Although I had been this way once before, this drive still felt unfamiliar enough to be exciting in its own right. This part of the state in general was still mostly unfamiliar to me. It was a Monday afternoon, and I had driven from Jeromeville on the valley floor east on Highway 100 for about fifty miles, across Capital City and its suburbs into the mountains. Then, in a smaller city called Blue Oaks, I turned north on Highway 79 and drove north for another thirty miles. As I continued climbing into the mountains, the landscape gradually changed. Between Capital City and Blue Oaks, Highway 100 passed mostly through rolling hills dotted with oaks and covered with grass, brown now at the end of the hot, dry summer. North of Blue Oaks, along Highway 79, the surroundings began to be dominated more by pine trees, with the grassy forest floor giving way to a coat of dead needles and cones.
After passing through two other small cities, I turned onto a rural road and drove another five miles, mostly uphill. Pine Mountain Christian Conference Center was situated at the top of a ridge, and just past the conference grounds, the road began descending into the canyon of a river. I turned left into the parking lot and stopped the car. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship’s Outreach Camp was the week-long retreat where we planned for the approaching school year, and this year it was at Pine Mountain, as it had been last year.
“Hi, Greg,” Cheryl from the JCF staff team said as I walked up to the registration table. “How was your summer? You did that internship in Oregon, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. I learned that math research is not what I want to do as a career.”
Cheryl looked up from a list on a clipboard. “Who was in your car?” she asked. “I see you on the list, but someone didn’t write down who came with you.”
“I came by myself,” I said, “because I’m not going straight back to Jeromeville afterward.”
“Oh! Where are you going?”
“Another retreat for the weekend. Student ministry leaders at Jeromeville Covenant.”
“Fun! That’s because you’re working with the junior high kids there, right?”
“Yeah. Youth group leaders of all ages, and college group leaders, they’ll all be there.”
To the right of the parking lot was a sports field, where a group of about ten students were playing Ultimate Frisbee. Brent Wang threw the disc a long distance downfield, where no one on his team appeared to be, but Seth Huang appeared seemingly out of nowhere, dashing downfield and catching the disc in the goal zone. Ajeet Tripathi and Todd Chevallier sat to the side of the field, watching; I walked up to them.
“Hey, Greg,” Ajeet said.
Ajeet wore a black Bay City Titans baseball cap; I pointed at it and said, “I went to a Titans game a few days ago. First time I’d been in three years.”
“Nice! Which one did you see?”
“The one against Dallas that went into extra innings.”
“Sweet. I watched that one on TV, stayed up to see the ending.”
“Brent and Seth are so good at Ultimate when they’re on the same team,” I said. “I remember one time last year watching them play Frisbee on the Quad, and they did all kinds of crazy running throws and catches like that.”
“I know,” Ajeet replied.
“How was your summer, Greg?” Todd asked. “Did you go home?”
“I was in Grandvale, Oregon, doing an internship. Then I went home for a couple weeks, then back to Jeromeville for a couple more weeks.”
“Wait, Oregon? I thought you were from the Santa Lucia area.”
“Yeah. Plumdale, in Santa Lucia County.”
“So you were just in Oregon for this internship?”
“Yes. Doing math research. Sorry, I thought I told everyone last year I was going to Oregon.”
“You might have,” Todd said. “A lot of people went places this summer.”
“Speaking of which, how was the China trip?”
“So good! God really planted some seeds in some of the students we were working with. We’re going to do a presentation about it at the main session tonight.”
I spent most of the rest of that first day saying hi to people and catching up. It was always good to see people for the first time in three months. Saying hi to Haley Channing felt a little awkward, because of our history the previous school year. We were friendly to each other, but I did not want to try to force any conversations or give the impression that I could not accept the fact that she just wanted to be friends.
Intervarsity, the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, led a trip that summer where hundreds of students from all around the United States and Canada went to China to do ministry among university students. Twelve students from JCF went on the trip, and from the presentation that night, it sounded like it was a challenging yet powerful experience. Evan Lundgren, my Bible study leader from the previous year, was on the trip; he was also a native of Santa Lucia County, but we did not know each other growing up. After the presentation, Evan and I were catching up, and he told me something about the trip that was not addressed in the presentation. “We had some new couples form on the trip,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “Like who?”
“Darren and Katrina.”
“Hmm,” I said. Darren and Katrina ran in the same circles already, so this was not terribly surprising.
“And Eddie and Tabitha.”
“Eddie and Tabitha?” I repeated.
“Yes,” Evan replied. I did not see this coming, probably because I considered them both close friends and had no idea that they were even on each other’s radars. I often felt like the last to know whenever couples formed, though, so this was nothing new.
More couple-related news broke at breakfast Tuesday morning, although this involved an established couple who had been together for a year and a half, not a new couple. As I walked to the dining hall, six girls were gathered around Amelia Dye, along with Janet McAllen, half of the couple that were the lead staff of JCF. The girls were looking at Amelia’s left hand, which she held up as she said something about “this morning, we got up early to watch the sun rise.” I noticed a diamond ring on her finger and put the pieces together in my mind.
“Scott proposed?” I asked as I walked by, pointing to Amelia’s ring.
“Yes!” Amelia answered excitedly. “This was his grandmother’s ring! It’s so beautiful!”
This year’s JCF class had the unusual quirk that many students from the class a year older than me, including Amelia and Scott, did not graduate in four years, so they were still at the University of Jeromeville for a fifth year. I was beginning my fourth year, and at this point it was uncertain whether or not I would be finished at the end of the year. After discovering I disliked mathematics research, I decided that I wanted to be a high school teacher, but I had not yet figured out how long it would take to finish both the classes for my degree and the prerequisites for the teacher training program. I had made an appointment to talk to Dr. Graf, my major advisor, next week after I got back to Jeromeville.
At the beginning of the morning session, Janet had gone over some highlights of the upcoming week. Wednesday night, Sarah Winters would be sharing her testimony, telling the story of how they came to faith in Jesus. Thursday afternoon we would walk down to the river where four students would be baptized. And every afternoon, one of the campground staff would be running a ropes course, new to the center this year.
After lunch, I walked out to the ropes course, mostly because I had no idea what a ropes course was and I was curious. A number of elaborate climbing structures had been attached to some exceptionally tall trees, one that looked like a giant rope ladder with wooden steps about three feet apart, a balance beam connecting two trees about thirty feet off the ground, and a small platform at the same height of uncertain function. John Harvey was carefully climbing the giant steps of the ladder, pulling himself up to each step; he was attached to a rope extending above him high into the trees, through some unseen pulley, and down to where a campground staff member held the rope, probably to keep John from falling. Several other students were standing by watching, and we all cheered when John reached the top of the ladder.
“Hey, you!” a female voice said from behind me. I turned around to see Sadie Rowland smiling and wearing some sort of harness. “Are you gonna go up there? I’m going next.”
“I was just watching,” I said. “It looks like fun, though.”
“How was your summer?”
“It was okay. I was in Oregon doing a math research internship.”
“Math research. That sounds like something you’d be good at, and I wouldn’t.”
“Actually, I mostly just learned I don’t like math research, and that I don’t want to do it as a career. Math research is weird and complicated and hard to understand what you’re doing.”
“So then do you know what you’ll do after you graduate?”
“I’m going to be a teacher. I helped out in a high school classroom last year, remember, and I really liked that. I always thought I didn’t want to be a teacher because of the politics involved, you know, but maybe I shouldn’t let that get in the way of something I enjoy doing.”
“Oh, I know, there’s a lot of messed up political stuff in the school system. And your coworkers will be a bunch of liberals. But maybe you’re right.”
“I think you’d be a good teacher.”
“Thank you,” I said. “How was your summer?”
“Nothing special. I was just home, working. I’m thinking about an internship too. I found out about something for poli-sci majors where we can go intern in DC. That would be an experience.”
While Sadie and I continued to make small talk, John crossed the balance beam while hanging onto another rope. He now stood on the small platform. I could see its purpose now: there was a zip line above the platform, and another platform about thirty feet away on another tree, at a lower height, with steps leading down from it. John grabbed the handle and slid along the zip line to the other platform. “That looks fun,” I said as John dismounted and began climbing down from the tree. Everyone cheered.
“Yeah!” Sadie replied.
“Are you ready?” the camp employee asked Sadie as John detached the rope.
“Yes!” Sadie replied. “I’ll talk to you later, Greg.”
“Yeah. Have fun!”
I watched as Sadie carefully climbed the giant ladder, a bit more cautiously than John. I cheered with everyone else as she finished each section, and when she climbed down at the end she had a wide smile on her face. Sadie was so easy to talk to. I hoped to have more opportunities to do so this week and in the upcoming school year.
During my freshman year at UJ, I was part of something called the Interdisciplinary Honors Program. This program consisted of around seventy specifically selected freshmen who lived in the same building and took one class each quarter specific to the program. My first friends at UJ were other students in the IHP, and I got involved in Jeromeville Christian Fellowship the following year through students in the IHP who invited me. One of these students was Sarah Winters, a mathematics major like me. She was a sweet, kind-hearted soul, a listening ear when a friend needed someone. Sarah would see the good in others even when they were not acting at their best; I saw that freshman year, when I got upset and threw a cardboard box at her and she never got mad at me. “I hope you all had a great afternoon,” Cheryl said after the worship team finished their set on Wednesday night. “Tonight, you’ll be hearing from Sarah. She’s going to share her testimony.” Sarah stood and walked to the podium, and everyone clapped. Sarah lowered the microphone a little as she began.
“I didn’t grow up in a Christian home,” Sarah began. I had heard her say this before, but I still found it surprising. She always seemed so strong in her faith, a good example of what a Christian woman should be like, and yet I found out later that she had only become a Christian at age 17, a few months before we met.
“We just weren’t religious at all,” Sarah continued. “And my parents divorced when I was eight, so I didn’t have a very stable home life, going back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s house. By the time I got to high school, I was still doing well in classes, but I was starting to make some bad decisions in my social life.” I felt myself getting scared, not wanting to know what bad decisions Sarah was making. I did not want to be disappointed in her. But I kept listening.
“Junior year, I played at this big marching band event, with a lot of other school bands from all over the state. I met a guy there from another school, and we just hit it off really fast. We even snuck off during part of the time we were supposed to be performing to go make out. After that weekend, we stayed in touch, we called each other, we wrote letters, and a few months later he asked me to his prom. He lived in Hilltown, near Bay City, and I lived in the Valley, in Ralstonville, so it took me a couple hours to drive there. I didn’t want to drive home in the middle of the night, so I stayed with him.” I was pretty sure I knew what was coming next, and it made me a little uncomfortable to hear her say it. “And I slept with him,” Sarah continued. “It was my first time, but I thought I loved him, so it felt right. And that continued whenever we’d see each other in person. He’d come see me or I’d go see him a few times during the summer, and every couple weekends in the fall.
“Then he cheated on me,” Sarah explained. “Suddenly now I felt dirty, and ashamed, and angry. I had given him everything, I had stayed loyal to him in a long distance relationship, and all that meant nothing to him. And I handled it in the worst possible way: I had a fling with this guy at school who I knew liked me, because I needed to feel like someone wanted me. And I slept with this guy too. But this time it didn’t feel right. I knew that I was only with this guy because I didn’t want to be alone. So we broke up after about a month.
“I apparently didn’t learn my lesson from that, because soon after that, I had a new boyfriend.” Some people chuckled. I had not seen this side of Sarah before, and I was a bit unsettled. “But this guy was different. He was a Christian. He invited me to church. I avoided telling him about my past, because I knew he wouldn’t approve, but when I finally did tell him, he told me about God’s redeeming love, how the blood of Jesus Christ had washed away my sins. Shortly after that, I made a decision to follow Jesus. And it hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned so much about how I don’t need attention from guys to be wanted and loved. Jesus loves you just who you are. I am a beloved daughter of the Lord.”
Dave McAllen gave a talk after this, also about the new identity we receive in Christ, but I could not stop thinking about Sarah’s story. It brought new context to some of the other conversations we had had over the years. More importantly, I knew that there was something I had to tell Sarah now. She had been placed in my group for the week, so we would be debriefing together after tonight’s session talking about any thoughts we had about tonight.
“I haven’t slept with actual girlfriends,” I told my small group after the session, “but I’ve struggled with having lustful thoughts and…” I did not want to be unnecessarily graphic, but I did not want to be vague either. “Acting on them, alone,” I said. “One time a while back, I was feeling particularly ashamed because of that, and I wanted to talk to someone, but I was too embarrassed to say anything face to face. So I sent an email to someone in this small group using an anonymous emailing service, so my name wouldn’t be on it; I just said I’m someone you know and I need someone to talk to. My friend replied, saying to read the Bible or do something to distract myself when I feel that way, but most importantly, not to get down on myself, because Jesus loves me. I needed that reminder tonight. That’s all I wanted to say.” Everyone else seemed to get the hint that I did not want to talk about this in detail, and no one asked me anything more about it.
After everyone shared, we prayed to close the night. As people dispersed to the cabins, I stayed in my seat, looking at Sarah, hoping that she had remembered that incident. She sat next to me, put her arm around me, and said, “Jesus loves you.” I put my head down; Sarah just stayed there silently next to me with her arm around me from the side. After several minutes of quiet, I looked up and gave her my best half-smile. “Are you okay?” Sarah asked.
“You wanna get some sleep now?”
“That’s probably a good idea. Thanks for sticking around.”
“Of course. Jesus loves you. Don’t ever forget that.”
I heard abbreviated versions of a few other students’ testimonies Thursday afternoon at the river baptisms. I found it interesting that Kieran was getting baptized. Last time JCF had a baptism event, when Sarah had gotten baptized at the end of sophomore year, Kieran had made a big deal to say that he wanted to make a public declaration of his faith, but he had already been baptized as a baby and did not feel a need to be baptized again. I wondered what caused him to decide now to be baptized after all, especially since I was also one who had been baptized as a baby and not as an adult.
I said goodbye to everyone Friday afternoon when Outreach Camp ended, but I knew I would see them soon. At the end of the road that the camp was on, everyone turned south on Highway 73 back toward Blue Oaks, but I turned east less than a mile later, on Highway 22 toward the Great Blue Lake, since I had another retreat to get to. I put on a tape of Third Day, a Christian rock band from Georgia that I had discovered last year, as I drove through more forests and mountains, some of the most breathtaking scenery I had ever experienced. I was in no hurry, since I left Pine Mountain a little after one o’clock and most of the group from Jeromeville Covenant would not arrive at the other retreat until evening.
Highway 22 took me back to Highway 100 eastbound, which actually ran diagonally to the northeast through that area. I exited the freeway again on the road that eventually took me to the western shore of the Great Blue Lake, about an hour and a half after I left Pine Mountain. The lake was huge, surrounded by forested mountains, except for the lake’s outlet through a narrow river valley that I had followed from the time I turned off the freeway. The area was popular with tourists year-round, hiking and boating in the summer, and skiing in the nearby mountains in the winter, so traffic slowed down in some spots. Now that I finally saw the area’s natural beauty in person, I understood why it was such a popular destination.
I drove south along a windy mountain road, down the entire western shore of the lake, stopping a few times to take pictures since I was in no hurry. I passed through a city called Lakeview at the south end of the lake, then climbed back into the mountains over a summit on a road that would eventually lead me back to Capital City. Six miles past the summit, I saw the road I was looking for.
At last year’s Outreach Camp, God had opened a door for me to have a specific role in JCF as the worship band’s roadie, but they did not need one this year. I had signed up to sit at JCF’s table on the Quad during welcome week, and to help out with a welcome mixer next Tuesday night, but these were not ongoing ministries for the year. I did have a specific ongoing ministry outside of JCF, though: I was volunteering as a youth leader at church. God had still shown up at Outreach Camp this year in a more simple way, providing the opportunity to reconnect with my friends and hear messages I needed to hear from the Scriptures and others’ testimonies. I looked forward to seeing how he would continue to show up in my life at this other retreat and during the first week of school.
Readers: Do you enjoy going on retreats, or just generally getting away from your regular life and being out in nature? Tell me about one such time in the comments.