October 13, 1996. I might be looking for something new.

I knew exactly where I was going.  I had seen this place many times while driving or riding my bike along this stretch of Andrews Road.  But I had never been back here, down the long road leading to the parking lot in the back of the property.  I walked toward the buildings, in my polo shirt, Dockers, and brown leather shoes, wondering if I was overdressed, wondering if I was underdressed, and hoping that I would not see anyone I knew.  Of course, that last statement was irrelevant, since I would see many people I knew once I entered the building, but one of those people at least was expecting me here this morning, so that felt a little bit safer.

I walked from the parking lot toward the buildings.  The walkway headed straight toward what looked like the main building, with another building on the left, one on the right, and one farther away on the left with a door propped open.  A free-standing bulletin board next to the walkway said WELCOME TO JEROMEVILLE COVENANT CHURCH on the top.  From Taylor Santiago’s description of where to go, I guessed that the building with the open door was where I was going.  I turned off of the sidewalk and walked across the lawn and around a tree to get to that building without having to interact with anyone, at least not until I got inside and saw some familiar faces.  The whole time, I kept looking around in an uneasy fashion, wondering if I should really be here, if I really belonged here.

Having explored Christianity from the non-Catholic side over the last year, I had come to notice that Catholics and Protestants have a lot in common beyond what they argue over.  And I never liked the word Protestant.  I knew the origin of the term from high school history class, but it seems kind of wrong to name one’s religion after a protest when the focus should really be on Jesus.  These days, I heard my Catholic friends use the word Protestant more often than my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship, and that made sense from the historical context, since the Catholic Church was the one being protested against.

A small sign on the wall next to the open door said THE LAMP, and a signboard on the walkway next to the door said “20/20 COLLEGE GROUP” with an arrow pointing inside the door.  Taylor said something about a lamp when he was describing how to get here, but he seemed to be talking about buildings.  I was confused, because buildings are not lamps, but apparently that was the name of this building.  I was not sure why this building was called The Lamp.  I assumed it was some kind of Bible reference, like in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about not hiding a lamp under a bowl, so that your light will shine before others.  I also was not sure why the group was called 20/20; Scott Madison had told me once that he thought it was because they wanted to see God clearly with 20/20 vision. 

I shifted the Bible I carried, the one Kristina Kasparian had given me in January, from my right hand to my left, and I reached out to open the door, awkwardly forgetting that it was already propped open.  I put my hand down, hoping no one saw that, and stepped inside.  I recognized many of the forty or so people inside either from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship or from a party in August that people from my Bible study had invited me to.  Taylor was here, along with Pete Green, Charlie Watson, Sarah Winters, Liz Williams, and Ramon Quintero, all of whom I had known since the beginning of freshman year.  I also saw people I recognized from JCF.  Scott, his roommate Joe Fox, Scott’s girlfriend Amelia Dye, her roommate Melinda Schmidt, and Joe’s girlfriend Alyssa Kramer.  Sophomore housemates Todd Chevallier, Brent Wang, and Ajeet Tripathi.  Eddie Baker.  Martin Rhodes, Noah Snyder, and a girl named Vanessa, all of whom I met at the party in August.  Haley Channing, whom I had really hoped to see here.  And others.  Taylor was across the room, talking to Pete; he had not noticed my arrival yet.  Before I could get Taylor’s attention, I heard someone calling me.

“Hey, Greg,” Liz Williams said, sitting at a folding table just to the left of the entrance and writing my name on a blank adhesive name tag.  “I’m glad you’re here.”  She peeled the name tag off of its backing and handed it to me; I stuck it to my shirt.

“Thanks,” I said.  “I’m kind of nervous.  I don’t really know what to do.”

“Just hang out for now.  Or go find a seat.  Dan over there, he’s the college pastor.  He’ll get us started in a few minutes.”  Liz gestured toward a man with reddish-brown hair in a button-down shirt who appeared to be in his thirties.  I recognized that name; he just got married in August, and many of the students in this college group who were home for the summer came back to Jeromeville for the weekend to attend his wedding, and the party in August that I got invited to was an after-party for the wedding.

“Greg!” Melinda Schmidt said.  “Can you be in a skit?  Someone bailed on us.”

“Huh?” I asked.

“It’s an announcement for our fall retreat.  All you have to do is stand in the background.  Martin and Vanessa will be talking about it, and Vanessa will be using a bunch of words that start with M that all have to do with the retreat.  And in the background, four of you will be leaning against each other making ‘mmm’ sounds and saying M words.  You’ll be back to back with Todd, which works out perfectly since you’re both tall.”

“I’m confused.”

“It’s just something silly that came up when we were planning announcements.  So just stand making ‘mmm’ sounds.”

“Is this how you treat everyone who shows up here for the first time?”

“Wait,” Melinda said.  “This is your first time?”

“Yes.”

“Really?  You’ve never come to 20/20 before?”

“No.  I know you from JCF, not from here.”

“Well, then, welcome!  If you really don’t want to do the skit, you don’t have to.”

“No, it’s okay,” I said.  After being in the Scooby-Doo skit a couple weeks ago at the first JCF meeting of the year, this might be kind of fun.

This group called 20/20 was the college group here at Jeromeville Covenant Church.  I had heard some of my friends talk about this group, and it sounded like this Sunday morning time was more like a Sunday school class.  The group was more than just a class, though, because they also sponsored activities, like this retreat that the skit was reminding students of.

“Hi,” the man whom Liz had identified as the college pastor, said as he approached me.  “I don’t think I’ve met you.  I’m Dan Keenan.  I’m the college pastor here.”

“I’m Greg,” I said.  “I’ve never been here, but I know a lot of people here from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.”

“Oh, ok.  Do you go to another church now?”

“I’ve been going to the Newman Center.  My mom’s side of the family is Catholic.  But there are some things going on there that are making me want to look elsewhere.”

“Oh yeah?  Like what?”

“Since I started going to JCF, about a year ago, I’ve been learning more about the Bible and what it means to know Jesus.  And sometimes I feel like I’m not really getting that at Newman.  But I also don’t want to just follow what my friends are doing.  So I’m going to go to both churches for a few weeks and pray about things.”

“That’s a good idea,” Dan replied.  “Keep praying, and listen to where God wants you.  I have to go, it’s time to start, but it was nice meeting you.  I hope to keep seeing you around.”

“Thanks!  Nice meeting you too.”

I turned around as people began sitting in the rows of folding chairs facing the stage on the side of the room to the left of the entrance.  “Greg!” I heard Taylor say, from a seat one in from the aisle in the middle, with the seat next to him empty.  “I saved you a seat!”

“Thanks,” I said, sitting in the open seat in the aisle.  “Melinda roped me into being in a skit for the announcements.  Do you know when that’ll be?”

“Wow.  Jumping right in.  Probably after the first song.  You’ll figure it out.”

“Okay.”

Pete was on stage with his guitar, along with Sarah playing flute and a few others.  Pete announced to the whole room, “Welcome to 20/20.  If you could find a seat, we’re gonna get started with worship.”  They began by playing “Lord, I Lift Your Name On High,” a song that was familiar to me from JCF.  Afterward, Melinda and four others approached the stage; Melinda approached me to follow.

I stood back to back with Todd, with our feet apart, leaning back against each other, and Liz and a girl I did not know stood next to us in the same pose, so that the four of us formed a large letter M.  Martin and Vanessa walked up, trying to figure out what we were doing, as the four of us in the M started saying random M words.

“Moose,” Liz said.

“Milk,” Todd said.

“Macaroni,” the girl I did not know said.

“Macarena!” I added, doing the hand motions from the song and dance popular at the time.

“What’s all this?” Martin asked.

“It looks like an M,” Vanessa replied.  “And you know what else starts with M?  Mountains.  And Messiah.  And Matthew, who wrote about the life of Jesus.  And if you sign up for our fall retreat, you can go to the mountains, and learn about the Messiah, and read from the book of Matthew.”  The two of them continued bantering about the retreat, with more details revealed in their conversation.

I sat down after the M skit, feeling a little dorky but mostly positive about the experience.  After the band played a few more songs, Pastor Dan got up and told us that we were in a series studying the book of Ephesians.  Dan held a stack of handouts for today’s lesson; he bent the stack of papers in a sort of U shape and tossed them toward us, so that they fell all over the room.  People scrambled to grab a paper.  If any of my teachers in school had ever passed out papers like that, school would have been much more awesome.

While Dan taught the lesson, I noticed people taking notes.  I had not brought anything to write with, but people passed around a box of extra pens in case anyone needed one.  I had never taken notes in church before.  I could keep these notes in my Bible and reread them during the week when I was spending time reading the Bible and praying.

The class ended about fifteen minutes before the actual church service started.  There had been another service early in the morning for the people who like to get up early.  People stood around mingling until it was time to head to the main building.  I said hi to a few other people I knew, wondering which of them realized it was my first time here.  No one brought it up.  Eventually I walked in the general direction of Haley Channing, hoping to catch her in a moment where she might notice me and talk to me.

“Hey, Greg!” Haley said as I approached.  “What’s up?”

“It’s my first time here,” I said.  “I might be looking for something new, and I wanted to check it out.”

“I was wondering about that.  I didn’t think I remembered seeing you here last year.  Are you coming to big church too?”

I was not familiar with this term “big church,” but I guessed what she was asking from the context.  “You mean the main church service?  Yeah.”

“Come on.  Let’s walk over,” Haley said.  Yes, let’s do, together, I thought.  We left the Lamp and walked toward the main building.  “How’s your school year going?” Haley asked.

“Good so far.  I like all my classes.  And I like chorus too, although it was a little overwhelming at first, not being as experienced with music.”

“That’s right.  You’re doing chorus this year.  I did it freshman year, but I just can’t fit it in to my schedule anymore.”

“Yeah.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it every quarter.”

Haley and I sat about halfway back from the stage, just to the left of the aisle.  The main church building (or the “sanctuary,” as most non-Catholics would say, as I eventually learned) was shaped like an elongated hexagon, with a stage at the far end.  The pews were slanted toward the center, closer to the front of the building on the sides and closer to the back in the middle.  The sides of the building were covered in wood panels with tall, narrow frosted windows every ten feet or so.  Behind the stage on each side were larger frosted windows, made to look like stained glass, but probably made from plastic.  Above was a tall vaulted ceiling.  The pews were cushioned, an improvement over the bare wooden pews of the late 19th century Our Lady of Peace Church that I grew up with.

“How are your classes going?” I asked Haley.

“Good!  A lot of work, though.  It’s hard to juggle time for everything.”

“I know how that is.  I think that’s just life as a student.”

“Yeah.”

The church service began much like 20/20 or a JCF meeting, with the band playing worship music.  I recognized some of the songs, but I was not sure how to react to the music… Do I stand?  Do I sit?  Do I dance around and clap my hands?  Do I raise my arms to heaven?  Some people at JCF raised their arms and clapped, but not everyone.  No one did that at the Newman Center.  Here, a few people did, but not as many as at JCF, so I stood with my arms at my side.  It was more comfortable that way.  Sitting would have been even more comfortable, but most people were standing, and I wanted to respect the God that I was worshiping.

The pastor was an older man in a suit named Jerry.  He reminded us that it was time to take an offering, and that guests should not feel obligated to give.  “First time guests, you received a contact card in your bulletin on the way in,” Pastor Jerry added.  “Please place it in the offering bag.”  I found the contact card inside my bulletin.  In the back of the pew ahead of me were pencils for people like me who did not bring one; I filled out my name, address, and phone number, and checked the box that it was my first time.  Under “Prayer Requests,” I wrote, Pray that God will show me where he wants me to go to church.  The band played one more song, and I put the card in the offering bag when it came to me.  The bag was a metal ring about four or five inches across with a handle, with a bag of dark fabric attached to it.  I had never seen an offering bag before; Our Lady of Peace used baskets on poles about six feet long that the ushers wave in front of seated parishioners, and the Newman Center passed a plate.

Pastor Jerry’s sermon was much longer than the eight minute Catholic homilies I was used to.  Inside the church bulletin was a page outlining the main points of the sermon, with blanks to fill in.  I saw people around me taking notes, so I followed along and filled in the blanks also.  The sermon was based on a passage in the Second Book of Kings, in the Old Testament, where Josiah, one of the good kings, tears down places of idol worship.  This was a much more in-depth look at the Scripture than anything I had experienced in Catholic Mass, more along the lines of my small group Bible studies with JCF, but less interactive.  I also did not know much about the Old Testament so far, particularly the parts telling the history of the people of Israel.

After the sermon, which lasted more than half an hour, Pastor Jerry led the congregation in a brief prayer.  The band came up for one more song, and then Pastor Jerry dismissed us.

“I have to go,” Haley said.  “I’m so behind on studying.  But I hope you liked it!”

“I did.  I really liked that sermon.  The temples to the idols had been there so long, they were just a normal part of life.  It makes me wonder what normal parts of our lives there are that are dishonoring to God.”

“I know!”

“Anyway,  I’m going to go to both churches for a few weeks and pray about it.”

“Great!  I’ll see you around!”

After Haley left, I started heading toward the entrance.  A skinny mousy-looking man with a mustache, who had been one of the ushers handling the offering bags earlier, was carrying the bags out of the building.  “Hi,” he said to me.  “Did you give to the Lord today?”

I was a bit caught off guard by this statement.  “It’s my first time,” I said.  I felt justified in saying this, since the pastor said first-timers did not have to give, and I fully intended to begin giving regularly if I started attending church here regularly.

“Are you sure the Lord isn’t calling you to give anything?  Every little bit helps.”

At this point, I just wanted to get rid of this guy, and I had nothing against giving to God, so I put a five-dollar bill in one of his bags.  He thanked me and headed toward one of the other buildings, which apparently housed the church office.

“Hey.  It’s Greg, right?” a voice said behind me.  I turned around and saw Noah.

“Yeah,” I said.

“How did you like it here?  Will you be back next week?”  I told him the same thing I told Haley about going to both churches for a few weeks.  “I’ll be praying for you.”

“Thank you,” I said.


Later that afternoon, during a study break, while my roommate Shawn was out running or cycling or doing one of those athletic things I was no good at, at least not at a competitive level like him, I got out my Bible and read the part about Josiah again.  Some Christians consider the Catholic Mass to be idol worship, and the Pope to be the Antichrist.  I would not go that far, but I have noticed many Catholics who are so disconnected from their faith that parts of their lives that do not bring honor to God are just normal parts of life to them, much as the places of idol worship had been to Josiah and his contemporaries.  Was there anything in my life that was a false idol like this?  Was I following false idols by worshiping in the Catholic Mass?  Or were all of my friends at Jeromeville Covenant and 20/20 false idols for me, because being with my friends would distract me from true worship?  Was I just following my friends instead of actually following God?  And what about that pushy usher?  Was he going to be a problem?  Was everyone there like that?

As a senior in high school, I started going to church more often after I discovered that a girl I liked from school went there.  Maybe that meant that Haley was the idol, and I only wanted to go to J-Cov to see Haley.  But by the time I graduated from high school, it had been made clear that nothing would happen between me and that girl, and I remember still going to church but hoping I would not see her.  Maybe the same thing would happen with Haley, that she would initially be part of the reason I came to J-Cov, but I would end up discovering a life there beyond her.  Or maybe, hopefully, God really did want me and Haley to be together.  I was still planning on going to the evening Mass at the Newman Center tonight, and keeping up this schedule at least through the end of October, so that I would not make a hasty decision.

“Lord Jesus,” I prayed out loud in a low voice, “I pray that, just like the college group at J-Cov, you would give me 20/20 vision to see clearly where you want me to worship you.  I pray that the next few weeks of going to both churches will be a time of learning and growth.  I pray that your Holy Spirit will give me wisdom to find a place where I can truly grow closer to you in fellowship with brothers and sisters in Christ.”

And hopefully God heard my prayer, because ever since that girl from the skit had said “macaroni” and that had made me think of Macarena, I could not get that song out of my head.  It was distracting.

(To be continued…)


Note to readers: Have you ever had a time when you had to make a difficult decision like this?

Also, I haven’t updated the dramatis personae for year 3 yet. I’ll put it on my to-do list for the week.

And finally, in real life it’s my birthday!

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.

October 3-8, 1995.  Trying something new.

Every once in a while, an event leaves such an impression on the mind of those living through it that everyone remembers exactly where they were when it happened.  My first chemistry lab of fall quarter was one of those moments.  It was a Tuesday morning.  About an hour after class started, while we were busy measuring aqueous solutions in graduated cylinders and pouring them into Erlenmeyer flasks, Deb, the TA in charge of the lab section, announced that it was time to turn on the radio, because of the big announcement that was expected today.  A hush slowly settled over the twenty-four students in the lab as Deb turned on an AM news station broadcasting out of Capital City.  Reception was not great in the basement of the chemistry building, but it was audible.  After a few minutes of analysis and speculation, the broadcast switched to a live feed on location.

My class became even more hushed as a new voice began reciting the words that nearly everyone in the nation had been waiting sixteen months to hear: “We, the jury, in the above entitled action, find the defendant, Orenthal James Simpson, not guilty of the crime of murder…”

A few of my classmates gasped.  This was not what they expected to hear, nor was it what I expected.  O.J. Simpson was a retired football player, actor, and television personality who had been accused of murdering his second ex-wife and her male friend.  For well over a year, news related to the murder and trial had dominated the media, both as serious journalism and source material for comedy.  All the evidence suggested that O.J. was guilty, but apparently his team of celebrity lawyers created doubt in the minds of the jurors to get him acquitted.  To this day, no one else has ever been charged with the murders.

When my lab finished, I rode my bike north on Colt Avenue, turned right on Shelley Avenue, left on East Quad Avenue, and parked my bike by the campus bookstore, across from the Death Star building.  A meme from the 2010s depicted a man sitting at a table with a sign reading “I WILL ARGUE WITH ANYONE ABOUT ANYTHING,” and the first time I saw that meme, I recognized right away that the photograph was taken right here on the University of Jeromeville Quad.  A wide pedestrian sidewalk ran between the north edge of the Quad and the Memorial Union building, which contained the bookstore.  A series of tables, resembling picnic tables made of plastic coated metal mesh but with benches only on one side, lined this sidewalk.  Typically, student clubs and organizations would use these tables for information and recruiting; someone from the organization would sit on the bench, facing the Memorial Union and the walkway, with a sign advertising the group to students who walk by.

Unlike the man from the meme, I was not at this table to argue with anyone about anything.  Sister Mary Rose was sitting at the table, with the sign for the Newman Center, a stack of pamphlets, and a clipboard.  “Hi, Greg,” she said.  “Thanks for signing up to work today.”

“No problem,” I said.  “So what do I do?  Just tell people who we are and hand these out?”

“Yes.  Give these out to interested students,” she said, gesturing toward a stack of pamphlets.  “And have them write their contact information on this clipboard if they want us to contact them.”

“I can do that,” I said.  I looked through one of the pamphlets.  It explained briefly about the concept of the Newman Center’s ministry to Catholic students at secular universities, along with a three-sentence biography of our namesake, 19th-century British theologian and priest John Henry Newman.  The pamphlet listed the times of our Sunday Masses and other weekly activities.

A male student with bushy brown hair and a backpack walked past the table, slowing down and looking at the sign.  “Hi,” Sister Mary Rose said.  “Can I help you?”

“I was just wondering what this was,” he replied.

“We are the Newman Center.  We are a Catholic student community.  We have Mass every Sunday, and we have social activities too.”

I handed the student a flyer, and he looked through it.  I was curious what made him stop at our table.  Does he come from a Catholic background?  Is he just interested in Catholicism?  Was he just being friendly?  I did not ask.  I did not feel comfortable asking a personal question like that.

“Thanks,” the student said as he walked away.

“Is there anything I should be saying to people who come to the table?” I asked after the student was out of earshot.

“Not really,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “Just be friendly, and answer any questions they might have, if you can.”

“Sounds good.”

“So are you done with class today?

“No.  I have physics lab at 2.  I had chemistry lab this morning.”

“Two labs on the same day.”

“Yeah.  That’s all I have today.  This morning in chem the TA stopped the class so we could all listen to the O.J. verdict.  I thought that was kind of funny.”

“I heard he was found not guilty.”

“Yeah.  I wasn’t expecting that.  Of course, I haven’t been following the trial too closely.  I’m just sick of hearing about it.”

“I know what you mean.”

Another student walked up to our table, a girl with dark hair.  “Hi,” I said, holding a pamphlet.  “Would you like information about the Newman Center?”

“Sure,” the girl replied, taking the pamphlet from me and flipping through the pages.  “Are you the only Catholic church in Jeromeville?”

“There is also St. John’s.  They are a more traditional Catholic parish.  The Newman Center is specifically geared toward students, although there are some adults who attend our Masses as well.”

“Oh, okay.”

“Would you like to sign up for our contact list?  We can send you more information.”

“Sure,” she said, writing her name, phone number, and email on the clipboard.

“Thanks,” I said.  “Have a great day.”

“You too!”

“That was good,” Sister Mary Rose told me as the girl walked off.  “Are you looking at getting more involved with the Newman Center in any other ways this year?”

“Well,” I said, “Danielle keeps trying to get me to sing.  I’m going to come to choir practice tomorrow and see what happens.”

“Good for you!  I think you’ll love it.”

“I’m kind of self-conscious about singing in front of people.  But a choir seems less difficult than singing solo.  And I need to get more involved in things.  I don’t see my friends as often now that I live alone.”

“Danielle Coronado invited you to practice?  You two know each other besides just church, right?”

“Yes.  She lived right down the hall from me in the dorm last year.”

“I think you’ll like it. I’ve noticed you have a pretty good voice.”

“Thank you.”

The next evening, after I finished my Hungry-Man Salisbury steak frozen dinner, I got in the car and drove south on Andrews Road.  I turned left on 15th Street and right on B Street toward downtown, then zigzagged the grid streets to the Newman Center, located in an old brick building on C Street between 5th and 6th.  I walked into the chapel, where a group of about ten people stood on the stage that had once been the altar before the chapel had been remodeled at some point.

“Greg!” Danielle called out.  “You made it!”

“I did,” I said.

“Welcome,” a girl with light brown hair said, in a strong voice that she projected in a way that made me think she probably had a background in music or theater.  I knew her to say hi to, her name was Claire, but I did not know her well.  “Danielle told me you would be coming.  We were just picking out what songs we’re going to sing this week.  Grab a songbook.”

I looked around the room as I picked up a copy of the same songbook we used in Mass.  I recognized a few faces here besides Danielle and Claire, but the only one I knew by name was Matt Jones.  He was a tall boy of mixed white and Asian heritage, and we had met before because our families knew each other back home.  He had graduated from St. Luke’s High School in Gabilan, the medium-sized city next to the rural community of Plumdale where I lived.

There was one other new person that night, a freshman named Phil with messy hair and stubble.  The others introduced themselves to Phil and me.  There was a cute little redhead girl whom I had noticed before; her name was Sabrina.  An olive-skinned girl named Heather.  A guy with dark hair and a toothy smile named Ryan; Matt said that he and Ryan went to high school together.  And a lot of other people who I did not remember at first, including two who looked too old to be students.  Something looked vaguely familiar about Ryan; I was not sure what it was, but if Ryan and Matt were friends in high school, then Ryan and I grew up near each other, so we may have crossed paths in the past.  Or maybe he just looked familiar because I had seen him around church last year.

Each week, we had to choose four songs: one for the opening, one during the offering, one during Communion, and one for the end of Mass.  Claire passed around a list of songs to choose from, songs that would go well with that week’s Scripture readings.  In addition to these four songs, we also sang a responsorial based on one of the Psalms, in which we would sing the verse and the congregation would sing the chorus together.  The Catholic Mass also included a number of other songs used for specific parts of the service.  When I was growing up, these would typically be the same from week to week, but twice a year or so the songs would change to a different set of music saying basically the same lyrics.  The Newman Center seemed to do things the same way.

The songs we chose for this coming week were all mostly familiar to me, as were the songs for the other Mass parts.  For the ones I did not know well, I could read music well enough that the tune and rhythm came back to me as we were singing.  Some of these songs I knew before I started attending Mass at Newman.  “I know this one really well,” I said to Danielle, who was next to me, when we started singing “Cry of the Poor.”  “We used to sing it at my church back home.”

“Mine too,” Danielle replied.  “We use a lot of the same music here as my family’s church.”

After we practiced all the songs, as practice was winding down, the girl who had earlier introduced herself as Heather approached me.  “Hey, Greg?” she asked.  “Danielle told me you live at Las Casas.  Is that right?”

“Yeah,” I said, not entirely sure where she was going with this.  Was she stalking me?  Did she know someone who needed a roommate, and she knew I lived alone, and now I was going to have to make a big decision?

“I do too.  Might you be interested in carpooling?”

“Sure,” I said, relieved that her proposal was nothing to be afraid of.  Driving to church with a neighbor was not scary. 

“Let me find a piece of paper, and I’ll write down my phone number.  And my apartment number.”

“Is this just for choir practice on Wednesdays?  Or do you want to carpool Sundays too?”

“Sure.  We can do Sundays too.”  Heather found a piece of paper, wrote her information, and gave it to me.  Her full name was Heather Escamilla, and she was in apartment number 239.  I tore off enough of the paper to write my own contact information, which I gave it to her.

“Can you carpool this Sunday?” I asked.  “Want me to drive?”

“Sure!”

The following Sunday morning, Heather knocked on my door a little after 10:30, in plenty of time to get to the church for 11:00 Mass.  I had to get there on time now, since I was actually part of the service, although I was not usually one to arrive late in the first place.

“Hey,” I said after opening the door.  “You ready?”

“Yes,” she replied.  “Which car is yours?”

“That one,” I said as I gestured to the red Ford Bronco parked outside my apartment.  “Well, technically not mine.  My parents own it.  You know.”

“Yeah.”  As we pulled out of the parking lot, Heather asked, “So where are you from?  Are your parents around here?”

“No.  Plumdale.  Near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“Oh, okay.  How far is that from here?”

“I can get home in less than three hours if traffic is good.”

“That’s not bad.  I’m from down south, near San Angelo.  On a good day it takes six hours.”

“Sounds right.  What year are you, and what are you studying?”

“I’m a junior.  Psych major.  And you’re a sophomore?  Danielle said you and her were in the same dorm last year?”

“Yeah.  She lived one door down across the hall from me.  And I’m a math major.”

“Eww.  Math and I don’t get along.”

“That’s what a lot of people say.”

“I’m sure they do.  Did you have a good weekend?”

“Yeah, but it was boring.  Went for a bike ride yesterday.”  I did not tell her that I had almost cried Friday night because I was so lonely.

“That sounds nice,” Heather said.  “Mel and I were at a party on Friday.  It was, well, interesting.  You know.”

“Mel?”

“Melanie.  From choir.  You met her on Wednesday.”

“Oh, okay.  I still don’t know everyone.”

When we arrived at church, the building was mostly empty.  The early service had left already.  We walked to the other musicians; the guitarists were turning their guitars, the pianist was practicing, and the singers were looking through pages of sheet music.  Heather started talking to a thin girl with medium brown hair whom I remembered seeing on Wednesday; I thought this was probably Melanie.

“Hey, Greg,” Danielle said, noticing that I had arrived.  “You ready?”

“I guess. I’m a little nervous.”

“There’s no reason to be.  Just sing like you do when you’re at your seat.  You’ll be fine.”

Danielle was right.  I just sang, and it was fine.  We sounded good.  There were enough of us on stage that my voice did not stand out, so even though I was a little self-conscious, I had no need to be.  The entire Mass went over smoothly from the perspective of the choir: the opening song, the Kyrie and Gloria, the Alleluia before the Gospel reading, the song for the offering (this was Cry of the Poor), the short songs between the priest’s prayers while preparing the bread and wine, the Lamb of God, a song during Communion, and a closing song.  Even in my state of near-perpetual self-consciousness, I thought I sounded good, and all of us as a group sounded good as well.

“So are you going to keep coming back to choir?” Claire asked after Mass was over.

“I think so,” I replied.

“Great!  I’ll see you Wednesday then.”

“Sounds good!” Turning to Heather, I asked, “Are you ready?”

“Yeah.  Just a minute.”

I said goodbye to Danielle, Matt, Phil, Ryan, and the others while I waited for Heather.  She was talking to Melanie.  After a minute, Heather and I walked back to the car, and I drove us back to our apartment complex.

I was definitely planning to keep coming to choir practice indefinitely.  With me living alone this year, I would need to work harder to make friends and keep the friends I made last year.  That meant it was time to get involved in more activities.  With choir at Newman, I was already making new friends after just one week, in addition to staying in touch a good friend from last year.

After I got home, Heather walked back to her apartment, and I lay on my bed, humming Cry of the Poor.  Songs get stuck in my head easily.  The Lord hears the cry of the poor, the song says.  Although I knew many others had lives worse than mine, sometimes I felt poor, crying out to the Lord.  Maybe he finally heard me.  Maybe he gave me this opportunity to sing at church so I would be more connected both to the church community and to a group of friends.  And in the process, I was serving my community.  Maybe this was what I needed to get out of my lonely funk.