Unlike many university students, I almost never missed class. I stayed home sick only once during my time at the University of Jeromeville, and I only skipped class to do something fun once, when Brian Burr was my roommate and we went to see the rerelease of Return of the Jedi. Because of this, as I walked from my house to Jeromeville Covenant Church carrying a suitcase and backpack, I felt bad for having to miss chorus and cancel one of my tutoring sessions this afternoon. Students in chorus who missed more than two rehearsals would not receive passing credit for the class, and this was the first one I had missed, so I did not have to worry about that, but I still did.
“You look like you’re ready,” Adam White, the youth pastor, said as I stumbled into the fellowship hall with my heavy bag.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
“You excited?” asked Taylor Santiago. Taylor and I had been friends since the first week of freshman year, and he was the one who had introduced me to youth ministry last year. Normally, if I was walking from home to church on a Wednesday, it was because I was a leader with The Edge, the junior high school youth group. But on this Wednesday, it was two in the afternoon, and none of us would be at The Edge tonight. The other volunteers would have to run things without us.
“I’m excited,” I said. “I’ve never been to San Diego.”
“It’s nice. I’ve been there a few times. Last time was a few years ago, during the summer. I went to a baseball game, when the Titans had an away game in San Diego. It’s a nice stadium. And the beaches are nice too. We won’t really be near the beach, though.”
“I’ll just have to go back again someday, I guess,” I said.
Noah Snyder and Brad Solano, the interns for junior high and high school ministry, also waited with us in the church office. “I was thinking we could start packing while we’re waiting. That way, as soon as Kate gets here, we can just throw her stuff in the van and take off.”
“Sounds good,” Adam replied. Kate, a volunteer with the high school group, arrived just as we finished packing our things. With only six of us going on this trip in a fifteen-passenger van, we also used the entire back seat to hold luggage.
Adam pulled out of the church parking lot and worked his way to the freeway. We crossed the river to downtown Capital City and turned south, driving through ten miles of suburbs. This quickly gave way to the miles and miles and miles of pastures and orchards that would make up over half of the nine-hour trip to San Diego. The major highway was built down the Valley on a different route than the earlier highway it replaced, far from most cities, to benefit long-distance drivers. The old highway still existed parallel to this one, passing through Ralstonville, Bear River, Ashwood, and many other cities, some distance to the east. I knew the first hundred miles down the Valley well; this was my slightly longer route to see my parents when I needed to avoid traffic in San Tomas, and it was also part of our route on childhood trips to see my dad’s relatives in Bidwell to the north. But I had never been all the way down the Valley to the south.
After we left Capital City, I got out my backpack and began doing math homework. “You’re doing math?” Taylor said.
“What?” I replied. “I’m missing two days of class. I need to stay caught up.”
“I think you’re the only one who brought homework on this trip.”
“And I probably have the best grades out of all of us too,” I replied, smirking.
“Oooooh,” Noah exclaimed, jokingly.
“Grades?” asked Adam, who had been out of school for a few years. “What are those?”
“Seriously, though, good for you for keeping your grades up,” Taylor said. “I kind of gave up on that freshman year. But you know what they say. Cs get degrees.”
“I figure I need to set a good example if I’m gonna be a teacher.”
“Trust me. Most of your teachers probably weren’t straight A students.”
Adam had a portable CD player with one of those adapters that plugged into the cassette player in the church van, with a wire extending out from it connecting to the CD player. At some point when we were still in Capital City, Adam played the new Five Iron Frenzy album, appropriately titled Our Newest Album Ever, which had just been released a couple weeks earlier. We listened to it three times on the way down and twice on the trip back.
By the time we reached the unfamiliar part of the highway, it was quarter to five, and the sun was about to set. I put my books away once it was too dark to read, and unfortunately, it quickly became too dark to enjoy the view of the unfamiliar road as well. Soon after it got dark, Adam said, “This road is evil. But it’s less evil at night, because you can’t see how boring it is.”
“Pretty much,” Brad agreed.
With no substantial cities through this stretch of the Valley, every thirty miles or so we would pass a cluster of fast food restaurants, gas stations, truck stops, and cheap motels clustered around an interchange. These communities built up entirely around the needs of automobile tourists and truckers. At around six-thirty, we took one of these exits and debated where to go for dinner. Adam suggested Jack-in-the-Box, Brad suggested Burger King, and Jack-in-the-Box won by a vote of 4 to 2, with me being the other vote for Burger King. As we pulled into the drive-thru lane at Jack-in-the-Box, Taylor said, “Look. There’s In-N-Out Burger. We should have gone there.”
“I’m not in a mood for a burger, though,” Noah said. “But we can go there on the way home. You guys heard Jeromeville is getting an In-N-Out Burger, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’ve never been there. And I don’t think I’ve ever been to Jack-in-the-Box either.”
“Really?” Taylor repeated. “In that case, we have to go on the way home.”
“My parents went to the one in Gabilan once, and they said they didn’t really like it. But I guess I should give it a try myself.”
Adam picked up his food from the drive-thru window and passed out everyone’s food. We did not stop to eat; Adam continued driving, and all of us, including Adam, ate in the car. I took my first bite of Jack-in-the-Box, and after I took my first bite of cheeseburger with mustard and pickle, when I had specifically ordered no mustard or pickle, I did not return to another Jack-in-the-Box for another seven years.
When we got to the big cities of southern California, it was late enough that traffic was not too bad. Adam’s parents lived in a semi-rural hilly suburb just south of San Diego; we stayed on couches and in guest rooms there for the weekend. I had trouble falling asleep the first night, as I always did in an unfamiliar area, but I slept fine the rest of the week.
Youth Specialties, an organization providing resources for Christian youth groups and their leaders, held the National Youth Workers’ Convention in two different cities around the United States every year, each lasting three full days. A number of speakers, well-known to people heavily involved in the world of youth ministry but not to me, presented at this convention, with exhibits from dozens of publishers, companies, and other organizations involved in youth ministry. Several well-known Christian musicians and bands, including some I knew and liked, were also performing at this event.
Thursday morning we drove back north a few miles into San Diego, to the hotel that hosted this convention. We parked and looked at an event map to determine where to go. “We’re on Stage 2,” Adam explained. “Apparently they filled up, so they added a second meeting room, with a different worship team and a video feed of the speaker in the main meeting room.” It sounded like we were being treated as second-class citizens, but it was not a big deal. In fact, when I arrived at Stage 2, they were passing out free Stage 2 T-shirts in addition to the T-shirt that all attendees had already received. Our tardy registration had gotten me a free shirt, and everyone knows how much university students love free shirts.
I attended a variety of sessions during the day. This convention was structured similarly to the Urbana convention almost a year ago, as well as other conventions I attended when I was older. I attended a morning and evening session with all attendees, except that as Stage 2 attendees we were in a different room from those who were not, watching the main speaker on video. In between those two sessions, I could select from a variety of small sessions and workshops on different topics. Taylor had given me a bit of guidance regarding which sessions to sign up for; occasionally someone else from Jeromeville Covenant was in the same session as me. There was also an exhibit hall to browse between sessions.
A big-name musical artist, at least a big name in the world of Christian music, performed at the end of each night. Volunteers removed the seats very quickly from the main stage so that those of us from Stage 2 could join them, with standing room only, for the concert. Audio Adrenaline played Thursday night. Another band would play on another concert stage in the exhibit hall late at night, after the main concert. Dime Store Prophets, whom I had seen once before, was the late show Thursday night. I was looking forward to seeing DC Talk on the main stage on Saturday. The late show Friday night was Five Iron Frenzy, but I still had mixed feelings about that band.
On Friday afternoon, I was wandering the exhibit hall. The carpet on the floor of this building appeared to be temporary, not attached to the floor. At one point I reached the edge of the exhibit area and realized why, as I saw concrete and white painted lines peeking out from underneath one section of carpet. This exhibit hall was actually the hotel’s parking garage.
I saw a table for 5 Minute Walk, a record label specializing in alternative Christian music, and walked over to it. I knew that Dime Store Prophets and Five Iron Frenzy were on this label, and as I took a brochure and looked through it, I recognized many more artists from music that we had played at The Edge.
“How’s it goin’,” the man behind the table said. I looked up and realized I recognized him; he was the bass player for Dime Store Prophets. His name tag identified him as Masaki Liu, and I also recognized this name from reading album credits; he was Five Iron Frenzy’s producer. “Are you familiar with any of our artists’ music?” Masaki asked.
“You’re in Dime Store Prophets, right?” I asked. “I saw you guys last night, and also in Jeromeville in September.”
“Yeah! The show that was postponed because of rain. Did you like us?”
“It was great! I also know Five Iron Frenzy. I had their first album, but I’m still trying to figure out if I like it. I like some songs, but I didn’t like the way some of it was so political.”
“Yeah, they can be kind of forward about their politics. Any chance you’ll make it to their show tonight? I’m running sound.”
“The rest of the people I came with are going. So I’ll probably go with them.”
“Good! I’ll see you there. Would you like a sampler CD?” Masaki asked as he handed me a CD in a case. “We’re selling these for only four dollars, it’s a full-length album with music from a bunch of our artists, and the proceeds go to feed the hungry.”
“Sure,” I said, taking the disc. I looked at the back and recognized about half the names, including Dime Store Prophets and Five Iron Frenzy. I got my wallet out of my pocket and handed Masaki four dollars, and he thanked me.
“I’ll see you around,” I said.
“You too. Enjoy the convention.”
I got a lot more free samples the rest of the day to add to my growing bag of brochures and free stuff. Many of the exhibitors handed out samples of their products, and each day we received a free gift at the evening main session. By the time I met the others from J-Cov at the Five Iron Frenzy concert, I had tons of brochures in my bag, along with several sampler CDs of music and a sample of this slime-like substance that one company was marketing as something to be used for fun youth group activities. Tomorrow I would add a sampler of Christian music videos on a VHS tape to my bag.
“You excited for the show?” Noah asked as we waited for Five Iron Frenzy to start.
“I don’t really know what to expect,” I said.
“Have you seen Five Iron before?” Taylor asked.
“No,” I said. “I have the first album, but…” I trailed off, trying to think of how to explain in a polite way that, if they were going to sing about how fake and shallow the United States was, then they were welcome to move to one of the many countries in the world where they would be executed for speaking against their government, instead of getting to build a career and making money from openly not loving their country. “There were a couple of songs I really didn’t like.”
“They put on a really fun show,” Taylor said. “I think you’ll enjoy it.”
“I wonder what Reese’s costume will be this time?” Noah asked.
“Costume?” I repeated.
“Reese always wears something funny,” Taylor explained.
“Interesting.” Just then, the band began filing on stage, all eight members; Reese Roper, the lead singer, came on last, wearing a John Elway football jersey. John Elway was the quarterback for Denver, where the band was based.
The crowd quickly came to life as soon as the band started playing their signature blend of ska and punk rock. I recognized most of the songs, either from the album I had or from hearing Our Newest Album Ever on the trip down. Reese danced, flailed, jumped, and gyrated on stage as he sang, and the crowd fed off of this, bouncing up and down to the music and bumping into each other. I sang along to the ones I knew.
“Here’s a song off our new album,” Reese said at one point. “It’s about divorce.” The band then played a song from the new album featuring the refrain “Have you seen my comb?” After they finished, Adam looked at the rest of us and said, “Divorce? I thought that song was about a comb.”
Although I already had their first album, that show in the parking garage in San Diego was what made me a Five Iron Frenzy fan. This band had a unique ability to be serious and silly on the same album, at the same concert. For example, I would learn later that Reese wrote that comb song about a childhood memory of losing a comb being tied in his mind with his parents still being together. They were able to unite fans of secular and Christian music just by being real. I would have a complicated relationship with this band over the years, and there were other times that they wrote political songs that I disagreed with. But those are stories for another time, and the band does make the good point that, despite its reputation as a Christian nation, the United States has been associated with some very un-Christlike behaviors and practices over the years. I bought Our Newest Album Ever a couple days later.
The DC Talk show at the end of Saturday’s session was just as enjoyable, although not as energetic as the Five Iron Frenzy show. I also did not know much of their older music; my knowledge of DC Talk did not extend far past the 1995 Jesus Freak album, their most recent.
We had a relaxing morning; I woke up far earlier than anyone else. I used the time to finish all the studying I did not do earlier. We left Adam’s parents’ house after a late morning breakfast. Traffic slowed down in a couple of spots, but not enough to delay us from being home by bedtime.
We turned off at the same In-N-Out Burger we had seen Wednesday night. Apparently it was crucially important for me to have this burger for the first time. I got in line toward the back of the group, so I could study the menu while others were ordering, but as I was reading the menu, it became quickly apparent that there was not much to study.
“Not a whole lot of options,” Taylor commented, noticing me looking at the menu. He was right. Burgers. Fries. Sodas. Milkshakes. No chicken or fish sandwiches, no onion rings, no chicken nuggets, no tacos, and no breakfast items. This place made one thing, and one thing only, and the only real option was how big of a burger to order. I ordered a Double-Double with onions but no tomato, fries, and a vanilla shake. (It would be another couple months before I learned about the secret menu, and although some In-N-Out fans consider this blasphemy, I discovered I liked the regular menu better.)
We all sat together at adjacent tables. When I got my food, I held up the burger, half of it wrapped in paper and the other half exposed. I held the paper and bit into the exposed end. My eyes lit up. The meat, cheese, onions, lettuce, and sauce blended perfectly in my mouth, a beautiful explosion of flavor, not only a good meal but a fundamental way of life for so many in one geographical region that was slowly expanding and would eventually take over much of the western United States. The French fries were not soggy and half-hearted like many other fast food restaurants; they were hot, and the right balance of crisp and soft.
“This is amazing,” I said.
“Looks like you’re hooked now,” Noah replied.
“Pretty much.” I finished my meal, knowing that I now had a new regular fast food option. Perfect timing, because my previous go-to burger, the McDonald’s Arch Deluxe, was now considered a massive marketing failure and was disappearing from McDonald’s menus.
Once we were back on the road, Adam started asking us what we all had learned from the convention. Kate shared about how so many students come from such different family backgrounds, and Brad shared on the importance of learning about things the students were interested in, and how he had started listening to the kind of music his students listened to.
“Greg?” Adam asked. “What about you? What did you learn?”
“Honestly,” I said, “I learned a lot about what’s really important in youth ministry, that we’re doing this to love students the way Jesus did. But I also felt like I’m just not good at this. So many times I heard about the importance of discipleship, and hanging out with your students outside of church activities, but I’m just not good at making plans with people.”
“I think you’re doing fine,” Noah said. “You show up every Wednesday, and you participate in activities with The Edge. You’ll get to know kids from there, and they’ll start wanting to spend time with you. Didn’t you say Danny Foster invited you to have dinner with his family once?”
“And what about your movie?” Adam added. “That was a fun project for everyone.”
“I guess,” I said. The movie I made with the kids was conceived as a project for myself, but I supposed that including them was an act of ministry as well.
As we continued driving north, I continued to experience mixed feelings. I was on a high from all the great concerts I had seen over the last few days, as well as the wonderful new cheeseburger I had just discovered, and the experience of having visited San Diego for the first time. But I also felt inadequate as a youth leader. I was an introvert, not good at reaching out to these students. The others were right; I was doing fine. I did not have to reach out to other students in the same ways that Adam and Noah and Taylor did. I had heard many speakers and pastors talk about the importance of different spiritual gifts, and I had ways to serve the youth of Jeromeville Covenant Church within the bounds of the way that God made me.
Readers: Have any of you ever been to San Diego? Or did you discover a new place on a trip to a convention or an event like this? Tell me about it in the comments.
Disclaimer: Masaki Liu is a real person. Don’t Let The Days Go By is based on true stories, but normally I changes the names of all people involved. I have often used real names of actors, athletes, musicians, and other public figures in order to make DLTDGB historically accurate. The situation becomes more complicated in this episode, though, because the conversation with Masaki marks the first time that character-Greg actually interacts with a public figure. I actually did attend this convention, and I actually did meet Masaki at this table, but nevertheless this story should first and foremost be taken as a work of fiction, not necessarily an actual transcript of anything that Masaki actually said or did. I did not ask permission to use his name and likeness in this story.
The other episode that mentioned Dime Store Prophets (#132) contains the line “In my late twenties, two counties away, I attended a church where one of the former band members was the worship leader.” I attended Masaki’s church for about a year and a half. I have possible plans someday to write a sequel blog to DLTDGB that will open in 2004, during the time that Masaki and I were friends, and I have not yet decided how to handle the issue of whether or not to use his real name. If I do not, I may have to do some retconning to this episode. I have not stayed in touch with him, but I know people who would know how to get in touch with him in case I need to ask whether he is okay with me using his real name. I don’t believe Masaki will appear in DLTDGB again, so I have a few years to figure that out.