hear from you!  I’m getting settled in the new apartment.  Shawn moved in yesterday too, and Brian is coming later this week.  It’s been an adjustment sharing the large bedroom, but Claire Seaver sold me her old bed loft, so that saves a lot of room.


I added no further context to the name “Claire Seaver.”  I knew that Haley and Claire knew each other, through an embarrassing moment that happened back in the spring.


The rest of my summer was fun.  My birthday was August 15, and my Bible study made me cupcakes.  I wasn’t expecting that at all.  Then I went to my parents’ house for a couple weeks.  My brother and his friends and I have this game called Moport, like a cross between soccer and hockey and football, and we had a two-on-two Moport tournament.  I’ve been riding my bike a lot too.

I hope you get to go to Urbana.  I keep hearing such good things about it.  As a new Christian, I don’t know if I’m ready to go fly overseas and preach the Gospel, but I want to find out what kind of service opportunities are out there, especially with so many of my friends doing stuff like that.  I saw the guys from J-Cov when they got back from Morocco; it sounds like that was a great experience.

I’m excited for Outreach Camp!  I’ve never been up that way.  And it’ll be good to see everyone.  It’ll be good to get more involved with JCF and find out what God wants me to do.

What classes are you taking this quarter?  I’m taking advanced calculus, numerical analysis, and Intro to New Testament.  I’ve heard such good things about New Testament and the professor.  I’m going to do chorus too.  People from my church choir keep telling me I should, and Amelia said the same thing at Bible study once.  You said you used to do chorus, right?  Is the audition hard?  I’m a little nervous.  I forget; are you going to Outreach Camp?  I’ll see you soon!

Sincerely,
Greg


As I have gotten older, I have noticed that one peculiarity of adulthood, particularly for a storyteller like me, is that certain inanimate objects will acquire backstories because of memories of how they were acquired.  To this day, I still have Claire’s bed loft.  I used it as my bed for the remaining five years that I lived with different combinations of roommates in Jeromeville, as well as two living situations later in life when I rented a room in someone else’s house.  When I bought my current house, in my early thirties, Claire’s bed loft became a storage shelf in the garage for a while.  I set it up again some time later as the guest bed, where it remains today, and it became my bed again for four months when my house was torn up for repairs and I had nowhere to move my regular bed.  Claire’s bed loft was quite possibly the best fifty dollars I have ever spent.

I walked to the mailboxes and dropped Haley’s letter in the outgoing mail slot.  It was warm and breezy, with that smell of late summer afternoon all around me.  A day like today felt exactly like the way life should be.  I had the next two weeks to get used to living with Shawn and Brian and Josh.  Then I would be spending a week in God’s creation with dozens of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  And I would see Haley soon.  Great things were going to happen this year.  I knew it.

August 15-21, 1996. My final week in Apartment 124.

The closest thing Jeromeville has to an industrial area is East Second Street.  East of downtown, the street follows a railroad track all the way to the city limits, running parallel to Highway 100 just on the other side of the railroad track.  I drove down East Second Street, past the frog pond, under the new overpass that had trees in it, and into the small parking lot of Second Street Self Storage.  The entrance to the office opened to the right side of the parking lot.  Behind the parking lot and office were about five or six long buildings with dozens of garage-type doors on each side; a sliding gate separated the parking lot from this area.

I walked into the office, where a middle-aged man sat at a desk.  “Hello,” he said.  “May I help you?”

“I called about fifteen minutes ago, asking about the 6 by 8 unit,” I replied.  “Was that you that I talked to?”

“It sure was.  You’re still interested?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’ll need you to fill this out,” he said, handing me a small stack of papers.  He explained the terms and conditions, the hours that I was able to access the storage unit, and what I would have to do in order to get my cleaning deposit back.  “Do you know if you’re going to keep the unit long term, or just temporarily?”

“Probably just for one month,” I replied.  “I just need a place to put my stuff until my new apartment is ready, and that’ll be the first week of September.”

“I see.  We get a lot of one-month rentals around this time of year for that reason.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  Most of the large apartment complexes in Jeromeville use the same lease terms, specifically written in coordination with the Associated Students organization, in order to be favorable to student renters.  Leases usually begin September 1 at noon and end August 31 at noon, leaving students who do not renew their leases for the following year without a place to stay for one night.  During the end of August and beginning of September, cleaning and remodeling crews in Jeromeville are working overtime, cleaning apartments as soon as students move out and hurrying to have them ready before new students move in.

After I filled out the papers, I got out my checkbook and wrote a check for the rent and cleaning deposit.  “May I see your ID?” the man asked when I handed him the check.  I handed him my driver’s license.  He looked at it, started to look at the check, but then did a double take and read my driver’s license again.  “It’s your birthday,” he said.

“It is,” I replied, smiling slightly.

“Happy birthday.”

“Thank you.”

I went home after I finished at Second Street Self Storage.  I had no special birthday plans.  Tonight was Bible study, but that was my normal plan for Thursdays.  I had not made a big deal of my birthday in a long time.  I remember my family having birthday parties for me in early childhood.  I had my sixth and seventh birthday parties at Chuck E. Cheese’s, which was new to my area at the time.  After that, I decided I did not want birthday parties anymore.  The other kids in my class were mean to me, so I had no one I particularly wanted to invite.  I would get presents from my family, but other than that, little recognition was made of my birthday, at my own request.  That was what I was used to.

When I arrived home, before I went to the apartment, I walked to the mailbox.  I saw three envelopes in my mailbox.  One was a credit card bill.  One appeared to be a birthday card from Mom.  The third envelope had unfamiliar handwriting; I got excited at this, hoping that it might be from Haley Channing since I had written to her early last week.  It was not from Haley; the return address said, S. Madison, 809 Walnut Lane, Sunnyglen.  It took me a few seconds to process why someone named S. Madison from Sunnyglen, over 100 miles away, would have sent me a birthday card.

“Ha!” I exclaimed out loud when I figured out what this card was.  Six months ago, I had been sitting at a table on campus with my friend Scott Madison.  He was showing me his fancy new organizer.  As a joke, I flipped ahead to August 15, and wrote “Greg’s birthday” in Scott’s organizer.  Scott went home for the summer, but apparently he was still using his organizer, because he had actually sent me a card.  My little joke had turned into a thoughtful gesture.  I opened the card when I got home; it had a drawing of sheep on a roller coaster, and on the inside it said, “Hope your birthday is filled with sheep thrills!”  Scott had written, “Happy birthday, Greg!  I hope that you’re having a good summer.  I’m working, but I miss Jeromeville a lot!  See you in the fall!”  I do not know if Scott remembered my birthday in future years, but I do get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.

The light on my answering machine was blinking, one blink with a long pause in between, meaning that I had one message.  I pressed Play.  “Hey, Greg.  This is Shawn Yang.  I was just checking when the new apartment will be ready, so we can figure out who will be first to move in, get the keys, all that stuff.  Call me back.  Bye.”  I picked up the phone and dialed Shawn’s number at his parents’ house in Ashwood.

“Hello?” a voice that sounded like Mr. Yang said.

“Hi.  Is Shawn there?”

“He went out for a run.  He’ll be back soon.  Who is this?”

“This is Greg.  I’m one of his roommates for next year in Jeromeville.  I met you at the graduation party.”

“Oh, yeah!”  Mr. Yang exclaimed.  “The tall Mexican guy!”

I snickered a little, trying to hold back laughter, hoping that Mr. Yang could not hear my reaction.  “Tell him to call me back.  I’ll be at Bible study from seven to nine tonight, but I’ll be here the rest of the day.”

“I’ll do that.  You have a good day.”

“You too.  Bye.”  I hung up the phone and started laughing loudly at Mr. Yang’s description of me.  I was not Mexican, although I did occasionally get mistaken for Mexican, because of the dark complexion that I got from the Italian great-grandfather whom I never met.  A few months after this, Shawn said something about his father having no filter.  I told Shawn about this conversation, and he replied incredulously, “He actually said that?”  We both started laughing.

Shawn did call me back later; I would be the first to arrive at the new apartment on September 2, with Shawn arriving the following weekend.  Shawn would relay the message to the others; he thought Brian was moving in the same weekend as him, and none of us had heard from Josh yet.  I went to Bible study later that night, and after the study, Lillian and Chris, the leaders, asked if anyone had prayer requests.  A few people asked for prayer for classes, roommate drama, and a friend who did not know Jesus.

“Any other prayer requests?” Lillian asked.

“I have one,” I said.  “My mom is coming up next Tuesday.  We’re going to move my stuff into storage, and then I’m going home for a couple weeks, and when I come back, I’ll move into the new apartment, with Shawn and Brian and Josh.  I’ve never had roommates before.  So just pray that the moving process will go well.”

“We can do that.”

“I think you’re really gonna like living with those guys,” Amelia Dye added.  Amelia was a year older than me; I had met her at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at some point during the previous school year.  She was the girlfriend of Scott Madison, who had sent me the card with the sheep.

“I hope so,” I replied.

We began prayer requests a few minutes later.  Each person took turns praying for the person sitting to our left.  I prayed for Amelia’s friend who did not know Jesus.  As the others finished their prayer requests, I heard someone get up and move, but I thought nothing of it at the time.

“Father God,” Lillian said, “I pray for Greg’s living situation.  I pray that the move will go smoothly, that he and his mom will be able to get everything packed and cleaned.  I pray that Greg will adjust to living with these other men of God.  I pray that Greg, Shawn, Brian, and Josh will enjoy fellowshipping with each other, and that as roommates, they will grow closer to God together.  And I pray for all of us, that we will take what we learned in our study tonight and apply it to our lives this week.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”  I opened my eyes; Amelia was no longer sitting next to me.  Lillian spoke again before the group had time to disperse.  “One more thing,” she said.  “We heard it’s Greg’s birthday, so we have cupcakes tonight.”

Wait, I thought, what?  Cupcakes?  For me?  As Lillian finished speaking, Amelia and Chris emerged from the kitchen, each carrying a muffin pan with twelve cupcakes.  The cupcakes in Amelia’s pan had chocolate frosting, and the ones in Chris’ pan had white frosting.  The cupcakes had lit candles on top.  Lillian led everyone in the room singing “Happy Birthday.” I smiled through the entire song.

“Make a wish!” Amelia said.

I closed my eyes.  I wanted to wish for better friendships with my JCF friends in the next school year.  I also wanted to wish that I would get to go on a date with Haley Channing after she came back to Jeromeville next month.  I panicked and blew in the general direction of the cake before deciding which one to wish for.  I opened my eyes; all the candles had been extinguished.  At that moment, I noticed that exactly four of the two dozen cupcakes did not have candles in them.  “Twenty candles,” I said.  “I just noticed.  Nice.”

“Is that right?” Chris asked.

“Yes.  I turned 20 today.”

As I bit into my cupcake, one of the ones with white frosting, I wondered how they knew that it was my birthday.  I had not told Lillian or Chris.  But after Bible study last week, I had mentioned my upcoming birthday to Ramon and Jason.  Also, since Scott remembered to send me a card, he could have easily told Amelia.  I was pretty sure he knew that we both attended this Bible study for the summer.  I realized a minute later that this had been the first time in thirteen years that I had celebrated my birthday with friends.  I stopped celebrating my birthday as a child because I did not have friends that I wanted to celebrate with, but this year was different; I had friends, and I got to celebrate with them.


Five days later, I sat in my apartment reading, waiting for the knock on the door that eventually came in mid-afternoon.  I got up to open the door.  “Hello,” Mom said, entering the apartment after I stepped aside.  She had made the trip in Dad’s gray Ford pickup truck, which was now parked just outside.  She gave me a hug.  “This is for you,” she continued, handing me a rectangular wrapped gift.  “The rest of your presents are back home.  Most of them are things for the new apartment, so it didn’t make sense to bring them now.  But you can have this now.”

I took the gift; it was unexpectedly heavy, probably a book.  I opened it; it was The World According to Dave Barry.  Dave Barry had a weekly column that appeared in newspapers around the country; I faithfully read his column and found him hilarious.  “Thank you!”  I said.  “So where do we start?”

“What still needs to be done?” Mom asked.

“Pretty much everything.”  Mom and I started with the closet, putting clothes in boxes but setting aside one change of clothes for tomorrow.  From there, we moved to the living room, packing books in boxes, but deciding to wait until tomorrow to disconnect the television, stereo, or computer, in case we still needed to use any of them.

After working for a couple hours, I was hungry.  “Are we going to go out to dinner?” I asked.

“No,” Mom replied.  “We have to use up all the food in your refrigerator.”

“Oh, yeah,” I replied, disappointed.  I was in the mood for an Arch Deluxe, and it would have been nice to have Mom pay for it, but she was right.  I had not been thinking about the upcoming move in my recent grocery store trips, so I did not make a conscious effort to keep the refrigerator and freezer empty.  We had to eat the food I already had, so it would not go to waste.  We ate Hungry-Man dinners while Mom told me about her drive up here and shared the latest drama with her coworkers.

“I’m off work for Labor Day on September 2, and Dad was able to get that day off work,” Mom said at one point.  “So we’ll come up that day with the truck and help you move into the new apartment.  Does that still work?”

“Yeah.”

“When are the other guys moving in?”

“Shawn and Brian will be up the weekend after Labor Day.  I haven’t heard from Josh.”

We continued packing and organizing that night, staying up until almost midnight.  Mom brought a sleeping bag; I offered for her to use the bed, and I would sleep on the floor, but she insisted that I use the bed.  The next day, she complained quite a bit how uncomfortable it had been to sleep on the floor.  I said that she should have taken the bed, but she still insisted she was okay.

After a breakfast of more Hungry-Man dinners, we finished packing, putting everything into boxes until the boxes were full.  We used trash bags for the clothes in my closet.  Mom had brought a cooler with ice packs to salvage what food was left in the refrigerator, but some of it we had to throw away.  We made two trips to Second Street Self-Storage during the course of the day, both with the truck completely full.  I had hoped that we would only need to make one trip, but that was unrealistic.

We returned from Second Street Self-Storage early in the afternoon.  The apartment had been emptied of all of my things; all that remained was the refrigerator and microwave that came with the apartment and the cleaning supplies that Mom had brought.  We spent the afternoon cleaning.  Mom started in the kitchen, and I started in the bathroom, although I felt that I did not know what I was doing.  The toilet paper roll handle had begun coming loose from the wall a couple months ago; fixing that would probably come out of my deposit.  The bathtub was covered in soap scum and mildew, because I had never lived on my own before and I did not know the importance of regular cleaning.  This was the first time the bathtub had been cleaned since I had moved in a year ago.  Even with lots of spraying and scrubbing, the soap scum and mildew did not all come off.  The toilet and sink were easier to clean, fortunately.

“How are you doing?” Mom came in to ask after I had been working in the bathroom for about an hour.

“The soap scum isn’t really coming off,” I replied, gesturing toward the bathtub.  “And the handle of the toilet paper roller is loose.”

“You can try spraying it a second time.  Some of that just might not come off, and it’ll come out of our deposit.”

I tried cleaning the bathtub a second time after I finished with the sink.  A little bit more of the soap scum came off eventually.  “What should I do now?” I asked Mom when I finished.

“Start scrubbing dirt off the walls,” Mom answered.  “I’m almost done in the kitchen.”

“How?”

“You can use a sponge with soap, and then rinse it with a damp paper towel.  They’re probably going to paint, I would think.”

A large dark discoloration spread for about three feet across the wall, a foot up from the floor, in the spot where my computer and table had been.  I realized that this was the spot where I often put my feet while I was working at the computer, and that is what had caused this dirty spot.  Disgusting.  I scrubbed it off after much scrubbing with the sponge, along with some of the paint underneath.

“I need a break,” I said.

“Don’t take too long of a break!” Mom replied, sounding annoyed, as she worked on mopping the kitchen floor.  “We need to get this done soon!  I have to work tomorrow, and you need to turn in the keys.”

“All right,” I said, moving on to other dirty spots.  I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but I kept going.  We finished at 5:37, twenty-three minutes before the apartment office closed.  I went through the apartment one last time to get everything we had left behind.  I took out two large bags of trash and went back into the apartment one last time to make sure the lights were turned off.  I went to the office to turn in my keys, checking the mailbox on the way; all I had was junk mail, still no card from Haley.  I also made sure that I had packed my car with everything I needed for two weeks back home.

“That’s it,” I said.  “Ready to go home?”

“Yes.  I’ll just see you there.  You know the way; we don’t need to try to stay together.”

“Sounds good.”

Mom pulled out of the parking lot at Las Casas Apartments, and I followed her.  We turned west on Coventry Boulevard and then south on Highway 117, following it to westbound 100, southbound 6, and southbound 11 until we reached Plumdale.  It was almost dark when we finally arrived home at a quarter to nine.  I showered as soon as I got home; I usually did not shower at night, but I still felt so dirty from all the cleaning today.  I went to bed early.

My year of living alone was over, and so were my teens.  I did not take the best care of that apartment, but I had learned some things to do differently next time, and I did get a little bit of my security deposit back.  When I got back to Jeromeville, I would have a new challenge of learning to live with roommates, including sharing a bedroom with Shawn.  But I would also be much less disconnected, having people in the apartment with me.  My little studio apartment number 124 had served its purpose well, but now I had moved on to something else for the beginning of my twenties.

July 27-29, 1996. Questioning my spiritual home.

The Dennison family got cable television in 1984.  I was in second grade, and we now got thirty channels with very clear pictures. This was a vast improvement over the six channels we got before, two of which were full of static and one of which was in Spanish.  I grew up watching MTV in the 1980s, and my mother absorbed knowledge of much of the popular music of that day.  However, my mother also had the habit of not paying close attention to lyrics and misunderstanding the meanings of songs.  To her, for example, “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper was about dancing, rather than masturbation, and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen was a proud patriotic anthem, not a criticism of the United States government’s past involvement in Vietnam and subsequent neglect of veterans.

In 1996, after getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and making new friends there, I discovered the new world of Christian rock music.  Bands like DC Talk and Jars of Clay filled two of the three discs on my CD changer, and I copied both albums to cassettes to listen to in the car.  A few of those Christian rock hits were getting played on mainstream secular radio stations, and in an attempt to connect with me, Mom would tell me whenever she heard one of these songs.  Mom would also tell me whenever she heard some other song that had a lyric that sounded religious and ask if that song was by one of my Christian bands, despite the fact that many of these words had meanings in ordinary English and were used by non-Christian musicians as well.  No, Mom, “Salvation” by the Cranberries is not Christian music.

My family had recently set up Internet access, and Mom had made the humorous email name “Peg Not Bundy” for herself, in reference to Peg Bundy, the wife from TV’s Married With Children, and the fact that her name was Peggy also.  I opened an email from Peg Not Bundy and read it.


From: peg_notbundy@aolnet.com
To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
Date: Sat, 27 Jul 1996 09:33 -0700
Subject: Re: hi

I finally have a few minutes to sit and write.  It has been such a busy week!  I’ve had a lot of work to do.  Today Mark has a baseball game, so I have to take him to that, then Cody is coming over afterward p[bdfg6t7sdvg78ysvd (Davey says hi).


Davey was a cat, and that gibberish meant that he climbed on the keyboard as Mom was typing.  This was not the first time this had happened, but it always made me smile when I read that in Mom’s emails.  I continued reading.


I heard a song on the radio today that I kind of like.  The chorus said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God.”  Do you know that song?  Is that one of your Christian bands?  How is your class going?  One more week, right?  Talk to you later.  Love, Mom


I replied to the email and told Mom that the song was “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla, and it was definitely not Christian music.  If Mom had listened to the next line, she would know that the song actually said, “Tell me all your thoughts on God, ‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  A real Christian band would not be referring to God as “her”; this would be extremely unpopular with listeners of mainstream Christian music, although the idea was not unheard of among liberal feminists in the Church.

Liberal feminists in the Church were not hard to find in a university town like Jeromeville.  I attended Mass at the Jeromeville Newman Center, and one time last year, before I was part of the choir, I remember we sang a familiar song called “On Eagle’s Wings.”  Since its publication in 1979, this had been a popular song for Catholic Masses; I had heard and sung it many times growing up at Our Lady of Peace Church.  The line at the end of the chorus said “and hold you in the palm of his hand,” with God doing the holding, but the first time I heard it at Newman, it sounded like they were saying something a little different, almost like “palm of her hand.”  Some time later, when I got to church, I looked at the sign that had the numbers of the day’s songs in the songbook, and next to the number for On Eagle’s Wings was a female ♀ symbol.  Just like the time before, the choir sang female pronouns for God.  I noticed as the year went on that they would occasionally change other lyrics to refer to God in the feminine. I was a little surprised at this, because in my experience, the radical feminists and hippies who used female pronouns for God were not Catholic.



The day after Mom asked about Counting Blue Cars, I drove myself to church.  I usually carpooled with Heather Escamilla, who lived in the same apartment complex as me, but she had blown off church to spend the weekend at the Great Blue Lake with her boyfriend.  I heard Counting Blue Cars on the way to church and promptly changed the station.  Hearing that song reminded me that we were singing On Eagle’s Wings with feminine pronouns today, and this still made me uncomfortable.  God did not have a gender or biological sex in the way that humans understand the concept, but making a point of using feminine pronouns in church, going against centuries of church tradition, just seemed arrogant to me.  The Bible was the Word of God, and if masculine pronouns were good enough for those who wrote it, why are they suddenly not good enough for Jeromevillians in 1996?  Changing God’s gender felt like a slippery slope toward changing God’s teachings.

“Hey, Greg,” Claire, the unofficial leader of the choir, said as I approached the other choir members.  “How are you?”

“Doing well.  One more week of class.”

“Nice!  Are you taking a class second session?”

“No.  I’m just going to hang out.  And I’m moving at the start of September.”

“Me too.  I’m getting an apartment with Sabrina and one other girl we know.  I’m going to have my own room for the first time!  I’m not going to need my bed loft!  Do you know anyone who wants to buy a bed loft?”

“Actually,” I said, “I might be interested.  I’m going to be sharing a room.  How much?”

“I was thinking fifty dollars.  We can talk about it later.  I’ll let you know.”

“Sounds good!”

I walked to my usual music stand, next to Ellen Stark.  “Hi,” I said.  “How are you?”

“Good!  We’re taking a family vacation this week, up to Portland to visit relatives.  I’m excited about that!”

“Fun!  I have my final exam on Thursday.”

“Good luck!  I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

“When do you go back to California?”

“Middle of September.  So I’ll still be here for a while.”

“Good,” I said.

Claire whispered at all of us to be quiet as Father Bill and Sister Mary Rose walked up to begin Mass.  On Eagle’s Wings was the offertory song, sung about halfway through while the offering plates were being passed.  I had sung it with feminine pronouns before, because that was just the way things were done at the Jeromeville Newman Center, but today, with Counting Blue Cars still on my mind, it felt especially wrong.

“And hmm will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” I sang, purposely making the pronoun unintelligible.  “And hold you in the palm… of mmm hand.”  I looked at Ellen next to me to see if she noticed; she was looking straight forward, not at me.  Probably not.

After Communion, as Father Bill and others were making announcements, I noticed Lisa, another singer from our choir who sang at the early service during the school year, coming out of the back room with Sister Mary Rose.  Lisa walked back to her music stand.  I wondered what she was doing; she had been singing with us just a few minutes ago, and I did not notice her step away.  We sang the final song, and after Father Bill dismissed the congregation, we began putting our sheet music and stands away.  Lisa accidentally knocked over her stand, then almost tripped over it trying to pick up the scattered sheet music.

“Sorry!” Lisa laughed.  “There was a lot of leftover wine today.”

“What?” I asked, certain that I had misheard.

“After Communion, Sister Mary Rose and I were finishing the bread and wine,” Lisa explained.

“You have to eat and drink the rest of it?” Matt Jones asked.

“Yeah,” Lisa explained.  “You can’t just throw it away, it’s the Body and Blood of Christ!”

“I guess I never really thought about that,” Matt said.

“I know sometimes I need to get a little tipsy from the wine to finish the last song,” Lisa said, laughing.  Matt and Claire laughed with her, while I just stood, shocked at this blasphemy I was hearing.  I had recently read in First Corinthians where Paul wrote that “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”  My understanding was that, unlike many other Christians, Catholics believe that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ, while retaining the appearance and taste of bread and wine.  This is why, as Lisa said, it could not just be thrown away.

Joking about getting drunk off of the blood of Christ had no place in a house of worship.  At this point, though, I did not expect much reverence from a congregation that prioritized being good feminists and calling God She over church teaching.  I immediately walked over to Sister Mary Rose.

“Hi, Greg,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “How are you?”

“Can I talk to you sometime?” I asked.  “I have some things I’ve been thinking about.”

“Sure.  What’s your schedule like this week?”

“I have class Tuesday and Thursday from 12 to 2, and Wednesday from 10 to 2.  I’m free tomorrow.”

“How about you just come by here tomorrow afternoon?  Around one o’clock, maybe?”

“That sounds good.  I’ll see you then.”

“Yes.  See you tomorrow.”


I decided to ride my bike to the Newman Center the next afternoon to talk to Sister Mary Rose, instead of driving.  That way I could continue on a recreational bike ride afterward.  The ride took about ten minutes, but it was hot enough that I was starting to sweat when I arrived.  I locked my bike and walked into the church office, slowly and carefully.

“Hi, Greg!” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Take a seat.”  I sat in a chair across from her at her desk, trying to get comfortable, as she asked, “So what’s going on?”

I took a deep breath, and then another one, trying to make the words come out right.  “When we sing songs like ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ with the feminine pronouns, that isn’t right to me.  It’s like you’re putting politics above church teaching and the Word of God.”

“Well,” Sister Mary Rose replied, “how do you think you would feel if you were a woman?”

I paused.  It seemed like she was setting me up to make me feel guilty for being a white male, a standard tactic used by liberals to make conservatives look bad.  I did not feel guilty for being who I was, but I also did not want to start an argument or say anything that Sister Mary Rose would find offensive.  “I don’t know,” I replied.  “I would probably notice that God is usually spoken of as if he were male, but I would like to think that I would submit to Scripture and Church teaching on the subject.”

“Well, God is not a man.  God has both male and female attributes.”

“I agree.”

“Then why is this a problem for you?”

“It just feels…” I shifted my position in my seat.  “Kind of arrogant, like you know better than hundreds of years of Church teaching, and the people who wrote the Bible.”

“Church teaching has changed.  And so has language.  It was normal at one time to use a word like ‘mankind’ to mean all men and women, but today we would say ‘humankind.’”

I nodded, but inwardly cringed.  I thought “humankind” was kind of a dumb word, when “mankind” did just as well with fewer letters and syllables.  It had only been twenty-seven years since Neil Armstrong’s famous use of the word “mankind,” and the language had already changed?  I remember being home at Christmas and noticing that this year’s songbook at Our Lady of Peace had replaced the word “mankind” in one of the later verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” with “humankind,” breaking the rhythm by adding an extra syllable.  Forcibly changing the language like that felt too much like George Orwell’s 1984 to me.

However, Sister Mary Rose brought up an important point: I was not a woman.  I did not know how it felt to live in a culture that historically treated women as second-class citizens, and while women had made a great deal of progress toward equality, old habits and scars remained at times.

“But,” I asked, “isn’t church teaching supposed to be based on the Bible?  And the word of God doesn’t change.”

“The word of God doesn’t change,” Sister Mary Rose reiterated.  “The Church will never do anything that goes against the Ten Commandments, or the teachings of Jesus.  And changing the language we use doesn’t go against any of that.  You agreed that God has male and female attributes.  So using male and female language to refer to God does not go against any teaching.”

I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t know.”

“Pray about it.  Pray that God will give you peace about this.”

“I just don’t know if I belong here anymore.”

“What do you mean?  Where?”

“The Newman Center.  I’ve been getting involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, they are nondenominational, but the more I learn about the Bible, I see a lot of people here who don’t really seem to take their faith seriously.”  I shifted in my seat again, debating telling her about Lisa getting tipsy from the Communion wine; I decided not to.

“Greg, no one is perfect.  Everyone sins.  That is why we have the Sacrament of Reconciliation.  And if you are concerned about them, you can be a good example and take your faith seriously, and pray for them.”

I nodded.  “That makes sense,” I said.

“You’ve been a part of Newman for, how long?  Two years now?  I would hate for you to feel like this isn’t your spiritual home anymore.”

“Yeah.”

“May I pray for you?”

“Sure.”

Sister Mary Rose folded her hands and looked down, and I did the same.  “O Loving Parent, I pray for your blessing on Greg.  I thank you for bringing him to the Newman Center to be a part of our community.  I thank you for blessing us with his voice on Sunday mornings.  I pray that you will give him peace about these things that have been on his mind, and that he will listen for your guidance.”  She continued, saying the Hail Mary prayer, then lifted her head and opened her eyes.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Just find a quiet place and listen to God.”

“I’ve been trying to do that.”

“Good!  Keep doing that.”  We made small talk for a few minutes, and I left, feeling a little bit better, but still unsure of what to think of all this.


Later that night, when I got home from my bike ride, I turned on the radio and went to the kitchen to make dinner.  My sink was full of dirty dishes, and my little studio apartment did not have a dishwasher, so I began washing the dishes by hand.  Counting Blue Cars came on a few minutes into doing the dishes.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” lead singer J.R. Richards sang, “‘cause I’d really like to meet her.”  My hands were too wet and soapy to walk over and change the station, so I left it on.  It really was not a bad song, other than the use of female pronouns for God.  

I will tell you all my thoughts on God, J.R., I thought.  God created the universe and inspired holy men to write the Bible.  Those holy men referred to God with masculine language, so I will do the same.  A huge part of knowing God is knowing and obeying his Word, and not placing the cultural norms of this liberal university town above God’s Word.  I hope you do meet him someday.

But that in no way makes women second-class citizens.  Men and women are both created in the image of God, and both have roles to play in God’s kingdom.  And I had to admit that I had not studied the original languages of the Bible, so I did not know how gender and language worked when the Bible was originally written.

I still felt unsettled about all of this, and uncomfortable with the idea of a church referring to God in the feminine.  I felt just as uncomfortable, if not more so, with church choir members getting tipsy from Communion wine.  “Tell me all your thoughts on God,” J.R. continued, “‘cause I’m on my way to see her.  Tell me, am I very far?”  I was going through the same process as the character in the song, seeking God and wanting to know how to get closer to him.  Maybe that would happen at the Newman Center, or maybe I was looking for something else, but I was asking the right questions and moving in the right direction.

(April 2021. Interlude, part 4, and Year 2 recap.)

If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2.  Last week, I did the same for Year 1.  Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.  If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.


I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore.  I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend.  Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice.  I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them.  I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together.  I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer.  My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around.  I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

I turned 19 in August.  The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September.  Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale.  I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat.  As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town.  Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I had plenty of new experiences that fall.  I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus.  Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics.  I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me.  But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends.  I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me.  In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over.  He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life.  I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes.  As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came.  I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell.  I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me.  We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.

December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me.  It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend.  I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone.  I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes.  One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met.  As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself.  Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

The winter quarter was not easy academically.  My classes all had their midterms on the same day.  Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry.  Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study.  I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time.  My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system.  We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life.  The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley.  We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor.  I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit.  I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet.  God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year.  I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play.  I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic.  I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta.  I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized.  And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.

May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

I was still doing very well in classes.  Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and  started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year.  Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors.  As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker.  I did not do too well.  Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.

June 11-12, 1996. The new Walk of Shame.

These days, it is easy to create a new identity and pretend to be someone else online.  Just sign up for a new free email account with Google or Yahoo or any of those, and use that free email account to make a new Facebook or Instagram or whatever else is needed.  Or just use it to send emails with a new name.

In 1996, it was much more difficult to send an email without my real name on it.  Free advertiser-supported email services were still a few years away.  Someone wanting a new email address had three options: get a job with an employer that offered email, attend a university, or pay for it.  However, if the only purpose was to be anonymous and not have a specific name on the message, I knew of one other option, a service called “anon.penet.fi.”  This service was an anonymous remailer; a message emailed to anon.penet.fi would be forwarded to its intended recipient with all traces of the sender’s actual name and email address removed and replaced with arbitrary nonsensical numbers.  I had no idea how to pronounce “anon.penet.fi,” but I thought that the “.fi” ending meant that the service was based on Finland, and “Penet” was presumably the name of the service.  Last year, someone called “Publius” famously posted mysterious messages on the Pink Floyd Usenet forum about hidden messages in the band’s most recent album; Publius used anon.penet.fi to post those messages anonymously.

I used anon.penet.fi exactly once, and when I woke up on that Tuesday morning, I had no idea that I would require the services of an anonymous remailer.  The day started out perfectly normal, at least as normal as finals week could be.  My final for anthropology class, taught by the unfortunately named Dr. Dick Small, was in the afternoon, so I slept in until nine.  That counts as sleeping in for a stressed light sleeper like me, and did a lot of last minute studying after that.  About half an hour before the test was scheduled to start, I rode my bike to campus and parked next to the big lecture hall in Younger Hall, just east of the Quad in the old part of the campus.  I walked inside and found an empty seat toward the back of the room, pulled up the attached writing desk, and got out my blue book, Scantron, and a pen and pencil.  About a minute later, a girl whom I did not know, but had noticed in class before, sat next to me.  She wore short shorts and a low-cut tank top over her firm, round breasts.  I did not know her name.

“Are you ready?” I asked, the first words I ever spoke to her.

“I think so,” she replied.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks.  You too,” I said, the last words I ever spoke to her.

While I waited for the test to start, I turned my head so that I appeared to be staring off into space, but with my eyes still able to look at the attractive girl inconspicuously.  I saw her write her name on the Scantron; her first name was Jennifer, but I could not read her last name.  The test began a minute later, and despite the sexy distraction next to me, I managed to stay focused enough to do my best, and I felt fairly confident when I finished.  The test was straightforward with no real surprises on what was asked or what I had to write about.  I snuck a few glances at Jennifer’s long legs while looking down at the test paper.

I got home, not in the mood to do any more studying since I had no finals tomorrow.  I wasted a few hours writing emails, talking on an IRC chat, reading a book, and eating.  I lay down after I finished eating, and my mind wandered back to Jennifer from anthropology class sitting next to me during the final.  I did not know her, but I wanted to caress her legs and fondle her breasts and kiss her lips.  I began thinking about what that would be like, I found myself becoming aroused, one thing led to another, and ten minutes later I found myself making the Walk of Shame to the laundry room to wash my pants and underwear and sheets.

All I could think about was how I had failed as a Christian.  Jesus said that someone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.  I had let Jesus down, and I had also let down all my friends at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship who had prayed with me, and shared the truth of the Gospel with me, and led me in Bible study.

Furthermore, all of this tied up another hour and a half of my evening.  I had not been planning to do laundry today, and I refused to leave clothes unattended in the laundry room after an incident a few months ago when a bunch of my clothes were stolen.  I brought my textbook for combinatorics and used the time to study, even though my final for combinatorics was not until Thursday morning.  I had a hard time concentrating; I kept thinking about how I had failed in my walk with Jesus.

When I got back to my apartment, as I made my bed with my freshly washed sheets, my eyes caught the bulletin board behind my computer.  Last month, I was having a rough day, and I was talking to my friend Sarah Winters between class. She just silently listened to me rant while she wrote two Bible verses on a piece of paper, handing the paper to me when she was done.  I had pinned Sarah’s note to my bulletin board, so it would be there to remind me of God’s Word when I needed it.  And I needed reminders of God’s Word now.

“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.”  Just as God had a plan for the exiles of the prophet Jeremiah’s time, he had a plan for my life too.  He led me here to Jeromeville in the first place, and by putting me in a situation where I lived alone in this studio apartment, he led me to seek out friends, which brought me to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, where I learned what it really means to know Jesus.

“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.”  My life is not my own.  I was created to serve and glorify God.  I believed.  But if I did, why did I have such a hard time trusting and acknowledging him?  Why could I not just trust that he had something better in store for me than empty fantasies about Jennifer from anthro, whom I did not know and had no chance with?

Everyone around me seemed to have their lives together.  I wondered if any other guys I knew dealt with this.  Probably not.  I felt so ashamed to struggle with this still.  I wanted to talk to someone about this, but I knew that anyone I told would just scold me and remind me that what I did was wrong.  I knew I was wrong.  I needed help, and encouragement, and prayer, not more guilt.

I looked up again at Sarah’s handwritten Scriptures.  Maybe Sarah could help me, I thought.  She was a good friend, one of the nicest people I knew, and she really was living her life for Jesus.  I would learn years later that many Christians would find it inappropriate for an unmarried man to talk to a woman about his struggles with lust, but at this point I just wanted someone to help me in my struggles and pray for me.  I was not trying to hook up with Sarah.  And, honestly, I found girls less intimidating to talk to than guys.  I had spent too much of my life around guys who just wanted to be macho and intimidating.

No, I thought, this was not a good idea.  I did not want Sarah to know my deep, dark secret.  I did not know if I would ever be able to face her again.  If only there was some way I could communicate with her anonymously, being honest about what I was going through without her knowing it was me… and I remembered that there was such a way: anon.penet.fi.

I had learned how anon.penet.fi worked from the Pink Floyd Usenet group, when Publius was anonymously posting cryptic messages.  I had to send the email to a specific address in the penet.fi domain, and the first line of the message had to say “X-ANON-TO:” followed by the actual email of the intended recipient.  This would signal the computer on the other end that this was an actual message intended to be forwarded anonymously to someone else.  On Sarah’s end, the sender would appear as some long number followed by “@anon.penet.fi.”  The server at anon.penet.fi would remember my email and assign me a specific number, so that any message sent to anyone from my email address would get labeled with the same number.  This way, people using anon.penet.fi to communicate anonymously back and forth would at least know that the messages were always coming from the same person.  I took a deep breath and started typing.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to, but I am too ashamed to use my real name.  You may call me Joe.


I did not think I looked like a Joe; that should take the suspicion off of me if Sarah tried to guess who sent the message.  As I started typing, I realized that Sarah might not be particularly knowledgeable of the dark intricacies of the Internet, so she may not know what anon.penet.fi was.  When she got this mysterious message with a bunch of numbers as the sender, she might not read it.  I changed the subject line to “please read, this is real, you know me,” and started typing over again.


X-ANON-TO:sewinters@jeromeville.edu
I am using this anonymous email service because I am too ashamed to use my real name.  I am someone you know in real life, and I need someone to talk to.  You may call me Joe.


I continued typing, explaining to her in a couple of paragraphs what happened, and how I felt ashamed, like I was a failure, and I had let Jesus and my friends down.  I concluded the message by explaining that she could reply to this message and I would receive it with all of the names removed.  I took a deep breath and clicked Send before I could second-guess myself.

By now it felt too late to do homework.  I got in bed with the book I had been reading, The Firm by John Grisham.  I read for over an hour and tried to go to sleep around midnight, but sleep did not come quickly.  I woke up in the morning with a headache after having slept for around four hours.


I had no finals the next day, Wednesday, and I did not go to campus.  I went grocery shopping, I read more of The Firm, and I went for a bike ride through the Coventry Greenbelts.  I made a cheeseburger for dinner, and when I was done, I put the greasy pan and my plate in the kitchen sink, which had been piling up with dirty dishes for a few days.  I also spent about four nonconsecutive hours studying for my final in combinatorics tomorrow, even though I was getting an A-plus in the class and I felt comfortable with the material.  During a study break that night, I checked my email and saw this in my inbox as the computer played the tone indicating that I had a new message.


15358854@anon.penet.fi   Re: please read, this is real, you know me


Sarah had written back.  I opened the message and began reading.


Joe,

You are not a failure, and you have not let me down.  You definitely have not let God down.  You said that your friends all have their lives together, but trust me, we really don’t.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  Jesus loves you, and he will never let you go.

I would suggest that you find something to get your mind off of those thoughts when they come up.  Read a Psalm or your favorite Bible verse.  Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.  Go for a walk.  Clean your house.  Do whatever it takes.  But most importantly, don’t get down on yourself if you do mess up.  Remember that Jesus died for sinners like us, not for perfect people who already had their lives together.

Thank you so much for sharing this with me.  I will keep you in my prayers.  Take care and God bless.


I was not feeling particularly aroused today, but I felt like I needed some time with God nevertheless, after all that had happened.  I opened my Bible, having remembered something I had read recently about Jesus dying for us while we were still sinners.  I thought it was in Paul’s letter to the Romans; I found it a few minutes later, Romans 5:8: “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Interestingly enough, that verse was just a few sentences past the first verse that I had ever memorized, the one about hope that Janet McAllen from the JCF staff had written when she drew the diagram explaining to me how Christ’s death worked.  I spent some time just sitting there on the edge of my bed, praying.

I read Sarah’s email again.  “Play worship music, if you play an instrument, or just sing if you don’t.”  I did not play an instrument.  I knew songs we sang at Mass, and I was learning some of the worship music that the band at JCF played.  But I had a stereo with a CD player on my shelf, and I had recently purchased two albums by Christian rock bands: the self-titled debut album by Jars of Clay, and DC Talk’s Jesus Freak album.  I put on the Jesus Freak album and really listened to the words while I did dishes and cleaned the kitchen.  The dishes had been piling up for far too long.

I sat down to answer other emails while DC Talk continued playing on the stereo.  Track 10 on the CD was a song called “In the Light”; I had discovered this song two months earlier, when I took the road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove with Eddie and Haley and a bunch of other people.  Sarah was on that trip too.  I loved this song already, but the lyrics just hit differently tonight.

What’s going on inside of me?
I despise my own behavior
This only serves to confirm my suspicion
That I’m still a man in need of a Savior.

That was me.  That was exactly what I had been feeling.  Sarah had reminded me that we are all sinners saved by grace, and just because I was giving in to temptations of the flesh sometimes, my sins had been paid for with Jesus’ blood on the cross.

Lord, be my light, and be my salvation
‘Cause all I want is to be in the light.

Anon.penet.fi would shut down a few months later, after too many legal controversies caused by people using anonymous remailing for criminal purposes.  I never attempted to use the service again.  I did reveal to Sarah that I was Joe eventually, but not directly; we were in the same breakout group on a retreat, and this topic came up, so I told the story of sending the anonymous email.  She could tell that I was a little uncomfortable sharing, and all she said to me about it afterward was “Jesus loves you,” along with a pat on the back.

I would go on to learn that many Christian men and women struggle with this, but I never completely resolved this issue in my mind.  I have heard a lot over the years about this culture of sexual purity among Christians.  Some Christians take sexual purity very seriously, refusing to spend time alone with a member of the opposite sex other than one’s spouse, committing to not kissing until the wedding day, things like that.  Others reject purity entirely and brag about how they have had sex with many people they were not married to, but God loves them anyway.  I do not agree with either of those views, and mostly I have just numbed myself to some of the guilt and shame that I used to experience.  One thing is true, though; just like everyone else, I am a sinner saved by grace, and my salvation was bought with the blood of Christ.

April 9, 1996. Friends all over campus and a new plan.

Two years ago, when my university applications were being processed, I got invited to something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program at the University of Jeromeville.  This was a program for around seventy high-achieving freshmen; among other things, we all lived in the same building, and we had to take one class every quarter specifically for IHP students, which counted toward general education requirements.  I was particularly attracted to the idea of being part of a relatively small group of students.  Jeromeville was a huge university, with around 25,000 students on a main campus that took up a square mile, adjacent to several more square miles of farmland used for research.  I found my high school of 1400 already far too big to know everyone, so a school this big seemed intimidating.  Being part of a small group of students who knew each other seemed attractive to me, and this was part of the reason I chose Jeromeville over Central Tech and Bidwell State.

Despite those numbers, however, UJ was starting to feel much smaller now that I had been around for a while.  I encountered people I knew more and more often around campus and around town.  In addition to my friends from the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, I had friends from classes, church, Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, the Math Club, people I knew through mutual friends, and people who I just saw around enough that I started to recognize them and say hi for no other reason.

As I got on the bus that morning, I wondered if I would see Tiffany Rollins.  Tiffany was a civil engineering major, and we had been in a few of the same mathematics and physics classes in the past.  We had finished all of the classes that her major had in common with my mathematics major, though, so we would probably be seeing less of each other as time went on, but last week I saw her on the bus both Tuesday and Thursday morning.  She lived in an apartment complex just down Alvarez Avenue from mine, at the bus stop just before my stop.  I boarded the bus, showed my ID card to the driver, and spotted Tiffany sitting near the back of the bus.

“Hey, Greg,” Tiffany said as I approached her and sat next to her.

“Hey,” I replied.  “How are you?”

“Not bad.  One of my classes is really hard already.  I was up late last night studying.”

“Yeah.  Mine aren’t too bad yet.  I’m just starting to stress over not knowing where I’m going to live next year.”

“You aren’t keeping your studio apartment?”

“I didn’t renew.  I was hoping to find friends to live with.  I almost had a plan, but it fell through.”

“I hope you find something!”

“Me too.  I’ve been asking around.”

“I can let you know if anyone I know is looking for a guy.”

“That would be nice,” I said, although I was really hoping not to have to do that.  I wanted to live with people I knew who would be fun to be around, not some strangers who happened to know Tiffany.  Granted, those strangers could end up becoming friends, but they could also end up being my worst nightmare.

I was still thinking about this all through weight training class.  Yesterday, when I got home from campus, I had a note in my mailbox at the apartment saying that I had a package to pick up.  When I went into the office to get my package, the woman at the desk had asked me how I was doing, and I explained that I was worried about not having a place to live for next year.

“I have a note here from the other front desk person that someone came in here earlier looking for a roommate,” she said.  She wrote “Alex Davidson” and a phone number on a piece of paper and handed it to me.  “I guess Alex renewed his lease but his roommate is moving out, so maybe you should give Alex a call.”

I gave some kind of noncommittal answer and returned to my apartment.  I would not be giving Alex a call.  Because Jeromeville was a small world and I knew a lot of people, I was familiar with the name Alex Davidson.  The front desk person had not spoken to Alex directly, so she did not realize that Alex was a girl.  I did not know her well, but she was in my Chemistry 2B class a year ago; I remembered seeing her write her name on something, and her name stood out to me because most people named Alex I knew were male.  I did not feel comfortable with a female roommate.  It would just feel weird, and also I ran with circles that would question the nature of the relationship of a single male and a single female living together.  Sure, Heather Escamilla from church lived with her boyfriend, but I also knew people that had the same judgmental attitude toward that arrangement.  I did not find Alex Davidson particularly attractive, though, so if somehow we did end up living together, we probably would not develop any kind of awkward sexual tension.

After weight training class, I walked across campus toward the Memorial Union.  I had been coughing and sniffling off and on for the last few weeks, not enough to feel sick and stay home from classes but enough to notice.  As I approached the Memorial Union, I saw a quiet short-haired girl sitting quietly on a bench reading.  It was Skeeter, a friend from the IHP who lived upstairs from me last year.  Just as I was about to say hi, I coughed, and Skeeter heard me and looked up.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.

“Hi.  How’s it going?”

“It’s funny.  I recognized your cough.”

“Wait, what?”

“I heard a cough, and I thought, ‘That sounds like Greg.’”

“Really,” I said.  “I didn’t know I had a distinct-sounding cough.”

“I’ve never thought about it before.  It’s really weird.”

“Yeah.  I would not have thought of that,”  I said.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“You too!”

Last night, I went grocery shopping, and I had to use my credit card to pay because I did not have enough cash and I forgot to bring my checkbook.  My bank had an ATM on the far side of the Memorial Union building, so I went there next.  After I withdrew cash, I turned toward the east entrance of the building near the campus store.  A guy at a table was enticing students to sign up for credit cards with free gifts.  I recognized Autumn, a freshman girl who went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, filling out an application on a clipboard.  I met Autumn a few months ago when I did a car rally with JCF; she got put in my group, and we failed miserably that night.

“Hey, Autumn,” I said.

Autumn looked up at me.  “Greg!” she said.  “How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said.  She finished filling out the application and handed it to the guy.  He gave her a baseball cap.  “Do you like my hat?” Autumn asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  The cap was black, with the logo of one of the credit card companies that this man represented subtly stitched into the side.  No other writing or decoration was on the cap.

Autumn put on the cap, with her hair coming out of the hole in the back just above the strap to adjust the size; she tied her hair into a ponytail.  “I’ve never had a hat like this!” she said.  “I’m excited!”

“It looks good,” I said.  “I like it.”

“Free gifts!” the guy running the table called out to people walking by.  “This guy got two free gifts yesterday!” he said, pointing at me.

“You signed up for two credit cards yesterday?” Autumn asked.  “What free gifts did you get?

“The pen and the mug,” I said.  After I filled out those two applications yesterday, I wondered why I had done it.  I was never the type to spend money I did not own, so I did not need a credit card, although it would have been useful for an emergency, or for making large purchases without carrying around cash or a checkbook.  I had a credit card through my bank, the same one I had used at the grocery store last night, but it had a very small limit.  I had signed up for two more yesterday, but I stopped when the man with the applications, the same one who was here today, put a third application in my face.  The new cards would have much higher credit limits than the one from my bank.  In a fit of simplifying and downsizing, I canceled one of the cards about five years later, but I still have the other one, a Discover Card, today, and I use it as my primary credit card.  Also, I still pay it off every month; I know too much math to carry a balance and burden myself with impossibly high interest rates.

“So how are things?” I asked Autumn when she finished the credit card applications.

“Good,” she said.  “I like my schedule this quarter.  How about you?”

“I’m doing okay.  I’m kind of stressing over not having plans for where to live next year.”

“What are your roommates this year doing?” Autumn asked.

“I live alone.  I don’t want to live alone again.  I want to live with people.  Having roommates seems fun.  And it’s a lot less expensive.”

“Yeah.  Have you asked around JCF?”

“Yeah, but I haven’t heard anything for sure.  Pete Green and Charlie Watson were looking for a third person, but Mike Knepper got that spot before I told them for sure.”

“Bummer,” Autumn replied.  “Well, if I hear of any guys looking for a roommate, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.  Do you know where you’re living next year?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in south Jeromeville with Leah and two other girls she knows.”

“That’ll be nice.”

“I need to go, but it was good running into you.  I’ll see you Friday at JCF?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Bye!”

I walked into the Memorial Union building, going all the way across it to the Coffee House on the other side.  I was done for the day, weight training was my only class on Tuesdays, but I usually stayed on campus until around lunch time, to get work done.  This was a busy time of day, when finding a place to sit in the Coffee House could be difficult.  But today, I just kept running into people I knew everywhere I went, and this would provide me with a place to sit.  I saw a dark-haired girl named Lizzie sitting by herself at a table of four, putting a notebook away in her backpack.

“Hi,” I said.  “May I sit with you?”

“Hey!” Lizzie replied.  “How are you?”

I met Lizzie in the fall through a mutual friend, a math major my year named Jack who had gone to the same high school as Lizzie.  She had a class in the same classroom as our class an hour before, and Jack would always say hi to Lizzie as she was leaving class.  She became a familiar enough face that I had started saying hi to her around campus.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’m done for the day, I only have one class on Tuesdays, but I’m going to hang out here and work on stuff for a while.”

“That sounds good.  I actually was just getting up to leave.  But you can have my table.”

“Thanks.  Have a good rest of the day!”

“I will!”

I got out my textbook for Linear Algebra Applications with the intent of working on homework, but that did not happen right away.  I had a feeling I was not going to like this class.  The professor for this class seemed a little odd.  In addition to so far just repeating things out of the book instead of actually teaching, she had told us that the entire grade would be based on unannounced quizzes.  No midterm, no final, and homework was not graded.  Something about that did not seem right, although I felt pretty confident about how I did on the first such quiz yesterday.

I then made the classic overthinker move of replaying all of this morning’s conversations in my head.  I noticed that I had not mentioned my roommate search to Skeeter or Lizzie.  I did not know Lizzie well, and I did not know anything about the guys she would know, so if my goal was not to live with strangers, I would have had no reason to tell her about that.  And, although Skeeter’s nonconformity was part of why we were friends last year in Building C, I doubted that I would want to live with the kind of crowd she ran with.  Granted, one of her roommates this year was Danielle, who had been a close friend since our first week in Building C, but Danielle had told me some stories about Skeeter as a roommate that made me wary of associating too much with her crowd.

The rest of my day went smoothly without any surprises.  I came home in the early afternoon, took a nap, and wasted time on the computer chatting on IRC and reading Usenet groups.  I went to Bible study that night, and Lillian, one of the leaders, asked at the end if people wanted to share prayer requests.

“I still haven’t found roommates or a place to live yet,” I said.

“We can pray for that,” Lillian replied.  “Anyone else?”

The others shared their prayer requests: difficult classes, an upcoming summer mission trip to Mexico, a sick friend, a friend going through a difficult time.  We went around in a circle, each person praying for the prayer request of whomever was on the left.  After that, the group would normally end, and people would either leave or stick around for a while and socialize.  This week, while people were socializing, the other leader, Shawn, approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” he said.  “I might have an answer to your prayer.”

“Yes?”

“I’m graduating, but I’m staying in Jeromeville next year for the teacher training program.  I didn’t make housing plans either, because I was waiting for some of my roommates to decide what they were doing next year.  My roommate Brian applied to medical school, but he didn’t get in anywhere, and there is only one place he hasn’t heard from yet.  He’s heard that school usually sends acceptances early, so he thinks he probably didn’t get in.  He’s now planning to stay in Jeromeville next year, applying again and working part time on staff with JCF.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And Abby has a boyfriend who is moving to Jeromeville.  You know Abby Bartlett?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, her boyfriend, his name is Josh McGraw, and he commutes to Jeromeville from his parents’ house in Oak Heights.  He wants to move to Jeromeville and not have that long drive.  I want to save money, but Josh and Brian want their own rooms, so we were thinking if we got a three-bedroom place with a master bedroom, then I could share the big room with someone.  Are you interested?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Keep me posted.”

“Definitely!  We will!  It’s hard to get all four of us able to meet in the same place at the same time, Josh has a really weird schedule, but I’ll try to get a meeting set up in the next week or two so we can work out the details.”

“Sounds good.  Thanks!”

“I was going to ask you about this tonight, I remember you asking for prayer about that last week, but I didn’t get a chance yet.  Then you prayed about it again.  It’s cool how God works like that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It is.”

“Just so you know, there’s still an outside chance that Brian will get accepted to that one med school, so if that happens we might have to find someone at the last minute.”

“Right.  That’s okay.”

Sharing a bedroom did not feel like an ideal situation, but most people had to endure doing that with a complete stranger during freshman year, and I had had the good fortune to avoid that.  I thought I could handle it, though, especially with someone I already knew.  Shawn seemed like a decent guy.  I did not know Brian well, but he seemed very involved with JCF socially, and if he was going to be paid to work with the group next year, living with him sounded like a promising opportunity to make more social connections within JCF.  Josh was a bit of a wild card, I had never met him, and although his girlfriend Abby seemed nice, I did not know her well.  At this point, though, I would just have to take what I could get, and this situation seemed good enough.

I drove home a little later feeling much more at peace.  I still did not have a place to live, but I had roommates, and to me that meant that the hardest part was over.  This new plan was taking shape. I was no longer alone in my search for housing.  I was not the most social or popular student in my circles of friends.  I have a history of being a bit of an outcast and a loner.  But I was starting to open up, to make friends from many different walks of life, and that finally appeared to open a door to a new home for next year that would be much more fun than this lonely studio apartment.

February 20-21, 1996. Studying the Bible and disapproving of political correctness.

“We have a new member tonight,” Lillian said.  “Would you like to introduce yourself?”

“Sure,” I said, looking at the mix of new and familiar faces in front of me.  Some of my friends from last year were in this Bible study, but I did not recognize everyone else.  “I’m Greg,” I announced.  “I’m a sophomore, majoring in mathematics.”

“Hey!” Shawn, the other leader, said.  “I’m a math major too!”

“Really?  I don’t meet many other math majors.”

“What do you want to do with it?” Shawn asked.  “Are you going to be a teacher?”

“Probably not.  I’m not really sure.  I just know I like math.”

“I’m going to teach high school.  I don’t think I can deal with kids younger than that.  And I would have summers off to train.”

“What are you training for?”

“I do triathlons and marathons.”

“Wow,” I said.  “I definitely do not have that kind of athletic endurance.”

“It takes practice.”

“I’m sure it does.”

After the others all said their first names, we said an opening prayer and sang a few songs.  Pete Green, whom I had known since my first day at the University of Jeromeville, got out his guitar and started playing as people passed around lyrics.  I recognized the songs from JCF large group.  Before the last song started, Shawn said, “Greg, our theme for this quarter is that we’re looking at the Scriptures in some of the songs we sing at JCF.  Tonight we’re going to be doing Create In Me.”

I followed along with the words on the lyric sheet; I had heard this song before, but it was not one we sang often.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me,” I sang.

After we sang the song through twice, since it was a short song, Lillian opened her Bible.  It was much thicker than mine, with many papers, bookmarks, and Post-It Notes stuck inside.  It appeared to be a study Bible, with extra notes and commentaries built in.  I wondered if I should get one of those someday.  I had noticed a lot of students at JCF who had big study Bibles.

“The song is from Psalm 51,” Lillian said.  “So open your Bible to Psalm 51.”

I found the passage quickly, since I knew approximately where the Psalms were found in the Bible.  A few weeks ago, I made some new friends hanging out after JCF.  It came up in conversation that night that I did not have a Bible, so one of those new friends, Kristina, gave me an extra Bible that she had.  Ever since Kristina had given me that Bible, I had been reading it often, occasionally just flipping through it for fun, familiarizing myself with all the different books.  I was glad I had done this, because I would have been embarrassed to have to ask someone for help finding a book.  Psalms, containing worship music and poetry from the Old Testament time period, was one of the longest books in the Bible, so it was easy to find.

JCF ran many small group Bible studies, and I was a little disappointed, but not surprised, that none of the new friends from that night were in this one.  With so many JCF people in their neighborhood, I figured there would be other Bible studies meeting on that side of town.  I really wanted to get to know that group better, both because they were very nice people, and because they seemed to have full social lives revolving around other Christians.  They were the cool kids of JCF.  One of the new friends from that night, Haley, was really cute; I especially wanted to get to know her.

After we all found Psalm 51, people then took turns reading a few verses at a time.  The song came from verses 10 through 12:

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
  and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
    or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
    and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

“Any initial thoughts?” Shawn asked.  A few people went around and shared things.  Liz Williams, a friend from last year who had invited me to this Bible study, asked what “hyssop” was.  That word appeared in verse 7, and I did not know it either; someone thought it was a plant with medicinal properties.

I noticed that the beginning of the Psalm said, “A psalm of David.  When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba.”  I knew what adultery meant, but it sounded like that was referring to some other incident in King David’s life that I was unaware of.  I wondered if this other incident was mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, but I did not ask since I did not want to look dumb.  Maybe this was something that everyone else who was not Catholic knew about.  JCF was not affiliated with a specific denomination, and there were very few Catholics in the group that I knew of, just me and one other guy who showed up occasionally who was not in this small group.

Fortunately, I did not have to ask, because after we discussed our initial thoughts, Lillian said, “So at the very beginning of Psalm 51, it says when David wrote it.  Turn to 2 Samuel, chapter 11.”  I flipped through my Old Testament, looking for that book; it was long enough that it did not take long to find.  The backstory for Psalm 51 made up two entire chapters, so Lillian and Shawn paraphrased, adding direct quotes from the Scripture for emphasis.  Apparently King David saw an attractive woman bathing, so he had sex with her and got her pregnant.  Her husband was fighting in a war, so David devised a military strategy that ensured that her husband would get killed.  God sent the prophet Nathan to rebuke David, and the child died, although David later married the woman and had another child with her, the future King Solomon.  I had never heard that story before.  Apparently the Bible was full of interesting stuff.

We spent the next hour talking about Psalm 51 in great detail.  We discussed sin and repentance, and restoration and forgiveness.  Someone noted that parts of this Psalm seem to foreshadow Jesus coming to be our sacrifice once and for all, replacing the system of temple sacrifices that dated back to the time of Moses.  We talked about the wording of the song being different from the Bible.  I did not say much, since I was new to this, but I did have one thing to share.  At one point, a tall, deep-voiced guy named Evan, whom I had just met that night, said, “Why is it that the end of the song says ‘renew a right spirit,’ but the Bible says, ‘grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me?’”

No one answered after a couple seconds, so I said, “Probably just the songwriter matching the words he used at the beginning, for poetic effect.”

“That makes sense,” Liz added.

“Yeah,” Lillian said.  “Probably.”

After we finished discussing Psalm 51, Shawn said, “Does anyone have prayer requests?”  We went around in a circle sharing, and when it came to my turn, I said, “I have three midterms on Friday.”

“Ouch,” Shawn said.

“Again?” Pete asked.  “Didn’t you just have a bunch of midterms on the same day a few weeks ago?”

“I did,” I replied.  “I have the worst midterm schedule ever this quarter.”

“We’ll definitely pray for you,” Lillian said.  We each took turns praying for someone else, and I was assigned to pray for Liz, who asked for prayer regarding a mission trip to Mexico in the summer.  “Jesus,” I began, “I pray for Liz’s trip to Mexico.  I pray that the plans will come together, and that she will have safe travels.  I pray that you will be with her as she works with the church down there, and I pray that you will give her wisdom.”

Pete’s turn to pray for me was next.  “Lord, I thank you for bringing Greg to our Bible study,” he said.  “I pray, Father, that you will continue to work in Greg’s life, as he grows closer to you and studies your word.  I pray that you will take away the stress that he is experiencing with these midterms.  I pray, Lord, that you will help him remember what he knows when the tests come, and that he will remember that you love him unconditionally, and that his worth does not depend on his grades.”  I liked that.  My worth did not depend on my grades.  I wanted to succeed in school, but God loved me no matter what.

When we finished praying, I stuck around for a bit to talk to people before I went home.  “So what did you think?” Liz asked.

“It was good.  I like the way you guys do things.”

“Are you going to come back next week?”

“Definitely.”

Evan, the deep-voiced guy whom I did not know, walked over to us.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “I’m Evan.”

“Hi,” I replied, shaking his hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“Liz told me you’re from Plumdale?”

“Yeah,” I replied, wondering where he was going with this.  Did I know him back home and not remember him?

“I’m from Gabilan.”

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said.  I probably did not know him, but I wondered if my mother did, or if she had heard of his family, since she grew up in Gabilan and seemed to know everyone.  But I did not feel comfortable saying this now.  (I mentioned Evan to Mom a few weeks later, after I learned his last name, and I was correct; Mom did know of his family.)

“Do you go back home very often?” Evan asked.

“Not really.  Usually just quarter breaks.”

“Same with me,” he said.  “Did you go to Plumdale High?”

“Yeah.”

“I have a friend from there.  I wonder if you know her.  Her name is Melissa Holmes.”

“Yes!  I know Melissa!  She’s one of my best friends.”

“Wow.  That’s cool.

“She’s one of only a few high school friends left who I still hear from.  I’ll have to tell her I met you.”

“Yeah.  Tell her I said hi.  I haven’t heard from her in a while.”

“I will.  I should get home, I still have to study.  But it was nice meeting you.”

“You too, Greg.”


The following night I had choir practice at the Newman Center.  I usually carpooled with Heather, another choir member who lived in the same apartment complex as me.  It was Heather’s turn to drive, and when she knocked on my door that night, she was with Melanie, another choir member.

“Mel and I are hanging out tonight,” Heather explained, “so she’s driving.  Is that okay?”

“Sure,” I replied.  We got into Melanie’s car and drove to the church.  When we walked in, Claire Seaver, a music major who was informally the leader of the choir, was getting our sheet music organized; she handed me my copies of this week’s songs.  I set them up on a music stand.  Sabrina Murphy, the cute redhead who, unfortunately for me, had a boyfriend, began setting up the music stand next to me.

The first song we practiced was called Hosea.  We sang this one once before, back in the fall, and I liked it, although I did not understand the title back then.  I did now, though, or at least I knew what Hosea meant.  As if on cue, as if God knew that I was waiting for the chance to demonstrate my newfound knowledge, Sabrina pointed at the word Hosea in the title and whispered to me, “What does that mean?”

“Hosea is a prophet in the Old Testament,” I replied, smiling.

“Oh,” Sabrina said.  I doubted that my knowledge of the Old Testament prophets would make Sabrina leave her boyfriend and go out with me instead, but I could dream.  It did not seem to matter, though, since that would never happen.  Besides, I liked Haley Channing from JCF now.  And my knowledge of the Old Testament still was not much.  I had not yet read the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament, nor did I know how these lyrics, which began “Come back to me with all your heart,” related to the story or writings of Hosea.  But I had seen that name while flipping around my recently acquired Bible over the last few weeks.

“What’s next?” Matt Jones asked after we finished.  Like my new friend Evan, Matt was from Gabilan, and my mother knew his family.  I always felt weird about my mother knowing my friends, just because she talks about people behind their back so often.  But nothing weird had come up with Matt so far.

“‘On Eagle’s Wings,’” Claire replied.  “We’re singing the female version.”  I was not sure what “female version” meant, but I knew this song well; it had been around for a while.  I looked at the fine print at the bottom of the sheet music, as I had been doing recently now that I was reading the Bible; it said “Copyright 1979,” and also mentioned that the text was derived from Psalm 91.  I had not read Psalm 91 yet; I would have to look that up.

“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord, who abide in his shadow for life,” I sang.  Something sounded off, like everyone else had been singing something different at one part.  It almost sounded like the others had said “in her shadow for life.”  I remembered at that moment that there was a time last year, before I had joined the church choir, when I thought the choir had sung “hold you in the palm of her hand” at the end of the chorus, instead of “palm of his hand.”

At the next lyric containing a pronoun, I abruptly stopped singing so I could hear everyone else.  “And she will raise you up on eagle’s wings,” everyone else sang.

“Wait,” I said.  “Is that what the female version means?” Everyone else stopped singing and playing instruments.  “We sing feminine pronouns instead?”

“Oh, yeah.” Claire answered.  “Remember, everyone, feminine pronouns!”

“Why?” I asked.  This made no sense.  Catholics did not believe in Goddess.

“We always do certain songs this way,” Heather said.

“But why?  Is that allowed?  To call God ‘she?’”

“Sister Mary Rose wants it that way,” Claire explained.  “Especially when we do a lot of songs with ‘he.’”  I shrugged my shoulders, and we continued practicing, but I mumbled every time we sang a feminine pronoun.  Calling God “she” just felt wrong to me.  To be clear, I never thought of women as second-class citizens, and my understanding of God was that he transcended the human idea of sex and gender.  But it seemed arrogant and disrespectful to fly in the face of thousands of years of tradition just to keep up with liberal college town political correctness.

After we finished choir practice, Heather and Melanie and I got back into Melanie’s car and headed home.  As we pulled up to the red light at Andrews Road and Coventry Boulevard, Melanie was telling a story about having been in a coffee shop studying yesterday while enjoying a latte.

“I hope it was actually a latte, and you didn’t grab someone else’s drink by mistake,” Heather said.

“Oh my gosh,” Melanie laughed.  “That happened one time.”

“Did you ever find out what you actually drank that night?  You were so messed up!”

“No!  It was strong!”

“Remember when you went up to that guy and kissed him on the cheek?”

“That was so embarrassing!”

I was not there for whatever happened that the girls were talking and laughing about, but it sounded like it would have been fun to watch.  The light turned green as the two girls continued laughing.  The two cars in front of us drove through the intersection as we remained stopped in the middle of the street.  “The light is green,” I said.

“Oh my gosh!” Melanie said, laughing loudly.  “That night was so crazy!”

“You were so funny!” Heather exclaimed.

“The light is green!” I repeated, trying unsuccessfully to get Melanie’s attention.  

“What was it that you kept saying that night?” Heather asked, still laughing.

“GREEN LIGHT!” I shouted.

“No, that wasn’t it,” Heather answered.  “Greg, you weren’t even there!”

“Oh!  Green light!” Melanie finally said.  As she started to pull the car forward, the light turned yellow; it was clear she would not make it through before the light turned red.  She pulled up to the intersection and stopped again.  All three of us laughed.

“Good thing there’s no one behind us,” Heather said.

“I was saying ‘green light’ the whole time,” I said.

“Sorry!” Melanie replied.

After we finally made it across Coventry Boulevard, Melanie dropped me off at my apartment.  I had three midterms coming up on Friday, but I did not feel like studying anymore tonight.  I turned on the computer and decided to unwind on an IRC chat for the rest of the night.  As I listened to the whistles and chirps of my dialup Internet connecting, I thought about the events of the last two days.  I did not want to sound like some kind of sexist pig, but using feminine pronouns for God really bothered me.  There seemed to be no precedent for that in the Bible, as far as I knew, and going against Scripture and Church teaching seemed to be a dangerous slippery slope.

As I looked through the list of people chatting on this channel, looking for possible girls to flirt with, I kept thinking about Bible study last night.  “Create in me a pure heart, O God,” King David had written.  He wrote that Psalm after committing adultery with Bathsheba.  I had not committed adultery in the technical sense, but I felt just as guilty sometimes when I talked dirty with girls on the Internet.  That was a slippery slope as well, and I did not want to fall into old patterns that were not God’s will for my life.  I read Psalm 51 again and kept my chat clean that night.

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me.  I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday.  I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years.  But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.

I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy.  I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes.  I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities.  Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students.  After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with.  Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.

My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon.  After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks.  The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend.  At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.

That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm.  I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around.  That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people.  Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building.  Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing.  Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates.  Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week.  The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward.  JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid.  I did not know all of that in 1996, though.  I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.

Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier.  Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi.  I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive.  I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead.  I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.

I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab.  I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was.  As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize.  Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.

“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling.  “How are you?  Want to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.”

“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.

“Honestly, not too well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said.  “I’m lonely.  I wish I knew how to have a social life.”

“Do you have roommates?  Do you have a group of friends?  I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group.  Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”

“They were all in my dorm last year.  I still hang out with them sometimes.  They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville.  But I live by myself.  By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”

“That’s tough.  Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”

“Yeah.  I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  I was teased and bullied all through elementary school.  I kept to myself a lot in high school.  And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me.  I thought that was an odd question.  I had never been asked this before.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied.  “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”

“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”

Here we go.  Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was.  I simply answered, “I don’t know.”

“May I explain what that means?”

“Sure.”

Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line.  She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them.  She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other.  “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him.  Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.”  Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm.  “So because of sin, humans are separated from God.  We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin.  Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”

I had never heard sin explained that way before.  I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center.  I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it.  But Janet was saying something different.  I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.

Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm.  “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm.  Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place.  And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to  God.  Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead.  And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him.  If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I’ve never heard it explained that way.  What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”

“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God.  And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him.  Do you want that?”

I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant.  I knew this was right, though.  Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way.  And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you pray with me?  Is that okay?  Tell God what you just told me.”

“Yes,” I said, bowing my head.  Janet bowed her head as well.  “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner.  And you are the only way to eternal life.  I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope.  I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”

“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family.  I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ.  I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home.  I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you.  Fill him with the Holy Spirit.  Lead him in the way he should go.  And transform his heart to make him more like you every day.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.”

I looked up.  Janet was smiling.  “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said.  “Congratulations!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.

“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night.  Are you going to go?”

“I heard about that.  I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night.  So I’ll probably be there.”

“I think it’ll be good for you.  Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies.  You said you live in north Jeromeville?  I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you.  Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“Do you have a Bible?”

“Yeah.  A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF.  Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”

“Good!  I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me.  I put the paper in my backpack.  “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.

“Yes, I am.” I smiled.

“Do you need to get home?”

I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot.  Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes.  “I probably should,” I said.  “But thank you for sharing and listening.”

“You’re welcome.  Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”

“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”

“I will!  I’ll see you next week!”

As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different.  Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning.  He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope.  When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.

Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”

This was me.  I had the Spirit of sonship.  I was God’s child.  I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water.  And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint.  I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.


The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before.  But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.

I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it.  It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor.  I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit.  Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in.  “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.

“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.

I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday.  “Thank you,” I said, smiling.

The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it.  “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along.  “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.”  That was where I was tonight.  The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.

We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently.  Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us.  Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.

After the music and prayer ended, I stood up.  Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me.  Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg.  Janet told me about yesterday.”

“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.

“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF.  Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”

“I know.  That’s how I feel tonight.”

“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”

“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”

“You should come with us to ours.  Shawn and Lillian are the leaders.  That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build.  “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”

“I will,” I said.  “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study.  And now you mentioned it.  Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”

Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next.  “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.

“How are you?”

“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”

“That’s Jesus.  He changes your life.”

“I know.”

“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too.”

I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited.  It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.

Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus.  Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed.  I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.

To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing.  Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross.  But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996.  That was the first verse that I memorized.

In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side.  Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic.  And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about.  I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center.  (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)

I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework.  The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now.  Sure, I did not know what the future held.  I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out.  But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.