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.”
“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?”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
“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!