November 1-3, 1996. Discovering a dark side to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

“Welcome to the Intervarsity Regional Fall Conference!” Lars Ashford announced from the stage.  JCF was part of an organization called Intervarsity, with chapters at colleges and universities across three nations.  Six schools attended this conference, which began Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon, and Lars named each of the six, which was followed by cheers from those in attendance from each school.  There seemed to be many more people here from Jeromeville than anywhere else, about as many as all the others combined.  As I walked in, I was wondering why only our worship team was playing, and not anyone from the other schools, but now I assumed it was because our group was so much larger than the others.

A guy who introduced himself as being on staff with Intervarsity at Bidwell State gave a talk about hearing God’s voice in the middle of a busy world.  He based his talk on the passage from the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was hiding from those who wanted to kill him.  Elijah heard the voice of God not in a heavy wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but a gentle whisper.  That was what I needed; with how busy I was with classes, I needed to remember to listen to the gentle whispers of God.

After the talk, we sang a few more songs, and then people mingled around the room as others trickled out the door back to their rooms.  I turned around and said hi to Eddie Baker, sitting behind me.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.  “How are you?  This is your first time at Muddy Springs, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d heard of this place before, because my dad grew up in Bidwell, but I’ve never actually been here before.  I want to see what it looks like outside in the morning.”

“You’ll love it.  Hey, I want to catch up, but I have to meet with the Kairos groups to talk about some stuff tonight.  I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sure,” I said.  I did not know what Eddie’s meeting was about, or even what a Kairos group was.  The word was completely unfamiliar to me.  I saw Haley Channing a few rows away, talking to Kristina Kasparian.  I walked up to them and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Kristina said.

“What’s up?” Haley asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “This is my first time here.  Just hanging out.”

“We were actually just on our way to a meeting,” Haley said.  “We need to talk about stuff for Kairos.  But I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure,” I said, faking a smile.  Whatever this Kairos thing was, it involved a lot of my friends, and they had to meet in private.  I walked around the room, looking for people who might not be meeting privately.  Most of the people from the other schools seemed to be staying together, not mingling with the Jeromeville people.

Behind the back row of chairs, a group of people from Jeromeville stood around: Scott Madison, Amelia Dye, Brent Wang, Autumn Davies, a sophomore named James whom I had met a few times, and a few others.  They were not with the Kairos people, so hopefully they were not about to leave.

“Hey, Greg,” Scott said.  “James is teaching us a game.  Want to play?”

“What kind of game?”

“It’s called Silent Football,” James said.  “I was just about to explain it.”

The nine of us standing there sat in a circle cross-legged.  James was barefoot, just as he had been on Sunday when I saw him at church, and also at JCF last week.  Apparently this was a thing with him.  I was curious why James was always barefoot, but it did not feel like it was my place to ask.  As James explained the game, I realized quickly that it had little to do with actual football.  There was an imaginary ball that we had to keep track of, and the person with the ball could pass it to different players by making certain hand gestures with weird funny names.  Each gesture corresponded to passing the ball a certain number of players in a certain direction, or other things like that.  If a player made an illegal move, like passing the ball when someone else actually had the ball, the game would stop.  James, as the game leader, would give the offending player a penalty, which meant doing something silly and embarrassing.

James started with the imaginary ball.  I carefully kept track of who had the ball, and when it came to me, I gestured to pass the ball to the player on the right, who was Autumn.  Autumn then passed the ball further to the right, to Amelia.  I was safe for now.  Amelia gestured to pass back to the person who passed it to her, and Autumn did not respond.  “Autumn,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you didn’t pass it.”

“Huh?” Autumn replied.  “I passed it to Amelia!”

“And I passed it back!” Amelia said.

“Exactly,” James continued.  “Autumn, your penalty is that you have to act out a scene from a TV show or movie of your choice.  Stand up.”

Autumn giggled and stood.  She took a deep breath and giggled again, then she started screaming at random people.  “No soup for you!” she said, pointing right at me.  I knew, from overhearing people quote this, that Autumn was performing a scene from the TV show Seinfeld, but I had not seen the episode myself.  I always thought that show was annoying.

Autumn sat back down, and we began another round.  James passed the ball to a guy named Matt, who was not paying attention.  “Matt,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you did not pass it.  For your penalty… I’ve heard you sing the really fast verse at the end of the song ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler.  So now, you will serenade us.  Ready?  Suck it in.”

“Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in, if you’re Rin Tin Tin, or Anne Boleyn,” Matt sang.  He got a couple more lines into the song before he flubbed the lyrics and everyone started laughing.  James started another round and passed the ball to me.  I attempted to make the gesture to pass the ball back to whomever had it last, but I ended up flailing my arms in a way that was not exactly what I was supposed to do.

“Greg,” James said, mimicking my botched gesture.  “What exactly does this mean?”  Everyone laughed, as I just sat quietly, knowing that I was about to get a penalty.  “You are a mathematics major, correct?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“And I have heard that you can recite pi from memory to three thousand decimal places.”

“Not quite that many,” I said, laughing.  “Maybe sixty or so.”

“Well, then, let’s hear what you can do.”

I took a deep breath.  “3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923… is that good?”

“Well done.”

We continued playing a few more rounds of Silent Football.  It was frustrating, and the whole purpose of the game was for the person leading the game to embarrass the others, but it was also strangely entertaining.  I continued playing as long as everyone else did.

As I left the meeting hall, I noticed that the Kairos people were now in the lobby sitting around the fireplace talking; their meeting appeared to be over.  Eddie, Kristina, Tabitha Sasaki, Sarah Winters, and Liz Williams were sitting around the couches.  Ramon Quintero sat in a chair playing guitar, and Haley sat next to him, singing harmony.  The two of them seemed completely engrossed in what they were doing, tuning out the rest of the world.

I went upstairs and went to bed, not even trying to talk to anyone.  This was not supposed to happen.  This Kairos thing felt like a clique of insiders, not letting anyone into their secret dealings.  Some of my closest friends had felt more distant lately because of being in this Kairos group, and now one of them was moving in on Haley.  Ramon and Liz were among the first friends I made in Jeromeville, and they had been a solid couple for almost two years until just a few months ago.  Ramon was not supposed to be a threat to girls I was interested in, but now he was.  I could not compete with Ramon, with his cool curly hair and all the musical instruments he played and languages he spoke.  I went to bed feeling distraught, and did not fall asleep quickly.


After breakfast and another worship session, all of us at the retreat were given a worksheet with directions for a guided meditation and prayer.  The first line said to find a quiet place outside, so I left the building, seeing the grounds of the retreat center in daylight for the first time.  Muddy Springs was a two-hour car trip from Jeromeville, tucked into a canyon in the foothills ten miles north of Bidwell.  It was named after a natural spring on this property; the indigenous inhabitants of this area used the mud from the springs for its supposed healing properties.  In the early 1900s, some enterprising Americans capitalized on that legend and built a resort here, and in the 1960s, when their business had dried up, they sold the property to a group that turned it into a Christian conference center.  Officially, it was now called Wellspring of Life Conference Center, but most people still called it Muddy Springs.

The dormitory that we stayed in was the original resort hotel, a towering brick building four stories high with two more floors below ground.  People said that it reminded them of the hotel from The Shining, but I had not seen the movie or read the book, so I did not know.  The land sloped downward behind the hotel, toward a creek, so that the lower floors had windows facing the back.  Additional cabins were scattered around the property behind the hotel, along with basketball and tennis courts and a meeting hall detached from the hotel building, where we met last night.  The surrounding hills were dotted with a mix of oak and pine trees, and covered in brown grass, since it had not started raining yet this winter.  I sat on a low stone wall looking out toward the other side of the canyon.

I opened my Bible and tried to follow along with the instructions on the handout, but I was having trouble concentrating.  The events of yesterday, being left out of the inner clique of the Kairos groups and wondering what was going on with Ramon and Haley, kept running through my mind.  “God,” I said quietly but aloud, “I pray that I will focus on you and not get distracted.  Not my will, but yours be done.”  I sat there for the whole hour, trying to put my concerns aside and listen to what God was telling me, repeating to myself, “Not my will, but yours be done.  I did not get any clear response from God.

I wandered back into the building and toward the dining hall when it was time for lunch.  The people from the Kairos groups were all sitting together, and I did not try to break into their clique again.  Instead I took my tray of chicken nuggets and French fries over to a group of three people I did not recognize.  “Hi,” I said.  “Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” a blonde girl said.

“What school are you guys from?”

“Great Basin State,” she replied.  She continued talking to her friends, and none of them said another word for me.  They got up and left after my lunch was about half finished.  I finished eating, then just sat with my plate as the room gradually emptied.

Cheryl, one of the adults on JCF staff, saw me sitting alone and approached me.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Are you okay?  You’re sitting by yourself, not eating.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I already ate, and my friends are all busy right now.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  Can we go for a walk?  I wanted to talk to you.”

I was not expecting this question.  What could Cheryl be wanting to talk to me about?  Was she going to ask me to be a part of something, like when Tabitha asked me to be the worship team’s roadie at the last retreat?  Maybe she was going to invite me to this Kairos group thing, whatever it was?  “Sure,” I said.

Cheryl and I walked out of the hotel downhill down the road.  The weather was mild, with big puffy clouds in the sky, signaling the quick transition period every November where the weather turns abruptly from summer-like to winter-like.  The first cold and rainy day of the winter would probably arrive in a week or so.  “So how’s the weekend going for you?” Cheryl asked.

“Kind of disappointing, honestly,” I replied.  “What exactly is a Kairos group?”

Cheryl looked like she was not expecting that question; apparently I was not going to get invited to a Kairos group.  “It’s a new ministry we started last year, with six sophomores, and we’ve been gradually expanding it as more students grow through it.  It’s a small group for training and discipling student leaders,” she explained.  “‘Kairos’ means something like ‘the time something happens.’  It’s in the Greek for the passage where Jesus said, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.’  Mark 1:15.”

“How was it determined who gets to participate in Kairos groups?” I asked.

“When we were first starting this, at the beginning of last year, the staff picked six students who we thought we would be interested  Then at the end of the year, they split into three pairs, to be the leaders for this year’s Kairos groups, and each pair selected four more sophomores and juniors to fill their group.  So now we have three groups, and we’re going to do that again this year, so we’re hoping to have nine Kairos groups next year.”

“So the Kairos groups are just going to take over all of JCF?” I asked.  “What happens when there aren’t enough people?  If each group grows into three groups the following year, it’ll only be…” I did some math in my head, then continued a few seconds later.  “In less than a decade, there won’t be enough students at Jeromeville to fill all those groups.”

“That’s why we need to pray that God will bring people to us, and we need to invite our friends and tell them about Jesus,” Cheryl replied.

I agreed conceptually with telling people about Jesus, and I knew that it was good to pray that people will come to JCF and get involved, but I also knew that Cheryl’s math was off.  The Kairos group was not a sustainable model for ministry.  But I did not expect my mathematical argument to convince Cheryl at the moment, and that was not my issue in the first place.  “What happens to someone like me, then?”  I said.  “If you can only join a Kairos group as a sophomore or junior, will there be any groups left for seniors next year?”

“There will be a group for seniors.  And for people who aren’t in Kairos groups.”.

“But even so, doesn’t it kind of send the wrong message that these Kairos groups are invitation only?  Some of my friends, I’ve hardly gotten to see them on this retreat, because they’ve been doing stuff with their Kairos groups the whole time.”

Cheryl paused.  “That’s kind of along the lines of what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.  “I’ve noticed that you seem to like to be the center of attention.”

This was definitely not what I expected to hear. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Remember at Outreach Camp, when you grabbed the microphone?” Cheryl asked.

I did remember.  During one of the worship sessions, the band said at the end of the session that they were going to stick around for some more informal worship music if people wanted to continue worshiping.  I stayed, and at one point I felt like I wanted to sing, so I asked if I could have a microphone, and I sang lyrics that I had just made up, to the tune of the song they were already playing.  I felt a little embarrassed afterward, that I had actually done such a thing, and I never spoke of that night again.  “Yes,” I said.

“I think sometimes you’re too worried about what other people think.  You’re thinking about what you want, not what God wants for you.”

I processed this as we continued walking downhill.  “I’m a shy introvert,” I explained.  “I’m not really the kind of person who naturally wants to be the center of attention.  But I think you’re right.  Sometimes I am paying more attention to what I want instead of what God wants.”

“And you told me you’re worried about your friends in Kairos groups leaving you out.  They’re still your friends.  You aren’t worth less because you’re not in a Kairos group.

“Yeah, but that’s not what it feels like.”

We turned around and walked back uphill, toward the hotel.  “What if we had some kind of sign?” Cheryl asked.  “If I think you need to step back, focus on God, and not be in the spotlight, I’ll just look at you and tap my ear.”  Cheryl demonstrated, moving her right hand to her ear and tapping the top of it.  “I don’t have to call you out.  It’ll just be our little thing.”

“I guess,” I said.  I still did not think that I was a habitual attention hog by nature.  But, on the other hand, Cheryl had a point; I definitely did have some of these tendencies when I was in the right situation with the right crowd.  And focusing on God and not the self is always something that is naturally difficult for most people.  “But I still think it’s wrong to have the Kairos groups if they’re going to be exclusive like that,” I continued

“Just because no one picked you for a Kairos group doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a place for you.  Keep praying, and God will show you how you can serve him.”

“Then why even have Kairos groups in the first place?  You tell me not to be the center of attention, but the people in these groups, they get to be part of some exclusive club.”

“I don’t think anyone else sees it that way,” Cheryl explained.  “But I’ll bring that up in our staff meeting, to make sure we don’t turn it into something like that.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  I could see that I was not going to bring down the entire Kairos ministry, much less become one of the cool kids and make Haley want to go out with me, just from this one conversation with Cheryl.  But I voiced my concerns, and I learned something about the way people see me that I needed to work on.


Cheryl and I returned to the hotel after spending the rest of the walk just talking about life and classes.  When we returned, I found some people behind the hotel playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. They were playing on a paved surface, given the lack of flat grass on the grounds, so I had to be a little careful, but it was fun and I did not fall down.

Later, at dinner time, I walked down to the dining hall.  The people from the Kairos groups were still sitting together, and I still felt frustrated enough at the situation that I did not bother to ask if I could join them.  I found a group of three freshman girls from Jeromeville with an empty seat next to them; maybe they would be more friendly than the Great Basin State students, since we had seen each other before.  “May I join you?” I asked.

One of them, I thought her name was Carrie, looked up at me and smiled.  She was somewhat taller than average, the tallest of the three but still at least six inches shorter than me, with straight medium-brown hair and dark brown eyes.  “Sure!” she said.  “Greg, is it?”

“Yeah.  And you’re Carrie?”  Then, to the girl on Carrie’s left, I said, “And you’re Angie?  And I don’t remember your name,” I said to the third one, who then introduced herself as Susan.

“How’s your weekend going?” Carrie asked me.

“It’s okay,” I replied.  “I’ve had some frustrating stuff happen lately, but I think God is teaching me something through it.”

“God does that,” Angie said.

“Yes he does,” I replied.  “How’s yours?”

“It’s great!” Carrie said.  “This place is so beautiful!  We went for a walk this morning down to the creek during the quiet time.  It was so nice.”

“Yeah,” Susan added.

“That’s good,” I said.  “I’ve never been here specifically, but I’ve been to Bidwell many times, because I have relatives there.  This part of the state is so beautiful.”

“That’s cool,” Carrie said.

I did get to talk to my friends from the Kairos groups a little bit that weekend, since they were not meeting together that night.  It was mostly small talk, but it was better than nothing.  Other than my clique-related frustration, the weekend was good overall.  It was nice being away from Jeromeville for a couple days.  Silent Football was fun and silly, and I made friends with some freshman girls, one of whom I am still friends with today.

Cheryl only had to use the ear-tapping thing twice for the remaining years that I was involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The incident she mentioned was not my normal behavior, but it was true that JCF should not primarily be a social club.  I was here to grow closer to God among friends as we encouraged each other’s spiritual growth.  Being social with Christian friends is not inherently bad, but it should not be the goal in itself.  God would lead me to a place where I could serve him, even if it did not involve a flashy attention-getting position.  He already opened the door for me to be the worship team’s roadie this year.

A few months later, God led me to a new place to serve.  He opened this door when I was not looking for it, and this ministry was not part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But that is another story for another time. Even though the Kairos groups were cliquish, I did stay friends with those people.  Being cliquish is part of sinful human nature.  And in the fall of 1998, when I heard that JCF was dropping their Kairos ministry completely, it felt like a victory.



Author’s notes:
What are some stories you guys have about being left out of cliques?

Also, I never knew what the actual lyric was after “Rin Tin Tin” until I looked it up while writing this episode.  It always sounded like “rambling” to me.  I’ve been singing those words wrong for a quarter-century.  And I really did type pi from memory when I wrote this.

Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year.

“Welcome, Greg!” Janet McAllen said.  She and her husband Dave, the full-time paid staff who led Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, sat at a folding table overlooking the dirt parking lot and the entrance to Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center.  “You’re in Cabin 4.  You can go put your stuff away there.  Dinner is at six o’clock, and we’ll be meeting after that.  Until then, we’re pretty much just hanging out.”

“Cool.”

“How was your summer?”  Dave asked.

“It was good.  I took a class first session, Intro to Software.  I got an A.”

“Good job!” Janet said.  She pointed out the general direction of the cafeteria, meeting room, and cabins, and I headed toward Cabin 4, carrying my sleeping bag, pillow, and suitcase.  The suitcase was not really a suitcase, since it had soft sides, and it was not really mine, since it had my grandfather’s initials embroidered on it.  I had taken it with me two years ago when I first moved into my dorm as a freshman, since I did not have a suitcase, and I still had it.

The cabin held six campers in three bunk beds attached to the wall.  I was six feet, four inches tall, and the beds looked a little short for me.  I would not fit in the lower bunk at all, because the short ends of the bunks were a wall of solid wood instead of a wood or metal frame, so that my feet would press against the inside of this wall instead of dangle over.  Two of the top bunks already had people’s things on them, so I climbed to the last remaining top bunk.  My feet hung over the end a little, but if I turned at a slight diagonal, I would at least be a little bit more comfortable.

I went outside and found Brent Wang getting people together for a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee.  “How’ve you been?” I asked Brent.

“Great,” he said.  “I’m playing keyboard on the worship team this year.  After this game we’re gonna go practice.”

“That’s cool,” I said.  “I’m just glad to be back.”

I spent the next hour running up and down the field, catching and passing the flying disc, as I saw more and more of my friends from last year arriving, mostly coming from Jeromeville in organized carpools.  Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was about a two hour car trip from Jeromeville, northeast into the mountains.  I had never been to this part of the state before.  The parking lot, field, and basketball court were spread out over a meadow, with the meeting room, cafeteria, and cabins set against the foot of the mountains that surrounded the grounds on three sides.  Beyond the parking lot, the road on which we drove in sloped downward.  The pines that covered the mountains gave the area a distinct scent not present down in the Valley.

I was dripping sweat after we finished playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I walked around and spent about another hour catching up with people, watching others play Ultimate Frisbee, table tennis, and basketball.  At dinner time, I wandered toward the cafeteria.  The inside of the building reminded me a bit of the dining hall at the dorm from two years ago, but with fewer options.  As I walked around looking for a place to sit, I heard a familiar voice say, “Greg!  How are you?  Want to sit here?”

Melinda Schmidt sat at a table with two other senior girls, Amelia Dye and Lillian Corey. “Sure,” I said, sitting at the empty seat.  “How was your summer?”

“It was pretty good!  How was yours?”

“I was in Jeromeville taking a class.  Where were you this summer again?”

“I was home.  In Blue Oaks.  You drove through it on the way here.”

“No.  I thought you were going on a mission trip somewhere.”

“Oh… I was going to, but I had to cancel it because of a family emergency.”

“I’m sorry.”  That phrase “family emergency” always felt awkward to me; I never knew whether or not it was okay to ask for more details about what happened.

“It’s okay.  I’ll have lots of time to look at mission trips for next year,” Melinda continued.

“Yeah.  That’s good.”

“Have you ever been on a mission trip?”

“I haven’t.  I’m pretty new to all this stuff.  But I’m learning more about what kind of things happen on mission trips.  One thing I was hoping to find this week is what role God has for me in the group this year.”

“That’s good.  Just keep seeking God.”

As the afternoon continued on into the evening, I kept my eye out for Haley Channing to arrive.  I had not seen her in over three months now, and I was hoping that being together on a retreat for five whole days would give us time to talk and hang out.  Maybe, if things went well, I could tell her how I felt about her.  I had assumed she would be here, since she was friends with all the people who were in JCF’s inner social circles, but I never knew for sure whether or not she would.  I had gotten one letter from her during the summer, and she never mentioned Outreach Camp at all.  By the end of dinner, I had still not seen Haley, and I began to resign myself to the fact that she was not coming, and that I would have to wait until sometime next week to see her again.


We studied Paul’s letter to the Philippians for our Bible studies at Outreach Camp.  We did something called a manuscript study, where we were each given a copy of the text of Philippians without chapter or verse numbers.  We were supposed to look at the text without those distractions, so we could find connections between different parts of the text and mark them in different colors.  I did not quite understand what I was looking for, and no one could give me a clear answer.  As the week went on, my manuscript looked more and more like the bulletin board of a conspiracy theorist connecting seemingly unrelated details.

After the first Bible study time, we got into groups for prayer requests.  Amelia was in my group, along with Liz Williams, a junior like me who had lived right down the hall from me freshman year.  Also in my group were Eddie Baker, a junior who had been there for me on a particularly rough night, and two sophomores named Jennifer Chong and Todd Chevallier.

“I’ve had to make a lot of difficult decisions lately,” Liz began.  “I want to make sure that I am living entirely for God, because I’ve been letting too much get in the way.”  Liz seemed to be struggling to get her words out.  Finally, she continued, “Ramon and I broke up.”

The next few seconds of silence among those in our group said more than words ever could.  For almost two years, since the first quarter of freshman year, Liz and Ramon had been the strong Christian couple whom everyone liked.  They had also been among the first friends I made at the University of Jeromeville.  “Pray that we will both use this time apart to seek God wholly, and to know what he has for us, whether we end up together or apart in the end,” Liz continued.

“Any other prayer requests?” Amelia asked.

“I have one,” I said, a little hesitant to follow Liz’s major announcement.  “Pray that God will show me what my role is within JCF.  Now that I’ve been going here for a year, I want to know how I can get involved.”

“That’s a good one.  We’ll pray for that.”

As the six of us prayed, we could hear other groups finishing and the worship band setting up.  After prayer, we all spent some time singing before concluding for the night.  I looked around, unsure of what would happen now; was everyone supposed to go to bed, or were people going to stay up hanging out and talking for a while?  I sat watching others, trying to figure out what to do.  After a few minutes, Tabitha Sasaki spotted me across the room while she and the rest of the worship band were putting away their instruments.  She came over toward me and said, “Hey, Greg.  Can I ask you something?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“That big red Bronco in the parking lot, that’s yours, right?”

Uh-oh.  Last week, Brian made me the driver for our toilet-papering adventure specifically because no one in the house we hit would know my car, so that we could park outside and listen for their reaction.  Did I just get caught?  Was Tabitha there that night, and I did not realize it?  “Yes,” I said uneasily.

“Lars and Brent and Scott and I were just talking about how the worship team needs a roadie, someone to help us load and unload all our instruments and equipment each week.  We were trying to think of someone who has, like, a big truck or something like that, and I thought of you.  I thought you had a Bronco.  Would you be interested in doing that for us this year?”

I was relieved that Tabitha’s conversation with me had nothing to do with the toilet-papering incident, but I saw that something else was happening here too.  “Yes!” I replied.  “That sounds perfect!  Just earlier tonight, in our small group, I was praying that God would find a specific way for me to get involved.  This is an answer to prayer.”

“Yay!  I know, we were praying about it too, and I just thought of you.  That’s totally a God thing.”

“So what exactly would I have to do?”

“We practice at Lars’ house on J Street, so just come there every Friday an hour before large group starts, and help us load everything.  Then help us unload once we get to campus.  And do the same thing afterward.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  Having to unload afterward meant that I might be a little late if anyone did anything social, but that was no problem as long as I knew what was going on.  This was exactly what I had been praying for.  My mom always said that God works in mysterious ways, and this was one of them.


The rest of the week was more of the same; lots of time hanging out at this beautiful retreat center, playing Ultimate Frisbee and table tennis, sitting among the pines reading Scripture, and singing songs of praise and worship.  One day, I was sitting alone on a bench reading the Bible, and I spotted Ramon doing the same on a bench about a hundred feet away.  I thought about him having broken up with Liz, and about Haley not being here at all, and I realized that maybe Haley’s absence was God’s work too.  Maybe God wanted me to really focus on him this week, and he knew that having Haley here would be too much of a distraction for me.  I smiled and thanked God silently.

For the Wednesday evening session, we split into groups that each had a specific focus for the first week of school.  Small group Bible study leaders met to plan their outreach and their studies for the first quarter.  Another group met to discuss having a table in the Quad to hand out flyers and get contact information from interested students.  Another group made plans to show up around the dorms on Sunday and offer to help students move in.

My new position as the roadie did not fit neatly into any of these groups.  I walked around the room, trying to figure out which group to join.  Brian Burr, my roommate who had graduated last year and was now on staff with JCF, saw me and motioned for me to come over.  Their group also included Tabitha, Liz, Todd, Jennifer Chong, and Scott Madison, who was the worship team drummer and Amelia’s boyfriend.  “Which group is this?” I asked.

“We’re planning a skit for the first large group,” Brian said.

“Yeah,” Scott added.  “I’m gonna be Scooby-Doo.”

“This is gonna be funny,” I said.  “What’s the skit going to be about?”

“So far, the Scooby-Doo gang is helping freshmen move in, and one girl’s dorm room is haunted.  And we’ll chase the ghost around, just like in a Scooby-Doo cartoon, and then take off the ghost’s mask at the end.”

“That’s a great idea!  What’s the spiritual lesson in this?”

“There isn’t one,” Tabitha said.  “It’s just for fun.”

“Sounds good, I said.

We spent the next hour, as well as some time after the Thursday evening session, outlining the plot of our skit.  We got Lars Ashford, a senior who played in the worship team, to be the bad guy in our skit.  A few days after we all got back to Jeromeville, we all met at Scott’s apartment one night to write the script and rehearse.  We watched old Scooby-Doo cartoons on a rented VHS tape for about an hour, to help us perfect the mannerisms of our characters.  We painted cardboard props, including the Mystery Machine van.  The others tried on their costumes, which they had assembled from thrift store and costume shop products.

“So, the funniest thing happened at the costume shop,” Liz said.  “I told the guy I was looking for orange hair dye.  But I said, not like real hair color, like a cartoon orange.  That was all I said.  And he asked the other guy working there, ‘Do we have any orange hair dye, like Daphne from Scooby-Doo?’”

“That’s hilarious!” I said.

“I know!  I said, that’s exactly what I’m looking for!”

The first JCF meeting was on the first Friday night after classes started, a week after we got home from Outreach Camp.  The room was full of new freshmen and transfer students from community colleges, as well as returning students from last year.  After the opening song, Dave McAllen introduced himself and made announcements; then it was time for our skit.

I stood at the front of the room, wearing a large oversized button on my shirt that said ASK ME.  Jennifer Chong walked up to me.  “Hi,” she said.  “Is… is this Baxter Hall?”

“Yes,” I said.  “I’m an RA here in the building.  Are you one of my residents?”

“Yeah.  I’m Jennifer.  I’m in room 319.”

“Great!  My name is Greg.  Just come find me if you need help with anything.”

“I will!”

I sat down in the front row after this; that opening scene was my entire role in the skit.  The rest of the group walked in from the back of the room carrying the Mystery Machine: Brian as Shaggy in a green shirt with unkempt hair, Liz as Daphne with dyed orange hair, Todd as Fred with a white shirt and scarf, Tabitha as Velma in a turtleneck, and Scott as Scooby wearing a hideous brown thrift store suit and fake dog ears.  The audience cheered wildly.

“Zoinks!” Brian said to Jennifer.  “We’re, like, here to help you move!”  The audience laughed at Brian’s impersonation of Shaggy.

“Hi,” Liz said.  “I’m Daphne.  What’s your name?”

“Jennifer,” Jennifer said.

“What building and room are you in?” Todd asked.

“319 Baxter.”

All four of the other human characters gasped, and said in unison, “319 Baxter?”

“Ruh-roh!” Scott added.

“Like, that’s the room that’s haunted by the ghost of Alexander Baxter!” Brian exclaimed.

“And the key to room 319 also opens a treasure chest that Mr. Baxter hid in the basement!” Tabitha said.  In real life, Baxter Hall had no basement.

“G-g-g-ghost?” Jennifer said, trembling.

“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” Todd said.  “Come on.  Everyone grab a box, and let’s carry this stuff upstairs.”

As everyone walked offstage, Lars stood in a corner, wearing a trench coat.  His face was covered with a ghost mask made from a paper plate with eye holes.  Jennifer held her room key, which Lars snuck up and stole before returning to his hiding place.  “Let’s unlock the room so we can get in,” Jennifer said.  “Huh?  Where’s the key?  I just had it.”

“Zoinks!” Brian shouted, pointing at Lars.  “Ghost!”

“Raaaarrr!” Lars screamed, jumping out of his corner.  Everyone started running in place for a few seconds, then they simultaneously took off in the same direction, just as they did in old cartoons.  Lars chased the others, also running in place first.

Brian, Scott, Liz, Tabitha, and Todd ran back to the center of the stage.  “W-w-where’s the ghost?” Tabitha asked.

“Let’s split up,” Todd suggested.  “Shaggy and Scooby, you go that way, and the rest of us will go this way.”  The group walked off stage in opposite directions.

Lars picked up a cardboard soda machine prop and hid behind it.  Brian and Scott walked by.  “Like, look, Scoob!  Soda!” Brian said.  Scott made dog noises in return.  Brian put a coin in the soda machine, and Lars handed Brian a soda from behind the machine, his hand clearly visible.  “Like, thanks!” Brian said.  The audience laughed.

“You’re welcome,” Lars growled from behind the soda machine.  Brian and Scott looked at each other, then back at the soda machine.  Lars tossed the soda machine aside and screamed, “Raaaaarrrr!”  Brian and Scott ran away.

Next, Todd, Tabitha, and Liz walked in from the other side of the stage.  Lars stood right in their way, unnoticed by them.  “Have any of you seen anything strange?” Tabitha asked as she walked with her head turned, facing the others.  She bumped into Lars.  All of them screamed and began chasing each other back and forth across the stage.

Eventually, all of the mystery-solving friends and Jennifer came back to the front of the room, with Lars across the room from them, not seeing them.  “Okay, Scooby,” Todd said, holding a woman’s dress.  “Put this on and seduce the ghost.”  The audience cheered and whooped at this suggestion.  I remembered that our script said “distract,” not “seduce,” and I hoped that Todd’s Freudian slip would not get us in trouble, since we were supposed to be a Christian group promoting Biblical values.  (No one ever said anything.)

“Ruh-ruh,” Scott replied, shaking his head.

“Like, would you do it for a Scooby Snack?” Brian asked, holding a box of crackers.  The audience cheered at yet another silly Scooby-Doo reference.

“Mmm!” Scott said, eating a cracker.  He put on the dress, prompting another round of cheering from the audience, and walked toward Lars, batting his eyelashes.  “Roh, Rister Raxter,” Scott said, combining the usual extra Rs of the Scooby-Doo voice with an exaggerated high falsetto.  Lars turned around to look at Scott, distracted, as Todd, Liz, and Tabitha put a rope around Lars and tied him up.

“Let’s see who you really are,” Tabitha said, pulling Lars’ mask off.

“It’s, like, my history professor!” Brian gasped.

“And I would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for you meddlin’ kids!” Lars said.  The audience cheered.

“That wraps up that mystery,” Todd said to Jennifer.  “Now we can go back to helping you move in.”

“Thanks, guys,” Jennifer replied.  “I just hope I don’t have any classes in haunted classrooms!”  All of the actors made fake exaggerating laughing noises, and the audience cheered.

Tabitha had told me there was no particular spiritual illustration in our skit.  Not every act of Christian service or ministry has to have a direct teachable illustration.  This silly performance brought a moment of much-needed levity into the stressful lives of a room full of university students beginning a new academic year.

Even fun moments like this meant solely to create a welcoming environment can have far-reaching spiritual consequences.  A freshman named Seth Huang sat in the audience that night.  Seth would give his testimony at JCF large group a few years later; he said that he attended a number of different Christian campus groups the first couple weeks of school, but the reason he chose to get involved with JCF was because of the Scooby-Doo skit.  The people listening to his testimony laughed at that, and I felt honored to have been part of something that made a difference to him.  Seth went on to spend about a decade after graduation in full-time ministry at two other schools in the area, leading chapters of the same campus ministry organization that ran JCF.  Hundreds of students received spiritual guidance from Seth, all because some of us decided to act silly and perform a Scooby-Doo skit.  God certainly does work in mysterious ways.

Greg (left) and Brian at Outreach Camp, September 1996

Author’s note: For my readers in other countries, six feet, four inches equals 1.93 meters.

Scooby-Doo and all associated properties are trademarks of Hanna-Barbera, who was not involved in the production of this work.

June 15, 1996. The graduation party at the Valdez Street house.

Back in the 1990s, all of the hottest names in alternative rock played the Lollapalooza festival.  The festival toured major cities around the United States every summer, bringing live music along with other performances and attractions.  Critics called Lollapalooza an event that changed the history of music forever.

I never attended a Lollapalooza show.  I did not go to big concerts back then, and I felt a little scared to do so, knowing the kind of people that an event like Lollapalooza attracted.  In my life, the legacy of Lollapalooza was all of the advertising campaigns, small local events, and the like with names ending in “-palooza.”  This was similar to the excessive use of the suffix “-gate” to name political scandals, after the burglary at the Watergate Building in Washington, D.C. in 1972, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.  If something had a name ending in “-palooza,” everyone knew that it was going to be life-changing… or at least the person organizing and naming the event believed that it would be life-changing.

A little over a week ago, I had been at the final meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for this school year, talking to people afterward about the upcoming finals week.  Brian Burr approached me, handing out small postcard-sized flyers.  He was tall and athletic, a high jumper on the University of Jeromeville’s track team, with reddish-brown hair.  He was graduating this year, and next year he would  be staying in Jeromeville to work with JCF part-time and apply to medical school.  Brian and I were going to share an apartment next year, along with Shawn, my current Bible study leader and one of Brian’s current housemates.

“Grad-a-palooza,” Brian said in an overly dramatic and exaggerated tone as he handed me his flyer.  I took the flyer and read it.


GRADAPALOOZA!
A celebration of the graduation of the gentlemen of 1640 Valdez Street
Mr. Brian Burr
Mr. Shawn Yang
Mr. Michael Kozlovsky
Mr. Daniel Conway

Saturday, June 15, 1996
6pm until whenever
1640 Valdez St., Jeromeville


“Graduation party?” I asked.  “At your house?”

“Yes.  Saturday, the 15th.  Right after finals are done.”

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

In hindsight, it was not entirely necessary for me to repeat back that it was a graduation party; this was obvious from the flyer.  I suppose I asked because I was surprised; I had never been invited to a college graduation party. I did not know any seniors last year.

Yesterday, Friday, was the last scheduled day for finals, but my last final had been on Thursday morning.  I had spent the last two and a half days doing a fat load of nothing.  I went for bike rides, I read, I worked on my novel, and I wasted a lot of time on the Internet with Usenet groups and IRC chats.  It was wonderful, and so far there had not been another incident like the one a few days ago.

When I moved to Jeromeville to start school, someone gave me a camera as a going-away present.  The camera then spent twenty-one months in a drawer, unused.  Yesterday I remembered that I had a camera, and I bought film and batteries, so I was ready to preserve some memories from Brian and Shawn’s party tonight.

Valdez Street was in south Jeromeville, on the other side of Highway 100 from me.  I drove east on Coventry Boulevard and turned right on G Street toward downtown.  As I approached downtown, I drove past progressively older houses and apartment complexes; after crossing Fifth Street, G Street became a commercial corridor.  It was Saturday night, and I had to drive slowly, watching for pedestrians and bicycles.  At least three households of JCF students were neighbors on Valdez Street and Baron Court, and as I got to know these people more, I often wished I could be part of that community.  Most of these people who were not graduating would be dispersing to other parts of Jeromeville next year, though, so a community like that may not exist next year.  I at least had the new apartment with Brian and Shawn to look forward to, even if we would not be neighbors with a large group of friends.

The student population of Jeromeville was gradually emptying as students finished finals, but I still had to park farther away from Brian and Shawn’s house than usual.  I could hear muffled music and conversation as I approached the house; apparently this was a big party.  I walked in and looked around; music was playing, and people were talking loudly.  Hopefully I would be able to hear when people talked to me.

“Greg!” Brian called out, waving, as he saw me from across the room.  “Come on in!”

I had been in this house four times before, and I had never seen it this full.  People were sitting on couches, in chairs, on the floor, and on the stairs.  A streamer that said “CONGRATULATIONS CLASS OF 1996” hung from the wall.

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

“I think I did well.  What about you?”

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

“Yeah.  Mom and Dad and my sister came for the day.  We went out to dinner, then they left about an hour ago.”

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

Someone I did not recognize got up and walked toward the bathroom; I sat in his vacated seat.  I knew about half the people here from JCF, and I recognized some other JCF people whom I did not know well.  I assumed that the guys who lived here probably had other friends, so not everyone here would be from JCF.  I pulled out my camera and took a few candid shots of people sitting around talking.

Kristina, a sophomore who lived around the corner on Baron Court, walked past me.  “Greg!” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  How were finals?”

“Hard!  But they’re over now!  How were yours?”

“I think I did fine,” I said. “Is–” I caught myself before finishing my question, Is Haley here?  Six years ago, in eighth grade, Paul Dickinson had figured out that I liked Rachelle Benedetti, and within a few days the whole school knew.  Ever since then, any time I had any sort of romantic interest or crush, I treated it like a closely guarded secret which no one must ever find out.  “Are any of your roommates here?” I asked instead.  That way, my question would get answered without Kristina suspecting that I liked Haley.

“Kelly and Jeanette are here somewhere.  Haley went home on Thursday after her last final.”

 “Oh, ok.”  I was a little disappointed that I would not see Haley for the next three months, but also relieved that, with Haley not here, I would have no opportunities to embarrass myself in front of her.  “What are you up to this summer?” I asked.

“Taking classes.  You?”

“Same.  Well, one class first session.  Probably just hanging out here second session.  I’m going to my parents’ house next week.”

“Nice.  I’ll probably see you around campus.”

“Yeah.”

I walked around, making small talk and asking people their plans for the summer.  Most of the people here were not going to be in Jeromeville.  That did not bode well for my hope of having a social life this summer.  I knew that JCF was running one small group Bible study this summer, so that was something.  And I would still be singing at church; I knew some people from church who would be around this summer.

I got up to use the bathroom.  A decoration on the bathroom wall above the toilet said “We aim to please, you aim too please.”  At first, my mind parsed that as “we aim to please, you aim to please” with a word misspelled.  I did not understand why the phrase needed to be repeated.  I did not get the joke until I flushed the toilet; the second part was supposed to say “you aim too, please,” as in “please don’t pee on the floor.”  I laughed out loud at my sudden realization.  Hopefully no one found it strange that someone was laughing in the bathroom.

I returned to the living room, realizing that I had not talked to Shawn Yang yet, although I probably knew him the best of all the guys who lived at this house.  I saw Shawn on the couch with a middle-aged Asian couple.  I approached him, and he said, “Hey, Greg.  Have you met my parents yet?”

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

“I’m John,” Mr. Yang said, shaking my hand.  “And this is Judy.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Greg is going to be my roommate next year,” Shawn explained.  “And he’s a math major too.”

“Oh you are?” Mr. Yang asked.  “You gonna be a teacher too?”

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do,” I said.  “I don’t really see myself as a teacher.”

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

“You guys are from Ashwood?  Is that right?”

“Yeah.  What about you?  Where are you from?”

“Plumdale.”  Without thinking, I added, “Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”  Most people have no idea where Plumdale is.

“It’s nice out there!”

“Yeah.  I’ll be in Jeromeville most of the summer, but I’m going home next week.”

After a lull in the conversation, Mr. Yang said, “It was nice meeting you!”

“You too!”

I was ready for another break from socializing, so I walked outside.  It was a little before eight o’clock, and it was still light out; in Jeromeville, the sun does not set until close to nine this time of year.  Two guys were throwing a Frisbee back and forth in the street, moving out of the way whenever a car approached.  Eddie, Xander, Lars, and a guy I had met a couple times named Moises sat on a couch, which had been placed on the lawn for some reason. 

“We’re done with another school year,” Eddie said.  “Two down, two to go.”

“I know,” I replied.  “I think I did pretty well on finals.  How were yours?”

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

“Dude, mine were really tough,” Lars said.

“What are you doing this summer?” Xander asked me.

“I’m staying here.  I have one class first session.  When do you leave for India?”

“Two weeks.  I’m a little nervous, but mostly excited!  God is going to move!”

“I can’t wait to hear about it,” I said.

“Greg?” Eddie asked.  “Have you decided yet if you’re going to Urbana?”

I had not decided, and now that Eddie was asking, I felt like I had dropped the ball.  Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, puts on a convention every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, for young adults to learn about missions and service opportunities around the world.  The convention was the last week of the year, after Christmas.   “I haven’t decided,” I said.  “But I’d like to if I can make it work.  I don’t know if I’m ready to go on a mission trip myself, but now that I have a lot of friends doing stuff like that, I think it would help me understand what they’re doing.  Xander’s trip to India, and Melinda’s trip to Russia, and Taylor and Pete and Charlie going to Morocco with Jeromeville Covenant Church.”

“Then what are you still thinking about?  If it’s money, you can apply for a scholarship through JCF.  Talk to Dave and Janet.”

“It’s more just the fact that it’s overwhelming.  I don’t know how to book a flight or a hotel room or anything like that.  And it is a lot of money, too.”

“I know a lot of people have been wanting to travel in groups and share hotel rooms,” Eddie said.  “If I hear of someone who might be able to include you, I’ll have them contact you.”

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

“Heads up!” shouted Alex McCann, a housemate of some of the guys on the couch, as a Frisbee sailed toward us.  Lars stood up and caught the Frisbee in time; then, walking away from the couch, he shouted at Alex and threw the Frisbee back at him.  Eddie and Xander stood up, and Eddie said to me, “We’re gonna go throw the Frisbee.  Wanna come?”

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

Moises stayed on the couch with me.  “I think you should go to Urbana,” he said.  “God is going to do great things through you.”

“Thanks,” I said, curious how he knew about God’s plan for my life when I pretty much just knew this guy to say hi to.

“Have you ever taken a spiritual gift assessment?” Moises asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“They handed one out at my church a few weeks ago.  You answer questions about what skills you have and what you’re good at, and it tells you, like, if God has equipped you to preach or worship or pray or do administrative work.  You can ask your pastor if he has one.  What church do you go to?”

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the student-led Catholic church.”

“My family is Catholic,” Moises said.  “My family came here from Mexico; everyone is Catholic there.  But then when I became a Christian, I realized just how much Catholics have wrong.  Like, Jesus died on the cross for your sins already.  You don’t have to confess to a pope.”  I just nodded, not wanting to argue.  Moises‘ knowledge of the inner workings of the Catohlic Church must have had some shortcomings if he believed that the average Catholic confessed to His Holiness Pope John Paul II on a regular basis.  Also, although I did not think about it at age 19, I have also come to learn over the years that being a busybody like Moises is not the best way to share one’s faith with others.  After studying the Bible more this year, though, I had come to agree with his point that salvation came from the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, not through following the rituals of Catholicism alone.

By this time, it was getting dark, so I went back inside, making more small talk and helping myself to snacks on the kitchen counter.  Later that night, in the living room, Eddie, Kristina, Brian, and a few others were doing some kind of silly dance.  I saw Tabitha, one of the first people I knew from JCF because she was in the dorm next to mine last year, sitting on the couch with an empty seat next to her.  “May I sit here?” I asked Tabitha.

“Sure,” she said.  “Actually, I was looking for you.  Eddie told me a few minutes ago that if you go to Urbana, you’d be interested in going in together with someone on a flight and hotel room.”

“Definitely.”

“I was going to put something together later this summer.  I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’m not going for sure yet, but I know the price goes up July 1, so I want to decide for sure by then.  I’ll let you know, and you keep me posted on your plans.”

“Great!  Sounds good!”

I stayed at the party until after midnight.  By then, much of the crowd had gone home, the music had stopped, and I was getting tired.  I said my final goodnights and congratulations to Brian and Shawn, as well as to their other graduating housemates, Mike Kozlovsky and Dan Conway.  These four and all the other seniors here tonight were done with college, at least done with their bachelor’s degrees.  And now I was halfway there, if I finished on schedule.  It was hard to believe that it had already been almost two years since Mom and Dad helped me unpack in my tiny dorm room in Building C.

As I drove home through the dark but warm Jeromeville night, I kept thinking about how my life had changed so much, not only in the time since I came to Jeromeville, but just in this school year.  I had a great time at this party, and unlike my few other experiences with college parties, people here were not getting drunk.  At the beginning of this school year, I did not even know that any of these people existed, except for Tabitha, and she was not in my close circle of friends yet at the time.  So much had changed for the better.

I lived alone in a small studio apartment this year because I was unable to find roommates among people I knew.  Early in the year, I worried that living alone would be excessively boring and lonely, but indirectly, living alone ended up being the best thing for me.  It prompted me to make more of an effort to stay connected with my friends from freshman year, which led to me finally accepting Liz Williams’ invitation to come to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  At JCF, I made so many new friends, including the people at this party, and my future roommates for junior year.  And, more importantly, I learned what it really meant to follow Jesus, and how only his death on the cross brought eternal life, and hope, and inner peace.

I went straight to bed when I got home; I was tired.  I would have time to pack a suitcase in the morning, and after church I would make the two and a half hour drive to my parents’ house in Plumdale.  But unlike a year ago, the drive to my parents’ house would not mean the start of three months away from my friends.  I was only staying there for a week this time, and I would go for another week in August after my summer class ended.  For the rest of the summer, I would be here in Jeromeville.  Plumdale was home, but Jeromeville was also home now.

As I drifted off to sleep, still thinking about how much life had changed during my sophomore year at UJ, I wondered what changes were in store for me in the next school year.  Maybe I would find other new things to get involved with, as I had gotten involved with JCF this year.  Maybe I would end up going to that Urbana convention and deciding to become a missionary.  The possibilities were endless.  At the time, I had no idea that the next school year would bring challenges to my faith and questions about my future.  I would have to make difficult decisions.  I would find myself getting involved in two new activities, one of which was not at all anything I expected to do until it happened, and the other of which I was only beginning to think about at that point.  But I knew that, no matter what, with God on my side everything would work out just fine.

May 25, 1996. The 12th annual Man of Steel competition.

“Come in!” I heard a voice say after I knocked on the front door of 1640 Valdez Street.  I opened the door and, surveying the scene, became slightly nervous.  The living room was packed with around fifteen other guys, most of whom were speaking loudly enough that the ensuing cacophony jarred my senses.  I walked to a quiet out-of-the-way corner.

“Greg!” Brian said, writing on a clipboard.  “This is your first Man of Steel, right?”

“Yes.  What do I do?”

“Just hang out for a while.  A lot of people who told me they would be here aren’t yet.  And don’t forget to grab a t-shirt; they’re in that box over there.”

“Greg?” a large blond guy standing next to Brian said.  “This is Greg that you’re gonna live with next year?”

“Yes,” Brian said.  “Greg, do you know Mike Kozlovsky?  He’s one of my housemates.”

“I’ve seen you around,” I said.

“Hi,” the large blond guy said, shaking my hand.  “I’m Mike.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  I knew so many Mikes and Michaels that I would probably think of this guy as Mike Kozlovsky, not just Mike.

The Man of Steel competition had an entry fee, mostly to cover the cost of printing the t-shirts.  I had seen a few older JCF students wearing Man of Steel shirts from previous years, but I did not know until recently what Man of Steel meant.  I pulled an extra large size one out of the box Brian had pointed to; it was white, with a silhouette of Superman on the front.  The shirt said, “To save the world, this MAN OF STEEL is faster than a speeding bullet, stronger than a locomotive, and can leap tall buildings in a single bound.  But nothing he can do…”  I turned the shirt over to see a silhouette of Jesus on the cross, and the rest of the sentence: “… can cover our sins.  Isaiah 53:10-12.”  I liked that.  Hopefully no one would get in trouble for trademark infringement, for the unauthorized Superman references.

Eddie saw me and said, “Greg!  You made it!  Are you ready?”

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”

As I mingled and talked to people over the next half hour, more guys trickled in, and over thirty young adult men packed the living room and kitchen by the time Brian called us all to attention at 10:30.  “Welcome to the twelfth annual Man of Steel Competition,” Brian said.  “The first event is Frisbee golf.  We printed out directions, and the tees and targets are marked.  Maximum score for a hole is six, so if you don’t hit the target in five throws, your score is six.  You will be in groups of four for the day, and one group will leave every five minutes.  The first group will be…” Brian looked down at his clipboard.  “Raphael, Lars, John, and Todd.”

As those four left the house with flying discs, I wandered around the room, talking to people and snacking on chips and salsa, listening for my name.  “Group 2: Eddie, Shawn, Mike Kozlovsky, and Brent,”  Brian announced five minutes later.  Five minutes after that, Brian announced, “Group 3: Xander, Matt, Greg, and Kieran.”

I stood up and walked toward Brian.  He gave the four of us a copy of the directions for the course, a pencil, and a score sheet.  “Do you need an extra Frisbee?” Brian asked me, noticing that I did not have one.

“Yeah,” I said.  Brian handed me an orange flying disc with the logo of the Big 5 Sporting Goods store on one side and his initials, BMB, scribbled in Sharpie on the other side.

“The first tee is right outside the house,” Brian explained.  “Good luck!”

“Thanks,” I said.


Twelve years ago, some guys from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship got together for something that they called the Man of Steel Competition.  It was an all-day hangout consisting of disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and poker games.  Whoever was the most successful at the three events was crowned the Man of Steel and given a trophy to keep for the year.  Whoever finishes in last place is named the Weenie and receives an extra-small t-shirt as a humorous consolation prize.  The competition had been announced at JCF over the last few weeks, and Brian and Eddie had both specifically encouraged me to come.

In my group, Xander was my year, a sophomore.  I had met him in January, when he and Eddie had kindly prayed with me and invited me to hang out at their house when I was having a bad day.  Matt was a junior, who lived in the same house as Eddie and Xander, right around the corner from where we were now, on Baron Court.  Kieran was an athletically built freshman; I knew him to say hi to, but not well.

“Hole 1,” Kieran read aloud.  “The tee is the marked spot on the sidewalk, and the target is the fire hydrant down there.  A long straightaway.  Got it.”  Kieran threw his disc down the street, using a technique I had never seen in my informal experiences of tossing Frisbees around.  His disc sailed far down the street, landing about twenty feet from the fire hydrant.

“Nice!” I said.

Matt and Xander threw their discs accurately as well, but neither one ended up as close to the target as Kieran’s.  Mine curved off course to a vacant lot across the street near where some new houses were being built, less than halfway to the fire hydrant.

“Your turn,” Xander said.

“I just went,” I replied.

“You’re the farthest away, so you go first for the second toss.”

I was not aware of that rule, since this was my first time playing disc golf.  I threw my disc toward the fire hydrant; it went closer to the correct direction this time, but still landed far from the target.  Kieran hit the target in two tosses; Xander and Matt, three each; and I got five.

The second target was around the corner on Baron Court, a tree in the yard of the house where Eddie, Xander, and John lived with a bunch of other guys.  Baron Court dead-ended into a park connected to one of Jeromeville’s greenbelts; a light pole at the edge of the park was the third target.  I hit it in four throws, my best so far, although I was still far behind the others.

“Hole 4,’” I read.  “‘Dogleg around large oak tree, hit bench.’  What does ‘dogleg’ mean?”

“The disc has to go around the tree and then to the right.  You can’t cut straight across on that side of the tree,” Kieran explained, pointing.  He stood on the tee spot and threw his disc; it curved perfectly around the tree, exactly as it was supposed to.

“I see,” I explained.  I threw my disc next; it began curving to the right far too early, landing in a position where I would have to throw it even farther to make it curve to the correct side of the tree.  I groaned.

“It’s okay,” Xander said.  “Just do the same thing you just did from the place where it is now, and you’ll end up on the right side of the tree with a straight shot to the target.”

“That would be nice, if I could throw straight,” I said.

As the morning continued into early afternoon, I became increasingly frustrated, and the others sensed this.  A dead branch lay next to the lamppost that was the eleventh hole; I picked it up and threw it angrily after having scored the worst possible score of six for the third consecutive time.  “Hey,” Xander said.  “Calm down.  It’s just a game.”

“I’m terrible at this,” I said

“Don’t worry about it,” Kieran added.  “Just have fun.”

“But I’m going to be the Weenie.  If I had known that this was just another way for the popular athletic guys to humiliate me for not being good at stuff, I wouldn’t have come.  I got enough of that in elementary school.”

“Dude,” Xander said.  “That’s not what this is at all.  We don’t want to humiliate you.  It’s just for fun.  Besides, being named the Weenie is kind of an honor.  It’s just silly.”

“If you say so,” I said.  I tried to calm down and have fun.  I took a deep breath and calmly threw my disc toward the twelfth target; it traveled far in a straight line, and I finished that hole in only three throws, my best so far that day.

The eighteenth hole took us back to Brian’s house, where we turned in our scoresheet and waited for the rest of the groups to finish.  I asked a few of the people ahead of us what their scores were, and all of them made me feel more discouraged about mine, so I stopped asking and talked about other things instead.

After all eight groups had returned, Brian got our attention again.  “The next step is the hamburger eating contest.  You have sixty seconds to eat the first hamburger, fifty-five seconds to eat the second one, fifty seconds to eat the third one, and so on.  It counts as long as the whole thing is in your mouth when time runs out, and your mouth is closed.  You will go four at a time, in your same groups, called in random order.”

I watched as one of the groups began eating.  The hamburgers were the basic 79-cent hamburgers from McDonald’s, nothing big or fancy.  I did not like pickles, but for the purpose of this competition, I could make myself eat pickles this one time.  Dan Conway, a senior who lived in this house with Brian, dropped out surprisingly early; he got something stuck in his throat and could not finish his third burger, drawing a chorus of “Awwwww”s from the crowd.  James made it to eight, the most of anyone in that group.

When my turn came, I stepped up to the table with Xander, Kieran, and Matt.  “Go!” Brian said, starting the stopwatch.  I picked up the first hamburger and began taking large bites.  “Forty-five seconds,” Brian said shortly after we started, and he continued to announce the time remaining every fifteen seconds, so I stopped trying to time myself in my head.  I finished the first burger in plenty of time.  “Go!” Brian exclaimed when it was time to begin the second hamburger; I finished this one easily as well.  The third one was a little bit closer, but I swallowed the last bit of it just before Brian gave the signal.

I noticed some people dipping their hamburgers in a glass of water, presumably to make them softer and easier to swallow.  I tried this with the fourth one; it did, at least it made it easier to get it in my mouth, but it also turned it into a gooey mess that did not taste as good.  I swallowed the burger in the allotted time, though.

The fifth hamburger was more difficult.  The time had decreased to forty seconds, and although the burger was completely in my mouth when the time ran out, I had not swallowed all of it.  This left less space in my mouth for burger number six, which I now had only thirty-five seconds to eat.  I got the burger completely wet before eating it, and just before time ran out, I managed to stuff the last bite in my mouth.  But I knew that I would not make it much farther in this event, with chewed hamburger piling up in my mouth faster than I could swallow it.  As I took my first bite of burger number seven, I noticed that Matt had not finished his sixth.  I felt a renewed sense of motivation now that I knew I would not finish last in my group.  I forced myself to start swallowing what was already in my mouth, so that I had room to begin chewing burger number seven and close my lips as time expired.  I now had only twenty-five seconds to eat burger number eight, and as that time quickly passed, I knew I would advance no further.  I tried my best to swallow what was in my mouth and make room for burger number eight, but I just could not.  Xander also dropped out after seven, and Kieran, after shoving burger number eight in his mouth, ran to the garbage can and spit it all out without even touching number nine.  I did much more respectably in this event, only one burger behind the leader in my group.  Around half of the people who had gone so far did not make it to seven.

As the day went on, as much as I wanted to be encouraging, I secretly felt relieved every time someone did not finish seven burgers.  Less competition for me.  I needed all the help I could get.  My score of seven felt less respectable as the event continued, though; Brian ate nine, and two guys named Lars Ashford and Alex McCann each ate ten.

I had overheard someone earlier say that Mike Kozlovsky set the record in last year’s hamburger event with eleven.  As Mike’s group began, I tried to picture how that was possible, to shove ten hamburgers in one’s mouth and still have room to fit an eleventh hamburger in only ten seconds.  Twelve was considered a perfect score, because at burger number twelve, the time to eat it would be only five seconds, and with the time decreasing by five seconds for every burger, there would be no time for a thirteenth.

Mike Kozlovsky was a pretty big guy, and he ate the first eight hamburgers effortlessly.  He even appeared to be swallowing everything.  Burger number nine, he easily fit it in his mouth, but he had not finished swallowing when his twenty seconds was up.  He dunked burger number ten in his glass of water and tore off big chunks of it, pushing them into his mouth as he attempted to swallow what was already there.  I watched in amazement as he did the same for burger number eleven; I could see his cheeks puff up from all the unswallowed burger inside.  The rest of his group had all stopped by then.

“Possible new record,” Brian said, looking at the stopwatch.  “Go!”

Mike grabbed a burger, dunked it in the glass of water, tore it into pieces, and hurriedly shoved the pieces into his mouth.  As his five seconds ran out, he just barely closed his lips.

“Perfect score!” Brian shouted as the rest of the room erupted into applause  Mike, his mouth still full, turned to the crowd and raised both arms in victory.  Then, he stood next to the garbage can, bringing his hand to his mouth and pulling out a wad of chewed beef, bread, pickles, and onions the size of a softball.  Mike tossed the wad into the garbage.

“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.

My score of seven was somewhere in the middle for the hamburger event; hopefully that would be enough to keep me out of contention for the Weenie.  Several had eaten less than seven hamburgers, but I was not sure if any of those people were as bad at disc golf as I was.  One more event remained, poker.

I knew some of the common traditional variations, like draw poker and stud poker.  I knew how to rank the hands.  And that put me in an unfortunate position, because it left me thinking I knew how to play poker when I actually did not.  To me, at the time, the way to succeed in poker was to have the good luck to draw a good hand; I knew little of the strategy surrounding bluffing and knowing when to bet or fold.

The rules were simple.  We each got 100 pennies to use for betting, and we would play in our same groups of four for one hour.  We took turns dealing, and the dealer chose the type of poker as well as any wild cards or special rules.  If you ran out of coins before the hour was up, you were out, and the object was to finish with as many coins as possible.

We started with a few games of simple draw poker.  I had some good hands, some bad hands, and one hand where I actually won with three of a kind, so I had about the same number of coins I started with when it came around to Kieran’s second turn to deal.

“Guts,” Kieran said.  “Do you guys know how to play Guts?”

“I don’t,” I said.

“You ante one chip and get two cards.  A pair beats no pair, and other than that it’s just the highest cards, like poker.  If you want to stay in, you hold a chip, make a fist, and we all show at the same time if we’re in.  Highest hand takes the pot, and anyone who stayed in and lost has to put in as many chips as there were in the pot, so it keeps getting bigger.  If only one person stays in, they take the pot and the round is over.  I’ll explain it as we go along too.”

I did not like this game.  I did not have guts.  But it was Kieran’s turn to pick the game, so I had no say in this.  My first hand was a three and a five, so I dropped out.  All the others stayed in; Kieran won, so he took the four coins from the pot, and Xander and Matt each had to put four more coins in the pot.  My next hand was an ace and queen.  This was a much better hand; the only things that beat this were ace-king or a pair.  Although it was far from a guaranteed win, I decided to stay in.  Kieran was the only other one who stayed in, and he had a pair of sixes; he took the eight coins in the pot, and I had to pay eight coins to make the new pot.  My next hand was a four and seven; I was out, and Kieran was the only one to stay in, so he took my eight coins, and the game was over.  I was the next dealer, and I chose to go back to draw poker.  Guts was not my kind of game, especially in a high-stakes situation like this.

Over the course of the hour, I gradually lost money as I played conservatively.  I had a few wins, and a few major losses.  In one round of seven-card stud, I was dealt two queens in the hole, and after I got another queen on the second face-up card, I placed a large bet on the final round, struggling to keep a poker face.  Xander, who had two aces showing, stayed in.  He ended up having a third ace in the hole, but I finished with a full house and took the pot.

With about ten minutes to go, I had sixty-eight coins, and Kieran called Guts for the game.  I dropped out on the first deal and lost on the second; no one else had dropped out, so the pot was now twenty-four coins.  My next hand was two eights.  This was a pretty good hand; the only things that could beat it would be a higher pair.  I tried using what I had learned in Dr. Thomas’ combinatorics class to figure out my chances of winning, but I could not complete the calculation in time.  I decided I was in; Matt and Kieran stayed in as well.  We showed our hands; Matt had a king and queen, but Kieran had two jacks.  Kieran took the pot, and Matt and I each had to put another twenty-four coins in.

In the next deal, I got a pair of queens.  I felt pretty confident about my chances.  Xander and Kieran stayed in as well; Xander had an ace and nine, but Kieran had a pair of kings.  Kieran took the forty-eight coins in the pot, and Xander and I each had to put forty-eight coins in the pot.  “I’m out of coins,” I said.  “I lost.”  I put all of my remaining coins in the pot and watched the other three continue playing.

When the hour was finished, I dejectedly told Brian that I had no money left.  I also handed him the disc he had loaned me, but he told me to keep it.  “It wasn’t very expensive.”

“Thanks,” I said.

I walked over to the couch and sat.  Eddie saw me a few minutes later and asked, “How’d you do, Greg?”

“Not very well.  I ate seven burgers, but I did terribly in the other two events.  I really hope I’m not the Weenie.  I spent enough time in elementary school being made fun of for not being good at things.”

“This is supposed to be fun.  Don’t get discouraged.  We won’t make fun of you.”

“I know.  I’m just competitive.  But it was fun.  And hopefully I’ll do better next year.”

“I’m going to help count scores,” Eddie said.  “But don’t feel bad.”

It took a while for Brian and Eddie to evaluate everyone’s scores.  No one explained how exactly the scores for the three events were combined to choose a Man of Steel and a Weenie.  I knew I was not going to win; at this point, I was just hoping not to be the Weenie.

Brian emerged from the back of the house and got everyone’s attention again.  “Gentlemen, the 1996 Weenie is Dan Conway!”  Brian gave Dan his Weenie prize, an extra-small T-shirt.  “Next,” Brian continued, “the runner up… Alex McCann!”  Alex stood up, and everyone applauded.  Brian held up a small trophy and said, “And the winner of the 12th annual Man of Steel Competition, your 1996 Man of Steel… Mike Kozlovsky!”

I applauded, along with everyone else.  I was not particularly surprised by this.  Mike’s first ever perfect score in the hamburger eating event was certainly impressive.

I hung out for about another hour, talking to people, and I joined in another game of poker just for fun.  Eddie actually told me years later that Dan and I had tied for Weenie, but that he and Brian decided to give it to Dan.  Dan would get a good laugh out of it, and Eddie did not want to humiliate me, since I was new to the group and participating in my first Man of Steel.

Now that I knew what to expect, I would go into future Man of Steel competitions a bit more relaxed.  I was doing this to have fun with friends.  I would have no expectation of ever being in contention of winning this competition, because I was terrible at disc golf, my understanding of poker would only help me if I drew a few lucky hands, and while I was respectable at eating, I was nowhere near on par with Mike Kozlovsky or Alex.  This was the first of four Man of Steel competitions I would participate in during the years I lived in Jeromeville, and after having been through this first one, going into future competitions with no expectation of winning made them more enjoyable.  And, who knows… I just might surprise myself someday.

May 3-5, 1996. Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly.

“We have a big announcement tonight!” said Cheryl, one of the staff members of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The projection screen began descending, and the lights went out a few seconds later.  What was this?  I had been attending JCF since October, and we never watched videos.  Some of these meetings included a silly skit after the first worship song; I wondered if that was what was happening here, but with the skit on video.  But as I watched the first few seconds of the video, it quickly became clear that this was something professionally produced.

The video was about two minutes long, full of large groups of students singing worship songs and praying, adults lecturing, and scenes from other countries of people being fed and churches being built.  Music played throughout the video, and text indicated that this was a promotion for some large event called “Urbana,” sponsored by Intervarsity, the parent organization of JCF.  By the end of the video, it had become clear that this “Urbana” was a large convention where students and young adults could learn about Christian missions and service projects.  The convention was held during winter break every three years, in Urbana, Illinois, with the next one this coming December 27-31.

A few days ago, Xander had asked me for my address, so he could send me a prayer letter.  He would be going on a mission trip to India for part of this coming summer.  Having grown up Catholic, concepts like “prayer letters” and “mission trips” were very new to me, and now that I was taking my Christian faith seriously, I felt more of a desire to learn about the subject.  Maybe this Urbana convention would be a way to learn more about that.  But the whole idea of traveling to Illinois, two-thirds of the way across the country, just to learn about traveling even farther away to bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ to other countries, seemed geared toward super hard-core Christians who were actively searching to do a trip like that.  Getting to Illinois would require riding in an airplane, and I had never been in an airplane.  I had no idea how to get airplane tickets, or what to do once I got to the airport.  The convention itself would cost three hundred dollars to attend, and I was not sure I wanted to spend that much money on something that might not be right for me.

Eddie was sitting next to me that night at JCF.  He and Xander were housemates, and their whole house seemed like the kind of hard-core Christians who would be attending Urbana  Surely enough, when the night ended, the first thing Eddie did was turn to me and ask, “So what do you think about Urbana?  Are you gonna go?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I think it would be good to learn more about missions, since I didn’t really grow up around that.  And now, like, Xander is doing that trip to India this summer.  And Taylor and Pete and Charlie are going to Morocco.  So it would be cool to learn more about missions.”

“It would!”

“But I don’t know if I want to spend that much money.”

“That makes sense.  You have a while to think about it and save up for it.  The price goes up in July, but registration is open through November.  Think about it.”

“I will.  Are you going?”

“I’m planning to.  Someone I knew from my church back home went to Urbana ‘93 and spoke about it.  It sounded really great.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Eddie went to go look for someone he needed to talk to, and I continued wandering around looking to see who was around.  I saw Melinda Schmidt and Amelia Dye, two junior girls, sitting behind me talking to a few other people whom I did not know well.  Melinda saw me first and waved.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.  “How was your week?”

“It was good,” I said.  “I have a paper coming up that I need to start working on.”

“I just finished one.  I hope I do well.  Hey, what are you doing tomorrow night?”

“Nothing.  Why?”

“Come over!  Amelia and I are having a birthday party for our cat, Alvin.”

“A cat birthday party,” I repeated.  “How does that work?  Do I bring a present?”

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

“I should be able to make that.  Where do you live?”

“Pine Grove, number 202.  Do you know where that is?”

“Pine Grove Apartments?  Yeah, I know where that is.”

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


A year ago, when I was looking for an apartment for sophomore year, Pine Grove was my second choice.  The studio apartment at Las Casas Apartments, where I lived now, was less expensive than the one-bedroom apartment at Pine Grove, although it was also smaller.  Also, thirteen of my friends from Building C freshman year lived within walking distance of Las Casas, and I did not know anyone near Pine Grove.  This had been a deciding factor for me.  But as I got to know people from JCF this year, I had met at least three households of JCF regulars in Pine Grove, and because of this, I somewhat regretted not having chosen to live there.

Pine Grove Apartments was on at the end of a cul-de-sac about a mile south of me, backing up to Highway 117 and just across Fifth Street from the outer reaches of campus.  I found a place to park on the cul-de-sac and walked around the apartment grounds until I found number 202.  I knocked at the door, and Amelia answered.

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

I was one of the first ones to arrive, as usual.  Scott Madison, who was Amelia’s boyfriend, and Scott’s roommate Joe Fox were the only other people in the apartment besides the girls who lived there.  Scott and Joe also lived in Pine Grove.

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

“Not much,” I said.  “I got all my homework done for the weekend.  But I have to start thinking about my anthro term paper.”

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

“I have to study a group of people the way an anthropologist would.  That’ll take time.”

“Yeah, but you have the whole month.  It’s not going to take that long.”

“You’re going to be an anthropologist?” Joe asked.  “That sounds awesome!  Is that your major?” 

“I’m a math major.  I’m taking Intro to Cultural Anthropology as a general ed class.  And I know the professor.”

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

“I hope so.  Tabitha is in that class too.”

“What?” Tabitha said.  She had walked in a couple minutes earlier.

“I was talking about the anthro project.  I said you’re in that class too.”

“Oh, yeah.  Do you know what you’re going to write about yet?”

“I was thinking I might do a chat room on IRC.  That way, when I’m wasting time on the Internet talking to strangers, I can tell myself I’m doing homework.”

“Smart,” Tabitha said.  “I was thinking I might do University Life.”

“That would be funny,” Joe said.  I did not understand at first; I thought she meant that she was going to do a project on the life of a university student.  That seemed too broad for the scope of this assignment.  What I did not realize at the time was that University Life was the name of another large Christian student group, affiliated with the Baptist church in Jeromeville, and that University Life had a bit of an ongoing friendly rivalry with the nondenominational JCF.

Over the next hour, more people trickled in.  I recognized most of them from JCF; some of them I knew better than others.  Many of them were juniors and seniors, but a few sophomores were there too: Tabitha, Eddie and his housemate John, and a girl whose name I thought was Alyssa.  There was also one guy whose grade and age were unknown to me.  As I ate chips and pizza and talked to people, I noticed someone who was conspicuously missing: the birthday boy, Alvin the cat.  I turned to Melinda and asked, “Where’s the cat?”

“He’s in my room.  He gets kind of shy when we have a lot of people over.”

“But this is his party!”

Melinda turned close to me and lowered her voice.  “That was really just an excuse to have a party.  We’re not even really sure exactly when his birthday is.”

“Oh,” I said.  That thought had honestly never crossed my mind.  I was seriously expecting a cat birthday party, not just an informal get-together.

Some people started a game of Uno at the table, and I joined them.  After we got tired of Uno, we played Taboo, and I was complimented for my ability to give clues and get people to guess correctly.  My favorite part of Taboo was holding the little buzzer, so I could buzz people from the other team who say words that are not allowed.  Others generally found the buzzer annoying.

Even though Alvin the cat’s birthday was just an excuse to throw a party, according to Melinda, she did bring Alvin out for a few minutes later in the evening.  He had mottled black and white fur and blue eyes, and he clearly seemed intimidated by the sixteen additional people in the apartment.  Amelia went to the kitchen and emerged with a cake with white frosting and the outline of a cat drawn in black frosting.  She led us all in singing “Happy Birthday.”  As the song ended, Alvin began squirming; he broke free of Melinda’s arms and darted back to her bedroom.

“Well, I tried to bring the birthday boy out,” Melinda said.  “Who wants cake and ice cream?”  Hands went up and people said “Me!” as Amelia cut the cake and Melinda scooped the ice cream.  Eventually they handed me my plate, and I began eating.  I overheard Scott ask something about music, and shortly afterward I became vaguely aware of music playing in the background.

When I finished the small slice of cake and single scoop of ice cream on my plate, I asked Amelia if it was okay to get seconds.  “Sure!” she replied.  “There’s plenty.”  I got my second, larger plate of cake and ice cream and brought it to the living room, sitting on the floor and listening to the conversations around me.  A few minutes later, a familiar song came on: “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” by the local independent band Lawsuit.  “I love this song!” I said enthusiastically.

“You like Lawsuit?” Scott asked.  “I made this mixtape for this party.”

“Yes.  I discovered them at last year’s Spring Picnic.”  I started singing along when the vocals came in, but stopped after one line when I noticed no one else was.

A few minutes later, Melinda approached me holding an envelope.  “Greg?” she asked.  “Can I ask you something?

“Yeah.  What is it?”

“I’m going to be going on a mission trip to Russia for three weeks this summer.  I wanted to give you a copy of my prayer letter, so you will know how you can be praying for me.  Also, if you want to give to my trip, it has the information for that.”

“Sure,” I said.  It sounded like this was the same kind of thing Xander wanted to send me for his trip to India this summer.  I continued, “I don’t know a whole lot about mission trips, being a new Christian and all, but I want to find out.”

“Are you going to Urbana?  You’ll find out a lot there.”

“The video last night was the first I had heard of this.  I’ve never traveled that far before, and it’s a lot of money.  I don’t know.”

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

“I know.  And it would be good to learn more about what opportunities are out there.”

“Totally!  Here’s the letter,” she said, handing me the envelope.  “I mailed these a few days ago, but I didn’t have your address.”

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

U2’s “One” was the next song on Scott’s mixtape.  I continued eating cake and ice cream as I watched people talking and eating around me.  Bono, U2’s vocalist, began singing higher notes toward the end of the song.  The conversations in the room all seemed to reach a simultaneous lull, and I happened to make eye contact with Scott as Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the first of four consecutive times.  We  shared an unspoken moment in which the same idea passed through our heads.

“Haaa-haaah!” Scott and I sang along, loudly and in a bad falsetto.  Everyone else in the room looked at us and started laughing.  When Bono sang “Haaa-haaah!” for the third and fourth time, the entire room sang along with us.

“That was awesome,” I said, extending my hand to give a high five to Scott.  He smiled and returned the high five.

As I looked around that room, I realized something.  None of the others at this party were people whom I had lived with last year in Building C; they were all new friends and acquaintances I had made through Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  (I knew Tabitha to say hi to last year, but only because we had mutual friends who attended JCF.)  I wondered if this signaled a coming shift in my social life away from my Building C friends, or if there was room to expand my inner circle to include these new friends.  By the time I got home that night, I was feeling a little worn out from all the socializing, but also excited to have made so many new friends this year.


The next day, Sunday, after singing in the choir at church, I went to lunch at Bakers Square with some of the others from choir.  Danielle Coronado, one of the people from Building C last year who remained in my inner circle, sat across from me.  “We should have gotten Mexican food,” she said.  “It’s Cinco de Mayo.”

Claire Seaver was a year older than Danielle and me.  “I really haven’t found a good Mexican place in Jeromeville,” Claire replied.  She had been around Jeromeville longer, so she would know more about the Mexican food here.  I had not looked for Mexican food other than Taco Bell and the Tex-Mex Grill in the Coffee House on campus, so I had no opinion on this yet.

“How was your weekend, Greg?” Danielle asked.

“It was good,” I said.  “Some people from JCF had a party last night.”

“Was that the one at Pine Grove Apartments?  I don’t remember the people’s names.”

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

“Pete got invited to that, but he decided to come over and watch a movie instead.

“‘Watching a movie,’” Claire teased.  “I’m sure that’s not all you were doing.”

“Shut up!” Danielle said, playfully slapping Claire.  “We were just holding hands.  Anyway, Greg, were you at JCF on Friday?  Because Pete was telling me about that big conference coming up.”

“Urbana?  Yeah, I saw the video.  I don’t know if I’m going to go.  It’s a lot of money, and farther away than I’ve ever been before.  But I would like to learn more about mission trips.”

“Yeah, that’s it.  Pete’s thinking about going.  He has the Morocco trip coming up too.”

“Greg?  What are you gonna do for your anthro project?” asked Claire.  She was also in my anthropology class.

“I’m not sure,” I said.  “I was thinking I might do the IRC chat room where I hang out a lot when I’m bored.”

“That would be interesting!  Timely, too.  Chat rooms haven’t been around long, so their culture probably hasn’t been studied.”

“True.  What about you?”

“I’m not sure.  I have a few things in mind, though.”

I ate quickly, and I felt a great sense of relief when I got back to the car.  Although I was enjoying these once-in-a-lifetime moments with friends, I was exhausted by this time and looking forward to a night of sitting at home by myself.  When I got home and entered my apartment, I noticed I had a telephone message on the answering machine.

“Hello,” the disembodied robotic voice said when I pressed the button.  “You have one new message.”  The machine’s voice was replaced with my mother’s voice, asking me to call her when I got home.  I dialed the numbers and waited.

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

“I went out to lunch with some people from church.  And yesterday some girls from JCF invited me to a birthday party for their cat.”

“Well, aren’t you just the little social butterfly,” Mom said as I rolled my eyes.  “And how exactly do you have a birthday party for a cat?”

“They said it was really just an excuse to have a party.  The cat didn’t like crowds, and I only saw him once.”

“I see.  And you said these are people from JCF?  That’s that Christian group you’re part of?”

“Yeah.”

“So these are new friends this year, not the same people you hung out with last year.”

“Yeah.”

“Good for you.  I’m glad you’re making friends.  See?  I knew you could do it.”

“Thanks,” I said, rolling my eyes again.

Mom and I continued catching up and making small talk for about another twenty minutes.  Even though I rolled my eyes, Mom was right; I was making a lot of new friends this year.  By getting involved with JCF over the last seven months, I came to faith, but I also found a social life.  But even though I was new to practicing my faith, I already understood that I should be focusing on Jesus rather than on my social life.  Nothing was wrong with having a social life, and it was a nice added bonus that came with being part of a new group.  But my social life should never become the main reason I attend JCF or church.  This tension between being part of a community of believers but putting Jesus above my social life would become a recurring theme throughout my life  But no matter what happened, I knew that my new friends were a blessing from God.

April 3-5, 1996. I look like a deranged serial killer.

Back in 1996, only rich people had mobile phones, because they were large and expensive.  If I wanted to call someone in another city, I had to make a long distance call from my landline telephone, and I would get billed for the call by the minute.  The University of Jeromeville got some kind of deal with MCI, a major company in the telephone industry at the time until they were acquired by Verizon in the early 2000s.  MCI provided new state-of-the-art student identification cards to all of us students, and in exchange, we got to use MCI to make long distance calls at a slightly discounted rate.  I had no plans to use this service; I already had long distance service on my phone with another company, and I did not make long distance calls very often except to my parents.  But because we were getting new ID cards, all students had to get our pictures taken again at some point during the first week of spring quarter.

“You said it looked bad!” Danielle was saying as I walked into the Newman Center chapel Wednesday night for choir practice.  I looked up to see what was going on; Danielle was holding one of the new student ID cards.  “I think this is a good picture.”

“No I don’t!” Danielle’s sister Carly exclaimed, trying to take the card away as Danielle held it away from her.

“Greg!” Danielle called out as I approached the others.  “Isn’t this a good picture of Carly?” Danielle asked as she tossed Carly’s ID card to me.

I caught the card and looked at it as Carly said, “Eww! Give it back!”  In the picture, Carly was smiling, and her straight brown hair looked neatly groomed.

“Here,” I said, handing the card back to Carly.  “I think you look just fine.”

“I should have taken my glasses off,” Carly said.  “But, thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”  I smiled.

“Can I see your new picture?” Danielle asked me.  “Did you get it yet?”

“I didn’t.  I’m probably going to go tomorrow.”

Phil Gallo turned toward us.  “I heard that people are upset because apparently MCI has all of our personal information now.”

“Hmm,” I replied.  That sounded a bit unsettling, but there was not much I could do about it at this point, except possibly boycott MCI and not use their service.

“How’d your week go, Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?” Danielle asked.

“Two math classes, Computer Science 30, and Anthro 2.”

“Is that the same Anthro class that Claire’s taking?”

“Yes.  I saw her in class today.”

“What?” Claire said, turning toward us. “I heard my name.”  Claire Seaver was a junior with a background in music, and although there was no formal leadership structure in our church choir, she performed many leader-like activities for the group.

“You’re in my Anthro 2 class,” I said.

“Yeah!  And we have to miss it on Friday because we’re singing here for the Good Friday Mass.”

“I know.  I hope we don’t miss too much.”

“Do either of you guys know someone who you can ask to take notes?” Danielle asked.

“Yes,” I replied.  “Tabitha Sasaki is in that class too; I already asked her today if I could copy her notes for Friday.  I’ll ask her if I can make an extra copy for Claire.  Danielle, do you know Tabitha?  She goes to JCF, and she lived in Building B last year?”

“Oh yeah.  I remember her.”

“Okay, everyone, we need to get started,” Claire called out.  “We have a lot of new music to practice this week, because we have Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.”

Choir practice that week took much longer than usual, over two hours.  We had more music to practice for the upcoming Holy Week services, as well as songs specific to Easter Sunday.  By the time I got home, it was nine-thirty, and I was too tired to do any more homework.

Fortunately, the next day was Thursday, my lightest day of the week that quarter.  I was done with lower division mathematics, so for this quarter I signed up for Combinatorics and Linear Algebra Applications, two upper-division classes for which I had taken the prerequisites.  The mathematics major also required one of two possible lower division computer science courses, and being one who liked to play around with computers, I was excited for that class, Introduction to Programming.  I completed my academic schedule with Introduction to Cultural Anthropology.  This would satisfy a general education requirement, and I already knew the professor, Dr. Dick Small.  He taught a class I took last year for the Interdisciplinary Honors Program that I was in, about the literature and culture of South Africa. I always thought that Dr. Dick Small was one of the most hilariously unfortunate names that one could possibly have.

When I was signing up for classes this quarter, I noticed that all four classes that I took were only offered Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  And, without realizing it, I noticed after the fact that I had left my Tuesdays and Thursdays completely empty, having chosen an anthro discussion on Wednesday and a computer science discussion on Monday.  Since I had also decided to take the quarter off from my part-time job tutoring at the Learning Skills Center, I had no reason to get out of bed on a Tuesday until Bible study in the evening, and no reason to get out of bed on a Thursday at all.  Some of my friends had told me that they would be perfectly happy with a schedule like that, but I did not think it would be good to be that lazy and antisocial.  The UJ physical education department offered a number of half-unit classes twice a week, and I decided to take weight training this quarter just to give me something healthy to do on these days.  I had taken bowling in the fall, for a similar reason.

The sky was mostly blue with a few clouds that Thursday morning, so I rode my bike to campus instead of taking the bus.  I parked outside of the Recreation Pavilion, where the weight room was.  Those first few classes the first couple weeks of the quarter, we learned a little bit about technique, and the rest of the hour we just lifted weights.  After class, I changed into normal clothes.  I also put on the jacket I had bought a couple months ago when a theft in the laundry room had forced me to buy new clothes; I had worn the jacket on my bike but taken it off for weight training.  This jacket had a black torso made from the same material as athletic wear and lined with something warm, but the sleeves were gray, made out of the same material as sweatshirts.  The jacket also had a dark green hood, but I did not put the hood on that morning.

I got back on my bike and decided to try something new today.  I rode east across campus, past the Memorial Union and the Death Star building, on the path that became Third Street.  I crossed A Street, which marked the border between the university and the city, and parked my bike about a hundred feet past A Street.  Next to this bike rack was a coffee shop called Espresso Roma.  I walked in and continued to the counter, where one person was in line in front of me.

I did not drink coffee, but at that time I had a bit of a curious fascination with coffee shops.  It seemed like hanging out in coffee shops was the cool thing to do, and I wished I could experience that, despite the fact that I did not like coffee.  The Coffee House on campus at the Memorial Union was more like a student union than an actual coffee shop.  I had seen Espresso Roma before, to my knowledge it was the closest coffee shop to campus, so I figured I would give it a try.

“May I help you?” the cashier asked.

“Hot chocolate, please,” I said.

“Whipped cream?”

“Yes.”  The hot chocolate at the Coffee House on campus did not come with whipped cream, so this place was better in that sense.  I found a table and took off my jacket, placing it on the back of the chair.  I got out my backpack and combinatorics textbook, and looked around.  Last week, I was back home in Santa Lucia County on spring break, and I went to a coffee shop in Gabilan called the Red Bean with my friend Melissa.  Espresso Roma did not look much like the Red Bean.  Although in an old neighborhood like the Red Bean, Espresso Roma was in a much more modern-looking building.  The interior had a concrete floor with electrical conduits and air ducts visible in the ceiling above.  Floor-to-ceiling windows, with wood borders around the glass making them look more like doors, faced Third Street; one of them actually was a door, leading to outdoor tables.

I got my hot chocolate a couple minutes later and sat back down.  I had plenty more to do after I finished my combinatorics homework, since I got nothing done after choir practice last night.  I spent almost two hours in Espresso Roma reading and studying and doing homework.  I went back there several more times over the next couple years for hot chocolate and a different place to study other than the Coffee House in the Memorial Union and the library.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays that quarter, my only class was the weight training class.  I could go back home any time I wanted. But today, I had one more important thing to do before I left campus: I had not yet taken my photo for the new student ID card.  The photographers had set up in the Recreation Pavilion on the basketball court; I had seen them on the way to weight class this morning.  When I unlocked my bike, I noticed that the sky had turned gray; it had mostly been blue when I arrived at Espresso Roma two hours ago.  I felt what seemed to be raindrops on my head; that was not a good sign.  By the time I rode past the Death Star building a minute later, the rain had become much more steady.  I pulled my hood on, hoping that wearing my hood would not make my hair look funny for my picture.

It only took five minutes to get to the Recreation Pavilion by bicycle, but in that five minutes the rain quickly became a heavy downpour.  By the time I walked into the building, I was drenched.  My jacket had kept my torso sufficiently dry, but the sleeves, not being waterproof, had soaked through to the long sleeves I was wearing underneath

“Your old card, please?” a woman asked as I walked inside.  I handed over my old card, and the woman who took my card pointed at a line for me to stand in.  I could have come back tomorrow when it might be dry, but by giving her my old card, I had made my decision.  I would be looking a little bit wet in my new student ID photo.  It was no big deal.

A few minutes later, I set my jacket and backpack down when I got to the front of the line to get my picture taken.  “Looks like you got a little wet today,” the photographer asked.  “Is it raining?”

No, I thought, I was wading in the creek and I dropped something, so I had to reach in with both arms and get it.  But somehow my torso stayed miraculously dry.  “Yeah,” I said out loud.  “It just started coming down hard all of a sudden while I was on my way here.”

“You sure you want to take your picture like that?” he asked.

“It’s ok.  It won’t really show.”

I stood and looked where he told me to.  In every ID card and school picture I had taken, I always tried my best to smile, and I hated the way I looked in every one of these pictures.  So I deliberately did not smile.  I kept my face in as much as a natural position as possible, and not smiling was natural for me.  I stared at the spot that the photographer had told me to until I heard the click and saw the flash.  “Thank you,” the photographer said.  “Go over there, and they’ll have your card ready in about ten minutes.”

A while later, I heard someone call my name from the table with the card printer on it.  A guy sitting there handed me my new card, along with a sticker to put on it to show that I was registered as a student this quarter. Whatever look I was going for, being wet and disheveled and not smiling, it did not work at all.  My face appeared angry and unstable, my hair was messy, and my wet arms were visible on the sides of the picture.  Smiling for school pictures did not work, and apparently not smiling did not work either.  The photos on ID cards just did not look good, and this was something I would have to come to accept.  And as if to drive home the point that I was just cursed with bad luck when it came to ID card photos, the weather was dry by the time I left the Recreation Pavilion, and it stayed dry for the rest of the night.


(Author’s note: This is a reconstruction, made with the help of Bitmoji. I still have the original card, but the photo is smeared and scratched after having been put in and taken out of my pocket for years, and the original card has personal information on it that I do not wish to copy here.)

The rest of the week went as planned.  I sang at both the Holy Thursday and Good Friday Masses.  Friday night I went to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, hoping that Tabitha would be there and that she had remembered to bring her notes from anthropology class.  I noticed a few of the regulars were missing, probably because it was the weekend of Easter and some people had gone home to be with their families for the weekend.  Tabitha was there, and after the last worship song, I walked over toward her.  She was talking with Eddie, Haley, Kristina, and a guy whom I had seen around but had not met yet.  I walked up, not saying anything, not wanting to interrupt.

Eddie acknowledged me first.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Did you get your new student ID yet?  We were just talking about that.”

I pulled my new ID card out of my pocket.  “I look like a deranged serial killer,” I said sheepishly as I handed Eddie the card.

“Why is there a shadow on your arms?” he asked.

“My arms were wet,” I said, explaining the sudden downpour and my jacket.

“I want to see the deranged serial killer!” Kristina shouted.

“Is it ok to show the others?” Eddie asked me.

“Sure,” I replied.  Eddie passed the card to Kristina; Haley and Tabitha also looked at the card.

“You’re not smiling,” Haley pointed out.  “How come?”

“I smiled for my driver’s license, and all my high school yearbook pictures, and my old student ID, and I never liked the way those looked,” I explained.  “So I tried something different.  That didn’t work either, apparently.”

“It’s not bad.  But I think you would look better if you smiled.”

“Thanks,” I said, making my best attempt at a smile.  Then, turning to Tabitha, I asked, “Tabitha?  Do you have your notes from anthro today?”

“Yeah,” she said, reaching down under her chair and picking up a notebook, which she handed to me.  “I think I got all the important things Dr. Small said.”

“Can I give this back to you Monday in class?  Or do you need it sooner?”

“Monday is fine.”

“Greg,” Eddie said.  “I was going to ask you tonight.  Are you busy next weekend?”

“I don’t think so.  Why?”

“We’re planning a sophomore class trip.  We’re going to go to Bay City on Friday night, eat at the Hard Rock Cafe, then find a place to sleep on the beach.  We’ll be home Saturday night so everyone can go to church Sunday.”

This invitation came as a surprise to me, I had never done anything like this, but I was intrigued.  “Who all is going?” I asked.

“All of us,” Eddie said, gesturing at himself and the others I had been talking to.  “I’m going to invite a few more people, but I don’t know yet who is going for sure.”

This was not my usual reality.  I had never been to a Hard Rock Cafe, I had never slept outdoors, and taking a trip like this was not something I normally would do on short notice.  But I learned the hard way recently that hesitating on a big decision had consequences.  Also, this trip would be a chance to spend time with friends; my 19-year-old boy mind was specifically excited about the thought of spending time with Haley.  “Sure, I’m in,” I replied.  “I should bring a sleeping bag?”

“Yeah.  I’ll call you in a few days with more details.”

“Sounds good!  May I have my ID card back?”

“Oh yeah,” Kristina said, handing me the card.

I really was okay with the fact that I was stuck with this horrible picture on my ID card for the next few years.  Everyone seemed to have a bad student ID or driver’s license picture at some point in their lives, and now I had one with a good story behind it.  I had learned two important lessons that day.  First, my jacket was not completely waterproof, and second, I may as well smile in pictures because I did not look better not smiling.  Smiling still did not feel natural to me, but maybe I could just make myself think happy thoughts when I was posing for a picture.  And now Eddie had included me in this upcoming trip, and Haley was going to be on the trip too, and all of that certainly gave me a reason to smile.

March 13-15, 1996. I need time to think about big decisions.

I do not do well with cold weather.  Of course, compared to the rest of the United States, winter in Jeromeville is mild; the coldest winter days still have high temperatures close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the temperature only rarely drops below freezing at night.  But even in those mild winters, some of my extremities stay cold when the rest of my body is under multiple layers of clothing, and I have such dry skin that my hands start cracking and bleeding spontaneously.

Every winter, a brief reprieve arrives in late February or early March, which I call Fake Spring.  The weather turns beautiful, with a week or two of sunny, warm, dry days.  The many flowering trees on the University of Jeromeville campus burst into bloom, and the rest of the trees grow bright green leaves.  The weather had been so nice for the last couple weeks that I had been eating the lunch I packed while sitting outside on the Quad instead of inside the Coffee House as I usually did.   After my Abstract Mathematics class got out, I walked across the street from Wellington Hall to the Quad, searching for a place to sit.  I had walked more than halfway across the Quad when I saw my friends Taylor, Pete, and Charlie sitting on the grass; I walked up to them, waving, and Taylor waved back first.

“Hey, Greg,” he said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I replied.  “Can I sit here?”

“Sure.”  Taylor and Charlie scooted apart to give me room to sit, and I sat between them.

“So where is this apartment you found for next year?” Taylor asked.

“B Street,” Pete replied.  “Right across from Bakers Square.”

“It’s a really old-looking building with six apartments,” Charlie added.  “But it’s perfect.  Just a couple blocks from campus.  We’re still looking for a third person, though.”

Finding an apartment in Jeromeville could be a daunting and stressful task.  Most property owners and apartment management companies in Jeromeville used the same lease with the same terms.  Jeromeville was a university town, and the terms of this lease were ostensibly intended to be convenient for the university students who make up the overwhelming majority of renters.  Almost all apartments in Jeromeville would go up for lease in March for a 12-month term beginning the following September.  Last year, I kept to myself most of the time while my friends were making living plans for this year, and by the time I figured out that I needed to do something, everyone I knew had plans already.  I managed to find a small studio apartment still available in April; I spent a bit more on rent than I would have ideally liked, but I made it work, with help from Mom and Dad.

I had seen enough Roommate Wanted ads around campus year-round to know that, if I was not picky, I would at least be able to find a place to live for next year.  But I really wanted to room with friends, hoping that that might give me more of a social life.  Eddie Baker from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship lived with seven other guys in a four-bedroom house.  More people from JCF lived near Eddie: Haley Channing and her roommates lived down the street, and Shawn Yang, my Bible study leader, lived around the corner with some other upperclassmen.  I had only been to their houses a combined total of maybe five times, but living with friends seemed so much better than living alone.  It was like that TV show Friends that so many of those people loved, except that unlike the TV characters, all these friends were nice people who did not make me want to punch them in the face every time they opened their mouths.  I had never actually watched Friends, but that was the impression I got from commercials.  And, although I would never say this out loud, the thought of living right down the street from Haley was definitely appealing to me too.  She was cute.

“I might be interested,” I said to Pete and Charlie.  “I don’t have a place yet for next year.”

“Sure!” Pete replied.  “Can you let us know in the next couple days?”

“I will.”  Living with Pete and Charlie would not be the same as having a huge community like Eddie and Haley and Shawn, but it would be better than living alone.  And being so close to campus would be nice as well.  I asked a few more questions about the apartment, mostly how much the rent was; I would be paying quite a bit less to share this place than I was currently for my studio apartment.

“So what’s everyone’s finals schedule look like?” Taylor asked.

“I have two in a row at the earliest two possible time slots, on the first day,” Charlie said.

“Yikes,” Pete replied.

“Still not as bad as when I had four midterms on the same day,” I said.

“I know.  That was crazy!”

“Four?” Charlie asked, incredulously.

“Yeah.  I had all my midterms on the same day.  One of the professors let me take it the day before, but I still had to take them all within twenty-four hours.”

“That’s rough.”

“My finals are pretty spread out this time,” I said.

“I have a paper due on the last day of class,” Taylor said.  “And another final that’s going to be a timed essay.”

“That’s rough,” Matt said.

I noticed out of the corner of my eye a large group of people walking down the concrete path that bisected the Quad, headed toward the library.  Someone leading the group was explaining the surroundings to the group; it appeared to be a group touring the campus, probably prospective students, just as I had done two years ago.  Something seemed familiar about the tour guide’s voice; as my brain was trying to process this, Charlie said, “Look.  It’s Haley.”

I looked up.  Haley was walking backward, leading the tour group; the familiar voice I had heard was hers.  She wore a white shirt under denim overalls.  I never knew Haley was a campus tour guide; she certainly appeared comfortable in her position, like she knew what she was doing.  “Haley!” Charlie called out, waving; the rest of us waved too.  She saw us and waved back.

“You know what would be fun?” Charlie said.  “We should go join Haley’s tour and ask silly questions.”

“Yeah!”  I replied.  “Let’s do it.”

“You wanna?”

“Sure.”

Charlie and I got up and walked to the back of the group Haley was leading across the Quad, stopping at the southwest corner.  “And this large building behind me is Shelley Library,” Haley explained.  “A few departments have their own libraries, but most of the campus collection of books and periodicals is here.  The library also features many study spaces, including an after-hours quiet room that is open 24 hours a day.  Does anyone have any questions before we continue?”

I looked at Charlie, and he raised his hand, pointing toward the oddly-shaped Social Sciences Building across the Quad from us.  “That building over there that looks like the Death Star,” he said.  “Does it actually contain a green laser that destroys planets?”

I raised my hand next and began speaking without waiting to be called on, right after Charlie finished.  “Do cows ever stampede across the campus, and if so, how hard is it to avoid stepping in poop afterward?”

Haley laughed.  “These are my friends, Greg and Charlie,” she explained to the group.  “They’re just being silly.  If you come to the University of Jeromeville, you’ll meet fun, friendly people like Greg and Charlie.”

“Yeah, you will,” I said.  “And you guys are lucky.  You got the best tour guide ever.”

“Thanks,” Haley replied.

“Have a good one,” Charlie said, waving at Haley.  “Enjoy the rest of your tour.”

“You too!  See you guys later.”

“Bye, Haley,” I said.  We turned around and walked back toward where we had been sitting with Pete and Taylor.

“So what classes do you have the rest of the day?” Charlie asked.

“English and physics,” I said.  “And one tutoring group.  What about you?”

“I’m done.  All my classes on Wednesday are in the morning.”

“That must be nice.  I’ve never had a good schedule like that.  I’ve always had classes early in the morning, and I’ve always had classes Friday afternoon.”

“That’s a bummer.”

When we arrived back to where we had been sitting, Pete said, “You guys are crazy.”

“I know,” I replied, nodding.

“What time is it?” Taylor asked.

“12:50,” I answered, looking at my watch.

“I better get going to class.”

“Me too.  But it was good seeing you guys.”

“You too,” Taylor replied

“Have a great day,” Charlie said.

“I will,” I said.  “You too.”


I finished my English paper on Thursday night.  On Friday, the sky was gray and threatening and stayed that way all day.  It did not actually rain, although it looked like it was going to.  Fake Spring had departed as suddenly as it had come.  I decided not to take chances on my bike; I took the bus to school that morning, and I drove to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that evening, paying to park on campus.

I have never done well with big decisions.  Anything involving spending a large sum of money or a long-term commitment, I needed time to think about.  I could not make such decisions impulsively.  Usually it was not a matter of needing time to do research, or perform a cost-benefit analysis.  Sometimes this was part of it, but often I would just need time for thoughts about the decision to form, to know whether or not it felt right.  And I had a bad habit of second-guessing myself on big decisions.

Pete and Charlie needed a third person to join them in their new apartment for next year, and I needed a place to live.  I had known Pete and Charlie since the day we started at UJ, and I trusted them not to be the weird and creepy roommates that were the makings of people’s roommate horror stories.  I had no reason to keep hesitating, and after having this in the back of my mind for the last couple days, I felt ready to commit.  I would tell them tonight.

By the time I arrived at the JCF large group meeting, the music was starting.  I did not have time to talk to anyone.  I found an empty seat near the front of the room and began singing.  Cheryl, one of the JCF staff members, was doing the talk tonight.  I tried to concentrate on her talk, and on the words of the song, but I could not get out of my mind the fact that I had to talk to Pete and Charlie about next year.  That upcoming conversation weighed heavily on my mind the whole night.

After the last song and the closing prayer, I stood up nervously.  I always got like this whenever I had something important or difficult to tell someone.  I looked around the room for Pete or Charlie, and I saw them in the back of the room, talking with Taylor and Mike Knepper.  I nervously walked toward them, waiting for a chance to jump into the conversation.

“So we’re going to sign the lease tomorrow afternoon,” Pete explained.

“Sounds good,” Mike replied.  “I’ll be there.”

Oh, no.  This was not what was supposed to happen.  No one told me that I had competition, or that there would be a consequence for waiting more than two days to make a decision.  I spoke up anyway, although at this point I was pretty sure I knew the answer to my question.  “Pete?” I asked.  “Are you guys still looking for another roommate?”

“I think we just found one,” he answered.

“Oh, okay,” I said.  I stood there silently for another minute or so as the others talked, then I went back toward where I was sitting before.  I missed my chance.  I wished Pete and Charlie had told me the other day that I had a deadline.  I probably would have been more decisive, since I had been thinking all along that I would tell them yes, that I wanted to live with them.  But now they gave the remaining spot to Mike Knepper instead.  And that meant I had to start stressing about finding a place to live.  I sat down where I had been sitting earlier, staring at the wall in front of me as the worship band put their instruments away.  A few minutes later, I saw Haley walking toward me out of the corner of my eye.  I looked at her and waved, halfheartedly smiling.

“Hey, Greg,” Haley said.  “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Mostly.  Pete and Charlie needed a third person to live with them next year, and I told them I might be interested.  I was just about to tell Pete tonight that I wanted the spot, only to find out that Mike Knepper took my spot.”

“Oooh.  That’s rough.”

“I don’t think they betrayed me on purpose.  I never committed to anything.  I just feel like they should have asked me first if someone else was interested.  We just didn’t communicate.”

“Makes sense.”

“It’s kind of my fault.  I should have committed earlier.  I hesitate and second-guess myself, and I miss out.”

“Yeah.  I know what you mean.”

“But I just can’t bring myself to make a big decision that’ll involve a year-long commitment on a whim like that.  I need time to think about it and let the decision set in my mind.”

“And that’s important.  Having the right roommates is a big deal.  One of our roommates, the one you probably don’t know, she got into a big argument with Kristina the other day.  And it was over something little.”

“Yeah.  Hopefully you guys will work that out.”

“Hey, if I happen to hear that any of the guys need another roommate for next year, I’ll let you know.  Okay?”

“That would be awesome.  Thank you so much.”

“You’re welcome!  Hey, that was funny what you and Charlie did, jumping into my tour.”

“Thanks,” I said, laughing.

“Yeah.  It caught me off guard, but I needed a good laugh.”  Haley smiled, her blue eyes looking right at me, and I smiled back.  “How’s school?  Getting ready for finals?”

“Yeah.  My finals are spread out this time.”

“That’s good.  Mine are all at the end of the week.  That gives me time to study, but I can’t get any of them out of the way.”

“Good luck on those.”

“You too.  Hey, have you seen Kristina?  I need to ask her something.”

I looked around the room; I did not see Kristina.  “I don’t know where she is,” I replied.

“That’s ok.  But I need to go look for her.  You have a good weekend, okay, Greg?”

“I will.  You too.”

Haley got up to look for Kristina, and I stood up and walked around, saying hi to other people and talking about school and finals.  I honestly did not think that Pete and Charlie pulled the metaphorical rug out from under me intentionally.  They needed to find a roommate, and since I was not ready, they found someone.  But, as I had told Haley, I felt that it would have been nice if they had checked with me, since I had expressed interest.

With all of these people around, I should be able to find someone else who needed a roommate.  Bible study was not meeting this coming week because of finals, but I would mention it when we got back after spring break.  Maybe I would even ask my friends, or send an email, to let me know if they heard of anyone.  I had already told my current apartment management that I would not be renewing my lease next year, hoping that I would be able to find a place where I did not have to live alone, so the option of staying where I was no longer existed.  But there would be something out there for me.  The key, as I said before, was a willingness to not be picky.

Although I had the sense that I had no reason to feel hopeless, my missed opportunity to live with Pete and Charlie in the apartment on B Street next year hung over my head all weekend.  I was frustrated with myself for being so indecisive.  When I was applying to universities two years ago, most of them had fixed application deadlines in November and December, and when I received acceptance letters in the early spring, I had around two months to make my decision.  Of course, in this fast-paced world, everyone wanted their results immediately, and sometimes I would need to know what I wanted and go for it.  I wondered if I was missing out on any other opportunities by not acting decisively…

P.S… this week marked two years since the first episode of this blog. Happy blogiversary to me!

February 15-16, 1996. And hope does not disappoint us.

As a child, February 15 was always a significant date to me.  I was one of those kids who ran around telling people that I was “six and a half” years old, instead of just six, and February 15 was my “half-birthday,” six months from my actual birthday.  I outgrew giving my age as a fraction sometime in my preteen years.  But ever since my half-birthday my sophomore year at the University of Jeromeville, I had a much more important reason to remember February 15, since it was the anniversary of one of the most important things to happen to me.

I turned nineteen and a half years old on a Thursday, and the day started out pretty lousy.  I worked part time as a tutor for the Learning Skills Center on campus, where I would meet with small groups of students taking beginning math classes.  I was tutoring precalculus this morning, and none of the students in the group could figure out my explanations of how to prove trigonometric identities.  Proofs came naturally to me, and I had been studying the process of how to write a proof in my Abstract Mathematics class, but this did not work for precalculus students.  After that, I walked around the Memorial Union and the Quad looking for a friend to have lunch with.  Finding none, I ate alone outside, where it was sunny but cold.

My only class on Thursdays was physics lab, in the early afternoon.  After lunch, I walked from the Quad to the laboratory classroom in Ross Hall; the walk was about the length of four city blocks.  The weekend started to feel close on a Thursday, and I had Monday off for Presidents’ Day, but I was not looking forward to this weekend.  At this point in my life, a three-day weekend just meant three lonely days of moping around the apartment alone, trying to pick up girls in a chat room whom I would never meet, who may not even be real girls.

That week, I had really been missing the life I had last year in the dorm.  I had tons of new friends last year, and when I felt lonely and bored, I could just walk around the building and see who else was around.  That was a little more creepy to do in an apartment complex where I lived alone and knew few people.  Thirteen friends from my dorm lived less than half a mile from my apartment, and I went to visit them sometimes, but this was more difficult when they were not right in my building.  Living alone, I avoided roommate drama but missed out on all the socializing.  Soon the time would come to make housing plans for the 1996-97 school year, and I really hoped that I would be able to find an awesome group of roommates.  Maybe some of my new friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

The JCF large group meeting on Friday nights had become the highlight of my weekend most of the time, but the group was not meeting this week.  The staff all had to go to some kind of retreat, which for me meant no hearing a talk about the Bible, and no hanging out with friends afterward.  JCF is a chapter of a national organization called Intervarsity; the chapters are led by staff members whose salaries are paid by raising monthly contributions from supporters and churches, much like how missionaries are paid.  I did not know all of that in 1996, though.  I just knew that there were four adults in their 20s out of school who led the group: a married couple named Dave and Janet McAllen, and two single women named Cheryl and Maggie.

Most importantly in my young man mind, though, no JCF meant no chance to talk to Haley Channing, the sweet girl with the beautiful blue eyes whom I had met a few weeks earlier.  Last Friday at JCF, Haley left early, so all I got to say to her was hi.  I felt completely inept at interacting with girls, especially ones I found attractive.  I did hear someone say that, since there was no JCF this week, people would be meeting for a time of worship and prayer at someone’s house instead.  I was not sure if I was going to go; I did not know those people.

I still felt grumpy and frustrated when I left my physics lab.  I had no more classes, so I walked back toward the Memorial Union and the bus stop on the other side, cutting through the side of the building where the Coffee House was.  As I walked through, I looked around at the people sitting at tables, and I spotted Janet McAllen from JCF staff with a blonde girl I did not recognize.  Janet waved, so I walked over to say hi.

“Hi, Greg,” Janet said, smiling.  “How are you?  Want to sit down?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you know Mary?” she asked, gesturing toward the other girl.

“Hi, I’m Mary,” the other girl said.

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

“How’s your day going?” Janet asked.

“Honestly, not too well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m just feeling discouraged,” I said.  “I’m lonely.  I wish I knew how to have a social life.”

“Do you have roommates?  Do you have a group of friends?  I’ve seen you sitting with people at large group.  Liz and Ramon, Pete, Sarah, Taylor, those people.”

“They were all in my dorm last year.  I still hang out with them sometimes.  They all live not too far from me, in north Jeromeville.  But I live by myself.  By the time I figured out people were making plans for this year, everyone I knew already had roommates lined up.”

“That’s tough.  Hopefully you’ll figure something out for next year.”

“Yeah.  I’ve always had a hard time making friends.  I was teased and bullied all through elementary school.  I kept to myself a lot in high school.  And I’ve never had a girlfriend.”

“Do you know Jesus?” Janet asked me.  I thought that was an odd question.  I had never been asked this before.

“What do you mean, exactly?” I replied.  “I know Jesus is the Son of God, and he came to earth, and he was crucified and rose from the dead.”

“But do you have a relationship with Jesus?”

Here we go.  Another thing where Catholics and Protestants were different, and I was not in the mood to be told how wrong I was.  I simply answered, “I don’t know.”

“May I explain what that means?”

“Sure.”

Janet pulled out a sheet of paper and drew a horizontal line about halfway down and an inch or so across, then drew a line downward at right angles to the first line.  She drew the mirror image of this on the other side of the paper, then drew a stick figure on top of each side, so that they appeared to be facing each other with a chasm between them.  She wrote “Us” on one side and “God” on the other.  “God created Adam and Eve, and they disobeyed him.  Sin entered into the world, and sin brings death.”  Janet wrote “Death” at the bottom of the chasm.  “So because of sin, humans are separated from God.  We can’t cross over this chasm to God’s side because of sin.  Our sin separates us from God and his holiness, and since everyone has sinned, nothing we can do on our own can bring us back to God.”

I had never heard sin explained that way before.  I had been to Reconciliation a few times back home, and once last year with Father Bill at the Newman Center.  I always thought of it as a pardoning for sins and a promise to do something good to make up for it.  But Janet was saying something different.  I had never studied the theology behind the Catholic Sacrament of Reconciliation, so I did not know if these two views contradicted each other.

Next, Janet drew a large cross in the middle of the chasm, with the horizontal part of the cross connecting the two sides of the chasm.  “But Jesus came to Earth to make a way, a bridge across this chasm.  Jesus was the Son of God, born without sin, and he took our sin to the cross and died in our place.  And now, because Jesus died on the cross, we have a way back to  God.  Jesus conquered death and rose from the dead.  And he offers that gift of eternal life to all who come to him.  If you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, you will be saved from sin and have eternal life with God.”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I’ve never heard it explained that way.  What do you mean, ‘accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior?’”

“That means you believe that Jesus died to save you from your sins, and rose from the dead, to give you eternal life with God.  And he is the Lord of your life, and you will live the rest of your life for Him.  Do you want that?”

I always thought I believed in Jesus, but apparently I had gaps in my understanding of what that really meant.  I knew this was right, though.  Everything I had learned from JCF over the last four months had convinced me more and more that following Jesus was the right way.  And I had seen God’s love for his people manifested in the way that my Christian friends, old and new, treated me and others with love.

“Yes,” I said.

“And do you believe that you are a sinner, separated from God, and Jesus is the way to eternal life?”

“Yes.”

“Can you pray with me?  Is that okay?  Tell God what you just told me.”

“Yes,” I said, bowing my head.  Janet bowed her head as well.  “Jesus,” I said, “I am a sinner.  And you are the only way to eternal life.  I believe that you are the Lord and Savior, and I pray that you will guide me and give me hope.  I thank you for all the new Christian friends you have put in my life.”

“Father, God,” Janet said after a pause, “I thank you that you have brought Greg into your family.  I thank you so much, Father, for our new brother in Christ.  I thank you that the angels are rejoicing that Greg has found his way home.  I pray that he will stay strong and live his life for you.  Fill him with the Holy Spirit.  Lead him in the way he should go.  And transform his heart to make him more like you every day.  In the name of Jesus, we pray.  Amen.”

I looked up.  Janet was smiling.  “Welcome to the body of Christ,” she said.  “Congratulations!”

“Yes,” Mary said.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, suddenly feeling awkward because I had forgotten that Mary had been sitting there this whole time.

“There’s no large group tomorrow, but the guys who live at 1640 Valdez are hosting a worship and prayer night.  Are you going to go?”

“I heard about that.  I wasn’t sure if I was going, but if there is no large group, I won’t be doing anything else tomorrow night.  So I’ll probably be there.”

“I think it’ll be good for you.  Also, are you in a Bible study yet?”

“No.  Not yet.”

“I don’t have it with me, but I’ll get you the list of off-campus Bible studies.  You said you live in north Jeromeville?  I know one of the guys from the house where the worship night is, Shawn, he leads a Bible study that meets not too far from you.  Maybe talk to him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

“Do you have a Bible?”

“Yeah.  A few weeks ago, I hung out with Eddie and Xander and Kristina and Haley and Kelly after JCF.  Kristina gave me an extra Bible she had.”

“Good!  I want you to look these up when you get a chance.” Janet wrote three Bible verses on the paper that she had drawn on earlier and handed it to me.  I put the paper in my backpack.  “Are you going to be okay?” Janet asked.

“Yes, I am.” I smiled.

“Do you need to get home?”

I looked at my watch; I missed my bus by a long shot.  Another bus was probably there now, getting ready to leave in a few minutes.  “I probably should,” I said.  “But thank you for sharing and listening.”

“You’re welcome.  Jesus said to share the good news, after all.”

“Enjoy your retreat this weekend.”

“I will!  I’ll see you next week!”

As I walked toward the bus, went home, and made dinner, something felt different.  Jesus had called me away from the pity party I had been throwing myself that morning.  He had something better for me, a life of peace and hope.  When I got home, while my frozen chicken pot pie was in the oven, I looked up the Bible verses that Janet had told me to read.

Romans 8:15-16 “For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”

Romans 5:5 “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.”

John 7:37-38 “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’”

This was me.  I had the Spirit of sonship.  I was God’s child.  I came to Jesus today and experienced the streams of living water.  And the Holy Spirit brought hope which did not disappoint.  I taped Janet’s drawing to the wall behind my desk, the wall that I stared at for much of the time that I was in the apartment, so that I would be able to look at it and remember what it meant to be a child of God.


The next night, I drove to the address of the worship and prayer night. I was pretty sure that this was the same house where the ill-fated car rally a few months ago had ended, so I had been here before.  But tonight I had arrived late, on purpose, because I did not know what to expect and I was nervous about being alone in a room full of people I did not know well.

I knocked on the door, and someone on the inside opened it.  It was dark inside, and around forty people were packed into the living room, on every available couch and chair and on the floor.  I recognized many familiar faces from JCF as I quietly tiptoed to a spot on the floor big enough for me to sit.  Sarah Winters and Krista Curtis, who lived downstairs from me in the dorm last year, were sitting nearby, and they immediately came over to me when they saw me walk in.  “Congratulations,” Sarah said, giving me a big lingering hug.

“I’m excited for you!” Krista added.

I was a little confused at first, but I figured they must have found out about my decision for Jesus yesterday.  “Thank you,” I said, smiling.

The three of us sat singing along with the worship team as they played and sang a song called “Shine Jesus Shine.” I had heard this song at JCF large group before, and I liked it.  “Shine, Jesus, shine, fill this land with the Father’s glory,” I sang along.  “Blaze, Spirit, blaze, set our hearts on fire.”  That was where I was tonight.  The Holy Spirit was setting my heart on fire as I began my new life as a Christian, living for Jesus.

We continued singing for a couple hours, until well after nine o’clock, pausing after every few songs to pray silently.  Sometimes people prayed out loud, and during one of the pauses, we were instructed to pray with the people sitting near us.  Sarah and Krista prayed for my walk with Jesus, that I would continue to follow him and grow closer to him every day.

After the music and prayer ended, I stood up.  Liz Williams and Ramon Quintero, who were also in my dorm last year, approached me.  Liz smiled excitedly and said, “Hey, Greg.  Janet told me about yesterday.”

“It seems like a lot of people heard about that,” I said, chuckling and blushing a little.

“Earlier this week, I was hanging out with Sarah, and we were talking about how you’d been getting more involved with JCF.  Sarah said that she thought you were close to really coming to know Jesus, and that after that you would just be on fire for Jesus.”

“I know.  That’s how I feel tonight.”

“Are you involved with a Bible study yet?”

“No, but Janet emailed me a list of all the off campus Bible studies.”

“You should come with us to ours.  Shawn and Lillian are the leaders.  That’s Shawn, this is his house,” Liz said, gesturing toward an Asian guy with an athletic build.  “Lillian isn’t here tonight.”

“I will,” I said.  “Janet mentioned Shawn’s group yesterday when she asked if I was in a Bible study.  And now you mentioned it.  Sounds like God is telling me to go there.”

Eddie Baker, one of the guys who had originally invited me to hang out the night Kristina gave me her extra Bible, walked up to greet me next.  “Greg,” he said, pulling me into a hug.  “Congratulations.”

“Thank you,” I said, wondering just how many people knew.

“How are you?”

“I’m feeling much better, just about life in general.”

“That’s Jesus.  He changes your life.”

“I know.”

“I need to go talk to some people, but I just wanted to say hi.  Have a great weekend!”

“You too.”

I drove home later that night feeling encouraged and excited.  It no longer mattered that my upcoming three-day weekend would be lonely and boring, because I had Jesus, and Jesus brought hope and peace.  And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit; that was in one of the verses that Janet gave me to read.

Janet told me a few weeks later that Mary, the other girl who had been at the table in the Coffee House when I made my decision for Jesus, was someone who had come to JCF with a friend, and Janet and Mary had been intentionally meeting to talk about Jesus.  Seeing me make a decision for Jesus was exactly the kind of thing that Mary needed.  I do not know what happened to Mary; I only met her once or twice more that year.

To this day, I wonder if Janet made a mistake with the verses she wrote on that drawing.  Romans 5:6, the verse after the one about hope, says “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”  That seems like a much more appropriate, and commonly used, verse for a new Christian learning about God’s grace and the significance of Jesus dying on the cross.  But even if Janet wrote the wrong verse number, God made no mistakes; he knew that that verse about hope was what I needed on that long, lonely Presidents’ Day weekend in 1996.  That was the first verse that I memorized.

In those first days after I made a decision for Jesus, I wondered if this would create tension with my Catholic relatives on my mom’s side.  Mom herself would probably be fine with it; she always respected the beliefs of Christians we knew who were not Catholic.  And I was not personally worried, because Catholics and other Christians follow the same Jesus, and the things we have in common are so much more important than the things that the different branches of Christianity fight about.  I had no plans to stop attending Mass at the Newman Center.  (I did eventually leave the Newman Center, but that is a story for another time.)

I spent most of the rest of the weekend relaxing, studying, running errands, and doing housework.  The only time I saw people the rest of that weekend was at Mass on Sunday, and just like at the worship night at Shawn’s house on Friday, the words of the songs all seemed more meaningful now.  Sure, I did not know what the future held.  I might fail out of school, I might not be successful in the working world, and I might never get a chance to get to know Haley or ask her out.  But even if all of that happened, I still had Jesus, and that meant I always had hope.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

I had been in a bad mood all week.  I woke to rain Tuesday morning, and since then clouds had covered Jeromeville the entire time.  My week had been boring and uneventful, and I was feeling particularly grumpy about not having a girlfriend.  Earlier today, I saw Sabrina Murphy from church on campus, and she introduced me to her boyfriend.  I knew she had a boyfriend, I had been through the disappointment of learning that a month ago, but meeting him felt like a reminder that I was not good enough to date a girl like Sabrina.

It was now Friday evening, and once I got home from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship tonight, I would be alone studying the entire weekend.  The National Football League championship game was coming up Sunday afternoon, but this year I would probably be watching it alone in my apartment.  Maybe that was a good thing; the team I despised the most, the Texas Toros, was heavily favored to win.

Dave McAllen of the JCF staff team spoke that night.  “‘I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel,’” Dave said, reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “If you look back in Acts chapter 19, it tells about when Paul first visited Philippi.  The first Philippian to receive the gospel was a woman named Lydia.  It says, ‘When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.’  Paul and his companions did not just baptize her and take off.  They started a church that met at her house.”

I had been attending JCF since October.  At first, most of my thoughts during the group meetings were on learning people’s names, figuring out how the group worked, and wondering whether they would have a problem with me being Catholic.  But now that I had been part of the group for a few months, I was paying more attention to the actual content of the message.  I got a different perspective on Scripture from JCF than I got from Mass at the Newman Center.  Father Bill’s homily was usually something fairly brief and general, vaguely related to that week’s Scripture, but the messages given by Dave and the JCF staff applied specific Scriptures in relevant ways for university students in 1996.  Relationship was a big part of spreading the Gospel at a large university.  It was also, unfortunately, something deficient in my life.

After Dave’s talk and the final worship song, I stood and turned to my friends.  I had been sitting next to Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, and Jason Costello, all friends from my freshman dorm last year.  “How’s it going, Greg?” Charlie asked.

“I’m doing okay,” I said.  “Except all my classes have midterms this week.”

“Good luck,” Caroline said.  

“Where are Liz and Ramon?” Charlie asked.

“They went to go see Ramon’s parents this weekend,” Caroline replied.

“Ramon said they’ll be back Sunday morning,” Jason added.  “I need to get going.  I had a midterm today, and I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Yeah,” Caroline said.  “I need to go too.  I need to start my paper.  It’s due Monday.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.  “Is anyone else doing anything tonight?”

“Not me,” Pete replied.  “I have to study all weekend.  I’m so behind in all my classes.”

“Pete’s my ride,” Charlie said, “and I’m behind too.”

“Good luck with your studying,” I said.  “I’ll see you guys later!”

The others said their goodbyes, and I walked around the room.  I knew that learning about the Bible should be the most important part of these meetings, but I was also enjoying the social aspect.  Dave spoke tonight about building relationships, so being social is important too, apparently.  Last week I went to a movie with those friends after JCF, and I was hoping something like that would happen tonight too.  If it did, though, it would not be with them; my opportunity had been stolen by studying, and by Liz and Ramon doing couple stuff.

A freshman named Brent Wang saw me and waved.  I approached him and the others standing next to him.  “Hey, Greg,” Brent said.  “How’s it going?”

“Not bad.  Just busy with school.  How are you guys?”

“I had a midterm today.  I don’t think I did too great.”

“I had one too,” said a tall curly-haired boy whose name I thought was Todd.  “I know I didn’t do too great.”

“That’s too bad,” I replied.  “But you never know.  What are you guys up to tonight?”

“We’re having an overnighter at our Bible study leader’s apartment,” Brent explained.  “Just something for the guys of our group to get to know each other.  We should actually get going; we told him we’d be there in just a minute.”

“Have fun!” I said.  “See you guys next week!”

Over the next twenty minutes, I had some positive small talk experiences but was ultimately unsuccessful in finding something to do.  By now, only ten people remained in the room, and most of them seemed to be helping clean up.  I sat in a seat by myself away from people and put my head down.  What was wrong with me?  Why was it so hard for me to make friends?  I hated being me sometimes.  I hated living alone and feeling out of the loop, and the only reason I lived alone was because I was out of the loop when people were making housing plans for the following year.  And would I ever know the feeling of being in love?

I looked down at the floor, fighting back tears, as I heard more and more of the few remaining students putting things away, saying goodbye, and leaving the room.  When the room was silent, as the last people were getting ready to leave, I heard footsteps approaching, probably to tell me that it was time to go, that they had to lock up.

“Are you okay?” a voice asked.  I looked up to see two guys of average height and build now sitting next to me.  The closer one had black hair and olive skin, and the one behind him had light brown hair and pointed features.

“I’m okay,” I said.  “I’m just having a rough night.  I feel like I don’t fit in around here.”

“Why’s that?  Did something happen?” the dark-haired guy asked me.  He was the same one who had spoken before, and I had seen him around JCF; I was pretty sure his name was Eddie.  I did not know the other guy.

“I haven’t been going here very long.  I don’t know a lot of people.  And the people I do know, sometimes I feel like I’m not really part of their group.”

“Your name’s Greg, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Eddie, and this is Xander.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Who would you say you know here?”

“Pete Green, Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Caroline Pearson, Liz Williams, Ramon Quintero, Jason Costello, Sarah Winters, Krista Curtis… we were all in the same dorm last year.  A lot of them weren’t here this week, though, and the ones who were went home early.”

“Sometimes people just have stuff going on,” Xander said.  “Don’t take it personally.”

“I know.”

“So you’re a sophomore?” Eddie asked.  “We are too.  Do you have roommates?”

“No.  I was in a single room in the dorm last year, and when everyone was making their plans for this year, I didn’t know what was going on until everyone had plans already.”

“Living alone can be nice,” Xander said.  “We live in a big house with eight of us total, and it gets noisy sometimes.”

“Yeah, but it gets lonely too.”

“Can we pray with you?” Eddie asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I found this to be another difference between students at JCF and students at the Newman Center, the willingness to pray for people openly in public like this.

Eddie placed his hand on my back and began speaking.  “Father God, I thank you for bringing Greg to JCF and having our lives intersect tonight.  I pray that Greg will know that he is loved.  I pray that he will experience your love in a whole new way this weekend.  I pray that you will come in and transform his life.  Wash away all the hurt and the pain and show him your blessings anew.”

“Jesus,” Xander added.  “I pray that you will help Greg find his place in our community.  I pray that he will hear from you and know your plan for his life.  I pray that you will bring him into the community you have prepared for him, and I thank you that we got to talk to him tonight.”  After a pause, he concluded, “In the name of Jesus, Amen.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” Eddie asked.

“No.  Just study and homework, but it won’t take the whole weekend.”

“Tonight we’re going to play games with some girls from JCF who live down the street from us.  And we’re going to watch the football championship on Sunday.  You want to come hang out with us?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Where do you guys live?”

“I’ll draw you a map.”  Eddie tore off a piece of paper and drew a map to a street called Baron Court, near Valdez Street and Cornell Boulevard.  He marked two locations at opposite ends of the street, labeling one of them “2212 – Eddie & Xander” and the other “2234 – Girls.”  “Do you know where that is?” he asked.  “It’s in south Jeromeville.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can find my way there.  Are you guys going there now?”

“Yeah.  We said we’d be there a while ago.:

“Sounds good.  I’ll see you in a bit then.”



Baron Court was about two miles from campus on the other side of Highway 100.  I had explored this neighborhood on my bike a few months earlier.  On one side of Baron Court was a large apartment complex with its main entrance around the corner on Valdez Street, and a row of duplexes lined the other side, ending in a cul-de-sac opening up to one of the Greenbelts.  The girls lived in the second to last duplex.  I did not know who these girls were, and I did not know if Eddie and Xander had arrived yet.  If I knocked, and they were not expecting me, would they be comfortable letting some strange man into their home at ten o’clock at night?  After waiting in the car nervously for over five minutes, I had not seen Eddie and Xander arrive, so I assumed that they had gotten there before me.  I walked up and rang the doorbell.

A shorter than average girl with dark curly hair opened the door.  Behind her I could see Eddie and Xander sitting on a couch, looking at the door as if they were expecting me.  “Greg!” Eddie said.  “You made it!  Come on in!”

“Hi, Greg.  I’m Kristina,” said the girl who answered the door.

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  We shook hands, and I walked to the couch and sat next to Xander.  On a second couch, placed against the front wall out of view of the doorway, sat two other girls, one small and thin with brown hair and an athletic build, and one average height, but the tallest of the three, with bright blue eyes and straight light brown hair just past her shoulders.  I could not remember ever having met any of these girls before.  Around 150 students attended JCF on an average Friday, so I had not met everyone yet.  “These are my roommates, Kelly and Haley,” Kristina said.  “Six of us live here, but the other three went home for the weekend.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said.

“You too,” Kelly, the small athletic one, replied.

“So you go to JCF?” Haley asked.  “I don’t think I’ve met you before.”

“I’ve only been going for three months.  I don’t know a lot of people yet.”

“I didn’t have that experience.  It seems like everyone knew me the first time I went to large group,” Haley said, and the others chuckled.  I got the impression that she was referring to something specific that I did not know about, and just as I was about to ask, Eddie explained, “Haley’s brother goes to JCF too.  He’s a senior.  Do you know Christian Channing?  Glasses, goatee, about the same color hair as Haley.”

“I think I know who you’re talking about,” I said.

“Are you a freshman?” Haley asked.

“Sophomore.”

“Me too.”

“All of us are,” Kelly added, gesturing toward the six of us in the room.

“How’d you find out about JCF?” Kristina asked.

“A bunch of my friends from my dorm last year invited me.”  I told Kristina which JCF people lived in my dorm, and she and the other girls nodded.

“Are you in a Bible study?” Xander asked me.

“I’m not,” I said.  Hoping that this would not make my new friends gasp in horror, I added, “I actually don’t even have a Bible.”

“I think I have an extra Bible,” Kristina said.  “I’ll go look for it before you can leave.  You can have it.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  “That would be nice.”

“So what do you want to play?” Eddie asked.

“We can always start with Uno,” Kristina replied.  “Is everyone okay with Uno?”

“Sure,” I said.  Kristina got up and returned a minute later with Uno and a few other games.  She dealt the cards, and we began playing, taking turns trying to match the color or the number of the previously played card.  We made small talk while we were playing, about classes and other things going on around JCF.

Xander played a red 3 card.  My turn was next, but Kristina jumped in and played the other red 3 card, out of turn.  “What?” I said.  “It’s my turn.”

“I had the other red 3,” Kristina explained.

“What do you mean?  Why did you play out of turn?”

“Because I had the exact match.”

“I don’t think that’s an actual rule,” Eddie said.  “Greg, you don’t play that way?”

“No.  It’s not a rule.  I read the rules when I was a kid.”

“That’s how we always play,” Kristina argued.

“That’s fine, as long as I know about it.  Are there any other made-up rules?”

“What about adding to draw cards?” Eddie asked.  “Like if I play a Draw Two, then instead of drawing two, Xander can play another Draw Two, and you would have to draw four.  And if you play another Draw Two, Haley would have to draw six.”

“I don’t know that one either, but that sounds interesting.”

We played three long games of Uno with these house rules that were new to me; I did not win any of them, but it was fun, especially when Kristina, after a great deal of playful trash-talking, had to draw twelve when three Wild Draw Four cards were played consecutively.  After Uno, we played Scattergories.  In this game, each player was given a list of categories and a short amount of time to write things in each category beginning with a predetermined letter.  Only unique answers, different from those of all other players, counted for points.  For the first round the letter was B.  I read the categories and began writing.

Heroes: Batman, but I made a note to change it if I had time, since someone else would probably say that.  Terms of endearment: Babe.  Same thing, someone else would probably say it.  Tropical locations: Bikini Atoll.  Items in your purse/wallet: Bucks.  As in money.  That was creative.  Things that are black: Barry Bonds.  Not exactly politically correct, but good for laughs, and I would get two points for using something with two B words.  I started to panic as the timer inched closer to 0.  At the last minute, I crossed out Batman and put “Bueller, Ferris” for Heroes.  In the movie, Cameron calls him his hero, so I thought I had a good argument.

When the timer went off, we began reading our answers.  “Heroes,” Kristina said.  “Batman.”  Kelly and Xander both groaned that they had also written Batman, so I had made a good choice to change mine.  “Bueller, Ferris,” I said.  Imitating Cameron from the movie, I added, “Ferris Bueller, you’re my hero,” in an exaggerated nasal deadpan.  The others laughed and agreed that my answer counted.

“Items in your purse,” Eddie said.

“Big bills!” Kristina shouted.  “Two points!”

“Isn’t that only one point?” I asked.  “Because ‘big’ isn’t really a necessary part of the answer.  It’s just ‘bills.’”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “I think you only get the point for ‘bills.’”

We continued reading our answers; I scored eight points that round.  We chose a new list for the next round, and Kelly rolled the alphabet die; it landed on C.  I read my new categories and tried to think of C words.  Famous females: Christina Applegate.  Things made of metal: Crowbar.  Medicine/Drugs: Cocaine.  Names in the Bible: This is where my lack of a Bible might hurt me.  I wrote Caleb; I was pretty sure there was a Caleb in the Bible.

“Famous females,” Eddie said as the timer went off.

“Christina Applegate,” I said.  No one else had that.

“Sheryl Crow!” Kristina exclaimed loudly.

“That’s only one point,” I said.  “Sheryl is spelled with an S, not a C.”

“Well, aren’t you the king of not letting me get two points!” Kristina said with mock indignation.

“And you’re the queen of answers that don’t count,” I replied.  Everyone laughed.

It was past midnight by the time we finished the third and final round of Scattergories.  “We should probably get going,” Eddie said.  “It’s getting late.  I’ll see you Sunday?”

“Probably,” Kristina replied.  “Wait.  Hang on.”  She walked out of the room, then returned a minute later holding a Bible, which she handed me.  “Here, Greg.  You said you needed this.”

“Yes!  Thank you!”

“It was nice to meet you, Greg,” Haley said, smiling.

“You too.”  I looked at her and smiled back.

“Yeah,” Kelly added.  “Nice meeting you, Greg.”

As we left, walking outside toward the sidewalk, I pointed to my left and asked, “So your house is right down there?”

“Yeah,” Eddie said.  “We’ll see you Sunday?”

“Yes.  I’ll be there.  Thanks for inviting me.”

“Drive safely,” Xander said.  “See you Sunday.”

“See you guys then,” I replied.

I got in my car and put Kristina’s Bible on the front seat.  Things really turned around tonight.  Dave spoke tonight about the ministry of the early Christians being built on relationships, and Eddie and Xander heard that message loud and clear, reaching out to me to build friendships that have lasted to this day, even though we now live far apart.  Decades later, I was given the chance to pass on this message about ministry through building relationships.  I was invited to speak at JCF’s Alumni Night in 2016, and I told the students about the night I got upset and threw a cardboard box at Sarah Winters and my friends prayed for me, as well as this night, when Eddie and Xander invited to play Uno and Scattergories.

I went to bed shortly after I got home that night.  It felt like pieces were finally falling into place.  I had many more pieces to go to solve this great puzzle of life, but I felt a little closer to figuring things out tonight than I had earlier.  As I drifted off to sleep, I felt at peace, thinking about my new friends, how Eddie and Xander had included me in their life tonight.  I was going to see them again on Sunday, and it was going to be awesome.

And I also thought quite a bit about Haley Channing and her beautiful blue eyes.  I really, really hoped that she did not have a boyfriend.

The actual bible Kristina gave me on that day, a bit more worn now.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I walked into the lobby of Evans Hall, got a name tag from the people sitting in front, and went into the back of the lecture hall, room 170.  I looked around the room and saw Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Mike Knepper, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis mingling about halfway down the room, so I walked over to sit near them.  All of these people except Mike had been in my dorm last year, and some of them had invited me multiple times to come with them to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I finally went with them about a month ago, and JCF’s large group meetings here in 170 Evans had become my Friday night routine.

“Hey, Greg,” Krista said, seeing me first.  The others said hi to me as well.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” Taylor replied.  “Are you coming to the car rally tonight?”

“Probably.  I’ve never done a car rally before.  How does it work?”

“You get clues, and you drive around to the places the clues tell you to go.  Then people are hanging out afterward.  There are prizes for the team that finishes first.”

“That’s kind of what I thought.  It sounds fun.”

The large group meetings for JCF usually lasted about an hour and a half.  The worship band played a few songs, with one of the staff making announcements after the first song.  Then someone would give a talk, kind of like a sermon at a church service, with more music at the end.  Cheryl, one of the staff, did tonight’s talk.  After the band finished their last song, Cheryl got back up front, something that did not usually happen in a normal week.  But this was not a normal week; the group had put together this car rally as a social event to take place after the meeting tonight.

“If you have a car, come up to the front of the room,” Cheryl said into the microphone.  “Once you have enough people on your team to fill the car, go out to the lobby and get your clues.  And you want to make sure you have at least one upperclassman on your team.  We’re going to start at about 9:30.”  It was a few minutes after nine now.

I did not know any upperclassmen.  Scott Madison, the drummer who, like me, was also a tutor for the Learning Skills Center, was the upperclassman I was closest to knowing, since I knew his name and had said hi to him before.  But it looked like Scott had his own car and was assembling his own team.  Most of my friends were also assembling into teams; I saw Sarah and Krista leave with two older girls I did not know, and Taylor and Charlie left with two older boys.  I retreated to a corner, watching people I knew form teams with people I did not know and proceed out of the room.

Pete and Mike, the two remaining people from the group I sat with, walked up to me about a minute later.  “Greg?” Pete asked.  “Are you on a team yet?”

“I’m driving, and I don’t have anyone on my team yet.”

“Can we join your team, then?”

“Sure.”

“Mike was going to drive, but it looks like they have more drivers than they need.”

“Sounds good.  Now we just need some upperclassmen.”

The room was emptying as more and more people either went home or got in their groups.  Two girls walked up to us a few minutes later.  One of them asked, “Are you guys still looking for people in your car?  Do you have room for two more?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can fit five.”

“I guess you’re on our team, then,” Mike told them.

“Great!” the girl said.  “I’m Leah, and this is Autumn.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied.  “I’m Greg.  Do you know these guys?”  Leah and Autumn shook their heads no, and Pete and Mike introduced themselves.

The five of us walked to the lobby, where someone handed us two envelopes and instructed us not to open them until someone told us to.  We waited with the other completed teams for about another five minutes until all the teams had formed and were ready.

“Listen up, everyone,” Cheryl announced at around 9:30.  “There will be five places you need to go, and you’ll get the next clue at each place.  People will be hanging out at the last place.  The envelope that says ‘don’t open unless you are stuck,’ don’t open that unless you are absolutely stuck and you want to give up.  That tells you where the party is, but if you open it, you won’t win the prize.  The other envelope, the first clue, open that now.  Go!”

I heard the sound of about fifteen to twenty envelopes opening as people began reading the first clue and running to their cars.  I opened the clue and read it:

 

One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!

 

Virgin?  But stop?  What did any of this mean?  I handed the paper to Pete, who read it and looked about as confused as I was.  “Let’s go to the car,” I said.  I jogged to the parking lot, since after all this was a race, and motioned for the other four to follow me.

“One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but, stop,” I said out loud once we were in the car.  “Do any of you know what that means?”

“I have no idea,” Pete said.

“The Venus!” Mike shouted.  “That’s it!”

“What’s The Venus?” I asked.

“The coffee shop.”

“Where is that?”

“B Street, between First and Second.  There’s this sign outside that’s supposed to look like that painting of Venus in the seashell.”

“Let’s go!” I said.  As I drove my way out of the parking lot toward downtown, I realized that I still had no idea how Mike made the connection between this coffee shop and the extra virgins and the but stop.  “So what do the two rows of virgins in the clue mean?” I asked.

“The painting.  Venus emerged from the sea as a virgin,” Mike explained.  “And they have a patio outside with outdoor seating.  Maybe two rows of seats?”  I was not entirely on board with Mike’s interpretation of the clue, but he was familiar with this place and I was not, so in the absence of any other ideas, it was worth checking out.

I followed Mike’s directions and pulled over to the side of the road next to the building he pointed out.  The Venus was the kind of unique coffee shop that belonged in a college town like Jeromeville.  It was common in downtown areas of cities this size around here to have restaurants and offices in buildings that had once been single-family homes, and The Venus appeared to be such a building.  The front yard had been paved and converted to outdoor seating, with towering trees planted decades ago when this was a house providing shade.  A sign was painted to look like a replica of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, with Venus covering her lady parts in the same pose, but emerging from a cup of coffee instead of a seashell.  One of the other goddesses in the painting held a banner which said “The Venus – Coffee House & Pub.”  The place appeared to be open; it was Friday night, after all.

“I’ll go get the clue,” Mike said, hopping out of the car.  Mike looked around the patio for a minute, then went inside.

“I don’t know if this is it,” I said.

“Me either,” Pete agreed.

“This place looks cool,” Leah observed.  “I’ve never been here.”

“I haven’t either,” I said.  “I don’t like coffee.”

“You don’t like coffee?”

“Why not?” Autumn asked.  “I love coffee!”

“I just don’t like the taste.  I’ve tried coffee drinks with other stuff in them, like mochas, and I can still taste the coffee.  I feel like I’m missing out on the coffee shop experience because of that.”

“You can get other drinks,” Leah suggested.

“I know.  It’s just kind of sad not being able to do things that everyone else does.”

“No one is here,” Mike said as he arrived back at the car.  “This isn’t it.”

“You looked everywhere?” Pete asked.

“Yeah.  Inside, outside, out back, I didn’t see anyone here from JCF.  I even asked a few people who looked like they were waiting for someone.”

“Bummer.”

“So where should I go now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Mike said as the rest of us looked confused.

“We must be missing something in the clue,” I said, holding the paper and reading it again.  “‘One row for virgin and one row for extra virgin, both end in a but… STOP!’  What’s a but stop?”

“I wonder if it’s supposed to be ‘bus stop,’” Leah suggested.  “Is there a bus stop here?”

“There’s one down there,” Autumn said, pointing a block down the street.

“There are hundreds of bus stops in Jeromeville,” I said.  “How do we know which one it means?  And there isn’t really a prominent bus stop here, outside The Venus.  That must be important, or else it wouldn’t be written on the clue.  And why is STOP! capitalized?”

“Virgin,” Mike said, thinking out loud.  “Maybe something to do with the Virgin Mary?  A Catholic church?  Is there a Catholic church called Virgin something around here?”

“There’s the Newman Center, and there’s St. John’s,” I answered.  “No virgin.”

“We don’t have any better ideas, so maybe we should just drive past there,” Leah said.

“All right.”

The Newman Center was only a few blocks away from The Venus.  I continued up B Street to Fifth, then turned right.  I parked in front; the building looked completely deserted, and no one was outside.  St. John’s was about half a mile away on the corner of B Street and 15th, and it looked equally deserted, both from the street and from the parking lot.

“I’m out of ideas,” I said.  “Unless anyone can think of anything, I’ll just drive around aimlessly and hope we see something.”

“I guess,” Pete replied.

“Leah?  Autumn?  Do you guys know anything?  You’re the upperclassmen in the group.”

“Upperclassmen?” Leah repeated.  “We’re freshmen.”

“Wait.  Weren’t we supposed to have an upperclassman on our team?”

“We thought you guys were upperclassmen.  You look older.”

“Uh-oh,” I said.  “We’re all sophomores.  That’s why our group doesn’t get this.  The upperclassmen know something we don’t.”

“I think they just said that to make sure that someone in your group knows their way around Jeromeville,” Pete said.  “And you know your way around.”

“I don’t know.”  I was getting more frustrated by the minute.  It was 10:02, and we had made no progress in half an hour.  The clues were probably all inside jokes among the people who had been involved with JCF for a long time, and I had no idea what extra virgins and the but stop were because I was on the outside of the cliques.  However, Pete and Mike did not understand the clues either, despite being better connected within JCF.

“Virgin Megastore,” Autumn said as I drove around Jeromeville aimlessly.  “That big record store.  Is there one here?”

“I think there’s one in Capital City,” I replied.  “But the directions specifically said all the clues were in Jeromeville.  They’re not going to make us cross the Drawbridge.”

I continued driving aimlessly around Jeromeville, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins or a but stop, whatever that was.  I drove through the parking lots in the two shopping centers near my apartment.  I drove up Andrews to where it meets G Street near the pond.  I drove back down G Street toward downtown, driving slowly, looking at every landmark and sign.  We made of small talk while we drove around.  I learned that Leah was majoring in psychology, and that Autumn had not decided on a major yet.  I also learned that Mike was from Morgantown, about a half hour drive from my hometown of Plumdale.

“Did you go to Morgantown High?” I asked Mike.

“Yeah.  Why?

“They played my high school for our Homecoming football game senior year.  You guys beat us pretty badly.”

“Did you play football?”

“No.  I just watched a bunch of games.”

“I didn’t really follow football,” Mike said.

After I had driven up and down several streets downtown, Leah and Autumn decided that it was time for them to go home and go to bed.  “Can you drop us off?”

“Okay,” I said.  “Where do you live?”

“Reynolds.  In the North Area.”

“Sure.”  I drove west down Fifth Street, left on Colt Avenue, and made an immediate right into the long narrow parking area separating the North Residential Area from Fifth Street and residential neighborhoods off campus.  I stopped when I got close to Reynolds Hall, one of four identical five-story dormitories that were the tallest residential buildings on campus.  “Good night,” I said.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!” Leah exclaimed.

“Bye,” Autumn said, smiling and waving.

After they left, I had a thought.  “If it is ‘bus stop’ instead of ‘but stop,’ maybe the clue is either at the MU or the Barn, since that’s where the buses stop on campus.”

“It’s worth a try,” Pete said.  I turned around and drove to the Memorial Union bus station.  Then, since cars are not allowed in the campus core, I backtracked all the way to Leah and Autumn’s dorm, turned onto campus on Andrews Road, and worked my way from there to the parking lot closest to the Barn.  No one was handing out clues at either place.

“This night has been a bust so far,” I said, looking at the clock.  10:36.  “It’s been over an hour, and we’ve made no progress.  And now we lost forty percent of our team.”

“It’s just a game,” Mike said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“Keep driving, I guess,” Pete suggested.

I did keep driving.  I worked my way around the west and south edges of campus back to downtown, looking for anything that might have to do with virgins.  I drove under the railroad tracks on Cornell Boulevard, past Murder Burger and over the freeway.  I continued east on Cornell to the easternmost edge of Jeromeville, then north on Bruce Boulevard across the freeway to where it curves around to the west and becomes Coventry Boulevard.  I was out of ideas, Pete and Mike and I were out of small talk, and by the time I had driven all the way back across Jeromeville to the west, it was after eleven o’clock, and we were ready to give up.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t figure out the clue,” I said.  I had failed my team miserably

“That’s okay,” Pete replied.  “Are you ready to open the envelope that says ‘Do Not Open?’”

“Sure,” I said.  Resigned to my fate, I opened the envelope and removed the paper inside.  “‘1640 Valdez Street,’” I read.  “I know Valdez Street.  That’s in South Jeromeville.”

“I think that’s the house where Shawn Yang and Brian Burr and those senior guys live,” Pete said.  “They must be hosting the after party.  But I kind of just want to go home now.”

“Me too,” Mike said.  “Can you just take us back to the parking lot by Evans?”

“Sure,” I answered.  “I’m still going to go to the party.”

“I hope it’s fun,” Pete said.

 

After I drove back to campus and dropped off Mike and Pete, I headed back to South Jeromeville, the same way I went earlier.  I did not know these guys who lived on Valdez Street, but hopefully the rest of my friends at JCF would be at this party.

I walked up to the door and knocked.  A tall upperclassman with reddish-brown hair answered the door and said, “Hey, come on in.  You made it.”

“Kinda,” I said.  “We got stuck and had to open the envelope.  The rest of my group just wanted to go home.”  I remembered meeting this guy last month, the first time I came to JCF; his name was Brian, and he was on the UJ track and field team.  I made a connection in my mind; Pete had mentioned that a senior named Brian Burr lived in this house.  This was probably the Brian he was talking about.

Taylor saw me walk in and waved.  He was with Charlie, Sarah, and Krista, the rest of the people I sat with earlier.  “Greg!” he said.  “We were just taking off.  Where were you?”

“I’ve been driving around this whole time.  I had to open the Do Not Open envelope.”

“Which clue did you get stuck on?”

“The first one!  We never found anything!”

“You never even got to the first checkpoint?” Taylor repeated.

“We were supposed to have an upperclassman in our group, and it was just me and Pete and Mike Knepper and two freshmen!  Whatever inside joke the juniors and seniors have that has to do with extra virgins, I’m not in on it.”

“Olives,” Sarah said.  “Like extra virgin olive oil.”

I paused, trying to assimilate this new piece of information.  My regimen of cereal, lunch meat, and frozen dinners did not include olive oil anywhere.  But now that Sarah mentioned it, I remembered having seen the term “extra virgin” on the label on a bottle of olive oil at the grocery store.  “Olive Way,” I said.  “That path on the west side of campus.  Two rows of olive trees.  Is that where it was?  What’s a but stop?”

“But stop?” Sarah asked.  I pulled the clue out of my pocket and showed it to her.  “I think that was supposed to say bus stop,” she explained.  “The clue was at the bus stop by Olive Way and Darlington Apartments.”

“That makes so much sense now,” I said.  I would learn later that Brian Burr and some of his roommates here on Valdez Street had lived in those apartments the previous year.  One of them probably wrote the clue.

“We’ll see you later,” Taylor said, shaking my hand.  “Have a good weekend.”

“You too.”

I looked around me at the rest of the people in the room.  About twelve people remained in the house, but this party definitely had the look of a party that was winding down.  No one else that I knew was here.  I tried talking to a few other people, but mostly I just felt embarrassed that I had not even solved the first clue.  I also felt like I had missed a fun time of hanging out, since most people arrived an hour ago.

I left the party about fifteen minutes later, feeling disappointed.  This night was supposed to be fun, and it just left me frustrated, because I could not even solve the first clue.  Even my skill of knowing my way around Jeromeville could not save us from that typo or my lack of familiarity with olive oil.  I still felt on the outside of the cliques.  But I met two new friends, Leah and Autumn, and I got to know Mike better.  I had only been part of JCF for a month, and I was still getting to know people.  And I was learning more about God and the Bible.  All of these were positive things that would take time to grow.  Reaching a goal is nice, but sometimes the things that make life worth living happen while wandering around lost.

2020 olive way
Olive Way, 2020