April 27, 1997. A legendary prank for Erica’s 18th birthday. (#129)

The Internet was a much simpler place in 1997.  For one thing, the Internet was just beginning to emerge into the mainstream and had not yet taken over every aspect of everyone’s lives.  Also, most network communication was done through dial-up modems and telephone lines, which did not transfer data fast enough to make videos, high-quality sound, and large numbers of photos feasible for everyday Internet usage.

In the days before profile pictures, people would personalize their Internet experiences with email signatures.  People still do this in business today, where they will end every email with their name, job title, phone extension, and website.  But back in 1997, some people would add a signature to their personal email, featuring a sentence about themselves or their favorite quotes.

My email signature was usually a Bible verse, and I would change it every few months as I discovered new verses that spoke to me.  Last quarter at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, Janet had delivered a talk about being patient in romantic relationships, and seeking God’s will in that.  Janet organized her talk around the verse that appears three times in the Song of Solomon: “Daughters of Jerusalem, I charge you: Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires.”

I wanted a girlfriend badly, but I knew that seeking God’s will and not rushing in would be best in the long run.  My recent attempts to get to know cute girls better had all ended in failure, so that talk felt like exactly what I needed to hear.  I made that verse my email signature, not realizing the unintended consequences that doing so would bring.

I had been volunteering with the junior high school youth group at my church for a couple months.  Last week at youth group, I was talking with Danny Foster, one of the boys I knew fairly well, telling him about Dog Crap & Vince, a silly web comic I started drawing last year.  I sent him the link to my website in an email, and my email software automatically attached that Bible verse to the end, as it did with all emails.

The following Sunday, Danny sat next to me at church.  As I was listening to the announcements at the beginning of the service, Danny nudged me to get my attention.  He held an open Bible, and he was pointing at something inside.  I read the verse he was pointing to, Song of Solomon 4:5: “Your two breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.”  Danny looked at me and giggled; I smiled and nodded before turning my attention back to the announcements.

“Shh,” I whispered to Danny.

Later, a few minutes into the sermon, Danny nudged me again.  He was giggling, just like last time, but now he was pointing to Song of Solomon 7:7: “Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit.”  A few minutes later, Danny did the same thing, pointing to Song of Solomon 8:8: “We have a young sister, and her breasts are not yet grown.”  Danny did have a sister, Erica, and her breasts were smaller than average, but she was older than him.  I tried to suppress laughter as I pictured Erica Foster as the young sister in Song of Solomon 8:8.

The Song of Solomon describes love in a way that includes some very colorfully descriptive language of the bodies of the two lovers and the interactions between them.  It is also often said to be a metaphor for God’s love for his people and Jesus Christ’s love for the Church.  After the service ended, after Danny had pointed out a few other instances of the word, I asked him if this was the first time he had read Song of Solomon.

“Yeah,” he replied.  “I looked up the verse you quoted in your email.”

I was suddenly horrified to realize that I had been the cause of Danny’s distraction at church today.  Danny had taken it upon himself to look up a verse in the Bible, to read the Word of God, and to me, as a youth group leader, this should feel like a major victory.  But I had inadvertently led Danny directly to the one part of the Bible that would make any boy in his early teens think of things that were anything but Godly.  But the Song of Solomon was still part of God’s Word, and hopefully Danny would understand it eventually.

As I left, Noah, one of the other junior high group leaders, pulled me aside.  “What are you doing tonight?” he asked quietly.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“It’s Erica Foster’s 18th birthday.  We’re gonna prank her room tonight.  She’ll be at church for teen choir practice, then high school group.  Are you in?”

“Sure,” I said.  I always loved a good prank.  “Do I need to bring anything?”

“Bring some toilet paper.”

“I will!  I’ll see you then!”


I pulled up to the Fosters’ house in west Jeromeville a little after six o’clock.  I had been here a couple times before, hanging out with Danny and his friends after church and dropping him off.  Erica was the youngest member of the junior high youth staff.  She was graduating from Jeromeville High School this year, and she had told me that she was going to stay home and attend the University of Jeromeville next year.

The teen choir and high school youth group both met on Sunday nights, so Erica had been at church since five o’clock and would not be home until close to nine at the earliest.  This gave us well over two hours to work safely; we probably would not need that much time.  I knocked on the front door with one hand, precariously holding a large case of toilet paper in the other.  Mrs. Foster opened the door.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “They’re in Erica’s room.  Down that hall, last door on the right.”

“Thanks.”

“Looks like you’ve got a lot planned.”

“I didn’t make the plans.  They just told me to bring toilet paper.”

As I turned toward the hallway, I saw Danny in the living room, playing a Nintendo 64 game I did not recognize.  “Greg!” he said.  “This is gonna be so cool.  My sister doesn’t suspect anything.”

“Good!” I said, continuing down the hall as Danny turned his attention back to his game.  Noah Snyder and Martin Rhodes were already in Erica’s room when I got there.  “Hey, Greg,” Noah said.  “Good, you brought more toilet paper.”  Noah motioned for me to put it next to the toilet paper he already brought, about twice as much as what I had.  It seemed like an excessive amount of toilet paper to decorate one bedroom, but when performing a prank of this magnitude, you can never have enough toilet paper.

Erica’s room appeared to have been the master bedroom of this house at some point, since it had an attached bathroom.  I had been inside this house before, and the house appeared to have been added onto at some point in the past.  The addition probably included a larger master bedroom for Mr. and Mrs. Foster, so Erica, as the oldest child, got the next largest bedroom, which also had an attached bathroom.

“So what’s the plan?” I asked.

“We’re gonna wait for Courtney and Brody,” Noah explained.  “They’ll be here in a few minutes.  But we’re definitely gonna TP this room as much as we can.”

“I also said we should take some piece of furniture and put it in the shower,” Martin suggested.  “Like that file cabinet over there.”

“That’s awesome,” I said.

Brody and Courtney walked in just then, both sipping on fruit smoothies in plastic foam cups from a smoothie place downtown called Green Earth, giggling about something.  I noted the irony of a place with an environmentally friendly sounding name using plastic foam cups.  I also noticed that Courtney and Brody looked very much like a couple.  I had been trying to figure out for months if those two were romantically involved, and lately it had seemed very obvious that they were.  Courtney was really pretty, with long blonde hair, but I had not attempted to get to know her better as a love interest.  In the fall, she and Mike Knepper had been spending a lot of time together, and I did not want to compete.  I did not know that Mike was out of the picture, though, until the last couple months when I had seen Courtney and Brody together often.

“Hey, Brody,” Martin said.  “Can you help me carry this file cabinet into the shower?”

“Sure,” Brody replied, laughing.  “Why?”

“No reason.”  Martin and Brody lifted Erica’s file cabinet and began carrying it carefully into the bathroom.  Courtney and Noah had opened the toilet paper; I helped them string it through the curtain rod up and down the wall.  Since I was tall, they kept handing me rolls of toilet paper to attach to things on high shelves, so that toilet paper ran across the room several feet off the ground, like streamers at a party.  I used tape to anchor the toilet paper to high spots on the wall a few times.

I went to look at the file cabinet in the shower.  A set of Magnetic Poetry, small magnets with words on them that could be rearranged into abstract poetry, was stuck to the cabinet.  I had seen these before on others’ refrigerators.  I looked to see if I could spell anything funny.  Some magnets only had prefixes and suffixes, like “er,” “s,” and “ing,” intended to be added to existing words.  I put the word “I” next to “er,” then found “can,” intending to cover the N in “can” with the next word, so that those three magnets would spell “Erica.”  “Smell” was the first funny verb I found.  After a couple minutes, I arranged the magnets to spell “er-I-ca-smell-s-like-puppy-tongue.”  I was not sure what it meant that Erica smelled like puppy tongue, but I did not have a great selection of words to choose from.

“We should do something with these stuffed animals,” Noah said as I walked back to the bedroom.  I was a little surprised to see stuffed animals in Erica’s room; most of my friends did not bring their stuffed animals to college.  But Erica was still in high school, for another month or so, and still in her childhood bedroom at her family’s house, so it made sense that she would have stuffed animals.

Brody carefully stepped around the toilet paper, ducking so as not to make it fall to the ground.  He picked up a stuffed bear and put a strip of masking tape over its mouth, then bound its wrists behind its back with masking tape.  “That’s perfect,” I said as Brody taped the bear’s ankles together.  I took an oversized stuffed mouse and taped it to the underside of a shelf that stuck out from the wall several feet from the ground; I had to use a lot of tape to get it to stay.

“There’s a bunch of empty plastic water bottles over here,” Martin observed from across the room.  “Like thirty of them.  Is she saving them or keeping them to throw away, for recycling?”

“I don’t care,” Brody replied.  “But you should totally fill them up.”

“Great!  I’m on it.”  Martin carried the entire pile of water bottles into the bathroom; it took him three trips.  I repeatedly heard water turn on and off for the next several minutes.

“Hey, Greg?” Courtney said.  “Can you tape this toilet paper to the ceiling?  You’re tall.”

“Sure,” I said.  After doing that, I handed the toilet paper back to Courtney, who weaved it between other elevated strands of toilet paper.  It was becoming very difficult to walk in here as we covered everything in toilet paper.

I heard a noise, a clear note, as if someone was blowing into a musical instrument.  I looked up to see Brody playing a round pitch pipe, the harmonica-like device used by vocalists to determine what note to begin singing.  He blew into the holes for several different notes, then stuck the entire pitch pipe in his mouth.  I took a picture of Brody with the pitch pipe completely in his mouth.  “Someone should show that picture to Erica in a few months, after she’s used the pitch pipe many more times,” I said. 

“Eww!” Courtney replied as everyone laughed.

I continued using masking tape and duct tape to bind and gag some of the stuffed animals and tape others to the wall and to furniture.  Martin finished filling the water bottles, reentering the bedroom just as Noah, Courtney, and Brody finished stringing the last of the toilet paper across Erica’s furniture.

“Dude,” Brody said, pointing at a telephone and answering machine.  “We should leave a greeting on here.”

“Yeah!” Courtney said.  “And then call her from a different phone and leave a message with all of us wishing her happy birthday!”

“Yes!” Noah replied.  Apparently Erica had her own phone in her room, separate from the phone line for the rest of the house.  Lucky.  I wanted that so badly when I was that age.  I wanted to talk to friends from school, particularly girls, without worrying about my parents eavesdropping or wondering who was calling me and making a big deal of it.  Mom always said no, that I rarely talked on the phone anyway, so it was pointless to spend money on a second phone line.  I made the counterargument that I would use the phone more if I had that kind of privacy, but this did not win over my parents.

“We should record ourselves singing something weird, and use that as the greeting that people hear when they call Erica,” Martin suggested.

“What song?” Noah asked.

I tried to think of a song, but nothing came to mind.  After a few seconds, Brody said, “I don’t know why, but I keep thinking ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.’”

“Let’s do it,” Martin said, laughing.

Brody walked over to the answering machine and looked at it, trying to figure out how to record a new greeting.  “I think this is it,” he said, pressing a button.  After the machine beeped and clicked, he announced, in a deadpan tone more exaggerated than his usual voice, “Hi.  You’ve reached Erica’s phone.  Leave a message.”  Brody then motioned for us to start singing.  Everyone looked around, not sure what to do; Courtney started laughing after a few seconds.

“You’re supposed to start singing!” Brody said.  He recorded his announcement again, and when it was time to sing, everyone paused again.  “You never close your eyes anymore,” Brody began singing.

“When I kiss your lips,” Martin joined in.  The rest of us all looked at each other, and Courtney started giggling again.  “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’” was an old song, originally released in 1964 by the Righteous Brothers.  Daryl Hall and John Oates famously covered the song in 1980, early in my childhood.  I had heard the song before, but I only knew the chorus; apparently there was a verse before that, which Brody and Martin were singing now.  Brody sighed, stopped the recording, and reminded us all of the lyrics.  I did not know the tune of the verse, but I had a feeling that singing the wrong tune would be just fine for our current purposes.

I suddenly had an idea.  “Before we all start singing, you should play a note on the pitch pipe,” I told Brody.  “Like we’re a real choir or something.”

“Yes!  I like it!”  Brody pressed Record one more time, then announced, “You’ve reached Erica’s phone.  Leave a message.”  Brody then played a note on the pitch pipe, nowhere close to the actual note we started singing.  The five of us began singing the verse to You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’; I sang quietly, since I did not know it well.  But by the chorus, I belted it out along with everyone else.  “You’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, whoa that lovin’ feelin’, you’ve lost that lovin’ feelin’, now it’s gone, gone, gone, whoa-oh…” we sang.

Brody stopped the recording at that point.  “I think that’s good,” he said.  “Besides, we need to finish up soon, so we can get out of here in plenty of time before Erica gets home.  Let’s go call her from the house phone.”

The five of us stepped carefully through the intricate web of toilet paper and walked down the hallway to the living room, where Mrs. Foster was loading the dishwasher.  Brody picked up the telephone in the refrigerator and called Erica’s number; we could hear Erica’s phone ringing down the hall.  After four rings, we heard ourselves singing, all five of us snickered quietly.  After the beep, we all shouted into the phone, “Happy birthday, Erica!”  Brody hung up.

“I heard you guys singing in there,” Mrs. Foster said.  “She’ll love that.”

“Don’t tell her we changed the greeting,” I said.  “She can discover that for herself.”

“Okay.”  Mrs. Foster chuckled.

“Thanks for letting us do this,” Noah said.

“No problem.  You guys have a good week.  Drive safely.”

“We will,” I replied.


My first class the next morning, Mathematics 197, was not a class at all; I was assisting in a precalculus class at Jeromeville High School, in order to get a feel for whether or not teaching high school was a viable career option for me.  After this class, I walked past Erica’s locker on the way to where my bike was parked, and Erica was usually there.  Today, when she saw me, I waved, and she started laughing.

“I can’t believe what you guys did to my room last night,” she said.  “That was hilarious!”

“Thanks,” I replied, chuckling.  “Happy birthday.”

“What happened?” asked one of Erica’s friends standing next to her.”

“My friends from church decorated my room for my birthday,” Erica explained.  “They filled up all my water bottles!”

“All those water bottles?” the other girl asked.  “That must have taken forever!”

“Someone else did that while I was working on the toilet paper,” I said.

“And those poor stuffed animals!” Erica exclaimed.  “I’m just going to leave them like that for a while.  How did you get the file cabinet in the shower?  That thing is heavy!”

“It took two people.”

“And I guess someone called me right after you left, before I got home.  She left a message, laughing, and she said, who was that singing?  I didn’t know what she was talking about until I called her back, and then I played your greeting.  That was great!  I’m gonna leave it like that for a while.”

“Perfect,” I said, laughing.

“I need to get to class.  But thanks again for all the laughs.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.  “I hope you had a great birthday!  I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yes!  Have a good one!”

Being a youth group leader had the obvious benefit of getting to be part of the lives of the children in the group.  But, at least in the case of our group at Jeromeville Covenant Church specifically, the youth leaders all seemed to be close friends with each other.  I had only been part of this group for a few months, but so far they had all welcomed me with metaphorical open arms.

I arrived on the UJ campus a few minutes after I left the high school, still thinking about my different overlapping circles of friends.  On the periphery, I had my friends from the freshman dorm and people I knew from classes.  My friends from church and Jeromeville Christian Fellowship formed a closer circle, with a few people in closer circles.  I felt like the other youth leaders from church were now becoming one of those closer circles.  Erica would be graduating from Jeromeville High this year, but staying in Jeromeville and attending UJ next year.  I was glad she was in my circle, and I was glad I had finally found a specific ministry to be involved with.


Readers: Tell me about a prank you’ve been part of, either as the one pulling the prank or as the victim.

If you’re curious about how all these people are connected, or if you just like following every little detail of the story, I updated the Dramatis Personae. I’ve been way behind on that; there have been a lot of new characters, or characters taking on bigger roles, since the last update. I added entries for Ajeet, Autumn, Brody, Cambria, Courtney, Erica, Evan, James, Lars, and Dr. Samuels, and removed some from characters who are not important parts of the story anymore.

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

Also remember to check out my other projects:
Greg Out Of Character – a personal blog where I post every once in a while
Song of the Day by DJ GJ-64 – music every day, from many different genres and eras
Cow Chip & Lance – a project by some friends of mine that was the inspiration for “Dog Crap & Vince,” mentioned in this episode. There hasn’t been much new content in a while.


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.


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!

December 2-4, 1994. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Newman Center. (#15)

I walked around the dining hall with my tray of food, looking for a place to sit.  I saw some people I recognized at a round table that did not look full, so I sat with them.  Rebekah was to my left, then Rebekah’s roommate Tracy, Mike, Ian, David, Gina, and an empty seat.

“What’s everyone up to this weekend?” Mike asked

“I have to study,” Gina said.  “I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“I’m going home,” David said.  “I’m leaving tonight.”

“I’m going to a party tonight,” Tracy said.  I took a big bite of my hamburger and began chewing just as she asked, “What about you, Greg?”

“I hmmf turr-rahhh a vay-vah urr Rye mm Faah,” I said, chewing.

“What?” Tracy asked.

“He has to write a paper for Rise and Fall,” Rebekah said without missing a beat.

I swallowed and looked at Rebekah.  “How did you understand that?”

“I don’t know,” she said, smiling.  “I just did.”

“You’re good.  I’m impressed.”

“Thanks!  It’s one of my many talents.”

“I can’t believe we only have one week of classes left before finals,” Gina said.  “This first quarter seemed to go by fast.”

“We survived!” Mike shouted.  “We survived one quarter of college!”

“I’m nervous,” I said.

“Why?” Rebekah asked.

“Because of finals.  What if I fail? I’ve never taken a college final before.”

“Relax. You’ll do fine.”

 

The next few hours were uneventful.  I read for a while. I checked a few online newsgroups I was following.  I had a good talk on IRC chat with a girl from Florida. She signed off around 9:30, because it was after midnight where she lived and she had to go to bed, but she gave me her email so we could keep in touch.  After she left, I decided to walk around and see if anything exciting was happening.

On the first floor, I noticed that the door to room 116, the big four-person suite, was open, and I heard voices inside.  I poked my head in the door. “Hi, Greg!” Sarah said. “Want to come in? We’re just hanging out.”

“Sure,” I said, sitting on the floor against a wall.  Sarah, Krista, Pete, Taylor, Caroline, Liz, and Ramon were all squeezed into the room; four of them sat on chairs, and the rest on the floor.  Two other people I did not recognize were also there, a tall guy with wavy sandy-colored hair and a dark-haired Asian girl with a name tag that said “Tabitha.”  I knew everyone in Building C by name and face by now, and I knew that these two did not live in Building C.

It seemed that these people had come from some event where people wore name tags, because Tabitha was not the only one who hadn’t taken hers off.  Taylor wore one that said “Taylor,” and Krista wore one that said “Christa.” I pointed at Krista’s name tag and said, “There’s a typo on your name tag.”

Krista looked down at the name tag.  “Yeah,” she said. “I noticed that earlier.”

“Is it really a typo if you’re not typing, though?” Sarah asked.

“I don’t think so,” the tall guy said.

“So there’s a writo on my name tag,” Krista said, laughing.  “Is that a word?”

“Writo,” Tabitha repeated.  “Nice.”

“Greg?  Have you met them?” Krista asked, gesturing toward Tabitha and the guy I didn’t know.

“No.”

“This is Tabitha.  And this is Mike. Tabitha lives in Building B, and Mike lives in J.”

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

Mike, or more specifically its full form Michael, was the most popular name for males around my age.  There were already two Michaels in Building C, Mike Adams whom I saw at dinner and Mike Potts from the second floor.  And now I had a third one to remember, Mike From Building J. Sometimes I think that if I ever forget a guy’s name, I should just guess that his name is Mike, because there’s a pretty good chance I’d be right.  And I could do the same thing for girls by guessing Jennifer; there were two Jennifers in Building C. I didn’t know either of them very well, though.

“How do you guys know Tabitha and Mike?” I asked the group, not directing the question at anyone in particular.

“From JCF,” Sarah explained.  “Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.”

“Oh,” I said.  “That’s like a church group?”

“Yeah.”

“What church do you go to?”

“I go to Jeromeville Covenant, but the people at JCF come from different churches.  We have a large group meeting on Friday nights, where we sing worship songs, and someone gives a talk.”

“That sounds nice.”

“And we have a small group Bible study one night a week,” Taylor added.  “They have a couple of groups in each dorm area, and a bunch of them off campus too.”

“You should come to JCF large group sometime,” Krista suggested.  “Do you think you would want to?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe.”

“You’re Catholic, right?” Caroline asked in her mild Australian accent.  “Didn’t Danielle say you go to church with her?”

“Yeah.”

“Let us know if you ever want to come,” Krista said.  “Everyone is welcome.”

“I will.”

The group in Sarah’s room stayed there for almost another hour, just talking about life and school and the upcoming end of the quarter.  After that, I went to bed, thinking about tonight. Mike From Building J and Tabitha both seemed nice. But I really didn’t know what to expect from this JCF group.  I remember learning at some point that there were other churches that followed Jesus besides the Catholic Church; Mom probably mentioned that at some point when she was talking about someone we knew who was Christian and not Catholic.  In 10th grade world history class, I remember learning about the historical reasons behind this. I should be glad that I learned anything in that class, because Kim Jensen was in that class and I spent a lot of time daydreaming about her and ignoring the fact that she was dating an older jock.

I wasn’t the type to go out and say that one church is more right than others.  But I didn’t really know what other churches were like. Is JCF the kind of group where people dance around and clap their hands?  Do they convulse on the floor and speak in tongues? Are they going to recruit me to go door to door and try to convert people? Were they a cult, where I would have to leave everything I knew and isolate myself and pledge myself to them for life?  I didn’t know. But I did know that all of my friends who were in Sarah’s room tonight didn’t seem like cultist types, at least not on the outside.

 

After an uneventful and damp Saturday spent studying and doing homework, Sunday morning was dry, although still mostly cloudy.  Back in September, Mom told me that once I got to Jeromeville, I should look for the Newman Center. A Newman Center, named for the 19th-century priest and theologian John Henry Newman, is an organization for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, although there was no standard for exactly what each Newman Center at each university was like.  It didn’t take me long to find the Newman Center in Jeromeville, because they had a table in the Quad during the first week of school. I took their flyer and found that, in addition to being a student club-like organization, they also had a priest who gave regular Mass services twice every Sunday morning and once more in the evening.

Back home, Plumdale does not have a Catholic Church.  Gabilan has three, and my family went to the one in Old Town, called Our Lady of Peace.  I should rephrase that to say that Mom went every week, but I went maybe once a month, and Dad and Mark even less often.  I grew up going to Catechism through about sixth grade; the other kids were really mean to me, just like at school, and Mom eventually let me stop going because I wasn’t really getting much out of it.  By the last half of high school, though, I had started going to Mass more often, although not every week, and there were two reasons for this.

First of all, Catholic Masses are pretty boring when you’re a little kid and you have no idea what is going on.  I thought about how much more difficult it would have been for my parents’ and grandparents’ generations to attend Mass as children, because Catholic Masses were said entirely in Latin until the 1960s.  By my mid-teens, however, I had a little bit more of an idea of what all the words and prayers and songs meant. I got more of a sense of peace of being there, like it just felt like something that was right to do.  But also, Melissa Holmes from school, who was my next major crush after I had moved on from Kim Jensen, started going there, and I wanted to see her. Most Catholics from Plumdale went to Good Shepherd on the north side of Gabilan, because it was closer, but Melissa and her mom liked Our Lady of Peace better.  I remember mentioning all of this once in front of one of the JCF people, I think it was Sarah, and she said that this was God knowing exactly what would get me interested in going to church. She was probably right, because I didn’t stop going to church once Melissa moved to San Angelo and I moved in the opposite direction to Jeromeville.

I had been to Mass at the Newman Center pretty much every week since taking their flyer at the table in September.  The Newman Center met three blocks from campus in downtown Jeromeville, on East 5th Street, in a beautiful old brick chapel-like building.  I would learn later that this building was the original building of St. John’s Church, the main Catholic church in Jeromeville. At some point, St. John’s had built a new, larger building and an elementary school half a mile away, and the old building became the Newman Center.

Danielle, who lived right down the hall from me in 216 in the same four-person suite as Caroline, was the only other student from Building C who attended the late morning Mass at Newman.  She was already there when I got there, but Mass had not started yet. I sat next to her.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Guess what?”

“What?”

“Next week I’m going to start singing in the choir at Mass.”

“That’ll be fun.”

“Claire, you know Claire?”  Danielle gestured toward an older student setting up music stands.  I knew Claire by face, but I didn’t really know her. “We’re both in the school chorus, and she’s been encouraging me to do this all year.”

“Nice.”

“I’ve heard you sing.  Have you ever thought about singing in the choir here?”

“I can’t sing in front of people,” I said.  “I only sing in the car.”

“I think you sing well.  Don’t sell yourself short.”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.  It looks like they need more strong male voices.”

“We’ll see.”

I had a good ear for music.  I played piano for a few years in elementary school.  I don’t remember exactly why I quit; Mom said it was because I wanted to be cool and I thought piano was for nerds.  That sounds exactly like something that ten-year-old Greg would have said. But I also think that part of the reason I gave up music was because Mom would never leave me alone about it.  We had an old out-of-tune piano in our house; it had belonged to Dad’s mother, who moved out of state after all her children were grown and whom I had only met twice before she passed away a year ago.  Every time we had company over, Mom would make me perform for them. She would record me playing on tape and send it to relatives sometimes. And I really wasn’t that good compared to musical child prodigies.  I just wanted to be left alone to play without an audience and without Mom having to make a big deal of it.

I thought about this as the choir began singing for Mass.  Here, they sang some of the same songs that I grew up with at Our Lady of Peace; today’s opening song, “Here I Am, Lord,” was one I was very familiar with.  They sounded nice, but singing in the choir just wasn’t for me.

I kept thinking about this as I rode my bike back to Building C after the service.  I went to Mass. I prayed about passing my classes and any sick relatives I knew about, and I asked God to help me meet a girl.  But I wasn’t the type to get super-involved in church stuff. There was nothing wrong with it, I didn’t have a problem with people who did, but that just wasn’t my style.

And looking back now, it’s amazing to think about my thoughts on that afternoon all those years ago, and how unaware I was of the direction my life would take over the next few years.