Early December, 1996.  We were all just kids.

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

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

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

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

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

“Pretty good.  How are you?”

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

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

“I haven’t seen that!  I want to!”

“You want to go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll see you Friday?” Haley said.

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

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

“Yeah.  Have a good one!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  And Jason Costello too.”

“Well, good luck with that!”

“How have you been?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, it is.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Interesting,” I said.

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

“That’s good to know.”


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

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

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

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

“Can we step outside, away from everyone?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.  I appreciate it.”


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

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

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

“Hey, guys,” I said.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.

“How are finals going?” Raphael asked.

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

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

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

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

“What happened last night?” I asked.

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

“Wow,” I said.

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

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

“Yeah. Good luck with your final.”

“Bye, Greg,” Todd said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Math.”

“That makes sense,” Ben said.

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

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

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

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

“Wow,” Ben said.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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.

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 10-12, 1995.  Creating a fantasy world.

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918, and many of the countries involved now observe a holiday on November 11.  The holiday goes by different names around the world; in the United States, we call it Veterans Day.  Many government offices are closed on Veterans Day, and students are off school.  When November 11 falls on a weekend, as it did this year, schools close on the nearest Friday or Monday.

Except for the University of Jeromeville.  We got no day off.  Even last year, when November 11 was on an actual school day, we got no day off.  I never knew why.  I wondered if this was a legacy of universities traditionally being full of anti-war hippie types who did not want to celebrate our military.  But we did get a day off in May for Memorial Day, the holiday commemorating those who died serving our country.  And the building I was walking through right now was called the Memorial Union, or the “MU” for short, named to remember UJ students who died in military service.

It had been a typical Friday so far.  My day started waiting in the hallway of Wellington Hall for math class, because another class occupied the classroom immediately before our class.  Jack Chalmers from my class said hi to a girl named Lizzie as she left that class and we entered the room for ours, just as he did every day.  Math was easy.  I crossed the street to the MU at 10 and did homework for an hour.  I met some tutees in 102 Wellington, the tutoring room, at 11.  I just learned that word this quarter working for the Learning Skills Center: “tutee,” meaning one who is being tutored.  Tutee is a great word.  At 12, I walked down Colt Avenue to 199 Stone for chemistry, and then back to the MU to eat lunch.  I got up, went to the bathroom, and walked back through the MU on the way to my physics class in Ross Hall when I saw her.

When I see a familiar face in a setting that this person is not normally connected to, my brain always takes a few seconds to register what I am seeing.  At first all I saw was two young-looking girls walking toward me.  They were both a little on the short side.  One wore a dark red sweatshirt with a hood and a brand name logo unfamiliar to me, and the other wore a black jacket with white sleeves, and a large letter P on her left side.  I recognized that this was a Plumdale High School letter jacket.

What is a Plumdale High School letter jacket doing in Jeromeville?  Who is this person?  Do I know her?

Holy crap, it’s her.  What is she doing here?  What do I say?

Just before she walked past me, I said, “Annie?”

The two girls stopped.  Annie, the one in the Plumdale High jacket, looked at me, looking just as surprised as I was at first until recognition came over her face a second later.  “Hey, Greg!” she said.

“What are you doing here?” I asked.  “Visiting your brother?”

“My boyfriend goes here now too,” Annie replied.

There it is again.  The B word.  I wondered whether she was still with the same boyfriend as last year, or if this was some new guy.  Either way, though, Annie’s boyfriend was not me.

“It was good seeing you,” I said.  “Have a great weekend!”

“You too!” Annie replied.  The girl she was with waved at me; I recognized this girl’s face, she was from Plumdale High too, but I could not remember her name.

My mind raced as I walked away from them, toward my physics class.  Annie Gambrell was here, in Jeromeville.  I had a chance to talk to her, and I felt like I blew it.  Should I have said more?  She seemed busy, and she was not here to visit me.  She had a boyfriend; she was not coming here to meet guys.  But I did not know when, or if, I would ever see her again.  Maybe I should have talked more.  Or maybe she doesn’t really care about me, and all that nice stuff she wrote in my yearbook senior year was just for the sake of being polite and she didn’t really mean it.  Should I tell Annie’s brother next time I see him that I ran into her?  Does he think it’s weird that I have an unrequited crush on his unavailable little sister, even though I haven’t actually told him anything other than that I know her?

After physics class, I had another tutoring group back in the study room at 102 Wellington.  “Hi,” the tall blonde guy who was just finishing a tutoring group at the table next to me said as I walked in.   I knew from looking at the schedule of tutoring groups in this room that his name was Scott Madison.  He looked familiar for some reason, but maybe I was just used to seeing him here.

“Hi,” I replied to Scott.  I then turned to two of the three students in my group who were already waiting and asked, “Are you ready to get started?”

My tutoring group went as they usually do.  These students were in Short Calculus, Math 16A, for majors which do not require any math above calculus.  Their work focuses on finding and applying derivatives of functions without studying the theory and proofs behind derivatives.  I did not enjoy tutoring the Math 16 series as much as I did the 21 series, for mathematicians, scientists, and engineers, because it was difficult for me, as a math guy, to gloss over the theoretical stuff.  But I got paid to do so, and I did my best, hoping not to confuse the students too much.

At four o’clock, when the tutoring group was finished, I walked diagonally across the Quad to the Learning Skills Center in Krueger Hall to turn in my time sheet for tutoring, as I did every other Friday, then back along East Quad Avenue to catch a bus home from the MU.  A few hours later, after napping and eating, I returned to campus for Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I drove this time, because parking is easy to find and slightly less expensive in the evening.

Taylor Santiago, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, and Krista Curtis were standing around talking on the far side of the lecture hall where the group was held; I walked over to them and said hi.  The four of them all lived in the same apartment complex, the boys in one apartment and the girls in another, and all of us were in the same dorm last year.

“Hey, man,” Taylor said.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Pretty good,” I replied.

“How’s your day been?” Sarah asked.

“One of my friends from high school, she’s a senior this year, I saw her and her friend walking around campus today.  It was unexpected.”

“What was she doing here?” Krista asked.  “Touring the campus?”

“Her brother goes here.  I know him.  And she said her boyfriend goes here too.”

“So was she skipping school?” Taylor asked, adding sarcastically, “I don’t know anything at all about skipping classes…”

“She probably didn’t have school today,” I explained.  “Tomorrow is Veterans Day.  We always got that off in high school.”

“Oh yeah.  It’s a holiday.”

“Why don’t we get Veterans Day off?” Charlie asked rhetorically.  “It’s not fair.”

“It’s supposed to be a holiday?” I heard Jason Costello’s voice say behind me.

“Tomorrow is Veterans Day,” I explained, turning around.  Ramon Quintero and his girlfriend Liz Williams were with him; they were all in our dorm last year as well.  “I don’t know why Jeromeville doesn’t get it off, but I noticed that last year too.”

There had been no JCF the week before, because the group had been on a retreat with sister chapters of this organization at other colleges and universities in the region.  I had not attended the retreat, but most of my friends here did.  Taylor and Charlie were talking about something that happened to Pete Green, Taylor and Charlie’s third roommate, at the retreat.  “Where is Pete tonight anyway?” I asked.

“He’s in San Diego,” Taylor replied.

“Visiting his family there?”

“Yeah.”

I heard someone from the worship band welcoming us to JCF and saying that it was time to get started.  As the band played, and sang along to lyrics being displayed on an overhead projector, my eyes scanned the front of the room, watching the people on the worship team.  I saw the drummer and realized something: it was Scott Madison, the other tutor who had said hi to me this afternoon.  That was why he looked so familiar; this was my third time at JCF, and I had probably seen him play drums here before.  At the end of the night, I said hi to him and formally introduced myself; he seemed like a nice guy.  (A few years later, Scott would become the first non-relative to invite me to his wedding, and I still get Christmas cards from Scott and his family to this day.)

 

Although my Friday had ended on a good note, I woke up feeling down again on Saturday morning.  It was a cool and gloomy day, with gray skies that threatened rain.  Summer in Jeromeville is sunny and hot, and winter is relatively mild compared to much of the United States.  It only snows high in the mountains, snow here on the valley floor is very rare, but rain is fairly common in the winter.  And the transition period from summer to winter is very short, usually occurring around early November.  Winter had arrived earlier this week, and it was supposed to rain intermittently all weekend.  Rain made me sad and anxious.

I spent the morning doing homework and reading.  By mid-afternoon, some patches of blue sky had appeared, and the threat of rain had passed, so I went for a bike ride.  I started riding through the Greenbelts, then back down G Street toward downtown, but despite keeping myself busy, I kept thinking about my chance encounter with Annie yesterday.  Why hadn’t I asked for her address or phone number, so I could try keeping in touch?  I subconsciously knew that there was no point, though.  I had given her my address at Plumdale High’s Homecoming a year ago and never heard from her, and knowing that she had a boyfriend made it feel futile to pursue anything, although I would have been happy just being friends.

Two years ago, I was a senior at Plumdale High, and I felt like I grew a lot that year.  I finally had a social life, and I made new friends, including Annie.  But then I graduated, I moved away, many of my senior class friends moved away in different directions, and I lost touch with many of my friends.  There was no texting or social media in those days, and only a few of my friends used email, so it was difficult to keep in touch.  And despite all that, I still felt like I was on the outer fringes of the social circle in high school, not really one of them.

I wished that the events of my senior year had happened during sophomore or junior year instead.  That way, I might have had time to solidify some of those friendships before we scattered.  Maybe I would have learned how to actually ask a girl out.  Maybe Annie would have broken up with her boyfriend, and I would have been able to use those new skills.

What if I just ran away and pretended to be in high school again?  What would that be like?  What would it take?  A fake birth certificate would probably be hard to find.  Maybe I wouldn’t need one.  Maybe I would just need fake transcripts to show to the new school.  Being 19 and still in high school was unusual, but not exactly unheard of.  My birthday came right at the start of the school year, so I started kindergarten when I was barely 5.  Some parents would have chosen for me to start kindergarten the following year.  My parents did that with my brother Mark; with his birthday in October, they chose to wait until he was almost 6 to put him in kindergarten.  Mark would turn 18 in the fall of 1999, early in his senior year, and someone his age who had repeated a grade in elementary school would be a 19-year-old senior.

Could I do this?  Would it be possible to fake my identity and get a second try at my senior year of high school?  Probably not.  Lying on important documents like transcripts seemed too dishonest and illegal for me to be comfortable with it.  But, I thought, all of this seemed like a great premise for a work of fiction.

I had been writing again in my spare time recently.  Last year, I wrote a short novel called The Commencement, based on all the growing up I did as a senior in high school.  I had been revising and expanding it lately, and it was up to 62 pages.  I was running out of ideas for how to expand The Commencement, so maybe it was time to work on something new.

As I continued riding my bike that afternoon, along the entire length of the Arboretum and back up Andrews Road toward home, I kept thinking about faking my identity and going back to high school.  How would that be possible?  Maybe this story would take place at a different point in life; going back to high school now seemed like too much of a stretch, and none of my thoughts led to anything realistic.  Maybe my character would run away while he was a senior in high school, and go to a new school in a new town, pretending to be two years younger.  I would focus my writing on everything he dislikes about life, and all of his unfinished business, to make the desire to run away real.  But if he is not an adult, how can he just do this, and where would he go?  That was easy; I could make him turn 18 early in his senior year.  And I could give him divorced parents living far from each other, so he would have the option to go move in with the other parent.

When I got home from my bike ride, I showered and put a frozen dinner in the microwave.  I put on some music from high school, starting with Pearl Jam’s Ten album, and began writing.  I started my novel, which was still untitled at this point, by quoting a song lyric, as Stephen King often did with his novels, then proceeded to set the scene of a character who felt like he did not fit in with his friends.


“I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life”
—Pink Floyd

1

“Where were you this morning?” Ryan asked Sara.

“I was…” Sara paused.  “Sleeping in,” she said, with a mischievous grin on her face.

Sleeping in? Jon thought.

“You missed class?” Becky teased.

“He said we didn’t have to come today,” Sara said defensively.  “He was just doing a review for the test tomorrow.  I needed a break, and I feel prepared for the test.”  Jon began to feel somewhat angry after hearing this.

“How did you get out of band?” Kate asked.  “Does Mr. Jackson know you were gone?”

“He knows,” Sara said.  “He knows I had to see the dentist.”  Sara and the others laughed.  All except Jon.  Some people could just do whatever they wanted and not get caught.  But if Jon tried it, he would get stopped at the gate because ___ High School was a closed campus.  It wasn’t fair.


I left the name of the school blank.  I had not decided yet where Jon and his friends lived.  I usually wrote about places familiar to me, so they would have to live somewhere back home in Santa Lucia County, or Jeromeville, or maybe across the Drawbridge from Jeromeville in Capital City, or maybe Bidwell where my dad had family.  But it would make more sense to have Jon run away to one of those places familiar to me, and to have the story open somewhere else, somewhere more interesting.  I thought about different cities and states that had been on my mind recently and settled on San Diego, California, where my friend Pete had once lived and was currently visiting his family.  I could ask Pete next time I saw him to suggest a good name for a high school in San Diego.

I continued writing about Jon’s day.  Jon heard his friends talk about college applications, and about movies they liked that Jon had never seen, and movies they hated that Jon liked.  I wrote about Jon’s feelings of inferiority regarding a lack of extracurricular activities for college applications, and a conversation he had with the school counselor about this, and more laments in Jon’s head about not belonging and not feeling good enough.  I thought back to yesterday when I ran into Annie Gambrell and wrote this scene for the end of Jon’s school day.


“Jon! What are you doing?”  He looked up at Kelly ___, one of the few underclassmen he knew.  He met her last month while interviewing her for the yearbook, doing the page on the women’s’ JV cross-country team.  Sometimes Jon thought that the fact that women’s’ JV cross-country got two whole pages in the yearbook was just part of an international conspiracy that ensured that certain people, who were labeled “popular,” got in the yearbook at least twenty times every year whereas other people only got in once.  This was the same conspiracy that invented Homecoming Queens and the modern system of student government.  Jon had nothing against women’s sports, or unpopular sports; he just didn’t like being unpopular.

“Hi.”  Jon looked up and saw that she was with a friend.  He thought the friend’s name was Nicole, but he did not know her.

“What are you doing?  Waiting for someone?” Kelly asked.

“No.  Just…” he paused.  “Thinking.”

“Are you okay?” Kelly asked.

“I’m all right.  I just kind of had a rough day.”

“Don’t worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”

“Thanks,” Jon replied.  “See you later.” Jon really liked Kelly.  She seemed really nice, and she was pretty too.  She had a beautiful smile.  Unfortunately, she already had a boyfriend.  Jon got in his truck and drove home, thinking about what it would be like to have a relationship with Kelly.


I thought about making the last name for the Annie character something that sounded like Annie, or like Gambrell.  The only thing I could think of was “Aniston,” the last name of one of the actors on the TV show Friends.  There was no way I would name someone in my story after Friends, so I left it blank and moved on.

I spent most of the rest of that weekend writing, finishing chapter 1 and half of chapter 2, establishing the mood of Jon feeling out of place and wanting to start over, wanting more time to live the high school experience.  I also mentioned that Jon’s father lived five hundred miles away in Capital City, with a second wife who had two children of her own.

I never did see or hear from Annie again after that day.  I could have asked her brother to get in touch with her for me, I saw him at church the next day, but that just felt weird.  Annie was off limits because she had a boyfriend.  But I continued to work on this novel for the next several months.  I had no plans to act out the premise of this novel, to run away and go back to high school, nor did I have a realistic way of doing so.  I knew that that would never happen.   But it was interesting to think about, and fun to put these thoughts on paper.  If they could not happen in real life, I could create a fantasy world where these things happened, as long as I knew that it was just fantasy and did not let it consume my life.


Author’s note: Yes, these are actual excerpts from a novel I wrote in 1995-96.  More about that later.

Also, in real life it’s my birthday!  Well, yesterday was.

October 14-20, 1995.  Come, follow me.

Saturday morning.  Time to sleep in, relax, enjoy the weekend, and go out with friends and enjoy life.  At least that is what a normal person would say.  I rolled out of bed at seven in the morning, my head still hurting from having been so upset last night.  I wanted to stay in bed longer, I had no desire to get up and face my problems, but the urge to pee was too strong.  On my way to the bathroom, I carefully stepped over the trail of tissues and napkins that had scattered when I kicked over the wastebasket last night in a frustrated fit of rage.

In the bathroom, I saw my dirty underwear from last night tossed in a corner.  Just more to be ashamed of.  I am Catholic.  I know what I did was bad.  But I was tired of being alone every night, and that chat room girl last night was really hot… at least that’s how she described herself.  You never can tell with the Internet, of course.  But she disappeared, stopped talking to me just as it was getting interesting, and I had to finish using my imagination.  All this shame for a night that wasn’t even very good to begin with.

I stepped back over the scattered trash again and got on my hands and knees to clean it up.  It did not take long, and nothing wet had spilled.  I lay awake in bed for another half hour.  Then I tried reading for a while; I had recently finished Stephen King’s The Green Mile and was now reading another Stephen King book, The Dark Half.  This book was about a writer who once used a pseudonym but stopped writing under that name, and now the false identity somehow came to life to haunt him.

My mind was in too dark of a place that morning to concentrate on reading, even reading a book with “dark” in the title.  I ate a bowl of cereal and turned on the computer, getting back on IRC chat.  No sign of the girl I was talking dirty with last night.  Most of the people signed on this time of day were from Europe and Asia, where it was currently late afternoon and evening.  My friend Renee, from high school, emailed me yesterday, telling me about her classes this semester at Valle Luna State University.  She mentioned that maybe I could come visit sometime.  I wrote back, telling her that would be fun and asking what her schedule was like.  Valle Luna was an easy day trip from Jeromeville, only 70 miles away.  I did not tell Renee anything about how miserable I was feeling.  At least a possible trip to Valle Luna was something to look forward to.

Maybe a bike ride would make me feel better.  I rode through the greenbelts to the north edge of town.  I zigzagged through all of the greenbelts in north Jeromeville.  I took 15th Street west to the park with the pedestrian crossing over Highway 117 and took city streets to the greenbelt in west Jeromeville.  I headed east on Coventry Boulevard back home.  I showered and dressed.  I did not feel much better.  I did math homework, then chemistry homework.  If I was going to have a crappy day, at least I was being productive.

After lunch, I decided to try something different.  I walked down Andrews Road, across Coventry Boulevard, and turned on Hampton Drive behind the Lucky grocery store.  I had four friends from my dorm last year who shared two apartments there, one on top of the other.  Liz and Caroline lived upstairs, and Liz’s boyfriend Ramon lived downstairs with Jason.  I suddenly realized that this might not have been the best idea.  Since I was just wandering around looking for people to hang out with, and not looking for any one of the four specifically, which door should I knock on first?  I was still trying to make up my mind when the downstairs apartment came into view.  Beside the regular front door was a sliding glass door leading to a patio; the sliding door was open, and I could see inside.  Liz was in the downstairs apartment with Ramon and Jason, so I knocked on the front door of the downstairs apartment.

Ramon opened the door.  “Hey, Greg,” he said.  “Come on in.”

“Hey,” I said, looking around.  The three of them were watching TV.  A textbook and notebook lay closed on the coffee table.

“How’s your weekend going?” Liz asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.  “Hmm,” I grunted.  “I’m doing okay, but I had a rough night last night.”

“Aww.  What kind of rough?”

“Well,” I said, “honestly, I was just really down and frustrated about life.  Feeling lonely and bored.”

“You should have come to large group.”

“Large group?” I asked.  “Is that the Jeromeville Christian Fellowship thing?”

“Yeah!  We sing worship songs and hear a talk about the Bible.  And during the week there are small group Bible studies too.”

“Large group is every Friday?”

“Yes.  In 180 Evans.”

“Maybe I’ll give it a try sometime.”

“You should!  We’ll all be there next week.”

A minute later, Ramon asked, “So how do you like your new apartment?”

“I like it.  It’s quiet.  Small, but I don’t need a lot of space.”

“That’s good.”

“You’re by yourself in a one-bedroom?” Jason asked.

“Studio apartment,” I said.  “Just one big room, with a small kitchen and bathroom.  No separate living room and bedroom.”

“That’s weird.”

“It works for me, being by myself.”

“Yeah.”

“Where’s Caroline today?”

“She went home,” Liz explained.  “Just for the day, though.  She’ll be back late tonight.  Did you need her for something?”

“No.  Just wondering.  Tell her I said hi.”

“I will.”

 

I hung out with Liz and Ramon and Jason for about two hours that afternoon, just talking about things and watching TV with them.  The following week was uneventful; I spent most of it studying.  I had exams in both math and chemistry; I felt like I did pretty well on both of them.  I also made plans to go to Valle Luna on Saturday to visit Renee.  But something else had been in the back of my mind all week since my conversation with Liz, Ramon, and Jason.  On Friday, I got home from campus mid-afternoon as always, but a few hours later I attached the headlight to my bike and rode back to campus.  I parked my bike next to Evans Hall and slowly, nervously walked inside.

A sign read, Welcome to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship; smaller letters beneath this read, A ministry of InterVarsity.  My friends who were part of JCF had explained to me that the group was a chapter of a national nondenominational Christian organization called InterVarsity, and that they had sister chapters at thousands of universities in several countries.  Two students with name tags that said “Eddie” and “Raphael” sat at a table with markers and blank mailing labels, making name tags for students who walked in.  Two stacks of papers were on this table; one appeared to be a newsletter, and the other was a sign-up sheet for something called Fall Conference.  When I got to the front of the line, I took a copy of the newsletter.

“Hi,” Eddie said.  “Welcome to JCF.  What’s your name?”

“Greg,” I replied.

G-R-E-G, Eddie wrote on a label.  “Double G on the end or not?”

“No.  That’s right.”

Eddie peeled the label off and handed it to me.  “Have a great night!” he said, as I stuck it on my shirt.  I nervously turned toward room 180, a medium-sized lecture hall with close to two hundred seats.  People were standing around mingling.  Guitars, drums, an electric keyboard, and microphones were set up in front, where the lectern would be during an actual class.  I scanned the room for familiar faces.  I saw Taylor, Pete, Charlie, Sarah, and Krista from my dorm last year, and a guy I knew only as Mike From Building J standing around talking.  My friends who attended JCF had introduced me to some of their JCF friends who also lived in the South Area; this was how I knew Mike.

“Greg!” Sarah exclaimed when she saw me walking toward them.  “You’re here!”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Liz keeps inviting me.  I figured I’d actually try it and see what it’s like.”

“Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Krista added.

“I think you’ll like it,” Sarah said.

“I hope so,” I replied.  “Where are you guys sitting?”

“Probably just here,” Pete explained.  “We don’t really have a usual spot.  But you can sit with us.”

“Thanks.”

I looked around the room again while the others talked.  I recognized Tabitha, whom I knew the same way I knew Mike From Building J (Mike Knepper, I learned his last name eventually), and a skinny guy whom I had seen at Mass at the Newman Center.  I thought his name was Sean, but I did not really know him; however, it felt comforting to know that I was not the only Catholic here tonight.  I saw Liz, Ramon, and Jason walk in, and I waved at them.

“Greg!” Liz called, approaching us.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I replied, thinking about how I still felt out of place even though I knew at least eleven people in the room.

A few minutes later, one of the musicians began speaking into a microphone.  “Welcome to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship,” he said.  “We’re gonna get started now, so find a seat, and greet someone near you.”

I looked around.  Sarah looked at me and shook my hand.  “Greetings!” she said.  “Welcome!”

“Hey,” I replied.  She turned to greet other people, and I did too.  I turned behind me and saw a tall guy with reddish-brown hair, probably an upperclassman, wearing a Jeromeville Colts Track & Field shirt.  “Hi,” he said.  “I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Brian.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking his hand.  “It’s my first time.  Nice to meet you.”

“You too!  Welcome to JCF.”

“Thanks.”

The band started playing a song called “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High,” with the lyrics on an overhead projector transparency.  I did not know the song, but the melody seemed pretty simple, so I sang along the best I could.

After the song, a woman who looked a little older, got up on stage.  At first I assumed she was a senior, but as her announcements went on, I wondered if she might be a post-college young adult who worked or volunteered with this group.  She had shoulder length brown hair and bright blue eyes, and she wore denim overalls over a green shirt.  “Hi, everyone!  Welcome to JCF!  I’m Cheryl, and we have a few announcements.  Who remembers what is coming up on November 3rd through the 5th?”

“Fall Conference!” someone shouted.

“That’s right!  If you haven’t paid yet, we need your money and sign-up form!  Next Friday at large group, October 27, that is the deadline to sign up and turn in your $100!  If you want to go but money is a problem, talk to any of our staff or your Bible study leader about scholarships.”  Cheryl continued with a few other announcements.  I assumed that Fall Conference was a retreat of some sort, a trip that included opportunities to learn about Jesus and the Bible, something like that.  I did not know where, though, and being brand new to this group I was not ready to commit a hundred dollars and an entire weekend.  If I stuck with this group for a while, maybe I would be at next year’s Fall Conference.

The band played two more songs.  I noticed during the music that some people clapped along to the faster songs, and some made other gestures like raising their arms.  Why are these people doing this?  Was this like those songs for little kids that have hand motions?  Did those people come from the kinds of churches where people made a lot of unusual movements?  Was it okay for me to just stand and sing and not move my arms?  I hoped so, because that is what I did.  No one seemed to have a problem with me.

After the music, a man with light brown hair whom I had not noticed before walked up to the stage holding a Bible.  He introduced himself as Dave.  Dave looked older than a student, probably around thirty, and he wore a wedding band.  Was he like a pastor of a church, someone whose job was to speak to this group?  Was he a student who came to UJ later in life?  I put those questions aside for now and listened.  “Turn to Matthew 4:18,” he said.  Sarah noticed from the seat next to me that I did not have a Bible, and she shared hers.  I knew from Catechism back home at Our Lady of Peace that Matthew was one of the four Gospels, telling about the life of Jesus, and one of the Scriptures every week in Catholic Mass was always from one of the Gospels.  But I did not have a clear overall picture of the life of Jesus, I just knew bits and pieces.

Dave read aloud and I followed along, about Jesus calling his first disciples.  “‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will make you fishers of men,’” Dave read.  “Peter and Andrew, they were just hanging out there, doing their jobs.  They were fishermen.  And Jesus… who is this guy?  He just shows up and says ‘Come, follow me.’  Why should they follow him?  But they do.  Jesus is God in the flesh, and God spoke a calling into Peter and Andrew’s lives.  And they listened.”  Dave continued for some time, speaking on this concept of God’s calling, mentioning other examples elsewhere in the Bible.

Dave’s talk was interesting, much more thorough than the brief sermons given on Sunday mornings by Catholic priests.  He explained the historical context of the passage in more detail than I had ever heard before, and he did so using language that felt much more accessible to an ordinary secular university student like me.

After Dave’s sermon and one more song, the lead vocalist of the band said, “Pray with me.”  I closed my eyes and folded my hands as he continued.  “Lord, as we leave this place tonight, I pray that we will listen for your calling on our lives.  Speak to us, and let us all hear your voice.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

People then began talking and getting out of their seats, mingling as they had at the beginning of the night.  “So what’d you think?” Taylor asked me.

“That was good,” I replied.  “I liked the talk.”

“Are you going to come back next week?” Sarah asked.

“Probably.”

“Good!”

The others began talking about something else.  I sat and watched people mingle for a few minutes, not really joining in conversations since I did not know these people.  At one point, I saw Tabitha walking toward me and waved.

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “How’s it going?”

“Good,” I replied.  “This is my first time here.”

“Really?  You never came to JCF last year?”

“No.  I just have a lot of friends in this group.”

“Huh.  I didn’t realize that.  What did you think?”

“I liked it.”

“Good!  I need to get home, but it was good seeing you.”

“You too.”

After about half of the group had trickled out, I said my goodbyes and rode home on my bike.  What would that have been like, being an ordinary simple fisherman meeting Jesus, hearing him tell me to follow him?  How would I have known that this man calling me was the Son of God?  If something like this happened in my life, how would I know if the call was actually from God?  Would I obey?  Maybe one just knows these things when they happen.  Maybe coming to JCF that night was part of God’s calling on my life.  Liz told me at her apartment six days ago to come to JCF, and I did.  This was not exactly the same as the disciples dropping everything to follow Jesus, since Liz had invited me to JCF two or three other times and I never went until now.  But one thing was clear that night for sure: I would be attending JCF again next week.

 

December 2-4, 1994. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship and the Newman Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?” Tracy asked.

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

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

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

“You’re good.  I’m impressed.”

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

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

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

“I’m nervous,” I said.

“Why?” Rebekah asked.

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

“Relax. You’ll do fine.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Writo,” Tabitha repeated.  “Nice.”

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

“No.”

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

“Hi,” I said.  “Nice to meet you.”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

“What church do you go to?”

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

“That sounds nice.”

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

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

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Maybe.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

“I will.”

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Guess what?”

“What?”

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

“That’ll be fun.”

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

“Nice.”

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“We’ll see.”

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

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

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

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