March 4, 1997.  Of a different ilk. (#123)

“UJ Campus Radio, 90.1,” the voice on the other end of the phone call said.  I got a little nervous making a phone call early in the morning, but obviously someone at the radio station was awake, since I had the radio tuned to this station and I heard music.

“Hi,” I said nervously.  “Is this Tina?”

“Yeah!” Tina, the disc jockey, replied.  “What can I help you with?”

“This is Greg Dennison.  I lived on your floor freshman year.”

Tina paused for a second, then said, “Greg!  Hey!  What’s up?”

“I was talking to Liz and Caroline the other day, and they told me that you were a DJ for Campus Radio now, and that you were going to play that music that Ramon made on your computer.  Is that true?”

“Yeah!  That’s coming up in about 20 minutes.  Will you be around to listen to it?”

“Yeah.  That’s so cool.”

“Great!  So how are things?  Still majoring in math?”

“Yeah.  Still figuring out what to do with a math degree, though.  And I started volunteering with youth ministry at Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“That sounds like fun!”

“How long have you been a DJ for Campus Radio?”

“Since fall quarter.  It’s been interesting.  I like it.”

“Sounds like fun.”

“Well, I need to get back on the air, but it was good catching up.  I’ll see you around campus, probably.”

“Yeah!  Have a good one!”

A while later, I was done with my morning cereal, reading the newspaper, with Campus Radio 90.1 still on.  This was a freeform station owned by the University of Jeromeville, broadcasting whatever its disc jockeys chose to play. I rarely listened to it, since its disc jockeys played some pretty strange music.  I smiled when I heard Tina introduce her next segment.  “Freshman year, my roommate’s boyfriend was in our room all the time, and I had a nice computer, so he used it to compose these electronic covers of popular songs.”  I smiled nostalgically as I heard Ramon’s electronic reggae version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” on the radio, the same song that I heard loudly blasting down the hall so many times freshman year.  I did not see Tina much these days, but I still often saw Ramon and Liz, the roommate from Tina’s story, at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and at church.  Ramon and Liz had an amicable breakup six months ago, but they remained friends.


That night, I drove to campus for University Life, the college group from another church, not the one I attended.  I made some friends from University Life through a random encounter at the Memorial Union a few months ago.  I had been feeling frustrated at being on the outside of cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, my usual group.  I had been sitting with those U-Life friends at the MU and the Quad fairly often this quarter, and tonight was my third time actually attending U-Life.

U-Life was a very large group, with around two hundred students attending an average weekly meeting.  I looked around and eventually found Alaina and Whitney, two of the U-Life friends I often sat with at the MU. Next to them was a third girl whom I had seen before but whose name I did not remember.  I sat in an open seat next to Alaina.

“Hey, Greg,” Alaina said.  “What’s up?”

“Just having a good day.  What about you?”

“Good!  We were just talking about our coffee house party.  You’re coming, right?”

“Yeah.  I should be there.  When is it?”

“April 12.  That’s a Saturday.”  Alaina turned to the girl I did not know and said, “Greg is gonna do a dramatic poetry reading.”

“Really?” the girl asked me.  “You write poetry?  Or you’ll read someone else’s poem?”

“I don’t know,” I said, laughing nervously.  “This is the first I’ve heard of it.”

“Come on!” Alaina said.  “You totally should.  Have you met our other roommate, Corinne?”

“No,” I said.

“Hi,” the girl who asked me about poetry said.  “I’m Corinne.  It’s nice to meet you.”  Corinne was shorter than average, with light brown straight hair and brown eyes.

“You too,” I replied.  “I’m sure I can find something to read at the party.”

“It doesn’t have to be anything serious,” Corinne said.  “This party is just for fun.”

Alaina had told me a couple weeks earlier that she and her roommates were planning a big party with a coffee house theme.  I did not know how many people I would know there, and I did not like coffee, but this sounded like a fun way to hang out with these new friends from U-Life.

After the end of the meeting, I talked to Alaina, Corinne, and Whitney for a bit longer.  Next, I wandered around the room looking for other people I knew.  Carolyn Parry, who played guitar and sang in the worship band, was putting sound equipment away when she saw me and waved.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Will you be at our show on Sunday?”

I paused for a couple seconds.  as my brain tried to remember what she was talking about.  Show?  Sunday?  Oh, chorus.  I met Carolyn last quarter when I was in chorus.  “Yes,” I said.  “It’ll be good to see everyone again.”

“Good!”

“I’ll be in chorus again in the spring.  I just had a class meeting at the same time this quarter.”

“Yeah, that happens sometimes.  I haven’t been able to do it every quarter.  I’ll see you Sunday, then?”

“Yeah!”

I walked back out to the car a bit later, heading west on Davis Drive, and then north on Andrews Road.  Today was a good day.  I had all my homework done.  I got to hear Ramon’s music on the radio.  I heard a good talk about Jesus.  And Alaina’s roommate Corinne was pretty cute.  I left campus and entered the adjacent Jeromeville city limits, keeping my speed at 25 miles per hour, which seemed unnaturally slow to me.  Jeromeville was a bicycle-friendly city with low speed limits that the police enforced strictly.  I thought of all of Jeromeville’s famous quirks as I anticipated having a peaceful, relaxing couple hours before bed to close out this great day.

And then I gasped in horror when I realized what today was.

My heart raced as I looked at the clock.  9:23pm.  I was too late.  I had failed.  I finished the trip home, disgusted with myself for forgetting something so important, and when I got home, I tried to avoid talking with my roommates, because I did not want to talk about this.


Jeromeville was a university town.  When a large university is located adjacent to a relatively small city, the university drives much of the cultural and political trends in the city.  Jeromeville had a population of around fifty-six thousand, with over a third of these residents university students; about six thousand more students lived on campus, just outside of the city limits.  Many of the adults living in Jeromeville were university faculty and staff.  As a result of this, Jeromeville readily embraced many liberal and progressive political causes and trends.

Since the 1960s, Jeromeville has made great investments of tax dollars in bicycling facilities.  I enjoyed riding my bicycle recreationally along the paths that ran through the Greenbelts in the newer sections of the city, with wide, safe bike lanes on streets connecting the different neighborhoods.  However, this made driving in Jeromeville a pain.  Many of the major streets had only one lane for automobiles and a slow speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

The five aging hippies who sat on the Jeromeville City Council embraced these causes, refusing to accept the reality that Jeromeville had grown to its current size.  Jeromeville had a well-deserved quirky reputation among people in nearby cities for all the strange decisions made by its city council.  A couple years ago, residents of an older neighborhood were lobbying the city council to pave a dirt alley behind their house.  The dirt was extremely uneven, resulting in puddles forming during the rainy season, staying full long enough to provide breeding grounds for mosquitoes.  The city refused, on the grounds that dirt alleys were historic and paving them would ruin the small-town feel of Jeromeville.  Another relatively busy street in central Jeromeville was unusually dark, with very few streetlights, and residents lobbied for better lighting.  The city responded that more lighting would ruin the small-town environment, making it harder for residents to see the sky, and attracting traffic and crime.  In the real world, the traffic was already there, and dark streets attract crime better than well-lit ones, but the Jeromeville City Council ignored such arguments.

Chain stores and real estate development were particular villains to Jeromeville politicians.  In the last City Council election, twelve candidates, an unusually large number, ran for three open seats.  I voted for the ones whose views I disliked the least, and they finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  To lose an election in Jeromeville, all one must do is take campaign contributions from real estate developers.  The elites in charge will repeat ad nauseam in advertisements that their opponents took money from developers; this was a death sentence to any budding Jeromeville politician.

Downtown Jeromeville was sacred ground to the Jeromeville City Council.  The city did everything in its power to ensure a healthy central business area, to avoid the flight to outer neighborhoods that had left so many nearby downtowns empty and decaying.  But this had created some growing pains of its own.  In recent decades, the city had grown across Highway 100 for the first time.  The only route from south of 100 into downtown was Cornell Boulevard, passing under three railroad tracks through a narrow underpass with room for just one lane in each direction.  This underpass was built in 1915, part of one of the original highways traversing east to west across the United States.  The cross-country route had long since been bypassed by a wide freeway, today’s Highway 100, but the 1915 underpass was still in use as a local street.  The clearance was about three feet lower than that of modern underpasses, and occasionally a tall truck would get stuck there. It also sometimes flooded during rainy times.

At certain times of day, traffic backs up terribly at the underpass and for long distances on both sides.  I had heard horror stories about south Jeromeville residents taking close to half an hour to get downtown, a trip of less than two miles.  Downtown itself was growing, making the traffic situation even worse. A shopping center had recently been completed at the corner of Cornell and First Street next to the underpass. The shopping center was controversial in its own right, since the anchor tenant was Borders Books. When this was proposed, it divided citizens into two camps, one camp feeling that Borders matched the intellectual character of Jeromeville, and the other believing that large national chain stores did not belong in Jeromeville, threatening to put local bookstores out of business.  The most vocal member of the second camp was a City Councilmember who owned a bookstore. To me, this was an obvious conflict of interest, but no one in Jeromeville seemed to care.  The bookstore was eventually approved, and many publicly vowed to boycott Borders, because this was considered the right opinion by the Jeromeville elite.

I loved Borders Books.  I went there a couple weeks after it opened, after the hype died down.  It was much larger than any bookstore I had ever seen, and it had a coffee shop where people could sit and read.  They also sold music on compact disc, with headphones to listen to samples of any recording they had in stock, so I could know exactly what music I was buying before I spent money on it.  This store became one of my go-to places when I had time to kill.  If the local independent stores wanted to stay in business, they should add awesome stuff in their stores too.  This was how the free market worked, and I supported it, although I kept somewhat quiet about it because I knew that most Jeromevillians did not approve.

A proposal had recently been put forward to build a wider underpass, two lanes in each direction with a more modern design.  Jeromeville also had a long tradition of direct democracy for certain proposals, so this underpass widening had been placed before the voters.  I had seen “No on Measure K” signs all over town, with a small sprinkling of “Yes on Measure K” signs mostly in south Jeromeville, where people are actually affected by this awful traffic jam.  Last week, I saw organized opposition to Measure K at a table on the Quad, a balding man and a woman with long gray hair.  They displayed a picture of a four-lane boulevard crossing under a railroad track, with a caption that said “IF MEASURE K PASSES, THIS COULD BE IN DOWNTOWN JEROMEVILLE!”  In the fantasy where these people reside, that statement would sway voters against Measure K, but to me the same statement was an argument in favor.

“This does not belong in Jeromeville,” the gray-haired woman at the table said to two students she was trying to sway to her position.  “Vote no on Measure K.”

“I heard that traffic is really horrible there, though,” one of the students said.

“The Power Line Road overpass just opened last year,” she explained.  “We should wait and see how that affects traffic before we spend all this money on something else.”  As she explained this, I realized that I knew who this woman was: Jane Pawlowski, one of the five aging hippies on the Jeromeville City Council. She was frequently in the local news, and occasionally national news, for making some very strange statements.  She was the one who touted the historic character of the puddles in the alleys.  And when Power Line Road was extended into south Jeromeville last year, she loudly advocated, successfully, to spend extra money on a small tunnel under the road so that frogs and other wildlife could cross the road safely.  “Lots of frogs live in that pond, and we can all benefit from knowing that we have this psychic connection with the frog community,” Jane Pawlowski had said.

“The new overpass hasn’t solved the problem,” I said loudly, approaching the table.  “People still get stuck in traffic on Cornell Boulevard.”

“But does this eyesore really belong in Jeromeville?” the balding man asked me, gesturing toward the picture of the four-lane road.

“Yes!” I replied.  “We’re a city of fifty-six thousand people, and we need to build the infrastructure to support that population.  It looks safe and modern, and traffic is going to flow freely.”

“I guess we’re just of a different ilk,” Jane said.

“You got that right,” I replied loudly.  “And that’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.”  I walked away, with the other students around the No on Measure K table staring at me.

I knew as soon as I walked away that I should not have said that.  It was unnecessarily unkind.  I arrived at the Writings of John class that I had with many of my Christian friends; Taylor Santiago was standing outside waiting for people.  I told him what had happened.

“’They will know we are Christians by our love,’” Taylor said, quoting a song.

“I know,” I said.  “It just makes me angry that these pretentious intellectuals who hold on to hippie fantasies and use words like ‘ilk’ have undisputed control of Jeromeville.”

“Don’t beat yourself up over it,” Taylor suggested.  “Learn from this, and be kind if this ever happens again.  And if you really want to, you can contact her office and apologize.  She’s a politician, so she’ll have public contact information.”


I never did apologize to Jane Pawlowski.  I would take out my anger on these people with my vote.  Except, as I drove home from U-Life that night, I realized that I had completely forgotten to vote.  This vote had been on my mind for weeks, and once the day of the election arrived, I did not think about voting at all.  I had failed all of those who supported Measure K.

I read the newspaper the next morning and learned that Measure K had failed, with about 65% of the residents voting No.  My one vote did not end up making a difference, but I was still angry with myself for forgetting to vote.  It was not like me.

More interesting was the map of the vote broken up by precinct.  Every single neighborhood south of Highway 100 had a majority of Yes votes, since people on that side of town actually have to drive through the inadequate underpass. Only one of about twenty precincts north of 100 had a majority Yes vote.  At the time, Jeromeville City Council members were elected at large, by the whole city, representing the whole city.  No one on the City Council lived in south Jeromeville, and there was no requirement that members of the City Council live in different parts of the city.  The opposition to this measure was purely driven by elitists in the old part of Jeromeville, who do not use this underpass often, imposing their will on the people most directly affected by the underpass.

The next morning, I rode the bus to class, still feeling ashamed of myself.  I sat next to Tara, the cute brown-haired girl who I often saw on the same bus.  She asked me how I was doing, and I said, “Not well.”

“What’s wrong?” she asked, sounding concerned.

“I wanted to vote Yes on Measure K, and I completely forgot.  And it failed.”

“But that was a lot of money to spend on that overpass,” Tara replied.  She became somewhat less attractive to me that day when I found out she had been against Measure K, but at least she was against it because of government spending, not because of some fantasy about small-town feel.  That was a more acceptable reason to me.

The 1915 underpass remains to this day; Cornell Boulevard has never been widened.  Jane Pawlowski was right; I was of a different ilk than most people in Jeromeville.  Had I researched the local culture of Jeromeville before I came here for school, I probably would have gone to school somewhere else.  However, in hindsight, I am glad I came to Jeromeville.  I found a community here, and I found a great church where I was getting involved beyond just the college group.  Jeromeville, with all its quirks, was growing on me.  I may not ever vote for people who win elections in Jeromeville, but God was in control no matter who won elections on Earth.  And one day, I would leave this world behind and spend eternity in heaven with others who were truly of my ilk.


Author’s note: What are local politics like where you live? Share an interesting story in the comments! And don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to this blog if you enjoyed what you read!


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.

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

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

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

“Sure,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

“That’ll work.”

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

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

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

“That was fall quarter?  Of last year?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

“And when was this?”

“October.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Reconciliation?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s The Edge?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Quit?  Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.

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

“Yeah.  Kinda.”

“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”

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

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


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

“Yes,” I said.  “That sounds right.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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February 14-18, 1997.  Taking my first step into a larger world. (#120)

I was nine months old when the world first experienced the Star Wars phenomenon in 1977.  As such, I was too young to have seen the movie, or its first sequel The Empire Strikes Back, on the big screen in its original run.  I remember the hype surrounding the next movie in the series, Return of the Jedi, which was released when I was six.  I did not see Return of the Jedi, but I saw the other two movies a couple times over the years during my childhood.  Star Wars creator George Lucas had repeatedly said that he planned to make more movies past Return of the Jedi, as well as three other movies telling the backstory of how the primary villain Darth Vader turned to evil.  In the fourteen years between Return of the Jedi and my junior year at the University of Jeromeville, no more Star Wars movies had been made.

I recognized most of the major characters from Star Wars, but by age twenty, I did not have a detailed recollection of the specific storylines of the movies.  Star Wars just was not a huge part of my childhood.  Therefore, when George Lucas’ company announced that the original three movies would be rereleased in theaters in early 1997, with new scenes to match his original vision, I at first considered this a minor curiosity, something that might be fun to go see, but not something around which to revolve my life.

For my roommate Brian Burr, seeing Star Wars on the big screen again, in this new Special Edition, was a huge deal.  Brian was older than me; he would have been three and a half when Star Wars was first released, so he grew up with Star Wars more than I did.  He announced a while back that he was going to see each movie on the big screen three times.  The movies were being released on Fridays, and Star Wars was not worth missing class over, but I told Brian to keep me posted about the second or third times he saw the movies, so I could go too.

The Special Edition of Star Wars was now entering its third week in theaters, but so far Brian had not said anything to me about seeing the movie.  I was starting to feel left out, like I had from so many cliques already over the last few months.  Furthermore, today was Valentine’s Day, and even though I had gotten brave and talked to the cute girl on the bus this morning, my general failures at love still made me feel discouraged.

After my two math classes, I had New Testament Writings of John with Dr. Hurt.  Dr. Hurt’s New Testament classes were very popular with Christian students at UJ.  I was part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; I had recently started attending Jeromeville Covenant Church and their college group, 20/20; and I had friends who were part of University Life, the college group from the First Baptist Church of Jeromeville.  The Writings of John class had around 150 students; I knew and was friends with many of them.

I had taken Introduction to New Testament with Dr. Hurt last quarter to satisfy a general education requirement, and I was taking this class just because I was interested in the topic.  I was learning a lot about the Bible and life as a Christian from JCF and church, but Dr. Hurt’s classes taught me to look at the Bible from a scholarly perspective, which I had never done before.  Earlier in the quarter, we spent two whole days studying one word in the first verse of the Gospel of John, for example.  In English, the verse was usually translated as “In the beginning was the Word,” but “Word,” Logos in Greek, could mean word, study, reason, discourse, or a number of other concepts that were difficult to translate.  God’s Word in this sense was more than just words, it was what God used to speak the universe into being, and Jesus was this Word in human form, in a way that twentieth century English could not explain well.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” Taylor Santiago said as we walked out of Dr. Hurt’s class.  Brent Wang, Noah Snyder, and Mike Knepper had all been sitting near us, and we all walked outside together.  “I see you’re wearing black today.”

“Yeah,” I chuckled.  Bah, humbug to Valentine’s Day, I thought.

“Was the black shirt on purpose?”

“Kinda,” I said.  “Did you guys see Eddie today?

“No,” Brent replied.

“He was wearing a shirt that said, ‘I’m available.’”

“No way!” Taylor exclaimed, laughing.

“But then on the back,” I continued, “it said, ‘Send me.  Isaiah 6:8.’”

“That’s awesome,” Brent said.  Pete and Mike laughed.

“Hey, guys, what’s so funny?” Barefoot James said, walking up to us.  James was a sophomore, a year younger than us.  Two weeks ago, I had started volunteering with The Edge, the junior high school youth group at J-Cov; James was also a volunteer with that group, as were Taylor and Noah.  I told James about Eddie’s shirt, and he replied, “Oh yeah!  I saw that!  That was great.”

“So do any of you have plans for Valentine’s Day?” Brent asked.

“Nope!” Taylor replied.  The others all replied in the negative as well.

“Things didn’t work out for you guys, Mike?” Noah asked.

“I told you,” Mike replied, “Courtney just wants to be friends.”

“Aww,” Taylor said.  “What about you, Greg?  Any ladies we should know about?”

“No,” I said.  I did not know how, or when, to take the next step with the cute girl on the bus.  It happened all too often that I would meet a cute girl and never see her again, or I would take my time getting to know a cute girl while some other guy was busy asking her out.

The others here did not understand; they, or at least some of them, had had girlfriends before.  Taylor and Pete had both been romantically linked to a girl in our freshman dorm, Danielle; she was not together with either of them anymore.  And a few months ago, I thought for sure something was going on between Mike Knepper and Courtney; if I could see it, it must have been really obvious.  Mike had even told me once that he liked Courtney.  But apparently she had just wanted to be friends.

Courtney was a total babe, a freshman, friendly and flirty, with long blonde hair.  I had been seeing more of her the last couple weeks, since she was also a leader at The Edge.  She seemed to spend a lot of time around another of the leaders, Brody Parker, and I was starting to wonder if there was something going on between them. That would explain why she was no longer interested in Mike Knepper.  Although Courtney was very attractive on so many levels, I never considered myself to be interested in her as more than a friend, with all of that competition from other guys like Mike and Brody.

I was ready to talk about something other than Valentine’s Day, so I mentioned the other thing I had been brooding about inside.  “I also still haven’t seen the Star Wars Special Edition,” I said.  “I wanted to go, because I barely remember the original movies.”

“I haven’t seen it yet either,” Barefoot James replied.

Without thinking, I blurted out, “You wanna go see it?”  I had been waiting for two weeks for an opportunity to see Star Wars, and when my mind processed that a chance had fallen into my proverbial lap, I took it.

“Sure,” James replied.

“When?  What works for you?”

James thought for a minute, then said, “Tuesday night?  I don’t have anything going on then.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll look up the times it’s playing.  Will you be at church on Sunday?  We can figure it out then.

“Yeah,” James said.  “Sounds good.”  Of course, Barefoot James on Tuesday night was not exactly a Valentine’s Day date, but at this point what mattered was that I really wanted to see Star Wars.  I made plans with someone, and this was progress.


It turned out that the only show that worked on Tuesday night for Barefoot James was at 10:20, later than I would have liked to start a movie on a school night.  But I really wanted to see this movie, and I had already made a commitment to James.  I could survive on one day of getting less sleep.

I drove downtown and arrived at the theater a few minutes after ten o’clock.  I did not see James outside, nor could I see him inside in the lobby.  I was usually early showing up to things like this, so I stood outside the entrance, waiting for James to arrive.

As my watch ticked past 10:10, 10:15, 10:20, I continued looking across the nearly deserted G Street, wondering where James was.  Had he stood me up?  Had he forgotten?  Had something happened to him?  I wondered what the protocol was for this kind of situation.  How long should I wait before assuming that James would not come?  And in that situation, should I buy a ticket and watch the movie by myself, or should I just go home?  If I did give up on James and watch the movie by myself, how would James know that I was inside the theater?

I got excited when I saw a guy with light brown hair and stubble approach from my left, but as I started taking a step toward him, I noticed that this was clearly not Barefoot James.  As this guy’s facial features came into view, he began to look less like James, and I also noticed at that moment that he was wearing shoes.  It was now 10:26, and my mind was still racing, confused about how to handle this.  Maybe I should just go inside and watch the movie before I missed too much of it.  But if I told the person at the ticket booth to watch for someone fitting James’ description, to pass on the message that I was inside, would she do that?  Would the girl at the ticket window pack up soon if there were no other shows starting that night?  Had the movie even started yet?  How much did I miss?  How much time did I have?  Or should I just go home?  I would give it five more minutes before I decided.

Fortunately, I did not need to make this decision, because James approached from my right on the opposite side of the street at 10:29, waving when he saw me.  He was wearing sandals; I had known James for over a year now, and this was the first time I had ever seen him not barefoot.  “Sorry I’m late,” James said.  “Let’s go.”  As we bought and paid for our tickets, James explained, “I would have been on time, except I got halfway here and remembered that I wasn’t wearing shoes, so I had to go back.  This movie theater is one of the only places I’ve never been able to get into without shoes.”

“I see,” I said.  As we walked toward our theater, I asked, “Why don’t you wear shoes anyway?  I’ve never known.”

“I’ve just never liked shoes,” James explained.  “I think they’re uncomfortable.”

“I see,” I replied.  It was true that shoes were often uncomfortable, but personally, my feet would get too cold if I always went barefoot.  I did not like going barefoot.

The movie theater in Jeromeville had six screens; Star Wars was in theater 3.  We walked in while a preview for an upcoming movie played.  “Oh, good,” I said.  “We didn’t miss anything.”

The theater was about half full; we sat toward the back near the center.  The preview that played as we sat down was the last one, and the movie began after that.  I felt anticipation building as the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, the Lucasfilm logo, and the text “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” appeared on the screen.  A few people cheered as the music started and the backstory text scrolled up the screen; I clapped with them a few times.

I had only seen Star Wars a couple times in childhood, and it had been several years, but I remembered bits and pieces of the plot.  Although the characters were familiar, most of the movie felt like a new experience to me.  I watched intently as Princess Leia hid a top secret message inside the memory of the droid R2-D2 and launched him and his companion C-3PO in an escape pod to find Obi-Wan Kenobi. The droids were found by scavengers and sold to a farm boy named Luke Skywalker.  Luke helped the droids find Obi-Wan, who then explained to Luke about the Force.  Obi-Wan said that the Force was an energy field that holds the galaxy together.

“Sounds kind of like the Logos,” I whispered to James.  “In the beginning was the Force.”

“Whoa,” James replied.  “That’s probably some kind of blasphemy or something.”

A few minutes later, in the movie, Luke and Obi-Wan met the pilot Han Solo in a seedy bar. They paid him to take them and the droids to Leia.  As they left the bar, a green-skinned gangster stopped Han and asked him about a shipment that Han had previously lost.  The gangster shot his blaster, missing Han to the side; the special effects for that part looked uncharacteristically awkward, not the smooth, realistic effects that Star Wars was known for.  Han then shot back, killing the gangster.

“Han shot first,” James whispered.

“Huh?” I replied.

“Han shot first.  You know about that, right?”

“Oh, yeah, I read about that,” I said as the significance of that scene dawned on me.  The most controversial change made for the Special Edition of Star Wars involved Han Solo’s gun battle with someone named Greedo.  In the original movie, Han shot Greedo unprovoked, but in the Special Edition, the scene was altered to make it look like Han shot in self-defense, so as not to portray Han as a cold-blooded murderer.  Many fans believed that the original scene was more in line with Han’s smuggler and mercenary background.  I did not realize at first that this dead green gangster was Greedo.

I continued to watch the movie.  Obi-Wan began to teach Luke about the ways of the Force.  Darth Vader found Luke, Obi-Wan, Han, and the others, and battled Obi-Wan to settle some unfinished business from their past.  Luke escaped that battle and found the Rebels, who then began making plans to go on the offensive.  I tried to take in as many details as I could, so that I would be able to discuss the movie with Brian and other Star Wars fans.

As the movie ended and the credits began, I said to James, “That was good.”

“Yeah.  That new scene with Jabba the Hutt was interesting.”

“Honestly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Star Wars.  What was that part like before?”

“It just wasn’t there.  It was a whole new scene.  Jabba didn’t show up until Return of the Jedi.”

“Oh, okay.”

“So do you have plans to see The Empire Strikes Back yet?” James asked as we left the theater.  “It comes out Friday.”

“I know Brian and his group already got tickets for Friday.  But I heard him say he’ll want to go a second time.  I’ll ask if I can get in on that, and I’ll let you know.”

“Great, man.  I need to get to bed, I have class in the morning.”

“Me too.  I’m gonna be tired tomorrow, but it was worth it.”

“Yeah!  I’ll see you tomorrow at The Edge?”

“Yes.  Drive safely.”


I did not see Brian until I got home from school Thursday, two days later.  Brian was busy for much of Wednesday, and I was gone for much of the day at school and at The Edge.  Wednesday evening at The Edge.  (After the students went home from The Edge, Courtney and Brody sat in a corner talking, oblivious to the world; it really did look like something was going on between them.)

Brian was happy to hear that I had seen Star Wars with Barefoot James.  “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world,” he said, quoting what Obi-Wan had said to Luke after beginning to teach Luke about the Force.

“Are you still going to see Empire again after the premiere?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Brian said.  “Probably on a weekend, next week or the week after.  You wanna come?”

“Yes!  And James does too.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll keep you posted.”

I may not have grown up with Star Wars, like many kids my age, but tonight I really had stepped into a new world. I was a Star Wars fan now.  This movie was going to be part of my life.  Or at least I would be a Star Wars fan after I saw Return of the Jedi, since I still had no idea how the trilogy ended.  My Jedi training was not complete yet.  Brian had the original versions of all three movies on VHS tapes, but I wanted to wait and see the other two Special Editions with friends first.

After I saw all three Special Editions, I watched all the movies again, using Brian’s tapes.  I bought my own copy of the Special Editions on VHS later that year.  The first of the prequels, telling the story of the future Darth Vader when he was a child, was released in 1999, and one of the most exciting moments of my Star Wars fandom was seeing the first showing of that in a group of sixty of my closest friends.  Yes, sixty.

But that is a story for another time.


Author’s note: Are you a Star Wars fan?


February 13-14, 1997.  Fall away. (#119)

I clicked Print and watched the printer run, then I stapled the three pages of my story together.  I glanced over it, proud of my little creation, feeling especially clever since I had hidden a secret message in the story.


“Fall Away”
by Gregory J. Dennison, February 1997

Here we go again, I thought, as I opened the door and saw her sitting there, her hair gently blowing in the light breeze.  She was talking with someone I did not recognize.  I wondered how I should react.  It seemed like a little devil and a little angel had appeared on my shoulder, as if in a cartoon.  The former told me to walk on by and say nothing, and the latter told me I should try to be friendly and at least say hello.  I wasn’t sure how to act, since I still had trouble dealing with the time she rejected me.  I have tried my hardest not to be bitter.  I watched her as I walked by.  She did not see me, so I kept right on walking.

Also, over the past few weeks, it seems like she and I have been drifting apart.  We were once such good friends, and I had hoped so much that our friendship would turn into something more.  When I finally got brave enough to ask her out, she rejected me.  It was a friendly and sympathetic rejection, but a rejection nonetheless.   A movie was playing on campus that night, and we had mentioned that we both wanted to see it.  I asked her if she wanted to see it with me, and she said she would, but she had to get up early the next morning.  She did not want to stay out late.  That was kind of the last straw for me.  A couple weeks later, I told her how I felt about her, and she told me she did not feel the same way back.  I decided, though, that our friendship seemed too important to throw away, so I would try to stay friends with her rather than avoid her.

Love never works like that, though.  Another month had passed, and my feelings for her were coming back.  In light of this, I became hesitant to pursue our friendship, because I feared that my feelings would get in the way like they did before.  Also, in the past month or so it has seemed like she and I have naturally drifted apart.  When she and her friends are all together, it seems like they stick together and don’t really include me as much.  I would still consider them my friends on a one-to-one basis, but as a group they seem kind of exclusive.

Every table seemed full as I scanned the room for a place to sit and eat lunch.  I spotted two of my friends next to an open seat, but it looked like they were busy talking about something serious, so I didn’t want to bother them.  I continued looking and saw someone else I recognized, but I heard someone calling my name first.  I looked up and saw a girl who I had met about a month ago, sitting with a bunch of her friends who I barely knew.  She asked me if I wanted to sit down, so I did.

“You look tired,” she said.  I agreed.  I proceeded to get out the lunch I had packed, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a bag of tortilla chips.  After saying a short prayer, I began eating.  I thought about the situation.  I looked at the people around me at the table.  I didn’t really know them well, but they seemed really friendly.  This was also the second time this week that I had sat with them at lunch time.  Maybe this group was destined to become my new friends.

Curious to see what was happening around me, I looked up.  I saw the girl I saw earlier that day, the one who had rejected me.  She was talking to the two friends I had almost sat with.  I looked down, unsure of what to do.  Friendship is a valuable treasure, and I really hate to lose a friend.  But ever since that day she turned down my offer for a date, I have found it so difficult to connect with her.  We had talked a few times in the weeks since that happened, but it never seemed the same as it was before.  We rarely hung out together anymore, and when we talked, it was rarely anything more than hi and how are you.

Her pretty blue eyes looked in another direction, away from my table, as she began walking toward me.  I quickly moved my head down and looked intently at my food for about thirty seconds, so that when I looked up again I could be sure that she was gone.  I began to regret my decision after it happened.  I felt like a really unfriendly jerk.  I wondered what had come over me.  I’m not exactly the most friendly person in the world, but I have never noticed myself consciously avoiding a friend either.

Although I convinced myself after the rejection that nothing would ever happen between us, and I was comfortable with this decision at first, I seemed to feel worse about it every day.  Something had gone wrong.  I had wanted to remove my desire for a romantic relationship with her in exchange for a continued friendship.

Nothing I tried was working, though.  I had discussed my feelings with a close friend of ours.  He had felt the same way toward the same girl at one time.  He finally told her the truth, and although she did not feel the same way toward him, they had grown closer as friends.

None of this happened in my case.  I never told her how I felt about her, but more importantly we have not stayed friends.  I have a really hard time carrying on a conversation with her.  Maybe I should just have a long talk with her, apologize for avoiding her, and let her know that I wish we could talk more like we used to.

I finished eating and decided to go to class some time later.  I made up my mind that I would deal with this situation again as soon as I had an opportunity to talk to her.  A friend is a terrible thing to lose.  God would want me to face my problems and not run from them like this.  

Now, though, might not be the time to stay friends.  It would make it harder for the feelings to go away, for me to get over her rejection.  I did not know what I should do.  As I walked along, thinking about what I really felt toward her, I saw her, sitting at a table eating lunch.  She did not see me.  I started to go talk to her.

Going that way suddenly felt like a bad idea; I took one step toward her and chickened out.  I looked at her, to see if her eyes would drift up in my direction.  They did not.  I had run away from her again, the third time that day.  And somewhere, off in the distance, a rooster crowed.


It was late afternoon on Thursday, and I had been working on this story off and on for a week.  Most of the events in the story actually happened to me.  One day last week, I saw Haley Channing three times during my lunch break at the Memorial Union, and I just could not bring myself to talk to her.  I thought that telling her how I felt two months ago was the best course of action to get over her.  There was an outside chance that she liked me too, but if she did not, at least I would know.  It hurt to hear that, but some things have to hurt before they feel better, like ripping off a bandage quickly.  Things had not gotten better; now I just felt awkward around her, and my rejection felt like another painful reminder of the cliques at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and my position on the outside.

After the third time I ignored her, I thought about Jesus’ prediction that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster crowed.  The title of the story was taken from Jesus’ words preceding this incident: “You will all fall away.”  Peter insisted that he would never do such a thing, but he did, and he heard a rooster crow afterward.  I had just denied Haley three times, and I added the part about the rooster at the end of the story to allude to Peter’s denials.  I did not actually hear a rooster in real life.

The new friend who called me over to sit with her on that day was Alaina from University Life, the college ministry of a different church from the one I went to.  A while back, on another crowded day in the Memorial Union, I was looking for a place to sit.  I saw Ben, an acquaintance who was involved with U-Life but also attended JCF sometimes, and he was sitting with Alaina.  Since then, I had often seen one or both of them at lunch, and I had met some of their other friends.

Two days ago, I took a significant step closer to this other group.  I headed to campus in the evening and paid two dollars for a parking spot in the public lot on Davis Drive near the Barn.  I hated paying for parking.  A daily parking permit cost one dollar my freshman year.  The following year it increased to two dollars for the day, but still one dollar for evenings for people arriving after five o’clock.  This year the price increased to three dollars for the day and two for the evening, and I heard next year it would be three dollars any time.  The cost was increasing much faster than inflation, tripling in three years.  If this exponential increase continued, the cost of a daily parking permit in the year 2021 would be $19,683.  (The actual cost of a daily parking permit in 2021 was twelve dollars, increasing twelvefold in twenty-seven years; I still found that outrageous.)

I crossed the street and walked into Harding Hall, looking for the big lecture hall inside.  I followed the faint murmur of voices down the hall.  As I approached the room, I saw a large sign that said WELCOME TO UNIVERSITY LIFE with a large Christian cross on the left.  The setup looked very much like that of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, with people filling out name tags near the entrance and a live band in the front, probably to play worship music.

“Hi,” the guy with the name tags said.  “What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

The guy wrote my name on a name tag, unpeeled it, and handed it to me.  I stuck it on my shirt in the center of my chest.  I walked into the large lecture hall, looking around for a seat, but before I sat down, I heard someone calling out, “Greg!”

I looked around and saw Alaina waving at me.  “Hey,” I said, walking toward her.

“You made it!  Come sit with us!”  Alaina led me to a seat near the center of the lecture hall, next to her roommate Whitney, our friend Ben, and a few others whom I had met but needed to look at their name tags to remember their names.

The rest of the night at U-Life was structured much like JCF; I would not have been able to tell the difference, other than the presence of different people there.  The group was led by an adult, the college pastor from the church that ran U-Life.  The band played a few worship songs, someone made announcements, the pastor gave a talk about something from the Bible, and they finished with more songs.  I saw a few other familiar faces around the room.  Carolyn Parry, whom I knew from being in chorus last quarter, was in the worship band.  I also recognized another math major named Melissa Becker, several people from my Introduction to New Testament class last quarter and New Testament Writings of John class this quarter, and Rebekah Tyler from my freshman dorm.

I enjoyed U-Life, with the intent to come back some other time.  But I did not want to give up on JCF, even though it was cliquish and I would run into Haley there.  Yesterday, the day after I went to U-Life, I finished writing my story, “Fall Away,” which I had been working on over the last week.  I printed it just now, when I got home from class.  I was still holding the printed copy of Fall Away when my roommate Shawn walked into the room.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s that you’re reading?”

“I wrote a story,” I replied.

“Really?  What’s it about?”

“Something that happened to me last week that I thought would make a good story.”

“Can I read it?”

I debated whether or not to let Shawn read the story.  My desire to share and discuss my work won out over wanting to keep the details of my romantic pursuits private.  I handed Shawn the story as I got out my textbook for Euclidean Geometry and began working on homework.

“‘By Gregory J. Dennison,’” Shawn read aloud.  “What’s the J for?”

“James.  It was my dad’s brother’s name.  He died in an accident before I was born.”

“I’m sorry.  But you have a story to go with your name.”

“Yeah.  And Gregory was after one of my dad’s good friends.”

“That’s cool,” Shawn said.  “My parents named me Shawn because they liked the name.  And they spelled it right too.  None of this ‘Seen’ stuff.”  Shawn had intentionally mispronounced the traditional spelling of Sean as if it rhymed with “mean,” and I chuckled.  “I mean, I know it’s Irish, but hey, do I look Irish to you?”  Shawn definitely did not look Irish; he was born here in the United States, but he was of Chinese descent.  This made me laugh even harder.

Shawn continued reading my story as I turned back to my math homework.  A few minutes later, he said, “That was pretty good.  So there’s a girl you liked, and she didn’t like you back, and you can’t get her out of your head?  And you didn’t want to say hi to her?”

“Pretty much.

“Is it someone I know?”

“Maybe.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t want to say.”

“Come on, you can tell me.”

I had a feeling Shawn might want to know whom the story was about.  I could have told him I did not want to reveal this information, but I had a feeling he would keep bugging me about it.  Besides, my story had a secret, which could make this fun.  “Promise you won’t tell anyone.  Or make fun of me.”

“I promise.”

“I hid a secret message in the story.”

“What?” Shawn said.  I put my math homework aside, watching Shawn’s reaction as he searched for the secret message, looking carefully at the words on the page.  “I can’t find it,” he said finally.

“Read it out loud,” I said with a mischievous grin.

“‘Here we go–’”

“Stop,” I interrupted.  “Now go to the next paragraph.”

“‘Also, ov–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

“‘Love ne–’”

“Stop.  Next paragraph.”

Shawn looked over the entire story, then began reciting the first words of each paragraph.  “‘Here, also, love, every, you, curious, her, although, nothing, none, I, now, going.’  I don’t get it.”

“Try again.  Start from the beginning.

“H–”

“Next paragraph,” I interrupted, as soon as I heard Shawn make a sound.

“A–”

“Next paragraph.”

“L– Oh, wait a minute.”  Shawn flipped the three printed pages back and forth quickly, with a look of understanding on his face.  He had figured out that I was trying to tell him to look at only the first letter of each paragraph, not the first word.  “Haley Channing,” he said.  “It’s too bad she didn’t like you back.  She’s a cutie.”

“Yeah, she is.”

“You know what they say.  Women… can’t live with ‘em…”

“Can’t live without ‘em?” I added

“Can’t shoot ’em,” Shawn replied, finishing a famous comedic quote.

I chuckled.  “I’ve never heard that.”

“Women are always trouble.  If it weren’t for women, O.J. Simpson wouldn’t be in the news all the time.  You heard he lost the civil case, right?”

“Yeah.  And now he owes the families millions of dollars.”

“He totally did it.  He should be in jail.”

“Yeah.”

“Seriously, though, don’t give up.  If something was meant to be, God’ll make it happen somehow.  And don’t let it get you down.  Just live your life.”

“I know.”


Despite Shawn’s advice not to let my romantic failures get to me, I still decided to wear black for Valentine’s Day the next morning.  I did not wear solid black, though; I wore faded blue jeans with the black t-shirt from Urbana that said “What have you seen God do lately?”

The bus was crowded today; the air was damp, the sky was gray, and the weather forecast called for rain by mid-morning at the latest.  No one I knew got on at this stop, although I recognized some people from previous bus rides: a pale-faced guy with a big blond beard, an Asian guy with unkempt hair, and a pretty girl with wavy brown hair and big brown eyes.  When the bus arrived, I was one of the last from our stop to board.  Even though this was only the second stop on the route, the 8:35am bus on a cold, rainy day filled up fast, with over half of the seats already taken.

I looked up and breathed in sharply when I saw the pretty brown-haired girl right in front of me, next to an empty seat.  “May I sit here?” I asked her.

“Yeah!” she replied.  She smiled.

“Thanks.”  The bus stopped once more on Maple Drive, then turned left on Alvarez Avenue and stopped twice more.  I looked up and saw that the girl next to me was looking in my direction, so I turned and made eye contact.  “How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m okay.  Glad it’s Friday.”

“Yeah.  Me too.”

Trying to think of something else to say, as we headed south on Andrews Road, I asked, “What class are you headed to?”

“Bio 101.  It’s really hard.”

“I’ve heard.”

“What about you?  What classes do you have today?”

“Advanced calculus, Euclidean geometry, and New Testament Writings of John.”

“How is that John class? I’ve heard good things about it.”

“It’s good.  I have a lot of friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship in that class too.”

“My roommate and I were talking about looking for a church.”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant,” I said.  “The one right back there, on the right.  And Jeromeville Christian Fellowship too, but that isn’t affiliated with a church.”

“Maybe I’ll check those out sometime.”

“Yeah.  That would be cool,” I said.  “Hey, what’s your name?  I know I’ve seen you on the bus before.”

“Tara.”

“I’m Greg.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” Tara said, motioning to shake my hand.

“Nice to meet you too,” I replied as I shook Tara’s hand.  She smiled, and I smiled back.  Maybe this Valentine’s Day would not be so bad after all.


Author’s note: Did you find the secret message? Have you ever written something with a secret message hidden inside?

“Fall Away” is an actual story I wrote when I was younger. I hope I have grown as a writer since then, because reading it again now, it really wasn’t that good. I only made minimal changes to it for inclusion in this episode, in order to resolve continuity errors between the original story and the way I have told the backstory now.


February 5, 1997. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young. (#118)

I walked toward the church and entered the fellowship hall building, which was called The Lamp.  The building was quiet and empty, much different from Sunday mornings when 20/20, the college Sunday school class, met here.  A small group of people around my age sat in a circle near the middle of the group, reading what appeared to be copies of the same paper.  I recognized most, but not all, of the people in the circle from the college group.

“Greg!  You made it!” Taylor Santiago called out from the circle, motioning me over.

“Yeah,” I said.  “So what do I need to do?”

“Just hang out.  After everyone gets here, we’re going to go over the plan for the night.”

I sat in the circle in between Taylor and a girl with bushy light brown hair whom I did not know.  Taylor handed me my own copy of the paper; it said THE EDGE, 2/5/97 at the top.  Below this was a schedule for the night, along with a discussion outline for small groups at the end of the night, and a list of which students would be with which leaders in these small groups.  I noticed that one group was listed as “Taylor/Greg,” and that this group included Ted, Zac, and Danny, the three students whom I knew.  Taylor had told whomever made this schedule that I would be coming tonight.

“How’s it going, Taylor?” Noah Snyder asked.  I knew Noah from the college group; he and Taylor had been friends since their early teens, before they both came to the University of Jeromeville.  I had also seen his name in the church bulletin with the title “junior high intern”; I thought that meant that he actually got paid part time to have a leadership role with The Edge, the group for junior high school students here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  I was vaguely aware that someone else entered the room during our conversation, but I did not pay attention until I heard a familiar female voice say, “Greg?”

I looked up and saw a girl with straight dark blonde hair standing next to her boyfriend, a stocky, muscular guy a little bit shorter than her.  “Hey, Abby,” I said.  “Josh.”

“Greg?  Are you gonna be an Edge leader?” Josh asked.

“Maybe,” I replied.  “I’m checking it out.  I might be taking Taylor’s spot when he leaves spring quarter.”

“Well, I hope you enjoy it!”

“It’s so much fun!” Abby added.

Across from me in the circle was a tall guy who looked older than me, maybe around twenty-five.  He had short, almost buzzed hair, and a toothy grin; I knew from having been around J-Cov the last four months that this was Adam White, the youth pastor.  “You two know each other?” Adam asked when he saw Josh talking to me.

“Yeah,” I said, although the fact that Josh lived under the same roof as me, and I had no idea that he was an Edge leader, made me wonder if I really knew him at all.  I did not say this, though, because I really did feel bad that I did not know this.  I did not know that Abby was an Edge leader either, and I had known her even longer than Josh.  “He’s my roommate.”

“That roommate you never see who works weird hours?” Taylor asked.  “That’s Josh?”

“Yeah!”

“I never knew that!”

A few minutes later, after everyone had arrived, Noah gathered us to begin the night.  “We have a new leader,” he said.  “Greg, why don’t you introduce yourself?”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’m a junior, a math major.  I’ve been going to J-Cov and 20/20 since October.  But I know a lot of you from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and Taylor was in my dorm freshman year.  Three boys from The Edge decided they wanted to hang out with me a few weeks ago after church, so I’ve been getting to know them.  Taylor told me about how he’s going away for six months, and since I’ve been hanging out with those boys, he asked if I’d be interested in trying out The Edge and taking over his small group for the rest of the year.”

“So they just decided they wanted to hang out with you?” Noah asked.  “Who are they?”

“Ted Hunter, and Zac, and Danny,” I said.  “I don’t know the others’ last names.”

“Danny Foster,” the bushy-haired girl next to me said.  “That’s my brother.”

“Oh, okay.” 

“That’s hilarious that the kids just went out and found you to be their leader,” Adam said.  “I’m Adam.  I’m the youth pastor.  Who else here do you know?”

I looked around the circle, pointing at people.  “Taylor, Noah, Martin, Courtney,” I said.  “Abby and Josh.  And James,” I added, purposely not calling him Barefoot James to his face.  I knew these people either from rom JCF or 20/20, or both, but some of them I did not know were Edge leaders.  The others introduced themselves next; Danny Foster’s sister was named Erica.  A scruffy-looking guy I had seen at 20/20 but did not know was named Brody, and a girl with long dark hair was named Kate.  Finally, a girl with short, chin-length blonde hair introduced herself as Charlotte; I had never seen her before.

“Nice to meet you guys,” I replied.

Noah then discussed the plan for the rest of the night, and when we finished this, he asked if there were any prayer requests.  “I have one,” I said.  “Pray that I will seek God’s will for my life, that I’ll know if working with The Edge is part of it.”

“That’s a good one.  Anyone else?”

Each person in the circle shared a prayer request.  Some were specific, like Taylor’s upcoming mission trip, Charlotte’s midterm, and Kate’s sick uncle; others just asked to thank God for a good week.  We each then took turns praying for the person on our left.  When my turn came, I said, “God, I thank you that Taylor has this opportunity to go to Chicago, to serve you.  I pray that all of those around him will see your love and your message of salvation through his actions and his attitude.  I pray that you will bless him with safe travel, and a good adjustment to a new living situation.”

After everyone finished praying we all looked back up.  “Go love those kids!” Noah said in a way that suggested that he said this every week at this point.

“So what do I do now?” I asked Noah.

“Just hang out.  It starts at 7, but kids will gradually trickle in, and we’ll do announcements at 7:15.  If kids ask you who you are, just tell them.”


Over the next twenty minutes, the room gradually filled with twelve- through fourteen-year-olds of all shapes and sizes.  Of the boys I knew, Ted was the first to arrive.  “Greg!” he shouted when he saw me.  “You’re here!”

“I know!  And I’m going to be in your small group with Taylor.”

“Great!”  Ted saw Danny walk in and motioned for him to come over.  “Danny!” Ted exclaimed.  “Look!  Greg’s here!”

Zac arrived a minute later, and the boys moved on to do something else a minute after that.  I walked around, trying to take in the atmosphere.  Music that I did not recognize played on the speakers, something that sounded like the typical girl-rock of that era, but this singer had a distinct voice, a little bit like that girl from the Cranberries, but not really. The lyrics, and the fact that we were at church, made me think this was a Christian singer.

“Who is this singing?” I asked Taylor.

“Sarah Masen,” he answered.  Yeah, I did not know that one.  Working with The Edge, I learned quickly that there were many, many Christian singers and bands that I did not know.

“Are you a new leader?” I heard a voice say next to me.  I turned and saw a small girl with blue eyes and brown hair looking up at me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m just checking it out for now.”

“You’re tall.”

“Yeah,” I chucked.  “I know.”

“What’s your name?”

“Greg.”

“I’m Samantha.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said.

At 7:15, Adam called everyone to attention, speaking through a microphone.  Around forty students were in attendance.  “Is there anyone new here tonight?” he asked.  Two students walked up to the stage.  I saw Taylor motioning for me to follow them, so I did.

After Adam introduced the new students, he came to me.  “Greg, what’s your name?” he asked.  He had done this for the new students as well, using their names while asking for their names, and the first time, students laughed at this.

“Greg,” I said.

“Where do you go to school?”

“University of Jeromeville,” I answered.  When the new students named their schools, students from that school cheered, but for me, everyone cheered for UJ.

Adam asked the new students a silly would-you-rather question next, and I was no exception. “Would you rather wear shorts in freezing weather or long pants in hot weather?”

“Neither,” I said.  “But if I had to pick, probably long pants in hot weather.”

“Everyone, welcome Greg!”  The students cheered for me again..  When the room got quiet, Adam said that it was time to play a game.  “Tonight, we are going to have a giant rock-paper-scissors tournament!”  Some of the students made excited cheers, while a few groaned in disappointment.  “You just walk to someone, count one-two-three, and then make the sign for rock, paper, or scissors.”  Adam demonstrated the three hand signs, a fist for rock, all the fingers lying flat next to each other for paper, and two fingers extended for scissors.  “Rock crushes scissors, scissors cut paper, paper covers rock.  If you lose, go to the back of the room.  If you win, find someone else who won, and play again.  We’ll keep playing until there are only two people left, and the winner of that final game gets…” Adam trailed off as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the grand prize.  “A five dollar gift card to Lucky!”  During our meeting earlier, I wondered aloud if students would really be motivated by a grocery store gift card; Noah assured me that, to junior high schoolers, the thought of being able to spend five dollars on junk food was major excitement.  The reaction from the crowd when Adam showed them the gift card confirmed Noah’s statement.

A few minutes of mass chaos ensued as students ran off to find opponents.  As a leader, my job was to watch for students who had lost and were trying to jump back into the game.  I noticed one, and when I told him to go sit in the back, he refused, but he lost his next match anyway.  Finally, the group had been winnowed to two: Ted Hunter and a girl named Shawna.  The rest of the students had gathered around either Ted or Shawna, with most of the boys cheering for Ted and most of the girls cheering for Shawna.

“Here we go,” Adam announced.  “This is the final game, Ted versus Shawna.  Ready?  One, two, three!”  Ted placed his hand in the rock position, and Shawna chose paper.  Paper covers rock.  Shawna made an excited exclamation, and her supporters cheered wildly as Adam presented her with the grocery store gift card.

Courtney and Brody took the stage next for announcements, most of which involved the upcoming Winter Camp.  A week from Friday, many of the students would be traveling up to the mountains for the weekend.  In addition to fun activities and Bible lessons, some of the students would visit a nearby ski resort on one of the days, with everyone else staying behind to play in the snow.  In this part of the United States, only high elevations got snow, and most of the population lived in low-lying valleys.  I did not travel to snow regularly growing up, and I had only seen snow three times.  Winter Camp sounded like fun; maybe if I was still volunteering with The Edge a year from now, I would go to Winter Camp.

Adam brought a guitar on stage next for worship, and Abby joined him, along with Courtney and Brody who were already there.  The first worship song was one that I did not recognize; it sounded much more like a children’s song than the worship songs we sang in the college group or at JCF.  Courtney and Abby got on stage to lead the students through hand motions during the refrain of the song.  Many of the students got excited to do the hand motions.  Personally, I thought the hand motions were dumb.  I stood in the back and sang without doing the hand motions.  I had never spent time around Christian youth group kids, so it was surprising to me that these students enjoyed the hand motions and did not find them corny and distracting, like me.  I was glad that they were having fun, though.

After the third song, Adam stayed on the stage, alone, with the microphone.  “How many of you have ever experienced getting picked last for a team?”  A few hands went up.  “How many of you always get picked first?”  A few other hands went up, with murmurs of arguments from some who seemed to disagree with those students’ assessments of themselves.  Adam then read from the First Book of Samuel about God sending Samuel to Jesse of Bethlehem, to choose a King of Israel from among Jesse’s sons.  Samuel saw seven good-looking young men pass by, but God instead chose David, the youngest, who had not been invited to meet Samuel.

Adam then read names of students and told them which small group they were in.  I assumed that someone adjusted the list as students were arriving, since the boys Taylor and I got did not exactly match the list I received at the beginning of the night.

Taylor and I walked with Ted, Danny, Zac, and three other boys to one of the children’s Sunday school rooms, in another building closer to the parking lot.  The boys sat in small child-size chairs around a table, and Taylor sat in an adult-size chair, facing them.  I could not find another adult chair, so I sat uncomfortably in a child chair next to Taylor.

“Have any of you ever been picked last for something?” Taylor asked.

“I hate when they have students pick teams like that,” Zac replied.  “One time, in, like, fourth grade, we were playing basketball in PE, and I got picked last  But I ended up scoring the winning basket.  It was awesome.  It was my only basket too.”

“Was that the game where you accidentally tripped Jonathan?” one of the other boys asked.

“Yeah!  And he got a bloody nose!”

“Why do you think David’s dad didn’t ask him to come meet Samuel?” Taylor asked.

Zac, whose Bible was actually open, said, “Because the rest of his family probably thought there’s no way he would be the king.”

“Yeah.  Pretty much.  David was the youngest.  They just thought he was only good for feeding the sheep.  But what did God see in him?”

None of the boys said anything, so I decided to jump in with a hint.  “It’s right there in the Bible passage we were reading.”

“The Lord looks at the heart!” Danny exclaimed excitedly, pointing at those words in his Bible.

“Good!  Now turn near the back of the Bible, to First Timothy 4:12.  Does anyone want to read?” Taylor asked.

Zac and Ted argued over who would read, then they began reading together.  “Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity.”

“Paul wrote this to Timothy, but he could have written it to you,” Taylor explained.  “Just because you are young, it doesn’t mean you can’t influence the world around you for Jesus. 
King David was young too, and he led the nation of Israel and wrote a bunch of the Psalms.”  

The small group met for a total of about twenty minutes.  We discussed more about God looking at what is on the inside, and young people making a difference for Christ.  We got more distracted as the night went on.  Taylor asked me at the end of the small group time if I would close the night in prayer.  I was not prepared for this, but I figured I could easily wing it.

“Jesus,” I said.  “Thank you for this opportunity to be a leader with The Edge.  Thank you for all of the wonderful students I met tonight.  I pray that all of us will realize that, even though we are young, we still have a role to play in the Kingdom of God.  I pray that we will remember this as we go through the week.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.”


The students and leaders mingled in the fellowship hall after small groups finished. Parents came to pick up students, and when the crowd had thinned significantly, we began putting things back in closets and cleaning the fellowship hall.

“So what did you think?” Courtney asked me as we moved a folding table to a closet.  “Are you gonna come back next week?”

“Yeah!” I said.  “This was a lot of fun!”

“Good!” she replied.

The events of the night replayed in my mind as I drove home, around nine o’clock, and as I worked on math homework for the rest of the night until bedtime.  If The Edge became a permanent activity for me, I would not have time to be a Bible study leader with JCF, as I had thought about doing over the last couple months.  But maybe that was a good thing.  Maybe God wanted me here, working with junior high school students and this friendly group of youth leaders at J-Cov, instead of navigating the cliques that seemed to dominate JCF.  

Since Jeromeville is a university town, many students spend all of their time there interacting almost exclusively with people affiliated with the university. But when I went to church the following Sunday, I realized that I recognized some of the students from The Edge at church.  Danny and Ted sat next to me, and as I was leaving, I saw Samantha, who told me again that I was tall.  I reminded her that she had just told me this on Tuesday, and she replied, “I know.  I’m just in awe of your height.”  I smiled.  At six-foot-four, I towered over this petite young teen by more than a foot, so I guess that was pretty impressive to her. If Samantha wanted to remember me as the tall guy, that was fine with me.  Certainly I could have been remembered for something worse.

I was looking forward to being a leader with The Edge for the rest of the school year, and possibly for longer after that.  I had only been attending Jeromeville Covenant for four months, and I was already making connections beyond the college group, on the other side of Jeromeville not associated with the university.  J-Cov was starting to feel like my new home.


Readers: Are you, or were you ever, part of a church youth group? Or any other type of youth group? What was your favorite thing about your youth group? Tell me in the comments.


February 3, 1997.  Taking inventory. (#117)

I pulled into a parking place at Capital East Mall with Evan Lundgren, Tabitha Sasaki, and two freshmen whom I did not know well in my carpool.  A few weeks ago, the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship staff had asked for volunteers for a service project.  The Nordstrom department store in Capital City took inventory once a year, hiring many one-day temporary employees to help complete the job in a reasonable amount of time.  Some of these temporary employees came from church groups, with the money they got paid going directly to the group.  The money that JCF raised tonight would be used for scholarships to send students on retreats that they might not otherwise be able to afford.

As we walked into the store, I looked around.  I had never been inside Nordstrom before.  “This is definitely fancier than anywhere I shop,” I said.  “So where do we go now?”

“The Customer Service desk in the back of the first floor,” Tabitha replied, pointing.  “Over there.  Follow Eddie and Raphael and Armando posing as Lars.”

We caught up to the other guys from JCF whom Tabitha had pointed out.  I looked at Armando, who Tabitha said was “posing as Lars.”  I had only met Armando a few times; he was one of Lars’ roommates, but he did not attend JCF.  I noticed that he was wearing what appeared to be Lars’ usual pair of Birkenstocks, with a flannel shirt tied around his waist, exactly as Lars would be dressed.

“So why is Armando posing as Lars?” I asked when I caught up to the group.

“Lars had to back out at the last minute,” Armando explained.  “And someone needed to take his place, because we signed up to bring a certain number of people.  So I’m Lars tonight.”

“That makes sense,” I said.  I found it amusing that Armando had gone so far as to dress up as Lars.

“It’s kind of weird experiencing life as Lars, dressed like this,” Armando said.

“Last year, when we did this, I got assigned to lingerie,” Eddie said.  “We got there, and all the guys were like, uhh…”  I laughed.

After we checked in at the Customer Service desk, we were ushered into the employee break room in the back.  We then waited around for half an hour, to give the actual employees time to close the store.  Other temporary employees besides our group were waiting in the break room, and more people trickled in over the next half hour.  I wondered where these other people came from, if Nordstrom just advertised for one night temporary employees off the street, or if they came from groups raising money like we did.

A well-dressed woman stood up in front of the group, welcoming us and explaining how things would work.  Each of us had been assigned to a specific department within the store, and each of us would be paired with a Nordstrom employee.  She explained the procedure for counting, double-checking, and recording the numbers on a form.   “Remember, you’re here to work for the next five hours,” she reminded us after explaining everything else.  “If you finish your department early, you will be assigned to another department that isn’t done yet.  The store is closed, so you’re not here to shop.  If you need a bathroom break, return quickly.  And no unnecessary conversations.”

As soon as she said that last part, I suddenly felt much worse about this night.  Unnecessary conversations were what made tedious nights of menial labor fun.  Oh well, I thought.  I was here to serve God, to raise money for JCF, not to have fun.  And if the night was too terribly miserable, I would remember this and not sign up to work this event next year.

The woman began naming names and telling us to go to different departments, where a manager from that department would give us further instructions.  After a few minutes, she said, “Ramon Quintero, Anna Lam, Raphael Stevens, Greg Dennison, Autumn Davies, and Sarah Winters.  You’re in women’s shoes, on the second floor.”  Women’s shoes.  Good, I thought. No awkwardness of staring at panties and bras all night.

When we arrived at the shoe department, six Nordstrom employees, well-dressed like the manager from downstairs, waited for us.  I looked at them to see who we would be working with.  A middle-aged woman with glasses and hair in a bun.  A slim, straight-haired Asian girl in slacks.  An attractive blonde girl around my age with a sweet smile, wearing a dress that showed off her figure in a way that was flattering but not sleazy.  An older man in a dress shirt, who made me think of Al Bundy from the TV show Married With Children, who also sold women’s shoes for a living.  Two other young adult women whom I did not get a good look at.

“Hi, I’m Cathy,” the woman with the bun said.  “I’m the manager of the shoe department.  Each of you will be partnered with one of us.  I’ll be working with Raphael.  Where are you?”  Raphael raised his hand, and she continued assigning partners as we raised our hands to indicate who we were.  “Sarah, you’ll be working with Jennifer.  Ramon, you’re with Ron.  Greg, you’re with Keziah.”

“Huh?  Who?” I said awkwardly, suddenly startled.

“Keziah,” Cathy repeated.

“Keziah,” I said back, a little confused.  I was expecting someone with a normal name like Jennifer or Kimberly or Amy.  I had never heard of anyone named Keziah before.  As Cathy finished assigning partners, I looked over the six employees, wondering which one was Keziah.  I assumed that Ramon’s partner Ron was the man.

“We’re almost ready to start.” Cathy said after assigning the rest of the partners.  “I’ll show you which aisles you’ll be working on.  Keziah, can you go get the clipboards?”

“Sure,” the attractive blonde said, walking toward the door to the storeroom.  I felt like I had hit the jackpot.  Of course, it was a typically cruel twist of fate that I would be working with a total babe but prohibited from having unnecessary conversations with her. Maybe I could at least impress her by doing a good job.

“I’m Greg,” I said to Keziah after she returned and passed out the clipboards.  “I’m your partner.”

“Hi, Greg!  Nice to meet you!”

“You too!  Keziah, was it?” I asked, pronouncing it like Cathy did with the accent on the middle syllable.  “Is that how you say it?”

“Yeah!” Keziah replied.

“I, um,  just wanted to make sure I was saying it right.”

“You got it!  I know it’s unusual.  I was named after my great-grandma.”

“That’s cool.  It sounds Old Testament.”

“I think so.  I don’t really know the meaning of the name,” Keziah said.  “So are you ready to get started?”

“Sure.”

“We’re over here.”  Keziah led me to our first aisle, where she said, “So we just count the number of boxes on each section of each shelf, and we record it here.  Do you want to count or record?”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Doesn’t matter to me either.  We’ll be trading off anyway.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll start by counting.”  I counted the first two sections, then said, “I feel like I should know who Keziah was in the Old Testament, since I’m here with a Christian group.  But I don’t.”

“Who are you here with?”

“Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  It’s a chapter of an organization called Intervarsity.”

“We have Intervarsity too, I think.  I’ve seen signs around campus.  But I’ve never been.”

“Where do you go to school?”

“Cap State.”

“Oh, okay,” I said.  Keziah did not seem to be a stickler for the rule about unnecessary conversations, so after I counted a few more shelves, I said, “I went to Intervarsity’s national convention in Illinois over winter break, and we all got Bibles with a daily reading plan in the back, to read the whole Bible in a year.  I’m going through that, but I’m a few days behind.  So eventually I’ll learn who Keziah was.”

“That’s cool,” Keziah replied.

We continued counting the boxes on the shelves.  I called out a number, which Keziah wrote on the clipboard.  “What are you studying at Cap State?” I asked when we got to the end of an aisle.

“Early childhood education.”

“Nice.  You want to be a teacher?”

“Yeah.  Hopefully something like second or third grade.”

“That’s cool.  I’m a math major.”

“Math.  Math was always a struggle for me.”

“That’s because you never had me for a tutor,” I blurted out awkwardly.  “I work as a tutor also.”

“You’re probably right,” Keziah said, smiling, as she wrote more numbers.  “What do you want to do with your math degree?”

“I’m not sure.  I’m trying to figure that out now.  We’ve been talking a lot about careers in Math Club.  I just know I like math.”

“If you like tutoring, would you want to be a teacher?”

“I don’t know.  I always thought I wouldn’t, because of all the politics involved.”

“That’s true,” Keziah said as I counted more boxes and told her my totals.  “We need good teachers, though.  I had a really bad teacher in high school who ruined math for me.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.  “So that’s the end of the aisle.  Now we double-check, with you counting instead and me recording, right?”

“Yeah.”  Keziah handed me the clipboard as we walked back to the beginning of the aisle.  All of our numbers matched for the first several sections.  We eventually got to one where we did not match, so we counted a third time, very carefully, until we agreed on the correct count.

“Did you grow up around here?” I asked as we approached the end of the aisle.

“Yeah.  I was born in Pleasant Creek, but we moved to Capital City when I was four.”

“That’s cool.  I’m from Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.   I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times with my family.  I love it there!  Did you go to the beach a lot growing up?”

“Kind of,” I said.  “Mostly when I was little.  It’s usually too cold for the beach, I think.”

“True.  I remember it doesn’t get very hot there.  But it feels nice going there when it’s hot here.”

“It does.  At least at first.”

After we finished that aisle, Keziah and I had three more aisles of shoes to count.  We recorded and double-checked all of our numbers, and we routinely violated the rule about unnecessary conversations for much of that time.  I learned about many things, including Keziah’s most memorable family vacation, her annoying roommate from last year, and why her old math teacher was so awful.  I carefully avoided football as a discussion topic, since she went to Capital State, Jeromeville’s bitter football rival.  Fortunately, no one was there to get us in trouble for talking.

When we finished filling out our final counting form, Keziah said, “That’s it!” 

“Yeah,” I replied.  “And with over an hour left.”

“Good job!”  Keziah smiled and put her hand up, and I high-fived her.  “I get to go home now, and hope to get some sleep before my 9am class.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I have to get up early too.  I knew I wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.  But I think I have to go be assigned to help somewhere else, until we’ve done the whole five hours.”

“Oh, that sucks.”

“But we’re raising more money for our group.”

“True.  That’s a good way to look at it.”

“It was really nice meeting you,” I said.

“Yeah!  Have a good night!  I hope you sleep well!”

“You too!”

I walked back downstairs to the break room, to wait for a new assignment.  I kept thinking about how Keziah had probably walked out of my life forever, and I had just let her go without doing anything.  Should I have said something, or would that have just made things worse and more awkward?

“You okay, Greg?” I heard Sarah Winters’ voice ask.  I looked around; I had been staring off into space, not noticing people around me, while awaiting a new assignment.  Sarah and Angela had also recently finished counting women’s shoes, and Eddie was also there, from another department, waiting for a new assignment.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Just thinking.

The manager from the beginning of the night walked into the room.  “They need four people upstairs in lingerie,” she said.  “I’ll tell them you four are coming.”

“Lingerie,” I repeated.  “Of course it had to be.”

As we approached the lingerie department, walking past aisles of women’s underwear, Sarah turned to Eddie and me and said, “Fix your eyes on Jesus,” chuckling.

Since the actual Nordstrom employees got to leave when they finished their assigned section, those of us who were just arriving in the lingerie department were no longer being paired with an employee.  I began counting bras, but Eddie realized he did not have the correct form, so he went to find the lingerie department manager.

I found a bra on the floor and picked it up.  “Why is this on the floor?” I asked.  “I found a bra on the floor; do we count this?”  Eddie was talking to a manager and did not hear me.  I looked down at the bra that I was holding; it was quite large.  Trying to get the attention of someone who could answer my question, I asked loudly, “I found a 38-DD bra on the floor; do we count this?”

“Greg!” Sarah said from the next aisle over.  “Shhh!”

I did not know what to do with the bra, nor did I find any like it on the rack, so I put it with some 38-C bras that were nearby.  Close enough.  They did not appear to be strictly sorted by size anyway.  Eddie returned, and we began counting bras and writing numbers on the clipboard, focusing on our work and not saying much.  I missed working with Keziah.  She was fun to talk to.  Keziah and I seemed to hit it off well, and now I was probably never going to see her again.  

 By the time we finished counting the bras, it was almost time to leave, and most other departments had finished as well.  We returned to the break room to wait for everyone else to finish, and once Tabitha, Evan, and the rest of my carpool had arrived, we walked back to the cars.

“How’d your night go?” Evan asked as we walked toward my car with the others in our carpool.

“Good.  I got a really friendly partner who wasn’t too strict about the no-talking rule.”

“That was nice that you guys got to talk.  We didn’t.”

As I drove across Capital City and crossed the river back into Arroyo Verde County, the rest of my car was quiet.  Since it was very late at night, and most of us had classes in the morning, the others used the twenty-five minute ride back to Jeromeville to doze off, giving me time to ruminate on the events of that night.

I felt like I had missed an opportunity.  I had enjoyed talking to Keziah, getting to know her, and now I would probably never see her again.  I wished I knew how to ask her out.  I wished I knew how to ask if we could be friends and stay in touch.  The obvious answer of just telling her would not have worked for me.  I would have found a way to make it awkward and uncomfortable just by trying to be honest; being awkward just came naturally to me.

Also, if I did that, it might become public knowledge that I liked Keziah, which felt like it would be too embarrassing to deal with.  Seven years ago, in middle school, I admitted to Paul Dickinson that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and I was mortified over the next couple months to learn that many other people knew that I liked Rachelle.  Back then, I imagined people making fun of me for thinking that I had a chance with Rachelle, just as people now might hypothetically make fun of me if they found out that I liked Keziah.  I had no chance with a girl like that, so I should just forget about her.

Keziah probably did not like me back anyway.  She probably had her pick of all the big men on campus at Capital State and had no need for an awkward guy from the other side of the Drawbridge.  Maybe we were doomed from the start, with Jeromeville and Capital State being such bitter football rivals.  I also had no idea whether or not she was a Christian.  I kept hearing from JCF and the college group at church that I should only be dating Christians, because relationships should be built on a solid foundation of faith.  Also, Christian women were less likely to be involved in things that I found unattractive, like excessive drinking or promiscuity.  I was probably better off not pursuing Keziah romantically.

But, as I dropped off everyone in my carpool and headed back to my apartment, I could not help but wonder if I was selling myself short.  Maybe Keziah and I would have been compatible after all.  Maybe I was making too many assumptions.  Either way, I would never see her again, and she would become another missed opportunity to toss on my ever-growing pile of regrets in life.  I went to bed, with my alarm set to go off in less than five hours, hoping to sleep off the stench of failure.


Readers: Tell me in the comments about someone you wish you could have stayed in touch with.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post. Nordstrom, Inc. was not involved with the creation of this post.


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.

December 18-26, 1996.  A time of firsts. (#112)

“What is that on the tree?” I asked, laughing, because I knew exactly what this new Christmas ornament was.

“Your brother made that,” Mom said, rolling her eyes.

Back in the 1990s, the tallest player in the National Basketball Association was seven-foot-seven-inch Gheorghe Muresan, of the team known then as the Washington Bullets.  My brother Mark loved basketball and played on the school team, and he thought Gheorghe Muresan was fascinatingly odd-looking.  Mark apparently cut a photo of Gheorghe Muresan out of a magazine, attached an ornament hook to it, and hung it on the Christmas tree.

“But why?” I asked.

“Why not?” Mark said, laughing.

“Good point.  Hey, is that a Nintendo 64?”

“Yes,” Mom answered.  “It was Mark’s early Christmas present.”

“Can I get a turn when you’re done?” I asked Mark.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Whatever.”

I took my bags to my bedroom.  I had finished final exams a few days earlier, and Christmas was about a week away.  I spent a lot of time that week playing the new Super Mario game on Mark’s Nintendo 64.  The previous Mario games had been two-dimensional platform games, in which Mario moved side to side and jumped on things.  This one was three-dimensional, with a thumbstick controlling Mario from the first person, and I had more difficulty with it.  It was still fun, though.

The week went by quickly.  I got my dad a Grateful Dead calendar for Christmas, as I always did, and I got Mom the new book in Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone series, M is for Malice.  I got Mark a calendar of NBA players, which he put on his wall and then ignored.  The calendar still displayed January 1997 well into 1999, and when I asked him about it then, he complained that he never used calendars.  I never got Mark a calendar again.

We had fewer presents to open this year. Mark had already gotten his Nintendo 64, and a few days after I got home, Mom took me shopping for my early Christmas present. We bought a jacket, a beanie, and comfortable thick socks, since I was going to be spending the week after Christmas in a colder climate. On the ride home from the mall, Mom made small talk.

“How many people do you know who will be at Urbana?” she asked.

“I don’t know.  Quite a few.  But it’s such a huge convention, and I don’t know where everyone will be.  Eddie Baker told me we might not even see each other.”

Next, Mom started naming specific school friends whose names she remembered.  “What’s Brian doing for Christmas?” Mom asked.

“Going to his parents’ house in Valle Luna, then going to Urbana.  Since he’s a staff member, he has to work there, but I don’t know what he’s doing.”

“Okay.”

“He left the apartment on Sunday.  When he left, he said, ‘I’ll see you at Urbana!’”

“What’s Eddie doing for Christmas?  Seeing his family too?”

“Yeah.  In Sunnyglen.”

“Did he tell you, ‘I won’t see you at Urbana?’”

“No,” I laughed.




Usually, the evening of December 25 was a time to relax and unwind after a long day of being around relatives.  But this year was different; Mom and I spent the evening packing.  I would need a minimum of six changes of clothes besides the clothes I would put on in the morning, so I put seven changes of clothes in my suitcase just in case.  I also packed my new jacket, beanie, and socks.  In my backpack, I put a notebook, a few pens, and my Bible.  Mom suggested that I move one change of clothes to the backpack and use it as carry-on luggage, just in case I got stranded in an airport somewhere.  I was not familiar with this concept of carry-on luggage, but I figured out what she meant.

It was close to midnight by the time I finally got to bed and set my alarm for 4:30.  Tonight was not looking like a restful night.  I was too excited and overwhelmed to fall asleep quickly, and I got less than four hours of sleep that night.  Hopefully I would be able to sleep on the plane, but since I had no concept of what an airplane trip was like, how uncomfortable or noisy it would be, I was not sure.

We left the house a little after five o’clock, which got us to the Bay City airport around seven.  The flight left at 8:30, and although going through airport security did not take nearly as long in 1996 as it does now, I still wanted to be there in plenty of time.

I did not know how to plan an airplane trip.  Tabitha Sasaki had said a few months ago that she wanted to get a few people to go in together on a flight and hotel room, and she had done all the planning; I just gave her money.  The convention did not start until the morning of the 27th, so today, the 26th, would be a travel day, ending in a stay at a hotel.

The Urbana convention, hosted by Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, was named after its location in Urbana, Illinois.  Thousands of Christian young adults would descend on Urbana this week to learn about opportunities to serve Jesus around the world.  Shuttle buses for Urbana attendees would pick up students from the airports in Chicago and Indianapolis, each about a two-hour drive from Urbana.  We were scheduled to arrive in Indianapolis in the early evening, after changing planes in St. Louis.  I had never been that far east before.  I also had no memory of ever having been in an airport, so basic airport concepts like checking bags, going through security, waiting at the gate, and showing a boarding pass were completely foreign to me.  Mom says that I was on an airplane once as a baby, but I was too young to remember that.

“Which airline are you taking?” Mom asked as she turned off the freeway to the airport entrance.  Bay City International Airport was very large, with different airlines served by different terminals.

“TWA,” I replied.  Mom followed the signs to the terminal for TWA and found a place to park in a short-term parking garage.  Mom followed me inside the terminal, then asked, “Who are you supposed to be meeting here?”

“Tabitha said to meet near check-in.  Is that there?” I asked, pointing toward the long desk and longer line of travelers waiting to check bags and get boarding passes.  As we approached, I noticed a round-faced Asian girl with chin-length black hair standing not too far off and said, “There’s Tabitha right there.”

Tabitha saw me as I walked toward her.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “We’re still waiting for Leslie and Lillian.”

“Mom, this is Tabitha,” I said.  “Tabitha, this is my mom, Peggy.”

“Nice to meet you,” Tabitha said, shaking Mom’s hand.

“You too,” Mom replied.

“Do I have to get in that line?” I asked.  “I’ve never done this before.”

“You’ve never been on an airplane?” Tabitha replied.

“Once when I was a baby.  But I don’t remember it.”

“Oh, wow!  Yeah, we’ll have to check our bags there.  I figured the line doesn’t look too long, so we can wait until everyone gets here and all stay together.  There’s Leslie.”

“Hey, guys,” Leslie said, walking toward us.  “Is everyone here?”

“We’re still waiting for Lillian,” I said.

After I introduced Mom and Leslie, Mom said, “I still have to drive all the way back to Plumdale and work today.”

“I think you can go now,” I said.  “I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure?” Mom asked.

“Yes.”  I knew that Mom was going to worry the whole time I was traveling, but she also seemed to be subtly complaining about having gotten up early.  I had found my traveling companions, though; I was ready to continue on my own.

“Okay,” Mom said.  “Call me from the hotel room when you get there.”

“I will.”  I gave Mom a hug and watched as she walked away.


Lillian arrived a few minutes after Mom left, and we boarded the flight to St. Louis without incident.  We rode a very large aircraft, with ten seats in each row broken into three sections by aisles.  The four of us were all near each other, although not immediately adjacent.  We had one window seat among the four of us, on the left, and being a map and geography geek, I was quite interested in seeing the United States from thousands of feet in the air.  I reminded everyone that I had not been on an airplane in almost twenty years, and that I was too young to remember my other airplane trip, so they were willing to let me have the window seat.  I decided that I would be nice and not push for the window seat on the return trip.

We took off over the Bay, and I could see Oaksville and other sprawling suburbs spread out on the other side of the Bay against the hills.  It took only a few minutes for the airplane to fly over the hills, and by the time we reached the Valley on the other side, I could spot Jeromeville in the distance, although it was too far away to identify any landmarks.

Beyond the Valley, the land below the airplane became mountainous.  Vast stretches of this terrain was high enough in altitude to be covered with snow.  It was beautiful; I had only seen snow up close twice in my life at this point.  After we had been in the air for about forty-five minutes, a layer of clouds appeared between the airplane and the ground.  I had never seen this perspective, with clouds stretched out below like a puffy carpet, but I soon got bored at staring at the clouds, since there were no features to identify.  I began dozing; I was still tired from having awakened so early this morning.

When the clouds cleared, I could see a highway interchange on the brown land below me, but I had lost all my bearings by this point and had no idea where I was.  The land was mostly featureless, and the trip was not close to being over yet.  I still looked out the window for a long time, seeing an occasional road or building below, before nodding off again.

Our plane touched down in St. Louis in mid-afternoon, although it felt like lunch time since we lost two hours because of time zones.  “Which way are we going now?” I asked Tabitha as we emerged into the airport gate.

“Follow me,” she replied, looking at her boarding pass.  We walked down a row of gates and found the one for the next leg of our flight.  It was not far from where we were, and our next flight did not leave for an hour and a half, so we went to find overpriced fast food for lunch.

“Did you say someone else we know is going to be at our hotel?” Lillian asked.

“Yes!” Tabitha replied.  “So many people from Jeromeville will be at our hotel.  We’ll probably hang out with them later tonight.”

“That’ll be fun,” I said.  With so much around me at the moment that was unfamiliar, in light of Eddie’s comment about how we might not see anyone we know at Urbana, I definitely felt relieved that others I knew would be at the hotel.

Boarding the flight to Indianapolis was much like the experience of boarding the other flight from Bay City to St. Louis, but the inside of the airplane was much different.  This plane was smaller, with only six seats across and one aisle down the middle.  The flight itself was also much shorter, so I did not have time for a nap.  I sat in a middle seat, so my view out the window was not as clear as on the first leg of the flight, but as the plane headed east, I noticed more and more snow appearing on the ground.  By the time we landed in Indianapolis, the entire ground was covered in a few inches of snow for as far as I could see in any direction.  I wondered if the ground in Indiana and Illinois was continuously covered in snow all winter.  I mentioned to the others while we were waiting to get our luggage that I had never seen so much snow in my life.

“Really?” Leslie asked.

“We’re definitely not home anymore,” Tabitha said.

We caught a shuttle bus to the hotel.  The driver seemed completely unfazed by the snow.  I would have been panicking, driving in the snow like that, wondering if I needed to put chains on the tires, but people who lived in this climate apparently knew how to drive in snow.  There did not seem to be snow accumulating on the roads, probably because the snow was not currently falling and cars had been driving on the road all day.

I was the only guy in our travel group, so Tabitha had booked me in a separate room.  After we checked in, I went to my room and lay on the bed.  I spent the next hour or so attempting to nap again.  Although the clock said it was dinner time, I was not hungry, since I had just eaten a fairly large lunch, and my body was still on West Coast time and felt like it was earlier.

At around quarter to eight, Tabitha knocked on my door; Leslie was with her.  “We saw Scott and Amelia in the lobby earlier.  We’re all going to meet now to watch Friends.  You wanna come?”

I was not expecting to have a major quandary on this trip.  In an effort to keep from alienating myself from all of the people I had met at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had hidden from them the fact that I did not watch Friends.  Since I was on a school holiday, it had not even crossed my mind that today was Thursday, and that Friends would be on tonight.  I had never actually seen the show, so I could not really say that I hated it, but the show was extremely popular, and I got the impression from commercials and hearing people talk about the show that it was not my thing.  However, could I really have a well-formed opinion of the show without having watched it?  I also did not want to pass up an opportunity to see my actual friends here in this unfamiliar, snow-covered landscape, so I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Sure.”

I followed Tabitha and Leslie upstairs to a hallway that looked identical to the one on my floor.  They knocked on a door, and Amelia answered.  “Hey,” she said.  Then, noticing me, seeing me for the first time in two weeks, she said, “Hi, Greg!  How are you?  How was your Christmas?”

“Good,” I replied.  “Just the usual stuff with my family.  My brother got a Nintendo 64, so that was fun.  How was yours?”

“Nice.  But I spent most of yesterday packing, so I wasn’t around my family as much.”

I walked into the room, where about a dozen people had packed in on the beds and floor, including Amelia’s boyfriend Scott, Lillian from our flight, Melinda Schmidt, Joe Fox, Alyssa Kramer, Autumn Davies, Leah Eckert, and others.  I made small talk with some of the people in the room for a few minutes until the show started.

As I watched the six New Yorkers on the screen talk about their lives, careers, and sexual partners, I realized exactly why I disliked the show.  I found all of them completely unrelatable.  The show had some moments that made me chuckle, but so much of the plot revolved around relationships and sex, for which I had no frame of reference.  They reminded me of the stereotypical cool kids who excluded me and got what they wanted through morally questionable means.  I wondered why so many of my Christian friends were so attached to a show with characters behaving in a way that contradicted the Bible’s teachings about sexuality.  I hoped that the others in the room did not live like Rachel and Ross and Joey and all the annoying people on the screen.  But I kept quiet and watched the show; now was not the time to start an argument.  And now that I had watched the show, I knew for sure that I did not like it.


I looked out the hotel window before I went to bed that night and watched snow fall lightly on the parking lot for a few minutes.  When I woke up in the morning, the snow was clearly deeper than it had been yesterday.  I bundled up, wearing my new jacket and beanie, and met Tabitha and the others in the lobby at the time we had discussed, to wait for the shuttle bus.  After we boarded the bus, it took a little over two hours to travel west through the snow-covered rolling hills to the campus.

I was excited for what was coming.  This winter break had been a time of firsts.  Back home with my brother was my first time playing Nintendo 64.  Now, this trip was my first time being on an airplane, at least in my memory; my first time in a different time zone; and my first time in Missouri and Indiana.  This morning, as I saw a sign out the bus window that said “ILLINOIS STATE LINE,” I added a third new state to this trip.  It had also been my first time watching Friends, an experience I had no particular desire to replicate.  Once I arrived on the campus and stood in line for registration, receiving a bracelet as a convention attendee, I knew that this would be a unique experience opening my eyes to new firsts that God would show me in the upcoming years.

(To be continued…)

The actual wristband from 1996. Photo recreated using my 2021 wrist.

Author’s note:

Hi, friends! I’m back… my break from writing was a little longer than I thought it would be, mostly just because life got in the way. During the break, I started another blog (click here) to write about other things, or to write about writing, or to share other creative works besides my continuing story. I’m not planning to post there on any schedule, but you can subscribe if you want updates from me. Also, I wrote a couple of guest posts for other blogs; I will share the links here when they get published.

This Urbana trip was the farthest I had been from my home in the western US at the time, but as of 2021, the farthest I have been from home is Kittery, Maine, on the US East Coast about an hour drive north of Boston. The story of that trip will be told in Just Take The Leap, a sequel to Don’t Let The Days Go By that I plan on writing someday, years from now.

What is the farthest you have been from home?

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.


Mom found the Christmas ornament and put it up this year.

Early December, 1996.  We were all just kids. (#111)

When I was growing up, no one ever taught me anything about girls or dating or relationships or anything like that.  My parents had been married since before I was born, but they were not visibly affectionate with each other, and my dad spent all his time working, so I never had a healthy relationship to watch and emulate.  And since I did not know how to tell a girl that I liked her, the way to act in a relationship or marriage was a moot point for me.

When I got to the age where I started paying attention to girls, my parents would sometimes notice and point out my behavior in a teasing and humiliating way.  At age thirteen, my friend Paul Dickinson noticed that I had been paying attention to a girl at school named Rachelle Benedetti, and he asked me if I liked her.  There was no teasing or judgment in Paul’s question, unlike what I had experienced from my parents, so I admitted that, yes, I did like Rachelle.  Shortly after that, it felt like the whole school knew, and that was inherently embarrassing to me even if I was not actively being teased for it.  Because of that, whenever I liked a girl, I kept my feelings a closely guarded secret.  I had learned by now that a girl was not going to walk up to me out of the blue and ask to be my girlfriend, so now I was twenty years old, I had never had a girlfriend, and I did not know how to change that.

I had known Haley Channing for almost a year now.  I met her one night after Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, when I was upset and had a lot on my mind. Two guys, Eddie Baker and Xander Mackey, asked me what was wrong, and they ended up inviting me to hang out with them and their friends.  Haley was there that night.  She had pretty blue eyes, a cute smile, and a kind heart.  We had gotten to be friends since then, but I just did not know how to tell her that I wanted to be more than friends.

A couple weeks ago, I thought I had a chance.  I was mingling with people after JCF, and for a brief moment, I saw Haley sitting not too far away and not talking to anyone.  I walked up to her and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Haley replied.  “How are you?”

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

“I’m doing okay,” she said in a tone that suggested that everything was not exactly okay.  Haley had lost her mother to cancer recently, and Thanksgiving was next week.  My go-to small talk that time of year was to ask people their plans for Thanksgiving, but I figured that it might be best to avoid that topic with Haley this year.  “What are you up to?” she continued.

“Just looking for something to do,” I said.  JCF met on Fridays, and people often hung out afterward, playing games, eating, or watching movies in room 199 of Stone Hall, a large lecture hall that was converted into a second-run theater on weekends.   I became unusually brave and floated an idea, saying, “Mission: Impossible is playing at 199 Stone tonight.  I was hoping people might be going.”

“I haven’t seen that!  I want to!”

“You want to go?”

“I would, but I have to get up early in the morning,” Haley said.  “Maybe another time?”

“I understand,” I said.  I did not end up seeing that movie until months later, on a rented VHS tape, and I ended up just going home that night.

A while later, a few days after I got back from having Thanksgiving with my family, I was walking through the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit and study in between classes.  It was cold outside, so the indoor tables were crowded.  I saw Haley sitting with Kristina Kasparian talking to Janet McAllen from JCF staff.  A fourth seat at their table was open. 

“Hey,” I said, walking toward the open seat.  “Mind if I sit here?”

“Actually, we’re working on Kairos group planning,” Janet explained.  “Sorry!”

“Oh.  That’s okay.  I guess I’ll see you guys later.”

“I’ll see you Friday?” Haley said.

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Actually, no.  Friday is our concert for chorus, so I won’t be at JCF.”

“Oh, that’s right!  Have fun!  I’ll be at church on Sunday, I’ll probably see you then.”

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

I walked across the Memorial Union, unable to find a table, and ended up sitting cross-legged against a wall.  The Kairos group clique strikes again.  The Kairos ministry within JCF involved small groups designed to prepare students for leadership in ministry.  The students from each year’s Kairos group would lead a group the following year, handpicking the students in their group.  From my outsider perspective, the main purpose of these groups seemed to be the establishment and perpetuation of cliques.  I thought it sent the wrong message, especially since many of the friends who were part of my best University of Jeromeville memories so far were in the cliques and I was not.  And I could not help but wonder if these cliques were the reason things were not working out with Haley.

A few days later, back at the Memorial Union, I saw Eddie Baker eating lunch by himself outside on a picnic bench.  I did not particularly want to eat outside, it was sunny but not very warm, but I was also in the mood to socialize.   Also, Eddie was a Kairos group leader, and I had not talked to him as much this year.  “Mind if I sit here?” I asked Eddie.

“Go ahead,” he replied.  “How are you?  Getting ready for finals?”

“I’m getting there.  We also have the concert for chorus tomorrow night.  This is my first one, I don’t really know what to expect, but I think I know the music by now.”

“That’ll be fun!  Scott and Amelia are in that too, right?”

“Yeah.  And Jason Costello too.”

“Well, good luck with that!”

“How have you been?”

“Just busy with school and JCF.  You’re going to Urbana, right?  Are you excited?”

“Yes!  I can’t wait to see what it’s like.  I don’t know that I’m ready to pack up and go serve God in another country, but I know a lot of you guys do stuff like that, and I want to find out more about what’s out there, so I know how to support people who do mission trips.”

“That’s a good way to think about it,” Eddie said.  “There’s gonna be so many people there.  Twenty thousand students all worshiping God.  We might not even see each other.”

“I know,” I said.  The thought of being thousands of miles away and not seeing my friends who were also there was a little disappointing, but maybe it wouldn’t be like that after all.

“How’s life other than that?” Eddie asked.

“Well…” I said.  I debated how much to tell him, and eventually decided to say everything except her name.  “There’s this girl I would really like to get to know better.  But I just don’t know how.  I’ve never been good with girls and dating and stuff like that.  I’m starting to think that maybe I need to just tell her how I feel, and let her reject me, so I can just move on.”

“I think we all know how that feels,” Eddie replied.  “Is it someone from JCF?”

“Yeah, it is.”

“I have an idea who it is.  Do you mind if I ask?” Eddie asked.

I did not expect this question.  I trusted Eddie, and I did not think he was going to make fun of me, but I still was not used to sharing these secrets with others.  “I guess you can say it,” I said, “but I don’t know if I want to admit whether or not you’re right.”

“That’s fair,” Eddie replied.  “I think it’s Haley.”

Apparently subtlety was not one of my strong points, I thought.  I wondered how many other people knew.  But if Eddie had figured it out, there was no point in hiding this from him.  “Yes, it’s Haley,” I said.  “Please don’t tell anyone.  How did you know?”

“I’ve just noticed the way you act around her sometimes,” Eddie explained.  “And remember that night at JCF, right after her mother passed?”

“Yeah.”

“I noticed the way you kept trying to talk to her.  That was kind of unusual.”

“I just saw someone I cared about upset, and I wanted to make sure she knew that I was there for her if she needed to talk.”  I did not understand what was so weird about that, although I do remember some of the others who were there that night acting like I was intruding on something.  I had assumed it was because I was not in their clique.

“I’m gonna be honest with you,” Eddie said.  “I really liked Haley too, freshman year.  We hung out a few times.  I told her how I felt, and she didn’t feel the same way back.”

“Aww,” I said.  It felt weird knowing that Eddie used to like Haley too.  Maybe every guy at JCF liked Haley.  I would had no chance with all of that competition.

“But talking about it, being honest with her, that was good.  I feel like we grew closer as friends after that.”

“Interesting,” I said.

“If you do tell her how you feel, I know she’ll appreciate the honesty.”

“That’s good to know.”


The next night was the concert for chorus, and I spent most of Saturday studying for finals.  Sunday morning at church I went to 20/20, the college Sunday school class, before the service, and I had a hard time concentrating because Haley was there.  I could not stop thinking about her all weekend.  I had to know if I had a chance with her.  Ever since she turned down my offer to see the movie, with the ambiguous caveat of “maybe another time” which never happened, I felt like I could not continue not knowing.  With JCF done for the quarter, and finals and winter break coming up, this may be the last time I saw her for a month.  I knew that if she was here at church today, that would most likely be my last chance.  All morning, I had been playing in my mind how I would approach her and what I would say, which made the teaching of Dan Keenan, the college pastor, difficult to follow this morning.

After 20/20 ended, as people were standing around the room and gradually trickling out headed toward the main building for the regular service, the opportunity presented itself.  Haley stood by herself about ten feet away from me, and I knew that I had to go for it now, or else I would hate myself through my entire winter break for not having said anything.

“Haley?” I asked as I approached her.  “Can I talk to you?”

“Sure,” she replied.  “What’s going on?”

“Can we step outside, away from everyone?”

“Yeah.”  Haley walked outside a few feet away from the entrance, and I followed her.  “What’s going on?  Are you okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.  I…” I trailed off, trying to remember the conversation I had rehearsed many times.  “I’m really glad I met you last year.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know you, and I’d really like to get to know you… as more than just a friend.”

Haley thought for a few seconds, apparently processing what I said.  She probably was not expecting to hear this.  “Greg,” she said.  “You’re a really nice guy.  But I just don’t see you that way.  Please don’t be upset.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “I had a feeling you didn’t feel the same way.  I just felt like I needed to know for sure.  Like, if I never said anything, I’d never know.”

“It’s okay.  I’m glad you said something.  And I hope you meet the right person soon.”

You’re the right person, I thought.  And you’re standing right in front of me.  If you really meant that, you would give me a chance.  But then I realized that maybe Haley was not the right person after all.  If she was, then we would both feel the same way.  “Thank you,” I said.  “And I meant what I said before: I know you’re going through a rough time right now, and I’m always here if you need to talk.  Even if we are just friends.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.”


The next morning, Haley’s rejection felt like a dark cloud hanging over me as I got out of bed, showered, and dressed.  The t-shirt I ordered with the logo for the upcoming Urbana ’96 convention had arrived in the mail on Saturday, and I wore it for the first time that day.  I went to campus and took my final for Advanced Calculus, and even with the rejection still on my mind, I felt like I did well on the exam.

After the exam, I left Wellington Hall and crossed the street to the Memorial Union, looking for a table where I could study.  I saw Eddie sitting at a table talking to Raphael Stevens, his roommate.  Todd Chevallier and Ajeet Tripathi, two sophomores from JCF, were also there.  I walked over as I heard Ajeet say, “Man, I need more coffee.  I was up way too late last night.”

“Yeah,” Eddie replied.  “Maybe last night was a bad idea.”

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“How are finals going?” Raphael asked.

“Good.  I just got out of Advanced Calculus; I think I did well.”

“Advanced Calculus,” Eddie repeated.  “Just saying those words stresses me out..”

“I think I’ll be ok.  I’ve been studying.”

“Studying!” Todd said.  “That’s what we were supposed to be doing last night.”

“What happened last night?” I asked.

“We invited Ajeet and Todd and their house to our house for a study break,” Eddie explained.  “We ended up watching movies until around two in the morning.”

“Wow,” I said.

“I’d invite you to sit down,” Eddie explained, “but there isn’t really room at our table.  You could pull up a chair, if you could find one.”

“That’s okay,” I replied.  “I should probably go study anyway.  I’ll see you guys around.”

“Yeah. Good luck with your final.”

“Bye, Greg,” Todd said.

Apparently I had been left out of something else now.  I would have come over to Eddie and Raphael’s study break if I had known about it.  I scanned the room, still looking for an empty seat; I found one at a table next to a tall guy with brown wavy hair who looked familiar.  I had seen this guy somewhere before, but I could not remember where.  A large girl with long, straight brown hair sat with him.  I walked to them and asked, “You guys mind if I sit here?”

“Go ahead,” the guy said.  “I don’t remember your name, but you go to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, right?”

“Yes,” I said.  Apparently this guy had seen me around before too.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m Ben,” he said.  “And this is my friend Alaina.  We go to U-Life, but I also go to JCF occasionally.”  University Life was another large Christian student group on campus.

“Okay.  I knew I had seen you somewhere before.”

“How’s your finals week going?” Alaina asked.

“Pretty good.  I just got out of Math 127A, and I have Math 128A tomorrow.”

“Those sound hard.  What’s your major?”

“Math.”

“That makes sense,” Ben said.

“Are you going to Urbana?” Alaina asked, noticing my shirt.

“Yes!” I said.  “It’s going to be overwhelming, but I’m excited.”

“A couple of our other friends are going.  I’ve heard good things about it.”

“Yeah.  I’ve never been to Illinois.  I’ve never even been that far away from home at all.  It’ll also be my first time on an airplane, at least as far as I remember.”

“Wow,” Ben said.

“My mom says I was on a plane once as a baby, but I don’t remember it,” I explained.

“Sounds like you’ll have a great trip,” Alaina said.

I did not do my best at concentrating on my studies that day.  I was still thinking a lot about Haley’s rejection, and about everything that my friends were leaving me out of.  I also talked to Ben and Alaina a bit, who I noticed were definitely not a couple.  They seemed like nice people; maybe they could be a new group of friends for me.  I wondered if University Life had the same problem with cliques that JCF did.


I stayed in Jeromeville for a few days after finals ended.  I had three weeks off, and taking a few days off in my apartment, reading, going for bike rides in the Greenbelts, and staying up late talking to girls on Internet Relay Chat was worth having a little less time with my family.  Although I did fine on finals, I felt like the quarter ended on a bad note, considering the conversation with Haley and all of the times I was left out.  I now knew that Haley definitely did not feel the same way about me that I felt about her.  In theory, now that I knew, I would be able to move on, but it did not always feel so easy in practice.  I still felt like I had failed.

As for the cliques, I was probably not being intentionally singled out every time.  Eddie and Raphael’s study break, for example, was a last-minute unplanned thing, and those two households just happened to be right around the corner from each other.  The most likely reason I was not invited was because I lived on the other side of town.  But I also felt left out in that they did not invite me to be roommates with them in the first place.  I thought that living with Brian and Shawn this year would help, since they were not only part of the in crowd but older.  It did help in some ways, like when they invited me to toilet-paper Lorraine.  But Brian spent a lot of his spare time applying for medical school, and Shawn was busy with student teaching, so they were less social than in previous years.

Looking back on these days as an adult has given me a bit of a different perspective on what was going on.  The Haley situation was not at all a failure on my part.  Sometimes one can do everything right and still lose.  Sometimes someone is just not interested in someone else like that.  Over the course of my life, I have been on both sides of those conversations many times.  Being rejected is just a part of life, not necessarily a sign of failure.

I was still bothered by the cliques within JCF.  But, ultimately, I was not involved in JCF to be one of the cool kids; I was there to learn about God and serve him.  I had the trip to the Christian student convention in Urbana to look forward to; hopefully I would learn more about how God wanted me to serve him, and stronger relationships with peers could come out of that. 

It took me years to realize this, but when I look back, I have to remember that we were all just kids back then.  Being rejected, being left out of groups, those are common to most young people, no matter where they are or which God they claim to worship.  As a newly practicing Christian, I saw many of my Christian friends as very mature spiritually, because they had grown up more involved in church than I had been, or because they spent their summers doing service projects in other countries.  But true maturity often comes with age and cannot be forced.  Eddie and many of the other key individuals in leading me to Christ were the same age as me in school, twenty or twenty-one years old.  Brian and Shawn had each just turned twenty-three.  On the JCF staff, Cheryl was twenty-five, and Janet and Dave, the oldest of my spiritual mentors, were twenty-eight and thirty respectively.  As an adult, I know plenty of people that age whom I would not consider mature.  Many of my JCF friends were more mature than average, of course, but being between twenty and thirty years old, they still had a lot to learn themselves, just as I did.  And over the next several months, as my third year at UJ continued, I would learn much about myself, and life, and God, and much of that learning would come from unexpected sources.


Author’s note: This is the mid-season finale for year 3, so I’ll be taking a break for a month or so. I will probably make an interlude post or two, maybe revise the Dramatis Personae page or organize the site, maybe do some supplemental projects, but there won’t be another episode of the main story for a while.

What do you think about the events of Year 3 so far? Does anyone have any predictions about what will happen to character-Greg, or any of the other characters, in the rest of Year 3? As always, if you’re new here, you can start with the first episode here and read all 111 episodes in order, or you can read the summary and abridgement for Year 1 and Year 2., then start from the beginning of Year 3.

October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent. (#106)

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.