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.

August 1-3, 1996. Another group, one that included people I did not know.

The final two weeks of my summer class, Introduction to Software, overlapped with the Summer Olympics in Atlanta.  I wrote code as I watched Muhammad Ali on the television climbing the stairs with the Olympic torch to light the flame at the opening ceremony.  While I was debugging my project, looking through hundreds of lines of code to find mistakes, gymnast Kerri Strug was landing a nearly-perfect vault despite having sprained her ankle on her previous attempt.  Her remarkable feat won the gold medal for the United States in the women’s team all-around competition.  And I was taking a break from studying, trying to meet girls on the Internet using IRC, while American runner Michael Johnson won gold in the 400 meters, but I was keeping an eye on the other American in the race, Alvin Harrison.  He and his twin brother, Calvin, had spent part of their high school years in Santa Lucia County, where I grew up; after these Olympics, my brother met both of them at an autograph-signing event.  Alvin Harrison finished fourth in this race, but would go on to win gold as part of a relay team.  Both brothers were on a winning relay team in the following Olympics, but unfortunately were later disqualified as part of an incident involving performance-enhancing drugs.

From the moment I walked out the final exam, I knew that I did well.  Everything was very straightforward, and I had been studying, so there were no surprises.  After I dropped off my backpack at home, I went for a bike ride, then I showered, took a nap, and made dinner  After that, it was time to go to Bible study.  I did not get to watch any of the Olympics that night.

Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a chapter of the nondenominational campus ministry organization Intervarsity, did not have regular meetings during summer break, but two small group Bible studies still met, one in the Pine Grove Apartments near campus and one in south Jeromeville on the other side of Highway 100.  I drove on Maple Drive toward campus for about a mile and turned onto a cul-de-sac which dead-ends into the parking lot for Pine Grove.  I parked on the street, walked to Lillian’s apartment, and knocked on the door, and someone told me to come in.

“Greg!” Lillian said as I walked into her apartment with my Bible.  Amelia Dye, who lived in a different apartment in Pine Grove with her cat who had the birthday party, had arrived before me.  So had Ramon, Jason, and Caroline, friends from my freshman dorm who all lived near me.  “How are you?” Lillian asked.  “Have you had your final yet?”

“It was today,” I said.  “I think I did pretty well.”

“Good!  So no class tomorrow?”

“No.  I only had class this summer on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.”

“Four day weekend every week!” Amelia said.  “And now you’re done for the summer, right?  No class second session?”

“Right,” I replied.

“Any big plans for the weekend?  Are you going to Dan and Adrienne’s wedding?”

I paused as my brain tried to process what Amelia had just asked me.  Did Amelia have me confused with someone else?  Apparently some people named Dan and Adrienne were getting married this weekend, but I did not know these people.  Or did I?  If I did know these people, they never told me about their wedding.  Was I supposed to receive an invitation?  “I don’t think I know these people,” I said.

“Dan Keenan?  From 20/20?  The college pastor?”

With this additional information, my brain began making connections.  Students at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a few different churches on Sundays, and I had heard some of my friends who attended Jeromeville Covenant Church use the name 20/20 to refer to the college-age Sunday school class.  “From Jeromeville Covenant?” I asked Amelia.  “I’ve never been there.”

“Oh, that’s right!” Amelia said.  “I guess you don’t know them.  I’m so excited for the wedding!”

“A lot of people will be in town for the wedding,” Ramon added.  “Liz is coming up for it, and the Morocco team gets back tonight, so they’ll be there too.  A bunch of us will be hanging out afterward.  I’m sure you’re invited, if you want to come.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That sounds good.  Where?”  Ramon told me the address, and I wrote it down.  “What time should I get there?” I asked.

“It depends on how late the wedding reception goes.  But if you show up by eight or nine, someone will probably be there by then.”

“Sounds good.  I’ll stop by.”


Two days later, I sat in my apartment watching the beginning of the Saturday evening broadcast of the Olympics.  Ramon had said to show up by eight or nine; it was now just past eight o’clock, and I sat on the bed staring at the paper on which I had written what Ramon had told me: 1008 Walnut St.  I did not know whose house this was, and I had never been to Walnut Street, although I had easily found it on a map earlier.  I was excited to see my friends, especially the ones who had been away for the summer, but they were all coming from a wedding reception, and I did not want to be the only one there waiting for everyone else.  I played around on the computer wasting another half hour chatting on IRC before I left the house.

Walnut Street was in an older part of Jeromeville, in between my apartment and Pine Grove.  The neighborhood was all single-family homes, and it was not readily obvious at first whether they still housed families or had been converted to student rentals.  Tall, leafy oaks and sycamores provided shade.  The house at the address I wrote down had lights on in the living room, and there were so many cars in front that I had to park a few houses down the street.  My fears about being the first one to arrive at an unfamiliar place were apparently unfounded.

I walked up to the door slowly and knocked, hesitantly.  “Come in!” someone shouted from the living room.  I opened the door and walked inside, looking around.  I saw a few unfamiliar faces on the couch.  I could see into the kitchen, where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing around talking, but they did not see me yet.

“May I help you?” the same voice who told me to come in asked.  It belonged to a girl with light brown hair.

“Some people from my Bible study told me that a bunch of people were in town for a wedding,” I explained.  “They said that they would be hanging out here afterward.”

“Yeah!  That’s us!  Were you at the wedding?”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t know the people who got married.”

“I’m Vanessa,” the girl said.

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

“You too!  Who did you say you knew here?”

“Ramon and Liz and Jason,” I said, gesturing toward them.  “And Caroline Pearson, and Amelia Dye.  They all told me about this.”

“Oh, yeah.  They’re all here.”

“Greg!” I heard Ramon say from the kitchen.  I turned and waved.

“I made it,” I said.

“Cool.”

“I’m going to go say hi to them,” I told Vanessa.  “It was nice meeting you.”

“You too!  I’m sure I’ll see you around later.”  I walked to the kitchen where Ramon and Liz and Jason were standing.  Caroline was also there, seated at a small dining table, talking to Taylor Santiago, Pete Green, and Charlie Watson, who had all just returned from a month-long mission trip to Morocco.

“Greg!” Taylor said, reaching to shake my hand.

“Hey, Greg,” Pete added, as I was shaking Taylor’s hand.

“Hey, guys.  How was the trip?”

“Uhh, I’m so tired,” Taylor replied.  “I’m still adjusting to the time difference.”

“Oh, I bet,” I said.

“But, yeah, it was a good trip.  There were a bunch of people on our trip from all over the US, and the three of us got split up for a while.  We’ll be presenting more about our trip at 20/20 after school starts again.”

“You should come,” Pete told me.

“Maybe,” I said.

I got up to snack on some tortilla chips and saw Amelia, who had first mentioned this party at Bible study two days earlier.  She was with Scott Madison, her boyfriend who had gone home for the summer.  “Hey, Greg,” Amelia said.

“Good to see you,” Scott added.

“You too.”

“Having fun?”.

“Yeah.  There are a lot of people here I don’t know.  But there are people I do know here too.  Are the people who got married here?”

“No,” Amelia replied.  “They’re on their way to their honeymoon.”

“Oh, yeah.  That makes sense.”  I was relatively unfamiliar with how weddings worked, and that felt like a dumb question in hindsight.  “So the people here who I don’t know, are they from 20/20?”

“Yeah.  20/20 is the college group at J-Cov.  We have a class before big church, and we usually have a retreat sometime during the year, and fun events too.  And some people go on mission trips in the summer.”

“I see.”  I was not sure what Amelia meant by “big church,” but it sounded like she was talking about the actual church service, as opposed to Sunday school classes, so I did not ask.  But I did ask something else: “And a lot of people from 20/20 also go to JCF?”

“Yeah.  Some of us, at least.”

“Why is it called 20/20, anyway?”

“I don’t know, now that you mention it,” Amelia replied.

“I think it’s, like, 20/20 vision,” Scott explained.  “Because we want to see God clearly.”

“That makes sense,” I said.

I wandered back into the living room, where people had begun to gather around the television.  They were watching the Olympics; the gold medal game for men’s basketball between the United States and Yugoslavia was on.  A shorter-than-average skinny guy with dark hair sat on a couch next to a tall guy with wavy brown hair and an empty seat; I gestured toward the empty seat and asked, “May I sit here?”

“Sure,” the skinny guy said.  “I don’t think we’ve met.  I’m Noah.”

“I’m Greg,” I said, shaking Noah’s hand.  “Nice to meet you.”

“I’m Martin,” the tall guy with wavy hair said as he also shook my hand.  “Do you go to 20/20?  I don’t think I’ve seen you before?”

“No.  I go to JCF, and some people from my Bible study invited me to come hang out tonight.”

“Cool.”

“Have you been watching the Olympics?” Noah asked.

“Off and on,” I said.  “The women’s all-around gymnastics was pretty impressive, with Kerri Strug’s sprained ankle.”

“Yeah.  I hope she’s okay.”

The United States was heavily favored to win this game, but both teams were undefeated so far in the Olympics.  The score remained close throughout the first half.  At one point, I looked up to watch Reggie Miller shoot a 3-pointer for the USA.  Noah and Martin and a few others who were watching the game cheered.

“I hope Yugoslavia wins,” I said quietly.

“What?” Noah asked incredulously.

“You Communist,” Martin said.

“I’m a purist,” I explained.  “I don’t think NBA players belong in the Olympics.  The Olympics are for amateurs.  And their endorsement deals get in the way.  Like last time, when some players had to cover the logos on their warmup suits with flags because they had contracts with rival shoe companies.  It’s ridiculous that that has to be an issue.”

“I see your point,” Noah said.  “But, the way I see it, other countries were letting their professionals play, so it’s only fair.  And after the Dream Team in the last Olympics was so popular, they’re probably not going back at this point.”

“I guess.”

“NBA players from other countries can play for their countries too,” Martin added.  “Vlade Divac is playing for Yugoslavia.”

“That’s right,” I said.

As the game continued, I overheard parts of the others’ conversations, in which Noah talked about being something called the “junior high intern” this year.  “What’s that?” I asked.

“Last year, we both volunteered with the junior high youth group at J-Cov,” Noah explained, gesturing toward himself and Martin.  “This year, I’m an intern, so it’s going to be my part-time job to lead the junior high group.”

“That’s cool.  Is that the same youth group that Taylor Santiago works with?”

“Yeah!  I’ve known Taylor for years.  We went to high school together.  How do you know him?”

“We were in the same dorm freshman year.”

“Oh, okay.”

“We’re going to camp with the junior high kids the week after next,” Martin said.  “Taylor will be there too.”

“That sounds fun.  Where is the camp?”

“Near Mount Lorenzo.”

“Nice.  It’s pretty there.”  I looked at Martin’s shirt while he was talking to me.  It was white, with the words “VOTE BOB & LARRY IN 1996” at the top.  Below it was a strange cartoon drawing of a round, almost spherical red character and a tall green character, cylindrical with a rounded top, standing behind a podium like candidates running for President.  Both of these characters had oddly-shaped asymmetrical eyes.  Apparently their names were Bob and Larry, but whatever cartoon they were from was unknown to me.  I did not ask.

The game remained close until late in the game; neither team led by double digits until only 10 minutes remained, when the United States began to pull ahead.  Vlade Divac had fouled out by then.  When it became apparent that Yugoslavia was not going to make a miraculous comeback, I got up, used the bathroom, and wandered around what was left of the party.  It was getting late, and the crowd seemed noticeably smaller by then; the living room and kitchen were filling up with empty cups, soda cans, and paper plates.

“Are you having fun?” Vanessa, the girl who had answered the door when I arrived, asked me.

“Yeah.  I didn’t know much about this 20/20 group before tonight.”

“You should come check it out sometime.  Do you go to church?”

“Yeah.  I go to the Newman Center,” I said

I waited for Vanessa to give the predictable response that Catholics aren’t real Christians, and that the office of the Papacy is un-Biblical.  But instead, she just said, “That’s Catholic, right?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re always welcome to check out 20/20 and J-Cov if you want.  The class starts at 9:15, and the service at 10:45.”

“Thanks.  I might someday.”

By midnight, the party had quieted down even more.  Noah and Martin were still watching the Olympics; the final round of the men’s 5000-meter run was on.  “I don’t think I even realized the 5k was an Olympic event,” I said.

“They show it late at night because Americans don’t do well in it,” Martin said.

“Yeah,” Noah added.  “Usually those African long-distance runners dominate.” 

The race took fourteen minutes to finish.  The lead changed several times, and the lone American runner in the race, Bob Kennedy, remained in contention but fell to sixth place on the last lap.  Half of the contenders finished within a few seconds of each other, but a few others had fallen far behind.  The final runner, Aissa Belaout of Algeria, did not cross the finish line until 20 seconds after the next runner ahead of him, almost a full minute behind the winner.

“I always wonder with guys like that,” I said.  “You’re so far behind, there’s no way you can win.  But you just have to keep going, because making it to the final round of the Olympics is such an accomplishment.”

“Yeah,” Noah replied.  “Never give up.  Keep running.  They earned their spot in the Olympics.  As long as you’re still alive and still running, you never know what’ll happen.”


I said my goodbyes a few minutes later and drove home, going straight to bed after I arrived.  I learned a lot of new things tonight.  I knew that my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attended a number of different churches, but I always assumed that church was just something they did on Sunday.  Apparently I was wrong.  Jeromeville Covenant Church had a whole group for college students with activities and retreats, and this group included some people who did not also go to JCF.  My JCF friends who attended J-Cov had other Christian friends whom I did not know.

After the events of the last few weeks at the Newman Center, I was starting to question whether or not it was the best place for me, as a newly committed Christian, to learn about the Bible and grow closer to Jesus Christ.  Too many students at the Newman Center did not seem to take their faith very seriously, and the leadership put their agenda ahead of Scripture and the Church with their emphasis on liberal feminism.  Maybe I would try J-Cov and 20/20 sometime.  But, on the other hand, I was committed to singing at Newman, and I did not want to turn my back on the traditions of my Catholic family.  I did not have to decide right now.  Maybe, like the runners I had just watched waiting for the right time to surge ahead, I would just have to wait for the right time to try something new, and then see what happened.  Even though my life was full of unanswered questions, I was still alive and still running.

(Remember, I am almost 6’4″. I really am that much shorter than him; it’s not an awkward angle.)

Summer 1996. The friendly neighbor.

According to an old saying, people come into your life for either a reason, a season, or a lifetime.  Some of the people I met in Jeromeville only crossed my path for a reason; I only met Moises a few times, and he showed me the gross misconceptions held by other Christians about Catholicism.  For the people who came into my life for a season, the season varied dramatically in length.  Megan McCauley, my older friend who became a hopeless crush, was part of my life for a little over a year, but Sarah Winters, one of my best friends at the University of Jeromeville, we were friends for about thirteen years until life got in the way and we gradually grew apart in our early thirties.  And, of course, some of the people I met in Jeromeville, like Taylor Santiago and Eddie Baker, have become lifelong friends whom I am still close with today.

One person who came into my life for a literal season, the summer of 1996, sat in a lawn chair reading one afternoon in front of apartment 224 at Las Casas Apartments, the apartment directly above mine.  The class I was taking had just started a few days earlier.  I rode my bike home from campus, checked my mail, and rode up to my apartment.  “Hi,” I heard a voice say above me as I walked my bike up to the door.  “Do you live downstairs from me?”

I looked up at the balcony and saw a short, stocky African-American woman with short curly hair and glasses looking at me.  “Yes,” I said.  “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”  As far as I knew, the leases at Las Casas ran from September 1 to August 31, to correspond with the UJ academic year.  I was not sure how I could have a new neighbor at the end of June, but she promptly answered my question.

“I’m Marie.  I’m Dan’s friend, I’m subletting this apartment from him; he’s gone doing research for the summer.”

“Nice to meet you.  I’m Greg.  I never actually knew Dan; I kept to myself a lot all year.”

“Nice to meet you too!  So what do you do?  Are you a student?”

“Yes.  I’m a math major.”

“Undergrad?”

“Yeah.  I just finished sophomore year.  What about you?”

“I’m just working at a temp agency.  I’m kind of at a point in my life where I’m trying to figure out the next step.  I’ve been moving around a lot, working here and there until I figure things out.”

“Where were you before this?”

“Southern California.  I liked it there, but I was just ready to move on.”

“That makes sense.  Have you been to Jeromeville before?”

“No!  But Dan has told me about it, and it seemed like a nice place to check out.  So here I am!  Are you from around here originally?

Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  I’ve been to Santa Lucia a few times.  It’s so pretty there!”

“Yeah.  What about you?”

“I’m originally from North Carolina, but like I said, I’ve lived all over the country.”

“Wow.”

“Are you taking classes this summer?  You’re wearing a backpack.”

“Yeah.  I’m taking Introduction to Software.  I don’t need it for the math major, but it’s a prerequisite for an upper-division computer science class that counts toward the math major.  And I like fiddling around with computers.”

“Wow.  I’m not a techie at all.  I’ll come to you next time my computer isn’t working.”

“I don’t know if I’m that good,” I said, chuckling.

“It was nice meeting you!  I’m sure I’ll be seeing you around.”

“Yes!  It was nice meeting you.”


The next time I saw Marie was about a week later.  She knocked on the door as I was typing an email to my mom, who had just recently gotten Internet access for the first time and was writing to me almost every day.  “Hi,” I said after I opened the door.

“Hi, Greg!” Marie said.  “How are you?”

“I’m doing okay.  What about you?”

“I’m good!  Have you had dinner yet?”

“No,” I said.  “Why do you ask?”

“I decided to try this new chicken and rice recipe that I got from a friend, and I made too much for just me.  Want to come upstairs and try it?”

“Sure.”

“Great!  Come on up!” she said.  I locked the door behind me and followed Marie up the outside stairs into her apartment.  The apartment above me was a studio apartment with a loft; the loft was set up like a bedroom, but open to the living area downstairs.  A small dining table was next to the entrance to the kitchen, where I had my bookshelf in my apartment.  I was not sure which of the furniture and pictures on the wall were Marie’s and which belonged to Dan, who had the apartment the rest of the year.

Marie went into the kitchen and emerged with two plates.  Each plate had a chicken breast on top of rice with vegetables mixed in, and other vegetables on the side.  “Sit down,” she said gesturing toward the table.  “I’ll get you some water.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I waited for Marie to sit back down before I started eating, and after she did, I took a bite.  “This is really good.”

“Thank you!  Would you like the recipe?  I can write it down before you leave.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Honestly, though, I’m not very good at cooking.  I don’t know if or when I’ll make it.”

“That’s no problem.  It’s there if you need it.”

“True.”

“So how is your class going?  What are you learning about?”

“The programming language C,” I explained.  “It’s set up differently from the other programming I’ve done, but it’s ultimately a lot more powerful.”

“Interesting,” Marie replied.  “I told you before, I don’t know any of that stuff.  Why didn’t you major in computer science if you’re into that?  There’s a lot of good jobs out there for computer people.”

“Because most of my computer knowledge is out of date, so most of the people in my classes would be coming in with more knowledge of the basics than I have.  Also, I didn’t want my hobby to become work.”

“That makes a lot of sense.”

“I taught myself BASIC on a Commodore 64 when I was nine,” I explained, “but that’s useless already in today’s world.  Technology moves so fast.”

“That’s true,” Marie said.  “How old did you say you were?”

“I’m 19.  I’ll be 20 in August.”

“That’s right.  You said you were a sophomore.”

“Yeah.”

Marie paused, then said, “How old do you think I am?”

Uh-oh.  I did not like being put on the spot like this.  “I’m not good at guessing people’s ages,” I said.

“I’m just wondering, because people say I look younger than I really am.”

That made it even more difficult, because she looked a little big older than me.  Was she actually a lot older than me?  “25,” I guessed hesitantly.  Marie pointed upward.  “Older than 25?” I asked.  Marie nodded, and I guessed, “27.”  She pointed upward again.  She really did not look older than 27.  “30?” I guessed, apprehensively.

“Yes.  I’m 30.”

“Whoever says you look younger, they’re right.”

“Thanks,” Marie said, smiling.  “So what are you doing this weekend?”

“Probably just studying,” I replied.

“I’m thinking I want to go see a movie this weekend.  You want to come with me?  Maybe Saturday afternoon?”

I was not expecting this; instead of Yes or No, the first thing to come out of my mouth was, “What movie?”

“Have you seen Independence Day yet?  I’m seeing ads for it everywhere.  It looks interesting, for sure.”

“I haven’t, but I want to.  That sounds good.”

“Great!”

I stayed in Marie’s apartment for about an hour and a half that night, just talking about life.  She looked up the movie times at some point, so we could make plans for Saturday.  After I left, I sat in my apartment, trying to make sense of what was going on.  Marie was kind of acting like she was interested in me.  At least this is what I assumed it was like when a girl was into me; since no girl had ever been into me as far as I knew, I was not quite sure.  But she was thirty years old.  Surely she was not interested in a young kid like me.  She was just friendly.


On Saturday afternoon, I climbed the stairs to Marie’s apartment about half an hour before the movie started and knocked on the door.  “Hey!” she said when she opened the door.  “You ready to go?”

“Sure.  Want me to drive, or are you?”

“How about you drive, and I’ll pay for the tickets.  Does that work?”

“Sure,” I said.  “That’s my car down there, the red Bronco.”

“Nice,” she said.  As we headed down Andrews Road and turned onto Coventry Boulevard, she asked, “So do you ever take this thing off road?”

“I don’t,” I said.  “Well, this was our family car for five or six years before I moved here.  We used to visit my great-grandma in Bidwell a few times a year, and she lived at the end of a dirt road about a mile long.  Sometimes we’d use the four-wheel drive on that road.  But that’s about it.”

“You should go off-roading!  It’s so much fun!”

“Maybe someday.”

I turned right on G Street, just past Community Park, and headed south toward downtown.  The movie theater in Jeromeville was on the corner of G and First Streets, six blocks from the old part of campus.  I had not seen many movies in the last couple years, at least not during their first run in theaters; I had only been to this movie theater twice before.  It was in a gray building with a two-story parking garage above it.  I maneuvered my large vehicle through the narrow ramp leading up to the parking garage, barely wide enough for a car going up to pass a car going down.

“Can you fit in here?” Marie asked.

“I’ve done it before,” I said.  “Hopefully an even bigger car doesn’t come down at the same time.”

Marie laughed.  “Then we’d be in trouble.”

The stairs leading down from the parking garage were on the outside of the building, not a typical scary parking garage stairwell.  We walked to the box office, where Marie said, “Two tickets for Independence Day, please.”

“Are you sure you want to pay for both tickets?” I asked.

“Sure!  I asked you.  And it’s afternoon matinee prices.”

“Seven dollars, please,” the cashier said.  Marie gave the cashier the money, and he gave us our tickets, which the person at the entrance promptly tore in half a minute later.  We sat near the middle of the theater; seats were already starting to fill up.

“Do you like these kinds of movies?” Marie asked.

I had to think about this.  “I guess I don’t really have one specific kind of movie that I like best,” I said.  “Some movies I just like, and some I don’t.”

After sitting through several minutes of previews, the movie began with giant alien spaceships coming to Earth early one July.  The aliens positioned themselves over major cities, destroying them all simultaneously with massive energy beams.  A Marine played by Will Smith led attacks on the alien spaceships, which failed.  Jeff Goldblum’s scientist character eventually found a way to deactivate the force fields protecting the aliens, and Bill Pullman’s President of the United States character gave a rousing speech.  He said that July 4 is Independence Day in the United States, but now it would be the day that the whole world fought back against the aliens.  People watching the movies cheered on the fighter pilots on the screen.

After the movie ended, I turned to Marie and said, “I’m excited.  That was a nice feel-good movie.”

“It was!”  She grabbed her purse, then said, “So what do you want to do now?  Want to get something to eat?  Lyon’s is right across the street.”

“That sounds good.”

As we stepped outside, I had to squint, since my eyes had become accustomed to the dark theater.  We crossed the street and walked into the restaurant.  Lyon’s was a chain of restaurants serving American diner food.  When I was very young, I remember a few times going to breakfast with my dad at Lyon’s in Gabilan.  I usually got waffles.

“What are you getting?” Marie asked as we each looked through the menus.

“Probably a cheeseburger.”

“I’m going to get this chicken salad.  It looks good.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  I did not admit that I was not a big fan of salads.

“So what did you think of the movie?”

“It was a lot of fun.  But I’m kind of suspicious that the alien spaceships would be compatible with a human computer virus.”

“I hadn’t thought of that.  You’re the computer guy.”

“A computer virus is just a program that does something destructive,” I explained.  “If the computer can’t understand the instructions, the virus can’t do anything destructive.  If you took a virus for a PC and ran it on a Mac, nothing would happen; it would just look like gibberish to the Mac operating system.  The movie writers apparently don’t know how computer viruses work.”

“That makes sense.”

The food arrived a few minutes later.  I tried to break up a lull in the conversation by asking, “So how long will you be in Jeromeville?  Are you just here until your friend gets back?”

“Yeah.  He comes back in the middle of September.”

“And he has the same apartment for next year?”

“Yeah.  Do you?”

“No.  I’m moving into a bigger apartment with roommates, at Sagebrush Apartments on Maple Drive.”

“Oh, ok.  So, around the corner from Las Casas?  Past the shopping center?”

“Right.  What about you.  Where are you going next?”

“I’m gonna take some time off for a while.  I’m going to travel, see some of the National Parks in the Southwest and the Rockies.  I haven’t seen the Grand Canyon since I was little, and I’ve never been to Zion, so I’m definitely going to those two.  I haven’t really figured out where else.”

“That sounds fun!  I’ve never been to either of those places.  Where is Zion?”

“Utah.”

“Yeah.  We didn’t really travel much growing up.”

“Really?  You gotta get out there and see the world!”

“I will someday.”

“What’s the farthest away you’ve been?”

“Vancouver,” I said.  “My family took a long road trip to the Expo ‘86 World’s Fair when I was nine.  We went to Spokane first, to see Dad’s mother, then we all went to Vancouver in a rented RV.  That was my only time out of the country.”

“That sounds fun!”

“Oh!  And I’m going to Illinois in December.  That’ll be the farthest away I’ve ever been.  It’s for a Christian student and young adult convention, to learn about mission trips and service opportunities.”

“Are you looking to do that?  Be a missionary someday?”

“I’m not sure.  But I have friends who do things like that in the summer, and I want to learn more about what they’re doing, and stuff like that.”

Marie and I finished our meals, talking more about my faith journey and her options for life after she finished her trips to the Grand Canyon and Zion.  It must be fascinating to live that way, to wander the country working short-term jobs, never putting down roots.  I did not see that kind of lifestyle as my future.  I hoped someday I would settle down with a wife and children.  But there was nothing wrong with Marie’s way of life, if it worked for her.


My favorite part of the Jeromeville Bulletin local newspaper was the daily column written by Bill Dunnigan.  He often poked fun at the City Council and other prominent local figures.  One member of the City Council was an aging hippie named Jill Popovich, who had ideas like making long straight avenues curved so drivers would slow down.  Ms. Popovich was vocally against paving a muddy alley downtown that became a breeding ground for mosquitoes in the winter, because dirt alleys enhance the small-town character of Jeromeville, and she was a major proponent of adding a tunnel for frogs to a new overpass that opened that summer.  Bill Dunnigan often joked that she was an alien.  A few days after I saw the movie with Marie, Bill Dunnigan wrote, “If the City Council thinks that Jeromeville is so important, why didn’t the aliens in the movie Independence Day attack Jeromeville?  They probably feared the wrath of Jill.”

I ran into Marie around the apartment several more times between then and the end of August, when I moved out.  She was always friendly, and I always enjoyed talking to her.  In late September, in the new apartment, I got a postcard from Zion National Park.  It said:


Greg —

I’m enjoying my travels very much!  It is so beautiful here.  Utah looks so different from California.  So good to be out in nature again.  I’ve been on so many great hikes here!  I leave for the Grand Canyon tomorrow morning.  I hope you’re doing well, and that you like your new roommates.  Have a great school year!  –Marie


That was the last I ever heard from Marie.  To this day, I still do not know if she liked me or if she was just being friendly.  She was nice, but I just would not have felt ready to be in a relationship with someone a decade older than me.  We probably would not have worked out anyway, because of that.  Marie was part of my life for a season, but also for a reason: I got lonely sometimes that summer, and I needed a friend.  

(April 2021. Interlude, part 4, and Year 2 recap.)

If you’re new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 2.  Last week, I did the same for Year 1.  Many of my current readers have not been with the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.  If this is your first time here, and you do not want to read all 88 episodes, you may want to read the recap of Year 1 first.


I went home to Plumdale for the summer and worked in a small bookstore.  I got the job through the connection that one of the two other employees was a family friend.  Mom volunteered me for the job without asking me, and while I hate when she does that, this time I did not mind because I needed something to do, and getting paid would be nice.  I thought at first that working in a bookstore would be fun, but the store was very slow, and not exactly my clientele.

June 22, 1995. The first day on the job.

I had lost touch with most of my high school friends, although I saw a few of them.  I watched a roller hockey game with Rachel, and I saw Catherine and Renee and some of Catherine’s friends from Austria in a choir and orchestra performance that she put together.  I kept in touch with a number of Jeromeville friends, mostly through writing letters, although a few of them had access to email during the summer.  My cousins Rick and Miranda came to visit for a week, and I went with them, my mother, and my brother Mark to Jeromeville for a day, to show everyone around.  I got to see Taylor and another guy from my freshman dorm on that day.

July 18, 1995. The day we went to Jeromeville with Rick and Miranda.

I turned 19 in August.  The lease for my apartment began September 1, and I moved back to Jeromeville the first weekend of September.  Classes did not start until the end of September, but I preferred being bored in Jeromeville to being bored in Plumdale.  I spent that September going on lots of bike rides and talking to lots of girls on Internet Relay Chat.  As the school year approached, I was encouraged as I started seeing familiar faces around campus and town.  Megan, the resident advisor from a nearby building whom I had gotten to know (and like) the previous year, was now an RA in a building in the North Area, and she invited me to have lunch with her at the dining commons.

September 26, 1995.  My lunch date with Megan.

I had plenty of new experiences that fall.  I got a job tutoring calculus for the tutoring center on campus.  Also, Danielle, my friend from last year who also went to Mass at the Newman Center, finally talked me into singing in the choir at church. Another student in the choir, Heather, lived near me, so we usually carpooled to choir practice and to Mass.

October 11, 1995. A busy day.

Liz, another friend from last year, had invited me a few times to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  I was hesitant , since I was Catholic and I knew that other Christians did things differently and sometimes looked down on Catholics.  I was not sure that JCF would be the first place for me.  But I finally decided to take her up on her invitation that fall; since I was living alone, I knew that I needed to do all I could to stay close with my friends.  I quickly decided that JCF was a wonderful place for me.  In addition to already having several friends who attended there, I started making new friends, and in addition to learning more about the Bible, I also started socializing with JCF people.

November 17, 1995. What’s a but stop?

I started a new creative project that fall: a novel, about an 18-year-old who is not ready for high school to be over.  He goes away to live with relatives and pretends to be younger so he can go through high school again and get a second chance at having a social life.  I got the idea because I felt that way sometimes.  As the winter went on, my classes continued, I worked on the novel, and the holidays came.  I spent Thanksgiving with my family visiting the relatives in Bidwell.  I spent Christmas back home in Plumdale with my family, where Mom volunteered me for something yet again without asking me.  We made a last minute trip to Disneyland for the New Year, and on that trip we decided on a whim to drive by the house of an infamous celebrity.

December 30, 1995 – January 1, 1996. A family vacation that did not involve boring relatives.

I had still never had a girlfriend, and things never seemed to work out for me.  It seemed like every girl I met always seemed to have a boyfriend.  I was disappointed when Megan, the older girl who was an RA, mentioned at one point that she was dating someone.  I found out something later that made me realize that Megan and I never would have worked out anyway.

January 19-20, 1996. A dangerous glance.

While many positive things had happened so far that year, I still got discouraged and had bad days sometimes.  One of those bad days happened on a Friday, the night that JCF met.  As everyone trickled out of the room, I sat alone by myself.  Two guys, Eddie and Xander, came over to talk to me and invited me to hang out with them afterward, along with Haley, Kristina, and Kelly, three girls who lived down the street from them. I made new friends that night, some of whom I am still friends with today.

January 26, 1996. Pieces falling into place.

The winter quarter was not easy academically.  My classes all had their midterms on the same day.  Then, a few days later, some jerk decided to steal my clothes out of the laundry.  Just when despair was starting to get to me, I saw one of the JCF staff on campus; she told me exactly what it means to follow Jesus, how he died for our sins to bring us eternal life with God. I made a decision that day to follow Jesus.

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

With this new outlook on life, I started attending Bible study.  I was learning more about my faith, really paying attention to God’s Word for the first time.  My friend Melissa from high school told me in an email that she went bowling and got a score of 178, her best ever. This was exactly the same as my best bowling score ever, from the fall when I took bowling class. Melissa and I agreed to meet over spring break to see who was truly the better bowler, and that one game was legendary.

March 28, 1996. At the bowling alley and coffee shop during spring break.

In April, the University of Jeromeville got a new ID card system.  We all had to take new pictures, and mine was the worst ID card picture I have ever taken in my life.  The following week, I got invited along on a road trip to Bay City with a mix of old friends, including Sarah and Caroline, and new friends, including Eddie, Xander, and Haley.  We ate at the Hard Rock Cafe, walked uphill to an amazing view, and then drove down the coast to Moonlight Cove and slept illegally on the beach.

April 12-13, 1996. The road trip to Bay City and Moonlight Cove.

Finding a place to live in Jeromeville is a very stressful endeavor.  I heard Pete and Charlie say that they needed a third roommate for next year, but Mike Knepper came along and took that spot just as I about ready to commit.  I asked for prayer about it at Bible study a couple weeks later. Shawn, the senior who co-led the study, almost immediately mentioned that he and his current roommate Brian were staying in Jeromeville another year with no place to live yet.  God answered the first part of my prayer pretty quickly, giving me roommates for next year.  I had trouble finding a house to rent, since we waited so long, but I found a nice apartment on the northern edge of Jeromeville, about two miles from the campus core.

May 1996. Looking for a place to live.

I went to the Spring Picnic again, and I saw the band Lawsuit play.  I also worked the Math Club table for a while, which took away from my time to wander around and have fun, so I learned that day never to volunteer during the Spring Picnic.  I saw the Olympic torch pass through Jeromeville on its way to Atlanta.  I saw Sarah and a few other students from JCF get baptized.  And Haley had become my newest love interest, so of course I had plenty of awkward moments in front of her, as well as in front of other girls.

May 11-16, 1996. A montage of awkward moments.

I was still doing very well in classes.  Being a math major, I was now taking two math classes every quarter, and  started taking upper division math classes in the middle of that year.  Dr. Gabby Thomas was my favorite math professor so far; she spoke clear English and felt like a normal human being more than many of my other professors.  As the year ended, I participated in the Man of Steel competition, a decade-old tradition among the men of JCF involving disc golf, a hamburger eating contest, and a game of poker.  I did not do too well.  Fortunately, my finals went better than the Man of Steel competition, and I ended the year on a positive note, at a huge graduation party hosted by my new friends who were graduating, Brian and Shawn.

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

Here is the playlist of songs I used in year 2. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be doing next week; I will continue the story into Year 3 soon, but in real life, things are going to be a little crazy over the next month or two, so I might need some more time off.

(April 2021. Interlude, part 3, and Year 1 recap.)

If you are new here, this is not a typical post, but this is the perfect post for you.  Don’t Let The Days Go By is an episodic continuing story about a university student figuring out life.  I am currently on hiatus after finishing writing about Year 2.  Sometime later this spring I will start writing and posting about Year 3.

This week I will be recapping and summarizing Year 1, and next week I will do the same for Year 2.  Many of my current readers have not been following the story since the beginning, so this is an opportunity to catch up.  I will also include links to some, but not all, of the episodes, so you can read an abridged version of the story more detailed than this recap.  As always, you can start from the first episode (here) and keep clicking Next if you want to read the entire story, 88 episodes so far.


In the summer of 1993, my parents took me on quick driving tours of universities, so I could start thinking about what to do after high school.

July 5, 1993. Prologue: my first visit to Jeromeville.

I lived in Plumdale, a semi-rural area on the West Coast of the United States.  The University of Jeromeville, about a two and a half hour car trip from home, offered me a scholarship for my grades.  They also invited me to be part of the Interdisciplinary Honors Program, a program for honors freshmen who live in the same building and take general education classes specific to that program.

February 26, 1994. Prologue III: High Achieving Scholars’ Day.

I chose to attend Jeromeville, and I moved there in the fall of 1994.  I made lots of new friends in Building C, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program dormitory.  Taylor, the friendly guy fond of deep conversations.  Danielle, the girl just down the hall from me who sang in the school choir.  Caroline, Danielle’s roommate who had lived in Australia for over a decade.  Liz and Ramon, one of the first couples to form once the school year began.  Pete, downstairs, who taught me the board game Risk.  Sarah, a good listener with a kind heart.  And dozens of others.

September-October 1994. New friends in Building C.

Growing up, my family was Catholic, but I did not attend church regularly.  Mom told me to look for the Newman Center, a ministry for Catholic students at non-Catholic universities, when I got to Jeromeville.  The Jeromeville Newman Center held student-focused Masses in a building just off campus; my dorm neighbor Danielle also attended Mass at Newman, and sang in the choir.  Many of my friends from Building C attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, a nondenominational organization with small group Bible studies and weekly meetings with worship music and a talk.  JCF was not affiliated with a church, but many of my friends in JCF attended an Evangelical Covenant church.

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

In addition to my Building C friends, I had other new friends as well.  I discovered this newly emerging technology called the Internet while at UJ, and I used it quite often to talk to girls on IRC, the chat room system of the early Internet.  I also met people from UJ not in my dorm: Jack, a mathematics major who was in many of the same math classes as me.  Mike Knepper and Tabitha, two students who lived in nearby dorms and were in the same Bible study as my friends from JCF.  And Megan, a friendly resident advisor in one of the other dorms near mine.  Megan was a sophomore, my first older friend at UJ other than my own resident advisors. Our conversations around the dining hall and the Resident Help Window quickly developed into a crush on my part.  I considered becoming a resident advisor for sophomore year: this would give me room and board for next year, and I would get to help create the same friendly dorm environment that I experienced.  Also, I would get to work with Megan, since she would be a resident advisor again the following year.

January 28-29, 1995. Captains and Toros and resident advisors.

The University of Jeromeville is a beautiful campus.  It is located in the western United States, in the middle of a large valley that is a major agricultural area.  The university was founded as a branch campus of the state’s flagship university, for students studying agriculture.  Beyond the core part of campus, next to the city of Jeromeville, the campus extends west on about three square miles of farmland used for agricultural research.  A dry creek bed along the south end of campus had been converted into a very skinny lake about a mile and a half long, with an arboretum planted along both banks, for both scientific and recreational purposes.  I quickly discovered how much I loved exploring this campus on my bicycle.

March 1, 1995. Exploring.

I was not used to staying up late.  Back home, I went to bed around ten o’clock, and it took me quite some time to get used to the schedule of dormitory life, with students being noisy late at night.  Quiet hours began at 11:00 on weeknights and midnight on weekends, but the resident advisors enforced this with varying levels of accuracy.  One night, after a particularly bad day, I was awakened by people inconsiderately talking in the middle of the night.  I opened my door angrily and overreacted, then I ran away, ashamed of having lost my cool in front of my new friends.

March 3, 1995. Throwing the box.

But my friends did not react the way I expected, and to this day, that night feels like a major turning point in my life.

March 4, 1995. Friendship is special.

During that year, living in a tiny, boring single room in the dorm, I did a lot of reading and writing.  I had always had a creative side that I did not show often.  I started writing poetry as a hobby during that year, both funny and serious.  In the spring, I added some more creative projects.  During UJ’s spring break, I visited my old high school, which was not on break, and that brought back so many memories that I wrote a short novel based on my experiences senior year of high school.  Also, around that time, two free-spirited girls in my dorm, Skeeter and Bok, began regularly painting abstract watercolors in the common room, with others contributing sometimes.

Early April, 1995. Tear down the wall.

With Jeromeville being a fairly small city next to a large university, the rental housing market in Jeromeville was extremely tight.  Students were only guaranteed one year of living on campus, with there being so few dormitories, and my plan to be a resident advisor did not work out.  When my friends were making plans to room together and get apartments for the 1995-96 school year, I was oblivious and missed out.  My parents said that we could afford for me to get a small studio apartment, but apartments were filling up quickly.  After weighing all the options, I chose to sign a lease on a studio apartment in a complex called Las Casas, about a mile north of campus and within a short walk of two other apartment complexes where many of my closest friends would be living next year.

April 4-6, 1995. Two big steps.

As a student at UJ, I got to experience many of the campus traditions that have united generations of UJ students.  I attended Jeromeville Colts football and basketball games and learned the cheers.  I learned the hard way the importance of putting fenders on your bicycle wheels when it rains.  But the best tradition of all was the Spring Picnic, the university’s annual open house that had evolved over the years into a huge festival.  Dozens of academic departments, student groups, clubs, and performing groups had exhibits and shows during the Spring Picnic.  In addition to all the fun I had wandering those exhibits, I also watched a band called Lawsuit, on Megan’s recommendation.  The band was amazing, sounding like nothing I had ever heard before.

April 20-22, 1995. The Spring Picnic.

In school, I had always worked hard for good grades, and I was always one of the top students in my class, but never quite the top.  I had kept up my good grades at UJ, with my lowest grade so far this year being one A-minus.  I had not declared a major yet.  My favorite classes in high school were always mathematics and classes involving mathematics, like chemistry and physics.  I enjoyed computers as a hobby, but I felt my computer knowledge was too out of date for me to be a computer science major, and I grew up sheltered in an area without many high-paying jobs, so I never even considered anything like engineering because I had no previous exposure to engineering.  The physics class for science and engineering majors starts in the spring, and after the first midterm, I decided to declare mathematics as my major.  I still found mathematics relatively easy, as well as fascinating, whereas that physics midterm was the worst test score I had ever gotten in my life.  It all worked out in the end, though.

April 28-May 2, 1995. The first physics midterm.

Spring quarter was full of fun adventures.  I experienced my first college party, sort of, when a bunch of people upstairs threw a party.  I played Sardines in the strangest building on campus with my dorm friends.  I went for more bike rides as the weather got warmer and discovered bike trails passing through some of the newer neighborhoods of Jeromeville.  I got brave and called a girl from the Internet on the phone, and wrote letters to another who was going home for the summer and would not have email.  But the greatest adventure of all happened on the evening of the last day of finals, when half of Building C all went out to Jeromeville’s best hole-in-the-wall burger place, and then bowling.  It was the perfect end to a wonderful and life-changing year, and it left me looking forward to next year… if I could just get through three months of summer away from my new life.

Mid-June 1995. The worst finals schedule ever and the last great adventure of freshman year.

Dramatis personae for Year 1 (list of characters)


Here is a bonus, something I just found a few weeks ago (altered for anonymity purposes): the only photo I have of myself in Building C.  It was taken in Bok’s room at her birthday party; someone else took the picture and gave it to me.

Next week I will recap year 2.  In case you missed it, here is the playlist of songs I used in year 1. As always, please leave comments or suggestions or questions for me. I love hearing from all of you.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’d your finals go?” Brian asked.

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

“They weren’t great, but I passed.”

“Congratulations!  Your ceremony was this morning?”

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

“Nice!”

“Thanks!  Enjoy the party!”

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

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

“Not much.  How were finals?”

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

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

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

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

“Taking classes.  You?”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

“No,” I said.  “I’m Greg.”

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

“Nice to meet you.”

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

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

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

“You’re not graduating this year?”

“No.  I’m a sophomore.”

“Oh, ok.”

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

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

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

“It’s nice out there!”

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

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

“You too!”

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

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

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

“It was a lot of work, but I passed.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.  That would be awesome.”

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

“I might later,” I said.  “Thanks.”

“No problem.”

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

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“Newman Center.”

“What’s that?”

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

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

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

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

“Definitely.”

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

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

“Great!  Sounds good!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.  What do I do?”

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

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

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

“I’ve seen you around,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.


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

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

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

“Nice!” I said.

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

“Your turn,” Xander said.

“I just went,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m terrible at this,” I said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ew!” several in the crowd shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It would!”

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

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

“I will.  Are you going?”

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

“I’ll think about it.”

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

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

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

“Nothing.  Why?”

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

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

“No.  Just bring yourself.”

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

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

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

“Great!  Come over any time after six.”

“I’ll be there!  Sounds good!”


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

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

“Greg!” she said.  “Come on in!”

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

“What’s up, Greg?” Scott asked.

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

“When’s it due?”

“Not until the 29th.”

“Then why are you thinking about it now?”

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

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

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

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

“Still, that sounds like a fun project.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But this is his party!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  What is it?”

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

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

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

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

“I’ve heard it’s worth it!”

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

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

“Thanks,” I replied.  “I’ll read it.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.  Amelia and Melinda.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“True.  What about you?”

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

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

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

“Hello?” Mom said on the third ring.

“Hey,” I said.  “It’s Greg.”

“Hello!  Where were you?”

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Yeah.”

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

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

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