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.

Late October, 1996. Together with You, I will look for another sea. (#105)

Previously, on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg attended Jeromeville Covenant Church for the first time.  Many of Greg’s friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attend that church, and it was the first time Greg had ever attended a church that was not Catholic.  Greg, not wanting to go to a new church just because all his friends were there, decided to go to both churches for three weeks and pray about it before making a final decision…


On October 16, three days after my first Sunday at Jeromeville Covenant Church, I got back to my apartment in the late afternoon and brought my backpack upstairs.  I had checked the mail on the way in, and all we got was junk mail.

When I got to my bedroom, I took out of my backpack the bag from the campus store, where I had bought two birthday cards earlier.  My brother Mark was turning 15 this coming Saturday.  I took his card out of the bag; it had a basketball on the front, and on the inside, it said, “Hope your birthday is a slam dunk!”  I was hoping to find a good fart or poop joke card for Mark’s birthday, but I only found one such card at the campus store today, and I was saving that one for the other upcoming birthday in my family.  Mark played basketball, so I went with the basketball card instead.  I wrote on the inside, “Happy birthday! — Greg.”  I put a stamp on the outside and wrote our home address; I would drop it in a mailbox in the morning.

The card with the fart joke was for my dad, who would be turning 47 at the end of the month.  That card said on the outside, “Farting is an art,” written inside a giant brown cloud of gas.  On the inside, the card said, “Happy birthday, Rembrandt.”  I did not fill out Dad’s card yet, since I still had a while before his birthday.

I turned on my computer and opened a new email, one I had been dreading sending all week.  I had been involved enough with the Newman Center that, if I started going to J-Cov, my disappearance from Newman would be noticed.  Among the adults who run things at Newman, Sister Mary Rose was probably the one I knew the best, so I at least felt like I should tell her what was going on.  I started typing:


To: maryrose11@aolnet.com
From: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Subject: wondering

Hi… I need to talk about something.  As I’ve said before, I’ve gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last year.  Many of my friends from JCF go to Jeromeville Covenant Church, and last Sunday I went to church with them.  I really liked it there.  I feel like it is a place where I can really study the Bible and learn what it means to live for Jesus.

But I also do not want to turn my back on 20 years of Catholicism and everything I was raised with.  I don’t want to start going to J-Cov just because all my friends are doing it.  So I decided to go to both churches for the rest of October, while I pray about this.  I just wanted to let you know what was going on.  Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated.

gjd


The rest of the week went well.  I only had one class Thursday, so I had scheduled four hours of tutoring for my job with the Learning Skills Center.  On Friday, all of my closet met.  I walked into room 2 of Wellington Hall, a lecture hall with around 200 seats, for New Testament, and sat in the back.  A minute later, Margaret Seaver walked in and sat next to me.

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

“Not much.  Glad it’s Friday.  I’m tired.”

“How come you haven’t been at choir practice at church the last couple weeks?  Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I explained to Margaret that I had been to J-Cov and was wondering if the Newman Center was really the right place for me.

“We’ll miss you in choir,” Margaret said.  “But I understand.  And I think it’s good that you’re taking your time and not just rushing off to follow your friends.”

“Yeah,” I said.

When I got home from classes that Friday, I had an email from Sister Mary Rose.  I opened it and read.


To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
From: Maryrose11@aolnet.com
Subject: Re: wondering
Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996 11:03 -0700

Greg,

What you are experiencing is called a faith crisis.  Sometimes God puts us in situations where we really have to listen to Him for answers.  Keep praying about it.  Say a rosary.  Listen for God’s voice.  And let me know if you ever want to meet to talk about this more.  Don’t feel bad about this experience.  Many wise spiritual leaders have experienced faith crises and come out stronger in the end.

I think you are wise to take your time and try out both churches for a while, not wanting to base your decision on what your friends are doing.  We would be sad to see you leave Newman, after all of your involvement here.  But wherever you go, keep following Jesus.  He will never lead you wrong.  You will definitely be in my prayers.

Sister Mary Rose





On Sunday, since J-Cov only had morning services, I did the same thing I had done the week before.  I attended J-Cov in the morning for their service and the college Sunday school class, which they called 20/20.  I felt the same way about J-Cov as I did the previous week: I loved the Bible teaching, and everyone there made me feel welcome.

The Newman Center had two Masses in the morning and one in the evening, so I had been attending the evening mass at Newman during this period of going to two churches.  I had been with the choir at the late morning Mass for over a year, so last week, the first week I attended evening Mass, it felt a little strange not to be with the choir.  I recognized a few faces from social events where people from all three services attend.  The Newman Center was a student-focused congregation, but some families attended the morning services as well.  There seemed to be an even higher percentage of students at the evening Mass.

As Mass began, Sister Mary Rose stood up front and announced that this was El Salvador Sunday.  Jeromeville had a sister city in El Salvador, and the Jeromeville Newman Center once a year updated the congregation on what was happening at the Catholic church in that city, with a second collection taken for that church’s needs.  “Their roof is in need of repair,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “The second collection today will go to their repair fund.”

The choir began singing a song in Spanish, I assumed because it was El Salvador Sunday.  The song was unfamiliar to me, not a direct translation of anything we normally sang in English.  I did not know most of the people in the evening service choir, since I normally attended the late morning service.  I missed singing at the late morning service, and I felt bad for saying that I needed a few weeks off.

After the opening song, we said the Kyrie and sang the Gloria in English as we always did.  The lector approached the podium for the Old Testament reading next, but before she began, she said, “Today’s readings will be said in Spanish only.  As you listen to the words, put yourselves in the position of a refugee, in a strange land where you don’t understand the language.  Remember the plight that they go through, as you sit here comfortable in your surroundings.”

What the actual crap?

God loves refugees.  God commands us to take care of foreigners, because his people were foreigners in strange lands in the past.  I know that.  But this was a bit ridiculous.  Now, in the middle of Mass, was not the time for this kind of political posturing, and this was not the way to draw attention to the plight of refugees.  What kind of church would deny its congregants the opportunity to hear or understand the Word of God in order to make us feel guilty for what God has blessed us with?  Of course, had this happened at Jeromeville Covenant, I would have had my Bible with me, but typically Catholics did not bring Bibles to Mass.  Back home at Our Lady of Peace, we used a missalette, a publication issued three times per year that had all the Scriptures and prayers for that time period, but the Jeromeville Newman Center did not use this.  People just listened to the words being read.  This was looking less and less like a church where I could learn more about the Bible.  I recognized a few words here and there, but my three years of high school Spanish were not enough for me to understand everything from these readings.

After the Old and New Testament readings in Spanish, Father Bill read the Gospel reading and gave his homily in English.  I was not sure if Father Bill or Sister Mary Rose even spoke Spanish, for that matter.  

Later, during Communion, the choir sang a song called “Pescador de Hombres,” literally meaning “fisher of men.”  I had heard this song once before, last year when we did El Salvador Sunday.  We sang two verses in Spanish, then one verse in English.  The refrain was sung in two-part harmony, with one voice singing a third higher than the other.  It reminded me of the music I would hear on Spanish-language radio stations when flipping around looking for something to listen to.

I remembered some of the words of this song from last year.  The lyrics took the perspective of one of Jesus’ early disciples, who were fishermen when Jesus called them.  The first disciples left their boats and fishing gear behind and followed Jesus.  “Junto a ti, buscaré otro mar,” the choir sang at the end of each refrain.  I understood those words; they meant something like “together with you, I will look for another sea,” with “you” in this line referring to Jesus.  When the choir switched to English for the last verse, they sang “next to you, I will seek other shores,” the same meaning but with the correct number of syllables to fit the song.

I will look for another sea.  I will seek other shores.  Was that me?  It certainly felt like those lyrics were speaking to me.  Jesus seemed to be calling me to look for another sea, one where I could learn to follow him instead of being caught up in a shallow faith of political posturing and memorized rituals disconnected from the life I live the other six days of the week. Maybe I needed to be around people who did not find it acceptable to get tipsy from Communion wine and joke about it, as that girl from the early morning service had a few months ago.

After Father Bill dismissed the congregation and the choir finished the closing song, I sat in my chair for a few minutes, watching everyone else file out.  I had committed myself to attending both churches for three weeks before I made a final decision, but after last week and this week, I felt like the right decision was becoming clear already.  Unless something changed drastically in the next seven days, Jesus was calling me to look for another sea, and that other sea appeared to be Jeromeville Covenant.

“Hey, Greg,” I heard a familiar voice say next to me.  I looked up to see a thin, short-haired guy my age.  It was Sean Richards, one of a very small number of Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “What’s up?” Sean asked.

“Just thinking,” I said.  “The last two weeks, I’ve been going to church at Jeromeville Covenant in the mornings.  I know a lot of people there from JCF, and so far I like it there.  But I don’t want to leave Catholicism and start going there just because all my friends are doing it.  So I’ve been praying about it, and I decided to go to both churches for the rest of October before I make a final decision.”

“That’s probably a good idea.  What made you want to look at Jeromeville Covenant?”

“I’ve been more involved with JCF and studying the Bible more.  I’m just not sure I’m going to find that in Catholicism.”

“You could always try getting involved in one of the small groups here,” Sean said.  “They do Bible studies in those groups too.  But I know JCF has good Bible studies.  I’ve been going to a JCF Bible study this year.”  I knew of the existence of small groups at Newman, but I was not sure exactly what happened in them.

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’m going to keep praying about it and see what happens.”

“That’s a good idea.  And either way, you’re still following Jesus, and that’s what’s most important.”

“Yes.”

“I’m gonna get going.  Have a good week, okay?”

“Thanks.  You too.”


The following Sunday, October 27, was my dad’s birthday.  I called my parents after I got home from J-Cov, and Dad said that they all loved the birthday card.  Mom was already calling Dad “Rembrandt” every time he farted now.

Sometimes, when I have to make a big decision, I will feel confused for weeks or months at a time.  Other times, I just kind of know what the right decision is.  And in those times when I think I just know, it can be difficult to discern whether this knowledge is truly the Holy Spirit guiding me or just something I want for selfish reasons.  This time, I was pretty sure I knew what the Holy Spirit was saying.  I had committed to going to both churches for the rest of October, but the evening Mass at the Newman Center that night just felt like it was not my thing anymore.  That night was the last night I ever took Communion in a Catholic Mass.

I did not make a complete break with Catholicism, however.  To this day, I still attend Catholic Mass when I visit my family on Christmas.  I believe that the different branches of Christianity have much in common and should focus on this more than the things about which they argue.  I believe that the Catholic rituals are rooted in deep and meaningful experiences of worship, and I believe that it is possible for a Catholic to have a personal relationship with Jesus.  However, this aspect of faith is not emphasized in Catholicism, so many who consider themselves Catholics do not actually know Jesus.  I no longer take Communion when at Catholic Mass, out of respect for the fact that Catholics only offer Communion to other Catholics.  I also had a small scholarship from the Santa Lucia County chapter of the Italian Catholic Federation, and I turned down the money for the following school year, since I did not feel right taking their money not being Catholic anymore.

My mother never had a problem with me going to churches that were not Catholic.  She told me that Grandma was a bit suspicious at first, because Grandma was raised in a time of more tension between Catholics and Protestants.  When I got involved with JCF and decided to go to their national convention in Urbana, Grandma told Mom that she was worried that I was joining a cult.  But then, according to Mom, Grandma mentioned Urbana to one of her old lady friends, who then said that her son had attended an Urbana convention in the 1960s.  Grandma was okay with Urbana now that it had the Old Lady Friend Seal of Approval.

When I walked into 20/20 for the first time in November, I walked up to Taylor and Pete and Charlie, who were standing and talking.  “Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  “Wait, weren’t you just doing your thing at both churches for October?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And I decided I’m here for good now.”

“Nice!”

“We’re glad to have you here,” Pete said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’m glad to be here.”

I attended Jeromeville Covenant Church for almost five years, right up until I moved away from Jeromeville in July of 2001.  I stayed in touch with many people from J-Cov for many years, some of whom I am still in touch with today.  I got involved with a ministry there that had never been anything I ever thought about doing; I will tell that story soon.

In 2001, shortly before I moved and left J-Cov, we voted to buy a larger property about five miles away on Bruce Boulevard, at the eastern edge of Jeromeville.  I came back for the first service in the new building two years later.  After I moved out of Jeromeville, I came back to visit J-Cov once or twice a year through the rest of my twenties.  I was very involved with another church in my thirties, so for a while  I never made it back to visit J-Cov.  But twice in my forties so far I have had occasion to attend a Sunday service at J-Cov.  These days, there are not many people whom I knew who are still around, but there were still enough that it felt like coming home.

October 13, 1996. I might be looking for something new. (#104)

I knew exactly where I was going.  I had seen this place many times while driving or riding my bike along this stretch of Andrews Road.  But I had never been back here, down the long road leading to the parking lot in the back of the property.  I walked toward the buildings, in my polo shirt, Dockers, and brown leather shoes, wondering if I was overdressed, wondering if I was underdressed, and hoping that I would not see anyone I knew.  Of course, that last statement was irrelevant, since I would see many people I knew once I entered the building, but one of those people at least was expecting me here this morning, so that felt a little bit safer.

I walked from the parking lot toward the buildings.  The walkway headed straight toward what looked like the main building, with another building on the left, one on the right, and one farther away on the left with a door propped open.  A free-standing bulletin board next to the walkway said WELCOME TO JEROMEVILLE COVENANT CHURCH on the top.  From Taylor Santiago’s description of where to go, I guessed that the building with the open door was where I was going.  I turned off of the sidewalk and walked across the lawn and around a tree to get to that building without having to interact with anyone, at least not until I got inside and saw some familiar faces.  The whole time, I kept looking around in an uneasy fashion, wondering if I should really be here, if I really belonged here.

Having explored Christianity from the non-Catholic side over the last year, I had come to notice that Catholics and Protestants have a lot in common beyond what they argue over.  And I never liked the word Protestant.  I knew the origin of the term from high school history class, but it seems kind of wrong to name one’s religion after a protest when the focus should really be on Jesus.  These days, I heard my Catholic friends use the word Protestant more often than my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and that made sense from the historical context, since the Catholic Church was the one being protested against.

A small sign on the wall next to the open door said THE LAMP, and a signboard on the walkway next to the door said “20/20 COLLEGE GROUP” with an arrow pointing inside the door.  Taylor said something about a lamp when he was describing how to get here, but he seemed to be talking about buildings.  I was confused, because buildings are not lamps, but apparently that was the name of this building.  I was not sure why this building was called The Lamp.  I assumed it was some kind of Bible reference, like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about not hiding a lamp under a bowl, so that your light will shine before others.  I also was not sure why the group was called 20/20; Scott Madison had told me once that he thought it was because they wanted to see God clearly with 20/20 vision. 

I shifted the Bible I carried, the one Kristina Kasparian had given me in January, from my right hand to my left, and I reached out to open the door, awkwardly forgetting that it was already propped open.  I put my hand down, hoping no one saw that, and stepped inside.  I recognized many of the forty or so people inside either from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship or from a party in August that people from my Bible study had invited me to.  Taylor was here, along with Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, Liz Williams, and Ramon Quintero, all of whom I had known since the beginning of freshman year.  I also saw people I recognized from JCF.  Scott, his roommate Joe Fox, Scott’s girlfriend Amelia Dye, her roommate Melinda Schmidt, and Joe’s girlfriend Alyssa Kramer.  Sophomore housemates Todd Chevallier, Brent Wang, and Ajeet Tripathi.  Eddie Baker.  Martin Rhodes, Noah Snyder, and a girl named Vanessa, all of whom I met at the party in August.  Haley Channing, whom I had really hoped to see here.  And others.  Taylor was across the room, talking to Pete; he had not noticed my arrival yet.  Before I could get Taylor’s attention, I heard someone calling me.

“Hey, Greg,” Liz Williams said, sitting at a folding table just to the left of the entrance and writing my name on a blank adhesive name tag.  “I’m glad you’re here.”  She peeled the name tag off of its backing and handed it to me; I stuck it to my shirt.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I’m kind of nervous.  I don’t really know what to do.”

“Just hang out for now.  Or go find a seat.  Dan over there, he’s the college pastor.  He’ll get us started in a few minutes.”  Liz gestured toward a man with reddish-brown hair in a button-down shirt who appeared to be in his thirties.  I recognized that name; he just got married in August, and many of the students in this college group who were home for the summer came back to Jeromeville for the weekend to attend his wedding, and the party in August that I got invited to was an after-party for the wedding.

“Greg!” Melinda Schmidt said.  “Can you be in a skit?  Someone bailed on us.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“It’s an announcement for our fall retreat.  All you have to do is stand in the background.  Martin and Vanessa will be talking about it, and Vanessa will be using a bunch of words that start with M that all have to do with the retreat.  And in the background, four of you will be leaning against each other making ‘mmm’ sounds and saying M words.  You’ll be back to back with Todd, which works out perfectly since you’re both tall.”

“I’m confused.”

“It’s just something silly that came up when we were planning announcements.  So just stand making ‘mmm’ sounds.”

“Is this how you treat everyone who shows up here for the first time?”

“Wait,” Melinda said.  “This is your first time?”

“Yes.”

“Really?  You’ve never come to 20/20 before?”

“No.  I know you from JCF, not from here.”

“Well, then, welcome!  If you really don’t want to do the skit, you don’t have to.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said.  After being in the Scooby-Doo skit a couple weeks ago at the first JCF meeting of the year, this might be kind of fun.

This group called 20/20 was the college group here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  I had heard some of my friends talk about this group, and it sounded like this Sunday morning time was more like a Sunday school class.  The group was more than just a class, though, because they also sponsored activities, like this retreat that the skit was reminding students of.

“Hi,” the man whom Liz had identified as the college pastor, said as he approached me.  “I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Dan Keenan.  I’m the college pastor here.”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’ve never been here, but I know a lot of people here from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.”

“Oh, ok.  Do you go to another church now?”

“I’ve been going to the Newman Center.  My mom’s side of the family is Catholic.  But there are some things going on there that are making me want to look elsewhere.”

“Oh yeah?  Like what?”

“Since I started going to JCF, about a year ago, I’ve been learning more about the Bible and what it means to know Jesus.  And sometimes I feel like I’m not really getting that at Newman.  But I also don’t want to just follow what my friends are doing.  So I’m going to go to both churches for a few weeks and pray about things.”

“That’s a good idea,” Dan replied.  “Keep praying, and listen to where God wants you.  I have to go, it’s time to start, but it was nice meeting you.  I hope to keep seeing you around.”

“Thanks!  Nice meeting you too.”

I turned around as people began sitting in the rows of folding chairs facing the stage on the side of the room to the left of the entrance.  “Greg!” I heard Taylor say, from a seat one in from the aisle in the middle, with the seat next to him empty.  “I saved you a seat!”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting in the open seat in the aisle.  “Melinda roped me into being in a skit for the announcements.  Do you know when that’ll be?”

“Wow.  Jumping right in.  Probably after the first song.  You’ll figure it out.”

“Okay.”

Pete was on stage with his guitar, along with Sarah playing flute and a few others.  Pete announced to the whole room, “Welcome to 20/20.  If you could find a seat, we’re gonna get started with worship.”  They began by playing “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High,” a song that was familiar to me from JCF.  Afterward, Melinda and four others approached the stage; Melinda approached me to follow.

I stood back to back with Todd, with our feet apart, leaning back against each other, and Liz and a girl I did not know stood next to us in the same pose, so that the four of us formed a large letter M.  Martin and Vanessa walked up, trying to figure out what we were doing, as the four of us in the M started saying random M words.

“Moose,” Liz said.

“Milk,” Todd said.

“Macaroni,” the girl I did not know said.

“Macarena!” I added, doing the hand motions from the song and dance popular at the time.

“What’s all this?” Martin asked.

“It looks like an M,” Vanessa replied.  “And you know what else starts with M?  Mountains.  And Messiah.  And Matthew, who wrote about the life of Jesus.  And if you sign up for our fall retreat, you can go to the mountains, and learn about the Messiah, and read from the book of Matthew.”  The two of them continued bantering about the retreat, with more details revealed in their conversation.

I sat down after the M skit, feeling a little dorky but mostly positive about the experience.  After the band played a few more songs, Pastor Dan got up and told us that we were in a series studying the book of Ephesians.  Dan held a stack of handouts for today’s lesson; he bent the stack of papers in a sort of U shape and tossed them toward us, so that they fell all over the room.  People scrambled to grab a paper.  If any of my teachers in school had ever passed out papers like that, school would have been much more awesome.

While Dan taught the lesson, I noticed people taking notes.  I had not brought anything to write with, but people passed around a box of extra pens in case anyone needed one.  I had never taken notes in church before.  I could keep these notes in my Bible and reread them during the week when I was spending time reading the Bible and praying.

The class ended about fifteen minutes before the actual church service started.  There had been another service early in the morning for the people who like to get up early.  People stood around mingling until it was time to head to the main building.  I said hi to a few other people I knew, wondering which of them realized it was my first time here.  No one brought it up.  Eventually I walked in the general direction of Haley Channing, hoping to catch her in a moment where she might notice me and talk to me.

“Hey, Greg!” Haley said as I approached.  “What’s up?”

“It’s my first time here,” I said.  “I might be looking for something new, and I wanted to check it out.”

“I was wondering about that.  I didn’t think I remembered seeing you here last year.  Are you coming to big church too?”

I was not familiar with this term “big church,” but I guessed what she was asking from the context.  “You mean the main church service?  Yeah.”

“Come on.  Let’s walk over,” Haley said.  Yes, let’s do, together, I thought.  We left the Lamp and walked toward the main building.  “How’s your school year going?” Haley asked.

“Good so far.  I like all my classes.  And I like chorus too, although it was a little overwhelming at first, not being as experienced with music.”

“That’s right.  You’re doing chorus this year.  I did it freshman year, but I just can’t fit it in to my schedule anymore.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it every quarter.”

Haley and I sat about halfway back from the stage, just to the left of the aisle.  The main church building (or the “sanctuary,” as most non-Catholics would say, as I eventually learned) was shaped like an elongated hexagon, with a stage at the far end.  The pews were slanted toward the center, closer to the front of the building on the sides and closer to the back in the middle.  The sides of the building were covered in wood panels with tall, narrow frosted windows every ten feet or so.  Behind the stage on each side were larger frosted windows, made to look like stained glass, but probably made from plastic.  Above was a tall vaulted ceiling.  The pews were cushioned, an improvement over the bare wooden pews of the late 19th century Our Lady of Peace Church that I grew up with.

“How are your classes going?” I asked Haley.

“Good!  A lot of work, though.  It’s hard to juggle time for everything.”

“I know how that is.  I think that’s just life as a student.”

“Yeah.”

The church service began much like 20/20 or a JCF meeting, with the band playing worship music.  I recognized some of the songs, but I was not sure how to react to the music… Do I stand?  Do I sit?  Do I dance around and clap my hands?  Do I raise my arms to heaven?  Some people at JCF raised their arms and clapped, but not everyone.  No one did that at the Newman Center.  Here, a few people did, but not as many as at JCF, so I stood with my arms at my side.  It was more comfortable that way.  Sitting would have been even more comfortable, but most people were standing, and I wanted to respect the God that I was worshiping.

The pastor was an older man in a suit named Jerry.  He reminded us that it was time to take an offering, and that guests should not feel obligated to give.  “First time guests, you received a contact card in your bulletin on the way in,” Pastor Jerry added.  “Please place it in the offering bag.”  I found the contact card inside my bulletin.  In the back of the pew ahead of me were pencils for people like me who did not bring one; I filled out my name, address, and phone number, and checked the box that it was my first time.  Under “Prayer Requests,” I wrote, Pray that God will show me where he wants me to go to church.  The band played one more song, and I put the card in the offering bag when it came to me.  The bag was a metal ring about four or five inches across with a handle, with a bag of dark fabric attached to it.  I had never seen an offering bag before; Our Lady of Peace used baskets on poles about six feet long that the ushers wave in front of seated parishioners, and the Newman Center passed a plate.

Pastor Jerry’s sermon was much longer than the eight minute Catholic homilies I was used to.  Inside the church bulletin was a page outlining the main points of the sermon, with blanks to fill in.  I saw people around me taking notes, so I followed along and filled in the blanks also.  The sermon was based on a passage in the Second Book of Kings, in the Old Testament, where Josiah, one of the good kings, tears down places of idol worship.  This was a much more in-depth look at the Scripture than anything I had experienced in Catholic Mass, more along the lines of my small group Bible studies with JCF, but less interactive.  I also did not know much about the Old Testament so far, particularly the parts telling the history of the people of Israel.

After the sermon, which lasted more than half an hour, Pastor Jerry led the congregation in a brief prayer.  The band came up for one more song, and then Pastor Jerry dismissed us.

“I have to go,” Haley said.  “I’m so behind on studying.  But I hope you liked it!”

“I did.  I really liked that sermon.  The temples to the idols had been there so long, they were just a normal part of life.  It makes me wonder what normal parts of our lives there are that are dishonoring to God.”

“I know!”

“Anyway,  I’m going to go to both churches for a few weeks and pray about it.”

“Great!  I’ll see you around!”

After Haley left, I started heading toward the entrance.  A skinny mousy-looking man with a mustache, who had been one of the ushers handling the offering bags earlier, was carrying the bags out of the building.  “Hi,” he said to me.  “Did you give to the Lord today?”

I was a bit caught off guard by this statement.  “It’s my first time,” I said.  I felt justified in saying this, since the pastor said first-timers did not have to give, and I fully intended to begin giving regularly if I started attending church here regularly.

“Are you sure the Lord isn’t calling you to give anything?  Every little bit helps.”

At this point, I just wanted to get rid of this guy, and I had nothing against giving to God, so I put a five-dollar bill in one of his bags.  He thanked me and headed toward one of the other buildings, which apparently housed the church office.

“Hey.  It’s Greg, right?” a voice said behind me.  I turned around and saw Noah.

“Yeah,” I said.

“How did you like it here?  Will you be back next week?”  I told him the same thing I told Haley about going to both churches for a few weeks.  “I’ll be praying for you.”

“Thank you,” I said.


Later that afternoon, during a study break, while my roommate Shawn was out running or cycling or doing one of those athletic things I was no good at, at least not at a competitive level like him, I got out my Bible and read the part about Josiah again.  Some Christians consider the Catholic Mass to be idol worship, and the Pope to be the Antichrist.  I would not go that far, but I have noticed many Catholics who are so disconnected from their faith that parts of their lives that do not bring honor to God are just normal parts of life to them, much as the places of idol worship had been to Josiah and his contemporaries.  Was there anything in my life that was a false idol like this?  Was I following false idols by worshiping in the Catholic Mass?  Or were all of my friends at Jeromeville Covenant and 20/20 false idols for me, because being with my friends would distract me from true worship?  Was I just following my friends instead of actually following God?  And what about that pushy usher?  Was he going to be a problem?  Was everyone there like that?

As a senior in high school, I started going to church more often after I discovered that a girl I liked from school went there.  Maybe that meant that Haley was the idol, and I only wanted to go to J-Cov to see Haley.  But by the time I graduated from high school, it had been made clear that nothing would happen between me and that girl, and I remember still going to church but hoping I would not see her.  Maybe the same thing would happen with Haley, that she would initially be part of the reason I came to J-Cov, but I would end up discovering a life there beyond her.  Or maybe, hopefully, God really did want me and Haley to be together.  I was still planning on going to the evening Mass at the Newman Center tonight, and keeping up this schedule at least through the end of October, so that I would not make a hasty decision.

“Lord Jesus,” I prayed out loud in a low voice, “I pray that, just like the college group at J-Cov, you would give me 20/20 vision to see clearly where you want me to worship you.  I pray that the next few weeks of going to both churches will be a time of learning and growth.  I pray that your Holy Spirit will give me wisdom to find a place where I can truly grow closer to you in fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.”

And hopefully God heard my prayer, because ever since that girl from the skit had said “macaroni” and that had made me think of Macarena, I could not get that song out of my head.  It was distracting.

(To be continued…)


Note to readers: Have you ever had a time when you had to make a difficult decision like this?

Also, I haven’t updated the dramatis personae for year 3 yet. I’ll put it on my to-do list for the week.

And finally, in real life it’s my birthday!

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus. (#102)

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

August 1-3, 1996. Another group, one that included people I did not know. (#95)

The final two weeks of my summer class, Introduction to Software, overlapped with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  I wrote code as I watched Muhammad Ali on the television climbing the stairs with the Olympic torch to light the flame at the opening ceremony.  While I was debugging my project, looking through hundreds of lines of code to find mistakes, gymnast Kerri Strug was landing a nearly-perfect vault despite having sprained her ankle on her previous attempt.  Her remarkable feat won the gold medal for the United States in the women’s team all-around competition.  And I was taking a break from studying, trying to meet girls on the Internet using IRC, while American runner Michael Johnson won gold in the 400 meters, but I was keeping an eye on the other American in the race, Alvin Harrison.  He and his twin brother, Calvin, had spent part of their high school years in Santa Lucia County, where I grew up; after these Olympics, my brother met both of them at an autograph-signing event.  Alvin Harrison finished fourth in this race, but would go on to win gold as part of a relay team.  Both brothers were on a winning relay team in the following Olympics, but unfortunately were later disqualified as part of an incident involving performance-enhancing drugs.

From the moment I walked out the final exam, I knew that I did well.  Everything was very straightforward, and I had been studying, so there were no surprises.  After I dropped off my backpack at home, I went for a bike ride, then I showered, took a nap, and made dinner  After that, it was time to go to Bible study.  I did not get to watch any of the Olympics that night.

Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of the nondenominational campus ministry organization Intervarsity, did not have regular meetings during summer break, but two small group Bible studies still met, one in the Pine Grove Apartments near campus and one in south Jeromeville on the other side of Highway 100.  I drove on Maple Drive toward campus for about a mile and turned onto a cul-de-sac which dead-ends into the parking lot for Pine Grove.  I parked on the street, walked to Lillian’s apartment, and knocked on the door, and someone told me to come in.

“Greg!” Lillian said as I walked into her apartment with my Bible.  Amelia Dye, who lived in a different apartment in Pine Grove with her cat who had the birthday party, had arrived before me.  So had Ramon, Jason, and Caroline, friends from my freshman dorm who all lived near me.  “How are you?” Lillian asked.  “Have you had your final yet?”

“It was today,” I said.  “I think I did pretty well.”

“Good!  So no class tomorrow?”

“No.  I only had class this summer on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.”

“Four day weekend every week!” Amelia said.  “And now you’re done for the summer, right?  No class second session?”

“Right,” I replied.

“Any big plans for the weekend?  Are you going to Dan and Adrienne’s wedding?”

I paused as my brain tried to process what Amelia had just asked me.  Did Amelia have me confused with someone else?  Apparently some people named Dan and Adrienne were getting married this weekend, but I did not know these people.  Or did I?  If I did know these people, they never told me about their wedding.  Was I supposed to receive an invitation?  “I don’t think I know these people,” I said.

“Dan Keenan?  From 20/20?  The college pastor?”

With this additional information, my brain began making connections.  Students at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a few different churches on Sundays, and I had heard some of my friends who attended Jeromeville Covenant Church use the name 20/20 to refer to the college-age Sunday school class.  “From Jeromeville Covenant?” I asked Amelia.  “I’ve never been there.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Amelia said.  “I guess you don’t know them.  I’m so excited for the wedding!”

“A lot of people will be in town for the wedding,” Ramon added.  “Liz is coming up for it, and the Morocco team gets back tonight, so they’ll be there too.  A bunch of us will be hanging out afterward.  I’m sure you’re invited, if you want to come.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds good.  Where?”  Ramon told me the address, and I wrote it down.  “What time should I get there?” I asked.

“It depends on how late the wedding reception goes.  But if you show up by eight or nine, someone will probably be there by then.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll stop by.”


Two days later, I sat in my apartment watching the beginning of the Saturday evening broadcast of the Olympics.  Ramon had said to show up by eight or nine; it was now just past eight o’clock, and I sat on the bed staring at the paper on which I had written what Ramon had told me: 1008 Walnut St.  I did not know whose house this was, and I had never been to Walnut Street, although I had easily found it on a map earlier.  I was excited to see my friends, especially the ones who had been away for the summer, but they were all coming from a wedding reception, and I did not want to be the only one there waiting for everyone else.  I played around on the computer wasting another half hour chatting on IRC before I left the house.

Walnut Street was in an older part of Jeromeville, in between my apartment and Pine Grove.  The neighborhood was all single-family homes, and it was not readily obvious at first whether they still housed families or had been converted to student rentals.  Tall, leafy oaks and sycamores provided shade.  The house at the address I wrote down had lights on in the living room, and there were so many cars in front that I had to park a few houses down the street.  My fears about being the first one to arrive at an unfamiliar place were apparently unfounded.

I walked up to the door slowly and knocked, hesitantly.  “Come in!” someone shouted from the living room.  I opened the door and walked inside, looking around.  I saw a few unfamiliar faces on the couch.  I could see into the kitchen, where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing around talking, but they did not see me yet.

“May I help you?” the same voice who told me to come in asked.  It belonged to a girl with light brown hair.

“Some people from my Bible study told me that a bunch of people were in town for a wedding,” I explained.  “They said that they would be hanging out here afterward.”

“Yeah!  That’s us!  Were you at the wedding?”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t know the people who got married.”

“I’m Vanessa,” the girl said.

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

“You too!  Who did you say you knew here?”

“Ramon and Liz and Jason,” I said, gesturing toward them.  “And Caroline Pearson, and Amelia Dye.  They all told me about this.”

“Oh, yeah.  They’re all here.”

“Greg!” I heard Ramon say from the kitchen.  I turned and waved.

“I made it,” I said.

“Cool.”

“I’m going to go say hi to them,” I told Vanessa.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!  I’m sure I’ll see you around later.”  I walked to the kitchen where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing.  Caroline was also there, seated at a small dining table, talking to Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, and Charlie Watson, who had all just returned from a month-long mission trip to Morocco.

“Greg!” Taylor said, reaching to shake my hand.

“Hey, Greg,” Pete added, as I was shaking Taylor’s hand.

“Hey, guys.  How was the trip?”

“Uhh, I’m so tired,” Taylor replied.  “I’m still adjusting to the time difference.”

“Oh, I bet,” I said.

“But, yeah, it was a good trip.  There were a bunch of people on our trip from all over the US, and the three of us got split up for a while.  We’ll be presenting more about our trip at 20/20 after school starts again.”

“You should come,” Pete told me.

“Maybe,” I said.

I got up to snack on some tortilla chips and saw Amelia, who had first mentioned this party at Bible study two days earlier.  She was with Scott Madison, her boyfriend who had gone home for the summer.  “Hey, Greg,” Amelia said.

“Good to see you,” Scott added.

“You too.”

“Having fun?”.

“Yeah.  There are a lot of people here I don’t know.  But there are people I do know here too.  Are the people who got married here?”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “They’re on their way to their honeymoon.”

“Oh, yeah.  That makes sense.”  I was relatively unfamiliar with how weddings worked, and that felt like a dumb question in hindsight.  “So the people here who I don’t know, are they from 20/20?”

“Yeah.  20/20 is the college group at J-Cov.  We have a class before big church, and we usually have a retreat sometime during the year, and fun events too.  And some people go on mission trips in the summer.”

“I see.”  I was not sure what Amelia meant by “big church,” but it sounded like she was talking about the actual church service, as opposed to Sunday school classes, so I did not ask.  But I did ask something else: “And a lot of people from 20/20 also go to JCF?”

“Yeah.  Some of us, at least.”

“Why is it called 20/20, anyway?”

“I don’t know, now that you mention it,” Amelia replied.

“I think it’s, like, 20/20 vision,” Scott explained.  “Because we want to see God clearly.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

I wandered back into the living room, where people had begun to gather around the television.  They were watching the Olympics; the gold medal game for men’s basketball between the United States and Yugoslavia was on.  A shorter-than-average skinny guy with dark hair sat on a couch next to a tall guy with wavy brown hair and an empty seat; I gestured toward the empty seat and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” the skinny guy said.  “I don’t think we’ve met.  I’m Noah.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Noah’s hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Martin,” the tall guy with wavy hair said as he also shook my hand.  “Do you go to 20/20?  I don’t think I’ve seen you before?”

“No.  I go to JCF, and some people from my Bible study invited me to come hang out tonight.”

“Cool.”

“Have you been watching the Olympics?” Noah asked.

“Off and on,” I said.  “The women’s all-around gymnastics was pretty impressive, with Kerri Strug’s sprained ankle.”

“Yeah.  I hope she’s okay.”

The United States was heavily favored to win this game, but both teams were undefeated so far in the Olympics.  The score remained close throughout the first half.  At one point, I looked up to watch Reggie Miller shoot a 3-pointer for the USA.  Noah and Martin and a few others who were watching the game cheered.

“I hope Yugoslavia wins,” I said quietly.

“What?” Noah asked incredulously.

“You Communist,” Martin said.

“I’m a purist,” I explained.  “I don’t think NBA players belong in the Olympics.  The Olympics are for amateurs.  And their endorsement deals get in the way.  Like last time, when some players had to cover the logos on their warmup suits with flags because they had contracts with rival shoe companies.  It’s ridiculous that that has to be an issue.”

“I see your point,” Noah said.  “But, the way I see it, other countries were letting their professionals play, so it’s only fair.  And after the Dream Team in the last Olympics was so popular, they’re probably not going back at this point.”

“I guess.”

“NBA players from other countries can play for their countries too,” Martin added.  “Vlade Divac is playing for Yugoslavia.”

“That’s right,” I said.

As the game continued, I overheard parts of the others’ conversations, in which Noah talked about being something called the “junior high intern” this year.  “What’s that?” I asked.

“Last year, we both volunteered with the junior high youth group at J-Cov,” Noah explained, gesturing toward himself and Martin.  “This year, I’m an intern, so it’s going to be my part-time job to lead the junior high group.”

“That’s cool.  Is that the same youth group that Taylor Santiago works with?”

“Yeah!  I’ve known Taylor for years.  We went to high school together.  How do you know him?”

“We were in the same dorm freshman year.”

“Oh, okay.”

“We’re going to camp with the junior high kids the week after next,” Martin said.  “Taylor will be there too.”

“That sounds fun.  Where is the camp?”

“Near Mount Lorenzo.”

“Nice.  It’s pretty there.”  I looked at Martin’s shirt while he was talking to me.  It was white, with the words “VOTE BOB & LARRY IN 1996” at the top.  Below it was a strange cartoon drawing of a round, almost spherical red character and a tall green character, cylindrical with a rounded top, standing behind a podium like candidates running for President.  Both of these characters had oddly-shaped asymmetrical eyes.  Apparently their names were Bob and Larry, but whatever cartoon they were from was unknown to me.  I did not ask.

The game remained close until late in the game; neither team led by double digits until only 10 minutes remained, when the United States began to pull ahead.  Vlade Divac had fouled out by then.  When it became apparent that Yugoslavia was not going to make a miraculous comeback, I got up, used the bathroom, and wandered around what was left of the party.  It was getting late, and the crowd seemed noticeably smaller by then; the living room and kitchen were filling up with empty cups, soda cans, and paper plates.

“Are you having fun?” Vanessa, the girl who had answered the door when I arrived, asked me.

“Yeah.  I didn’t know much about this 20/20 group before tonight.”

“You should come check it out sometime.  Do you go to church?”

“Yeah.  I go to the Newman Center,” I said

I waited for Vanessa to give the predictable response that Catholics aren’t real Christians, and that the office of the Papacy is un-Biblical.  But instead, she just said, “That’s Catholic, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re always welcome to check out 20/20 and J-Cov if you want.  The class starts at 9:15, and the service at 10:45.”

“Thanks.  I might someday.”

By midnight, the party had quieted down even more.  Noah and Martin were still watching the Olympics; the final round of the men’s 5000-meter run was on.  “I don’t think I even realized the 5k was an Olympic event,” I said.

“They show it late at night because Americans don’t do well in it,” Martin said.

“Yeah,” Noah added.  “Usually those African long-distance runners dominate.” 

The race took fourteen minutes to finish.  The lead changed several times, and the lone American runner in the race, Bob Kennedy, remained in contention but fell to sixth place on the last lap.  Half of the contenders finished within a few seconds of each other, but a few others had fallen far behind.  The final runner, Aissa Belaout of Algeria, did not cross the finish line until 20 seconds after the next runner ahead of him, almost a full minute behind the winner.

“I always wonder with guys like that,” I said.  “You’re so far behind, there’s no way you can win.  But you just have to keep going, because making it to the final round of the Olympics is such an accomplishment.”

“Yeah,” Noah replied.  “Never give up.  Keep running.  They earned their spot in the Olympics.  As long as you’re still alive and still running, you never know what’ll happen.”


I said my goodbyes a few minutes later and drove home, going straight to bed after I arrived.  I learned a lot of new things tonight.  I knew that my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a number of different churches, but I always assumed that church was just something they did on Sunday.  Apparently I was wrong.  Jeromeville Covenant Church had a whole group for college students with activities and retreats, and this group included some people who did not also go to JCF.  My JCF friends who attended J-Cov had other Christian friends whom I did not know.

After the events of the last few weeks at the Newman Center, I was starting to question whether or not it was the best place for me, as a newly committed Christian, to learn about the Bible and grow closer to Jesus Christ.  Too many students at the Newman Center did not seem to take their faith very seriously, and the leadership put their agenda ahead of Scripture and the Church with their emphasis on liberal feminism.  Maybe I would try J-Cov and 20/20 sometime.  But, on the other hand, I was committed to singing at Newman, and I did not want to turn my back on the traditions of my Catholic family.  I did not have to decide right now.  Maybe, like the runners I had just watched waiting for the right time to surge ahead, I would just have to wait for the right time to try something new, and then see what happened.  Even though my life was full of unanswered questions, I was still alive and still running.

(Remember, I am almost 6’4″. I really am that much shorter than him; it’s not an awkward angle.)