May 23-25, 1997. Canceled plans and a trendy haircut. (#132)

For the last few months, I had been volunteering as a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  Every year, the students go to Winter Camp over a weekend in January or February, and Adam, the youth pastor, gives them all a mixtape of Christian music from many different artists and genres. Back in 1997, there was no Spotify or YouTube for people to share their favorite music with friends. Instead, we Generation X-ers would play songs from compact discs or cassette tapes, one at a time, and record them on blank tapes. I had begun volunteering with The Edge shortly after Winter Camp that year, so I did not get a copy of Edge Mix ’97, but I borrowed it from the youth group music library and made a copy for myself.  I discovered many Christian bands and musicians through Edge Mixes over the years.

One of the more intriguing songs on Edge Mix ’97 was called “Hitler’s Girlfriend,” by a band based in Bay City called the Dime Store Prophets.  It was a slow rock song, with lyrics that I found a little mysterious.  The chorus said, “I’m not myself until you are you, if I close my eyes, I’m killing you.”  I thought the song had something to do with lamenting the un-Christlike tendency to look away when others were in need. The song also contained the line, “I feel like Hitler’s girlfriend, I’m blind to this and numb to that.”  Some have suggested that Eva Braun, the real-life Hitler’s girlfriend, lived a sheltered life and did not know about the Holocaust, although other historians find this unlikely.

I played that song three times last night while I did math homework.  Although it was the only Dime Store Prophets song that I knew, I wanted it to be fresh in my mind, because the Dime Store Prophets were playing a free live show right here at the University of Jeromeville today, outdoors on the Quad.  University Life, the college group from a large church nearby, not the church I attended, had put this show together, and they had been promoting it at all the local churches and college ministries.  Nothing was going to stop this from being the best day I had had in a long time.

Except maybe for pouring rain.

I did not expect rain this week.  Last Monday had been the first day of hundred-degree heat for 1997, and it felt like the hot, sunny, dry weather of summer had arrived for good.  But today was cool with heavy rain.  A dramatic cooling trend in late May was rare for Jeromeville.  As I rode the bus to school, and sat through my early class, the rain continued to fall, the thick gray sky showing no signs that the rain would clear up any time soon.   Would I have to stand in the rain to watch the Dime Store Prophets?  Was the band even coming anymore?  Would the show be moved indoors?  None of those sounded preferable.

After class, I walked to the Memorial Union to find a place to sit.  The tables were crowded, as was usually the case on rainy days.  Alaina Penn and Corinne Holt from U-Life were sitting at a table with empty seats; I walked over toward them and sat down.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “What’s the capital of Morocco?”

“Rabat,” I replied.  I was about to ask why she wanted to know when I saw the campus newspaper, the Daily Colt, on the table in front of her, opened to the page with the crossword puzzle.  Alaina started filling in letters in the puzzle, then paused.  “How do you spell that?”

“R-A-B-A-T,” I said.  “Hey, is the Dime Store Prophets show still happening?  You guys were putting that on, right?”

“It’s canceled,” Corinne answered.  “They canceled yesterday when they heard it would rain.”

That’s right, I thought.  Some people check weather reports in advance to find out if it will rain, so they would be less surprised than I was right now.  “Bummer,” I said.

“What are you up to this weekend, Greg?” Alaina asked.

“I was gonna see the Dime Store Prophets, but now that’s not happening.  So just studying, I guess.”  I could tell that the irritation in my voice was showing.

“JCF meets tonight, right?”

“Yeah.  I’ll be there.”

“See?  You are doing something.  Enjoy that.”

“I will.”




The rain had lightened up a bit by the time I got home from campus, and it was not raining at all when I got to Evans Hall in the evening for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The worship team was about to begin playing, and I had not yet decided where to sit, since I had been mingling and talking.  I looked around and saw Carrie Valentine sitting alone not too far from me.  My brain began overthinking, trying to decide if asking to sit with her was too forward, if it sent the wrong message, if I was setting myself up for disappointment. I thought about what I would say to save face if she said no.  I took a deep breath, told my brain to shut up, and walked toward Carrie.  “Hey,” I said.

“Greg!  Hi!” Carrie replied.

“Mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead!”

Carrie was a freshman; I had seen her around JCF for much of the year.  Two weeks ago, we had had a long conversation at a party after JCF, alone in someone else’s house while we waited for the rest of the partygoers to return from the grocery store.

After the opening song, announcements, and a few more songs, Liz Williams walked to the stage and mimed turning off an alarm clock.  A skit.  I liked skits.  JCF’s skits had been unusually good this year.  Liz looked at a Bible and said, “I need to read the Bible and spend time with God, but I’m gonna be late for class!  What should I do?  I’ll just take the Bible with me and squeeze in some time between classes.”  I definitely resonated with what Liz’s character was feeling.

I got excited when Ajeet Tripathi and his roommate Darren Ng entered the stage, dressed in suits and ties with dark glasses.  These were recurring characters who had appeared in several other JCF skits this year.  They called themselves Angels of the Lord, but they dressed and acted more like secret agents.

“Time to help her out?” Darren asked.

“Affirmative,” Ajeet replied.

Brent Wang walked past the Angels of the Lord, carrying books and notebooks.  Ajeet and Darren lightly tapped his back.  Brent started coughing and said, “I’m not feeling well.  I need to cancel my class.”

Liz’s character returned to the stage area and looked at the wall, as if reading a note.  “My professor is sick and had to cancel class,” she said.  “Now I have time to do what I’ve been meaning to do all day!”  Liz searched through her backpack, but instead of getting her Bible, she pulled out a folded copy of the Daily Colt.  “The crossword puzzle!” she exclaimed excitedly.  The crowd chuckled at this humorous turn of events.  Liz sat down looking at the newspaper, holding a pencil, as Eddie Baker walked by.  Liz looked up and asked Eddie, “Hey, what’s the capital of Morocco?”

I laughed loudly, remembering my conversation with Alaina earlier, but then stopped suddenly when I realized that this quote was not as hilarious to everyone else.  Carrie looked at me, wondering why I found this so funny; I wanted to explain, but I did not want to interrupt the performance.  Now was not the time.

The skit continued, with Liz continuing to make excuses not to read her Bible.  This led into a talk by Dave McAllen, one of the full-time staff for JCF, giving a talk about making time to be with God.  He referenced Luke 5:16, in which Jesus, despite being God in the flesh, still made time to get away from the crowds and pray to his Father.

I turned to Carrie after the final song.  “That was a good talk,” I said.

“I know,” Carrie replied.  “It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you have to do and forget to read the Bible.”

“I’ve been doing a little at this lately, at least during the week.  I take my Bible to the Arboretum every day after my first class and read and pray for a while.”

“That’s so cool!  I should find a spot like that.”

“It’s a peaceful little spot in the middle of God’s creation,” I said.  “But, yeah.  The skits have been really funny lately.  This morning, I walked up to some friends who aren’t from JCF, and one of them was doing the crossword puzzle, and when she saw me walk up, the first thing she said to me was, ‘What’s the capital of Morocco?’  So I laughed when they put that same clue in the skit tonight.”

“Oh my gosh!  That’s hilarious!  I don’t usually get very far when I try to do the crossword puzzle.”

“I can usually finish most of it,” I said.  “But there’s usually a few letters at the end that I can’t get.  I finish the puzzle maybe once every week or two.”

“Wow!  That’s good!”

“Ajeet and Darren are funny when they play the Angels of the Lord.”

“I know!  Remember the one where they shaved Todd’s head?  I had no idea they were gonna do that!”

“Me either!  That was amazing!  And remember that series of skits they did at the beginning of the year, where Brian or Lorraine would interrupt and put up a sign with the night’s topic?”

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“And at the end of that series, when they both started appearing with signs.  I thought that was funny.”

“I think I missed that one.”

“There was one where Brian put up the sign, then a few minutes later Lorraine walked out to put up the sign, and she tore down Brian’s sign and put up her own.  Then the next week, they both showed up with signs at the same time.  They saw each other, and they started fighting with lightsabers.”

“Whoa,” Carrie exclaimed.

“Yeah.  They were fighting, then they stopped and looked at each other, and they embraced and made out.”  Carrie gave me a horrified and confused look as I said that last part, and I realized that I had misspoken.  “Made up!  I meant made up!” I hurriedly explained.  “Like they weren’t fighting anymore!”

“Oh!” Carrie replied, laughing.  “I was gonna say, this is a Christian group; they did what?”

“Wow.  That was embarrassing.”  I hoped that Carrie would quickly forget that part of the conversation.  “What are you up to tonight?” I asked.

“I should get home,” Carrie said, slumping her shoulders.  “I have so much to do.  I have a paper to write this weekend, and I haven’t started it.”

“Good luck.”

“But I’ll see you soon, okay?”

“Yes.  Take care.”  I looked into Carrie’s dark brown eyes and smiled, and she smiled back.  Whatever I did tonight after JCF, it would not include Carrie, but at least we got to talk again.  Hopefully my accidental statement about making out would not do lasting damage.


Head-shaving had suddenly become all the rage over the last few months.  It seemed like every week or so, another one of my guy friends had shaved his head.  My brother Mark started shaving his head that year.  Even Lorraine had shaved her head.  A few weeks ago, Ajeet and Darren’s Angels of the Lord characters had appeared in another skit.  Todd Chevallier, a third roommate of theirs, played a character who knew that a girl who really liked him, but he did not like her back.  Todd prayed before he went to bed that God would make that girl realize that he was not the one for her.  As Todd lay supposedly sleeping, Ajeet and Darren appeared in their secret agent costumes.  Todd awoke and asked, “Who are you?”

“We are Angels of the Lord,” Ajeet replied.  “The Lord has heard your prayers.  We have come to make you ugly.”  Darren pulled out an electric razor and shaved an asymmetrical stripe across Todd’s hair as the hundred-plus students in attendance gasped and cheered.  Todd’s character woke up the next morning; the girl who liked him saw him, then ran away screaming.  After the talk at the end of the night, Ajeet and Darren finished shaving the rest of Todd’s head, right there in 170 Evans in front of everyone.

On Sunday at church, two days after the rained-out concert, the high school youth intern, a guy named Kevin, got up to make an announcement.  “Last week, the high school group had a car wash, to raise money for a mission trip this summer.  I told them that if we made two thousand dollars, they would get to shave my head.  Well, guess what?  We shattered that goal and raised over three thousand dollars.  So you can watch a bunch of high schoolers shave my head right after the service.”

Of course, I thought.  More head shaving.  At least this one was for a good cause.  I hoped, as a youth group volunteer with the junior high school kids, that I would not get chosen to have my head shaved at any point in the future.  I had read a column once by the humor writer Dave Barry, who wrote that black guys with shaved heads looked cool, but white guys with shaved heads looked like giant thumbs.  I definitely did not want to look like a giant thumb, and I had no plans to follow everyone else into this shaved head craze.

Despite that, though, I was not opposed to watching others shave their heads.  I wandered into the youth room after church, where Kevin sat in a chair in the middle of the room, and four high schoolers took turns running electric razors across his head, watching random clumps of hair fall to the floor.

A friendly and chatty girl from the junior high group named Samantha waved at me.  I walked over to her, and she looked up at me and said, “You’re so tall.”

“I know,” I replied.  “You say that to me a lot.”

“You should shave your head!”

“No, I really shouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

I had a lot of reasons why not.  Instead of telling Samantha about the giant thumbs, I told her about something that had happened two months earlier.  “When I went home for spring break, my brother had shaved his head, and I told my grandma about how all my friends were shaving their heads.  And Grandma told me I better not shave my head.”

“Oh!” Samantha said, an understanding smile breaking out on her face.  “So you have to wait until she dies!”

Wow, I thought.  Out of the mouths of thirteen-year-olds… “That’s not exactly what I was thinking,” I replied.  “Wow.”  I turned back to watch Kevin as the kids finished shaving his head, not really sure how to follow up Samantha’s comment.

When I got home after church, I turned on music while I finished my math homework.  Edge Mix ’97 was currently in the stereo; I left it in and pressed Play.  The Dime Store Prophets song came on midway through the second side, and hearing that song made me feel disappointed all over again that I had not gotten to see them.  The weather that led to the show’s cancellation was just strange.  Two days later, the weather turned sunny and warm again, like it was at the beginning of last week.

The opportunity was not lost forever.  The band rescheduled their show and came to Jeromeville in September, the first weekend after classes started, and I saw them a second time later that school year.  In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader.  I found a box of old Dime Store Prophets CDs when I was helping him throw away old things he did not need anymore, and he let me keep one of each album.

The conversation with Samantha, about my grandmother not wanting me to shave my head, had an odd postscript.  I would soon learn that my grandmother, whom Samantha had practically wished death upon, shared a birthday with Samantha, sixty-three years apart.  And although I never shaved my head completely, as my brother and many of my friends had, I did start gradually getting it cut shorter as I got older.  I typically would go to one of the cheap walk-in haircut places, and depending on who was available to cut my hair, some would cut it shorter than others.  Once, in 2021, my hair got cut longer than I wanted, so the next time I went to get it cut, I got brave and tried having it cut with clippers.  This was the closest I had ever come to shaving my head. And my grandmother died a few hours later.

I made the connection between Grandma’s death and using clippers on my hair later that week, as I was thinking about everything that had happened.  Of course, it was a complete coincidence; I do not blame my grandmother’s death on my use of hair clippers or on Samantha’s statement twenty-four years earlier.  My grandmother was one hundred years old, her health had been declining for quite some time, and sometimes a body just gives out after such a long life.  But the coincidence still stuck out in my mind.


Author’s note: Have you ever gone along with a hairstyle that was trendy for its time? Share an interesting story about that in the comments.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


May 15-16, 1997. The early demise of Evan’s Bible study. (#131)

My roommates Shawn Yang and Brian Burr had started a quote board for our apartment last week.  I had seen quote boards at friends’ houses before.  To me, a quote board appeared to be simply a list of funny things people said, often taken out of context as much as possible for humorous effect.  Brian had a more strict view of quote boards; he felt that the quotes should be more sophisticated than just things that sounded dirty.

When I was young, I often saw commercials during children’s cartoons on television encouraging children to drink milk, touting the health benefits of doing so.  Before the “Got Milk?” slogan spawned countless parodies for decades, the previous slogan was “Milk: it does a body good.”  One day last week, Shawn got home from a run while Brian was watching television and I was eating.  It was a warm day, and Shawn was wearing nothing but running shorts and shoes.  “While I was out running,” Shawn told us, “this carload of girls drove past me.  They rolled down their window, and one of them shouted, ‘Hey!  Do you drink milk?  Because it did your body good!’”

I laughed loudly.  “That’s great!” I said.

“We need a quote board,” Brian announced.  “Like we had at our house last year.  And that needs to go on it.”

A week later, I was again eating at the dining room table around the same time of night.  Shawn was making something in the kitchen, and Brian had just come downstairs.  “So I was reading something the other day about this Christian astrophysicist,” Brian said.  “He has this theory that the universe actually has ten dimensions, and we can’t perceive the other seven.  He thinks that God and heaven exist in those other dimensions.

“Interesting,” Shawn replied.  “Ten dimensions, huh?”

“The universe has ten dimensions,” I said.  “Let’s see, they are…” I began counting on my fingers.  “Length, width, height, time, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.”

“YES!” Brian shouted, laughing.  “That’s going on the quote board!”  Brian wrote my quote with a black permanent marker, underneath the random girl’s quote about Shawn’s body.

“Is Josh okay?” Shawn asked.  “I haven’t seen him all week.”

“I saw him yesterday,” I replied.  “He said he had to cover someone’s shift in addition to his usual night shift tonight.”

“You’re gonna live with Josh again in a house next year, right, Greg?”

“Yeah.  And Sean Richards, and Sam Hoffman.”

“That’s cool.  Meanwhile,” Shawn explained, “I have an opportunity back home in Ashwood.  One of my friends back home is opening a store to sell running shoes, and clothes, and accessories, and I’m gonna be his business partner.”

“Nice,” I said.  “So you’re for sure not going into teaching?”

“Nah.  I still enjoy the kids, but the master teacher I was working with this year made me realize I just can’t work with people like that.  And all my classes and paperwork for teaching are done if I change my mind within the next five years.”

“That’s true,” I said.  I wondered if Shawn’s thoughts on this subject would impact my future at all, now that I was considering education as a career option.  I hoped that I would not end up with a master teacher that bad.  I had been assisting in a math class at Jeromeville High School this quarter, and I really liked the teacher from that class, Mr. O’Rourke.

“And I’m off to New York next year,” Brian said.  He had been applying to medical school, and after many rejections and a few waitlists that never materialized, he had been accepted at New York Medical College, in Westchester County just outside of New York City.

Brian and Shawn both went back to their rooms a bit later.  I stayed downstairs, because it was Thursday, and I hosted a small group Bible study through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship at my apartment; people would be arriving soon.  The group had steadily shrank over the course of the year, and one of the leaders had stepped down under mysterious circumstances.  There had only been four or five of us for most of this quarter.

Evan Lundgren, the remaining leader, arrived on time and began setting up, getting out his notes and his Bible.  “We might have a really small group tonight,” he said.  “Jonathan told me he wasn’t coming.”

I nodded.  “So do you know who is coming?”

“I know Jill has been really busy with school.  And Amy hasn’t been to this group in a while.  I haven’t talked to either of them this week.”

“So it might just be us two tonight?”

“Maybe.”

I sat on the couch, feeling uneasy about a Bible study of two people.  Evan did not make me uncomfortable, but I had never been in a Bible study with just me and one other guy.  What would we talk about?  Who would answer when I did not have a good answer?

“So how are classes going?” Evan asked me.

“Good,” I said.  “A lot of work.  I’m only taking twelve units, but it feels like the hardest quarter I’ve ever had.  The computer science class is so much work, and Foundations of Education is a lot of reading and writing.  I’m a math guy; I’m not used to that much reading and writing.”

“Yeah,” Evan chuckled.

“What about your classes?”

“They’re pretty tough, about what I’m used to.  I’m taking this Ancient Greek class that’s really hard.”

“Sounds like it.”

Evan and I continued making small talk for another twenty minutes or so.  I thought I heard a few cars pull up during that time, but none of their drivers or occupants knocked on my door.  “I don’t think anyone else is coming,” Evan said eventually.

“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied.  “So what are we gonna do?”

“I don’t know.  We could try going through what I had planned, but the discussion wouldn’t work very well with just two of us.”

“Yeah.”

“Or we could just cancel and hope someone shows up next week.  But with everyone busy right now, I don’t know if anyone will show up next week either.”

As I thought about how disappointing this was, a thought came to me.  “If you’re gonna cancel, I know Joe Fox and Lorraine’s small group meets at the same time as ours.  I might just go check out their group instead.”

“You’re gonna go there tonight?” Evan asked.  “Can I come with you?”

“Sure.”


Evan and I took two cars to Lorraine’s house, since his apartment was in a different direction from mine.  Taking two cars would be easier than having to take Evan back to his car at my apartment.

I had been to this house once before, but no one was supposed to know about that.  Shortly after Brian and Shawn and I moved into our apartment, we had pulled a prank here, toilet-papering Lorraine’s yard while she and her friends were home, watching a movie.  Brian swore me to secrecy, and I had told no one about that night.  About a month ago, I mentioned that night to Brian, and he admitted that he had eventually caved and told Lorraine about his involvement, but he had not implicated me or Shawn.  I found it noteworthy that I had not caved and the mastermind of the plan had.  I realized as Evan and I walked up to the front door that I had just now told Evan how to get to Lorraine’s house; I hoped that it had not seemed suspicious that I knew this.  Evan did not say anything about it.  I knew Lorraine and some of her roommates from JCF, so I very well could have hung out there sometime before.  Maybe this was not as suspicious as it seemed to me.

I knocked at the door.  Lorraine opened the door a few seconds later.  “Greg!  Evan!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“You mind if we join you?” I asked.  “Our Thursday Bible study kind of fell apart.”

“Sure!  Come on in!  What do you mean, fell apart?”

“We’re the only two left,” Evan explained.

Evan and I followed Lorraine back to the circle of about ten people, most of whom I recognized, in the living room.  There were no open seats, but some people were sitting on the floor.  Evan and I sat on the floor, next to Abby Bartlett and Sean Richards.

I looked over at Abby’s Bible, open to the letter of James, chapter 4.  I opened my Bible to the same place and found the verses that the others were discussing.  I quickly read the verses to myself, then listened to what others were saying for a while.

“Does anyone else have any thoughts about this verse?” Joe asked.  “‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you?’”

“It seems straightforward,” Abby replied.  “To get the devil to flee, walk away from tempting situations.  Your action of resisting makes the devil flee.”

Your action.  Something about Abby’s words stuck in my mind.  When I first became more serious about my faith last year, I heard a lot about how I was saved by Jesus’ death on the cross, not through anything I had done.  But then I read James at one point, and the verse “faith without works is dead” seemed to contradict the idea of salvation by faith alone.  Maybe these concepts were not contradictory after all.  I raised my hand.  “Yes, Greg?” Joe said.

“There’s that verse earlier in James that says something like ‘faith without works is dead.’ Is that right?”

“Yeah.”

“James is saying here that if you resist the devil, he will flee from you.  You want the devil to flee, but you have to back that up by actively doing something to resist him.  That made me think of the other thing, where if you really have faith, it has to be backed up by your actions.  That’s what shows that your faith is real.”

“That’s a great point,” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Lorraine agreed.  I smiled.  Maybe I would fit in with this small group.

As the study continued, I contributed to the discussion a few more times, as did Evan.  Evan’s group had become so small that there had not been much discussion the last few weeks.  Evan had to do a lot of leading in order for us to make good points.  Joe and Lorraine’s group did not seem like that at all; enough people shared openly to keep the discussion going.

After we finished discussing the Scripture, Joe and Lorraine asked for prayer requests.  We took turns praying for each other, then a few people went home right away while the rest stayed in Lorraine’s living room to mingle.  “Hi,” one guy I did not know said, offering his hand for me to shake.  “I’m Dave.”

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

“Greg will be one of my housemates for next year,” Sean explained to Dave.  I noted in my head that I would be going from sharing the large bedroom with someone named “Shawn” to sharing the large bedroom in a different house with someone named “Sean.”  Interesting coincidence, probably meaningless.  “What brings you guys here anyway?” Sean asked me.  “Looking for a new Bible study?”

“Weren’t you in a Bible study that met at your house?” Abby asked.  “I thought that’s what Josh said.” Abby’s boyfriend was Josh, my roommate who was working tonight.

“Evan led that group,” I said.  “But the other leader quit, and people stopped coming, and now it’s down to just us.  So we came here instead.”

“That makes sense,” Sean replied.

“Greg,” Joe said, walking up to us.  “You’re gonna be in my small group next year, right?”

“Yes.”

“Great.  I’m just trying to figure out how many we’re gonna have.  It looks like it’s gonna be a really big small group.”

“That’s kind of an oxymoron.”

“Yeah.  But we’ll find a way to make it work.  Thanks for coming tonight.”


The next day was Friday, and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met in the evening.  Janet McAllen, one of the full time staff from JCF, made an announcement at the beginning about small groups for next year.  I did not need to sign up for one, since I had already told Joe that I would be in his group.

After the night ended, I stood up and looked around for someone to talk to.  A freshman girl named Sadie, whom I had spoken to a few times before, was sitting behind me.  “Hey,” I said after she made eye contact with me.  She had blue eyes, which contrasted with her medium brown hair.

“Hi!” Sadie replied.  “How was your week?”

“It was okay,” I said.  I explained to her what happened last night with Evan’s disappearing small group, then asked, “Do you have a small group for next year?”

“Yeah!  I’m gonna be in one of those groups to train future leaders, with that Greek name.  I don’t remember what it’s called.”

“Kairos group?”

“Yeah!  That’s it.”

“I really don’t like the way they’re doing small groups.  Kairos groups are invitation only, and I was never invited to be in one, and there’s gonna be something like five of them next year.  And next year there are two groups just for women, and two groups just for transfer students, and one group just for Filipino students, and it feels like I don’t fit into any of those categories.  There’s only one group left for the rest of us living off campus, Joe Fox and Lydia Tyler are leading that, and Joe said it’s gonna be huge.  Hopefully someone will learn from that, and they’ll stop making all the groups so specific.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” Sadie said.

“And something just feels wrong about that Filipino group.  Next thing you know, they’ll have separate groups for Black students, and White students, and Latinos.  The people who claim to be against racism seem to want to segregate people the most.”

“I know!  It’s so messed up!  Last summer, someone campaigning against that initiative to end affirmative action showed up at our doorstep, and my dad went off on him!  Pretty sure they’re not gonna send anyone to our door ever again.”

“Good!  I mean, yes, racism is an ugly part of our history, but more segregation isn’t the answer, and neither is turning it around and being racist against white people.  That just creates more division, which is the last thing this world needs.”

“I know!”

“I saw graffiti on campus last year that said, ‘Initiative 119 = Genocide.’  How is it that the people who claim not to be racist believe that some races will die without special favors from the government?”

“Wow,” Sadie said, shaking her head.

“I’ve told people that I’m glad I didn’t do more research on Jeromeville before I came here, because if I had known how liberal it was here, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else, and I never would have met my friends here.”

“I feel the same way!  But God puts us places for a reason, right?”

“Exactly,” I said.  “How was your week?”

“Great!  I found out I got picked to write for the Daily Colt next year!”

“Cool!  Congratulations!”

“Yeah!  I was really hoping I’d get that.”

“What are you up to tonight?”

“I need to get home and go to bed.  I have a lot of studying to do.”

“Well, good luck.  I should probably go help the worship team load up their equipment.  That’s my job here.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too!”

I took a deep breath.  That conversation could have gone badly, considering how controversial issues of race can be, but now I knew that Sadie was a safe person with whom to share my conservative leanings.  It was nice having outspoken conservative friends here at a liberal secular university.  I was glad she would be writing for the school newspaper next year; they definitely needed more conservatives on their staff.


Evan and I attended Joe and Lorraine’s Bible study for two more weeks.  After that was the final week of classes for the year, and Evan was able to get Jonathan, Amy, and Jill to join us one more time for an end-of-year potluck.  We just hung out that night  and did not do any actual Bible study.  Five people still seemed small compared to the ten or so that our small group had at the beginning of the year, but it was good to see the others again.

I expressed my concerns about the niche-specific small groups with several people in leadership roles with JCF.  Typically, these people would respond defending the niche groups, since different people in those categories have different backgrounds that affect their spiritual walk differently.  That may be the case, but I felt left out, and that I knew there were others who did not fit into the categories that the small group leaders had chosen to cater to.  The others would tell me that I had nothing to worry about, because Joe and Lydia were leading a group open to all.  I eventually gave up trying to have this discussion; I would just wait until next year and let these people see for themselves how unmanageably large Joe and Lydia’s group would be, because of JCF’s poor choices about running a small group ministry.

Despite all my complaints about JCF’s small groups, I was not planning on leaving the group.  These people were my friends and my spiritual mentors.  I tried out a new group a few times earlier this year, and I had made some new friends there.  I went back to JCF, though, because I did not want to spread myself too thin and be involved in too many different things.  I had a group for next year, and hopefully the small group ministry would change from the inside when people saw that the current methods were not working.  I did correctly predict the eventual fragmentation of JCF into groups for specific cultures, but that happened many years later, and that is not a story for now.


Author’s note: Happy Easter/Resurrection Day! Jesus is risen!

Have you ever been part of a group that just kept getting smaller? What kind of group was it, and what happened to your group? Tell me about it in the comments.

If you like what you read, don’t forget to like this post and follow this blog. Also follow Don’t Let The Days Go By on Facebook and Instagram.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

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

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

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

“Sure,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

“That’ll work.”

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

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

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

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

“And when was this?”

“October.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Reconciliation?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s The Edge?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Quit?  Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

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

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

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

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


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

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

If you like what you read, be sure to follow this page. Leave a comment too.


December 27-31, 1996. You are my witnesses. (#113)

Previously on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg was traveling to Urbana, Illinois for a Christian student convention to learn about missions and service opportunities. Read the previous episode here.


“Hi,” Matt, the small group leader, said to the remaining guys in the group who were just entering the room.  Matt had long wavy brown hair down to his shoulders and wore a long sleeved button shirt and jeans.  “Glad you found us.  Our room smelled of smoke really bad, so Obadiah here offered to let us meet in his room.  We’re all here, so we can get started now.  My name is Matt, and I’m a senior at Michigan State, majoring in religious studies.”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a mathematics major at the University of Jeromeville.”  Most of the others did not know where Jeromeville was, so I told them.  This small group had eight other guys in it besides me, one from Canada and seven from various parts of the United States, none of which were out west near me.  Matt, the leader, also led a small group at Michigan State’s chapter of Intervarsity.  He pointed out that I had traveled the farthest to get to Urbana.  “Did a lot of people from Jeromeville come to Urbana?” he asked.

I thought for a minute.  “Probably around thirty,” I said.  “It’s a big school with a big Intervarsity chapter, and there are churches with college groups too.”

“Wow,” said the guy named Obadiah, who was from Oklahoma.  “I’m the only one here from my school.  But I go to a small Bible college with only three hundred students, and we don’t have an Intervarsity chapter.  I found out about Urbana from my church.”

After two and a half years at the University of Jeromeville, with twenty-five thousand students, I could not picture what life at a school that small would be like.  The others introduced themselves, with half of them having come from public schools like me and the other half from private schools.

“So what did we learn about being a witness from the session tonight?” Matt asked.  Some of the others shared their thoughts.  One guy whose name was also Matt mentioned giving our lives for Jesus, and another guy, Pablo, pointed out that we are all witnesses all the time, because the rest of the world sees how we act as Christians.  I had never really thought of it that way, but he was right.  The theme for this year’s Urbana conference was “You Are My Witnesses,” taken from God’s words to the people of Israel in Isaiah 43:10, and echoed by Jesus in Acts 1:8 when he tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses, just before he is taken up to heaven.  The first general session had been earlier this evening, just before this small group, and a number of speakers had discussed this concept of witness.

After this, we spent some time praying with each other.  Matt, the leader with the long hair, asked us each in turn how we could pray for each other.  When it was my turn, I said, “Pray that I will hear what God has for my life.  I’m a fairly new Christian, and I don’t really know a lot about missions, but a lot of my friends have done mission trips, and I want to know what’s out there, and what God has for me.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” Matt said.  “I think God definitely has something to show you.”

 We each took turns praying for someone else, then we dispersed to our rooms.  Long-Haired Matt and Pablo were my roommates; I slept in the top bunk, Matt on the bottom, and Pablo on a cot that had been placed in the room specifically for this convention.  As Matt had said earlier, our room smelled horribly of smoke, and with my normal difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar places, I hoped that the smell would not keep me awake.

Intervarsity was a nondenominational Christian organization with chapters at colleges and universities throughout North America.  Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, which I had begun attending at the beginning of sophomore year, was a chapter of Intervarsity.  Every three years, during the week after Christmas, the organization held this convention, named after its location in Urbana, Illinois.  I had never traveled this far east before, nor had I ever seen this much snow.

The University of Illinois campus hosted the convention.  Attendees slept in dormitories that were normally occupied by students, who were home for winter break during the convention.  Normally these rooms held two students, but cots had been added for this convention so that three of us could share each room.  I was glad I had not been assigned to the cot.  Apparently the residents of this room were smokers.  The Illinois students did not have to move their things out during their break.  The other Matt in my small group had mentioned that his room’s walls were full of bikini model posters, so he asked for leftover Urbana posters to cover them up.  The organizers of the convention had extra posters available; apparently this was a common occurrence.

Each day of the convention began with a small group Bible study, with the same eight other guys that I had met with last night.  Following this was a two hour general session with worship music and speakers, ending at noon.  Dozens of smaller sessions filled each afternoon, with attendees free to choose which sessions to attend, and representatives from ministry and service organizations, as well as Bible colleges and seminaries, filled three exhibit halls.  Another general session met each night after dinner, with prayer time in our small groups before bed.

On the second morning, December 28, I saw Long-Haired Matt, the other Matt, and Obadiah talking in the dorm as they prepared to leave for the general session.  I asked if I could walk over with them.  The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign was a very large campus, spread out along the border of two adjacent cities.  Many of the buildings appeared older than those of UJ back home.  The buildings were arranged more densely than those of UJ, for the most part.  The general session was held in the basketball arena, and I had to walk past the football stadium to get there.  Both of them were much larger than the corresponding facilities at UJ, which did not surprise me since Illinois was a Division I school.

The general session began with a worship band playing on a stage where the basketball court normally was.  Some of the songs were familiar to me, the same songs that we sang at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  After the music, speakers came up to talk about various aspects of missions and being a witness.  The keynote speaker that morning was an older woman named Elisabeth Elliot.  She told a story about she and her husband, Jim, serving as missionaries in a remote part of South America in the 1950,  They tried to establish contact with an indigenous group so they could live with them and teach them the good news about Jesus dying for our sins.  Jim and four other members of their group were killed by the people they were trying to reach, but Elisabeth later returned to live with those people for several years.  As one new to evangelical Christian missionary culture, I had never heard anything like that; Ms. Elliot’s story was both inspiring and intense.  I overheard Long-Haired Matt and Obadiah talking after the session; apparently the Elliots’ story was well-known among those who grew up going to churches that emphasized world missions.

I spent the afternoon in a session about keeping a prayer journal.  The speaker, an Intervarsity staff leader from some other school, had a lot of good things to say, but I also came out of the session feeling a bit like a failure.  My prayer times tended to be unproductive, and I did not hear God’s voice audibly.  The speaker also cautioned against having an experience orientation, in which one’s faith and prayer life is focused on results instead of the mere presence of God.  I knew that this was something I struggled with.  That evening, I could not find either of the Matts or Obadiah or Pablo or any of the others in my group when the time for the general session came, so I sat alone.

By lunch time on December 29, I was feeling two things: discouraged and cold.  We had a good small group last night, though.  Multiple people prayed that I would get out of this rut of discouragement, but it had not happened yet.  Long-Haired Matt reminded me about the guest services booth where I could look up dorm room phone numbers for other attendees.  I made a note to look up Brian Burr, Eddie Baker, and Taylor Santiago later that day, so I could at least see them at some point during this convention.

As I left the cafeteria and headed across campus for a session about forgiveness, I realized that something looked different.  The snow was melting.  The blanket of white that had covered the campus when I arrived two days ago had receded to little patches of snow scattered across the greens and browns of nature and the grays of paved surfaces.  The air also felt noticeably warmer this afternoon.

“Greg!” I heard someone call out as I approached the building where my session was.  It was a female voice, not any of the guys in my small group.  I turned and saw a girl with light brown hair in a white sweatshirt, smiling and waving to me.

“Autumn!” I called out excitedly.  Autumn Davies was a sophomore at Jeromeville, who stayed in the same hotel as me on the night before Urbana began.  She gave me a hug.

“How are you?” Autumn asked.  “How have you been?”

“Okay, I guess.  Just trying to figure out what God is telling me through all this.”

“You’ll figure it out.  Just keep listening.”

“Yeah.  How has Urbana been for you?”

“It’s been great!  I’m learning so much!  I want to go on a mission trip this summer.”

“Awesome!  Keep me posted on that.”

“Hey, do you want to come sit with us at the session tonight?  Some of us from Jeromeville decided to sit together, and we’ve gradually been finding other people we know.”

“Yeah!  Definitely!  You’re actually the first person from Jeromeville I’ve seen since we got off the bus.”

“Wow!  We’ve been sitting in section 205.”

“I need to get to this session, but it was great to see you!  I’ll see you tonight!”

“Yeah!”


My Urbana experience seemed to change from the moment the snow melted.  A couple hours after I ran into Autumn, I saw Tabitha Sasaki and Melinda Schmidt walking toward a different session.  And when I arrived in section 205 that night, it felt like coming home, being surrounded by familiar faces.  Dave and Janet McAllen, Cheryl, and Brian, our campus staff.  Eddie, Autumn, Leah, Tabitha, Leslie, Alyssa, Scott and Amelia, Melinda, Ajeet, Mike Knepper, and many of the other friends I made at JCF last year.  Taylor, Pete, Sarah, Liz, and Ramon, friends from my freshman dorm who invited me to JCF in the first place.  I had told Long-Haired Matt at dinner earlier that I found some of my Jeromeville friends and would probably sit with them instead of my small group; he seemed to approve of this idea.

“Greg!” Taylor said when he saw me approach their section.  “Good to see you!”

“You too!” I said.  “I ran into Autumn earlier, and she told me where everyone would be.”

“So what have you thought of everything so far?  Are you ready to pack up and go on a mission trip this summer?” Taylor chuckled.

“It’s definitely been a learning experience.  I was thinking earlier today, I should probably start with something smaller.  Like maybe I could be a Bible study leader next year.”

“Oh yeah?  That’s a good thought.  If you’re interested in that, talk to Dave and Janet.  And talk to your Bible study leader this year, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.  Who is that?”

“Evan Lundgren.”

“He’s not at Urbana, is he?”

“No.  But I’ll talk to him when we get back.”

“Good idea.  I’m going to be taking a quarter off in the spring to do inner-city missions this spring and summer, so I’ve been looking for stuff that’ll help with that.”

“That’s cool.  Keep me posted about that.”

Although I possibly had the beginnings of a plan, I still felt a lot that was unresolved within me.  I did not have a specific plan like Taylor.  So much here seemed to be pushing the idea of going to serve God in other countries, and I just did not feel ready for that.  I knew that not everyone was called to missions overseas, but what if I was just being lazy and staying in my comfort zone instead of actually doing God’s will for my life?

For the remaining two days of Urbana, I followed the same pattern of sitting with Long-Haired Matt and my small group in the morning session and with my Jeromeville friends in the evening.  Although I enjoyed seeing my friends at the evening sessions, I was haunted by the words of the speaker from earlier in the week who reminded me not to have an experience-oriented faith.  It was difficult to find the balance of having friends to encourage me in my faith, and for me to encourage in theirs, yet also remembering that my faith is deeper than just experiences with friends.

 By the final evening, the smell of smoke from my dorm room had permeated all of my clothes and the towel I was using to dry myself after showering.  I hoped that the smell did not bother my friends, and I hoped that people I came across would not assume that I was a smoker.  That would not be a good witness to others.

According to the program, one of tonight’s topics was about “sending,” presented by one of the people in charge of Intervarsity.  I was not sure what this word meant exactly.  “You’ve probably learned a lot about Urbana about missions,” the speaker said.  “But it is just as important to know that someone back home is sending these people on missions.”  He went on to explain the importance of the teams who give financially to missionaries and pray for them, how they are a crucial part of the missions experience.  I liked that.

The final evening session was scheduled to end two and a half hours later than on the other nights.  It was December 31, and we would all take communion together at midnight to celebrate the New Year.  After the last speaker, the band came back and played an extended worship session.  They began with a song called “Good To Me,” a song that I had heard many times back home, but which was still just as true.  God really was good to me.

Around 11:45, hundreds of volunteers spread out throughout the arena to distribute crackers and grape juice for communion.  The people on stage told the story of the Last Supper and instructed us to eat the bread and drink the juice in memory of Jesus.  I sat reflecting on everything that had happened this week as the worship team played music with no vocals.  The burden I had been feeling, wanting to make sure I was doing enough to serve God, was lifting now that I had heard the talk about sending.  Suddenly it felt okay if I was not ready to cross any oceans this summer.  I could still make donations and pray for my friends who would be crossing oceans, and that was still an important part of the cause of world missions.  And I was planning to learn more about leading a small group next year.

I looked at my watch after a while; It was 12:02.  The date displayed on my watch said “1-1-97.”  January 1, 1997.  A new year, full of new opportunities and possibilities.

After the worship team dismissed us from the session, I stood up and looked around at my friends sitting nearby.  Eddie made eye contact with me; he walked over and patted me on the back.  “Happy New Year, Greg,” he said.

“You too,” I replied.  “By the way, you were wrong when you said a couple weeks ago that Urbana was so big that we probably wouldn’t see each other.”

“I know.  I guess I was.”

“No offense, but in this case I’m glad you were wrong.” I smiled.

“Me too,” Eddie replied.  “So what did you think of tonight?”  I told him of my realization about sending, that it did not make me any less of a Christian if I did not go on a mission trip right away.  “Good,” he said.  “We as Christians are saved by faith, not by our works.”

“I know.”


The next morning, as we packed and cleaned our rooms, the nine of us in my small group exchanged contact information and took a group photo.  Most of them did not stay in touch with me, though, and the ones who did I only heard from for a couple months.  Life just gets in the way, I suppose.

In one of the exhibit halls was an Urbana store, selling merchandise and books.  I bought a T-shirt, with a design identical to the poster I had received in the mail when I first signed up for Urbana.  I also bought three books, two written by speakers I had heard and one a devotional book to use in my personal prayer time.  I began reading Shadow of the Almighty by Elisabeth Elliot on the plane ride home.  Although I found her talk intriguing, the book came across as boring.  A couple weeks later, I gave up halfway through the book, and while I still have it all these years later, I never finished it.

Although Urbana was an amazing experience that answered some of my questions about missions, I also felt like I was leaving with new questions.  Was it God’s will for me to serve him overseas, and how do I separate the answer to this question from my flesh and its desire to stay comfortable?  How could I serve the body of Christ back home?  Would I lead a small group senior year, and how would that impact my schedule?  As I looked forward to new opportunities and experiences in 1997 while traveling thousands of feet above the ground, I prayed that God would reveal his will to me, that he would show me where.  And, unsurprisingly, God did reveal his will to me not too long after that, and it was not at all what I was expecting.

Proof that I really did see Eddie at Urbana.

Author’s note: What’s the most interesting way you’ve ever spent a New Year?

Disclaimer: Urbana is a real event (urbana.org), but it has since moved, and is not actually held in Urbana anymore. Intervarsity was not involved in the composition of this story, and this is not a sponsored post.

November 1-3, 1996. Discovering a dark side to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. (#107)

“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. (#101)

“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. (#99)

“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. (#97)

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. (#94)

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.