For the last few weeks, I had been setting my alarm for 5:30 in the morning. I kept hearing from my Christian friends about the importance of starting every day in Scripture, so I had been trying to do that. Shawn and I shared the largest bedroom in this apartment, and Shawn woke up just as early to travel across the Drawbridge to Laguna Ciervo for student teaching, so I was not waking him up by doing this. I wondered, however, how effective my Scripture reading really was, considering that I spent much of my extra time being miserable about having gotten so little sleep and nodding off while I tried to pray.
I decided to try something else today. I did not wake up quite as early, and I packed my Bible in my backpack and brought it to school with me. After my first class, I had an hour free, the perfect time to spend with God. I also had the perfect place in mind.
The University of Jeromeville Arboretum extended for a mile and a half along the south end of campus, following a dry creek bed that was now functionally a long, narrow lake. On its banks were planted trees and plants from around the world, a long, narrow strip of nature right on campus. I walked directly south from my class in Wellington Hall, past Shelley Library, past Evans Hall where Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met, past the administrative offices in Marks Hall, and past the law school building, which backed up to the Arboretum. I turned right and walked westward along the path on the north bank of the creek. A large oak tree stood to the left with a cluster of succulents on the right, and the water tower loomed about two hundred feet away. I continued walking a little ways and found a bench on the side of the path, in front of some kind of large bush, overlooking majestic oaks on the other side of the path. I sat down and opened my Bible.
In December, I traveled to a conference held by the parent organization of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship. All attendees received a Bible that included a plan to read the Bible in a year, a few chapters from different sections each day. Today was February 24, but I was quite a bit behind at this point; the last day I had read was February 12. I read the passages from February 13 next; I was not trying to catch up anymore. I was beginning to accept the fact that I would not finish in a year, and that was okay.
After I read, I prayed for a while. I thanked God for this beautiful place to sit on campus, with birds chirping, squirrels running up and down trees, and ducks swimming by. I prayed that I would stay calm and focused in studying for upcoming midterms. I prayed for the urban missions project that my friend Taylor Santiago would be part of this spring and summer. I prayed that I would know the career that God was leading me to. I prayed for anything and anyone else I could think of, including Chloe, my Bible study co-leader who had recently stepped down from that position without sharing why.
The rest of that day was uneventful in a good way. I had been home for about half an hour that afternoon, sitting at my desk working on math, when I heard the doorbell ring. I was expecting a visitor, but it always made me nervous having someone enter my private home and see how I lived. I had gotten used to the idea of sharing my home with roommates since the four of us moved to this apartment in September, but it still did not feel ideal.
I walked down the stairs to answer the door, but Brian was already downstairs; he got there first. “Hey, Cambria,” he said.
“Is Greg here?” Cambria asked.
“I’m here,” I said, walking down the stairs.
“What are you guys up to today?” Brian asked.
“I’m interviewing Greg for a paper I’m writing,” Cambria explained. “You ready, Greg?”
“Sure,” I replied.
Cambria Hawley was a freshman; I knew her from JCF. She appeared to have mixed European and Asian heritage. She was of average height, with brown hair and an athletic build from having played water polo in high school. Cambria was named after a beach town in central California; her parents had vacationed there before she was born, and they liked the town’s name well enough to use it for their daughter. I do not remember if I knew the story behind Cambria’s name yet at the time she came to our apartment.
Last week at JCF, Cambria had asked me if she could interview me for a paper she had to write in an anthropology class. “I need to interview someone who experienced a change in their culture or belief system,” she had told me. “Like someone who moved to another country, or someone who practices a different religion than they grew up with, or something like that. I remember that you said you grew up Catholic, so I think you would have an interesting perspective on this.” I had told Cambria that, yes, she could interview me, and this was why she had come over now, three days later. She sat at the dining room table and took out a notebook and a pen from her backpack; I sat next to her.
“How old were you when you left Catholicism?” Cambria asked. “And what exactly would you call yourself now?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “‘Christian’ seems a little vague, since technically Catholics follow Christ too. ‘Evangelical Christian,’ maybe?”
“It was a gradual process at age 19 and 20.”
“So this was recent? I didn’t know that.”
“Yeah. Last school year. I lived alone, and I wanted to stay in touch with my friends from freshman year now that we weren’t all in the dorm together. They were all involved with JCF, so I started going to JCF large group with them.”
“That was fall quarter? Of last year?”
“Yeah. 1995. As I started making friends at JCF, I started hearing a lot about having a relationship with Jesus. And something about my JCF friends just seemed different, in a good way. One day during winter quarter, I was having a rough day, I saw Janet McAllen on campus, and we just got to talking. She started asking me if I knew Jesus. I wasn’t sure what she meant, so she explained to me how sin created separation between God and humans, and Jesus died to pay the price for that sin so that we could have eternal life and a relationship with him.”
“So it was mostly the influence of friends, more so than family or a pastor?”
“Yeah.” From the way she asked that, I wondered if she was connecting my answer to something specific that she had learned in class, such as a list of ways that people may be influenced to leave their belief systems. “Well, the McAllens are campus ministry leaders, that’s kind of like pastors in a way, but they’re friends too,” I added.
“Were you part of a Catholic church before? What happened when you left?”
“Yes. I went to Mass at the Newman Center. And I didn’t leave right away,” I explained.
“I didn’t feel like I had to. Catholics believe in Jesus too, and the things I was learning at JCF helped me understand the Catholic Mass better, how all the rituals have their roots in deep worship experiences.”
“Interesting. So why did you leave? You go to Jeromeville Covenant now, right?”
“I started seeing more and more that the Catholic students didn’t really know Jesus, and many of them didn’t want to. To them, Catholicism was just part of their culture; they weren’t really serious about living out their beliefs. And the people in charge at the Newman Center had some questionable interpretations of what they claimed to believe. I was in a place where I needed to learn more about the Bible from people who were actually living it out. And just like with JCF, I had a lot of friends who went to J-Cov, so I started going to church with them.”
“And when was this?”
“Just this last October? Wow, that really was recent.”
“How is being a Christian different from being Catholic?” Cambria asked.
“There is much more of an emphasis on my personal relationship with Jesus, on really knowing Jesus personally. And there is less of an emphasis on rituals, saying the right things at Mass, going to Reconciliation, stuff like that.”
“It’s also called ‘confession.’ You talk to the priest about ways you have sinned and what good things you can do instead. Evangelical Christians focus more on telling God your sins yourself, in your personal prayer time.”
Cambria wrote some notes, then proceeded to ask me more questions, including asking about my family and friends’ responses to my newfound Christianity, and about changes in my everyday life that came about as a result of this. After about half an hour of talking and answering questions, she told me that she had enough to write her paper. “Thanks for letting me interview you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I replied. “I hope that helped.”
“What are you up to this week?” she asked.
“Just the usual. It’s gonna be another busy week of school and work. I have The Edge Wednesday and Bible study Thursday.” I chose not to tell her that tomorrow I was going to University Life, another Christian group on campus run by a different church. I had been feeling disillusioned with JCF at times, and I had been checking out that other group.
“What’s The Edge?”
“The junior high youth group at J-Cov. I met some kids from there after church one week. And Taylor Santiago is going away for the spring and summer to do a mission trip, so he asked me if I would be interested in taking his spot on the youth staff.”
“That sounds so cool! I would love to be a youth leader!”
“It’s been a lot of fun so far. I’ve only been there a couple weeks.”
“Whose Bible study are you in? Is this a JCF group?”
“Yeah. Evan Lundgren is the leader.” I started to say that Chloe had been the co-leader, but I thought her recent decision might not be something to share with the world. I just said, “He had a co-leader, but she quit last week.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what was going on. Evan said she wouldn’t be part of the group anymore, and that she had some decisions to make. From what he said, it makes me think that she isn’t a Christian anymore..”
“Oh my gosh,” Cambria said, sounding concerned. “It sounds like there’s gotta be something else going on with this girl.”
“Yeah. But it wasn’t my place to pry. We were down to just five people last week. Me, Evan, Jonathan Li, Jill Nguyen, and Amy Kilpatrick. And I’m hearing that they want to keep expanding the Kairos ministry next year, and add other small groups that are specifically for certain kinds of people. I’m not in any of the cliques that get picked for the Kairos ministry, and I don’t fit any of those categories, so I don’t know if there will be a Bible study for me next year.”
“I’m sure you’ll have a group next year,” Cambria said. “They have to have one for everyone. I’m gonna be in a Kairos group, but I know there will be other groups.”
“No offense, but why do they have to handpick future leaders like that and have separate groups for them? It just feels exclusionary.”
“Hmm,” Cambria said. “I had never thought of it like that.”
“I’m sorry. I’m just frustrated with the way this year’s group is falling apart.”
“Five people in a small group doesn’t have to be a bad thing. You can have a more involved discussion.”
“That’s true. I could probably step up and be more involved in the discussion, too.”
“There you go. It’ll be a good group for the rest of the year.”
Evan and his roommate Jonathan hosted our Bible study at their apartment fall quarter, but in January Evan said that their other roommate needed the house for something on Thursdays, so they would not be able to host anymore. I volunteered my apartment, after checking with my roommates to make sure it was okay.
On the Thursday night after Cambria interviewed me, I put my studying aside and went downstairs with my Bible after I heard Evan and Jonathan knock on the door. While the three of us made small talk about how classes were going, Jill arrived and joined our conversation. A few minutes after that, Evan said, “We can get started now. It’s time, and I think it’s just going to be the four of us tonight.”
“Amy isn’t coming?” I asked.
“No,” Evan said. “Do you know Glen Marshall?”
“Amy went on a date tonight with Glen.”
“Hmm,” I replied. Since being involved with JCF and Jeromeville Covenant Church, I had heard multiple talks and lessons warning against becoming romantically involved with non-Christians. Glen’s housemates all went to JCF, and I had heard them repeatedly mention that Glen was not a Christian, particularly whenever the lesson at JCF or church involved sharing the message of the Gospel with friends. Why was a Christian girl like Amy interested in this Glen guy? And why do these rules, which seemed to make it even harder for me to find a girlfriend, not apply to others? Of course, I knew that I did not want a non-Christian girlfriend in the first place, but it still bothered me that people were not following the rules.
We had begun a study of 1 Corinthians in January, at the beginning of the quarter, and it appeared likely that it would take us the entire year to finish. During the study, my eyes drifted ahead on the page to a part of the book that we had not studied yet, where Paul wrote, “Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.” It seemed like my Christian friends often made jokes about this verse, and the gift of singleness, but many of them ended up in relationships, so they obviously did not take it literally at face value. But it was hard not to feel like God had forcibly thrust the gift of singleness upon me, and upon few to no others.
Jeromeville Christian Fellowship met the next night, and afterward I asked Cambria how her paper turned out. “I think I did well,” she said. “I wrote about how you went from a more ritual-based belief system to one based on an individual relationship.”
“Yes,” I said. “That sounds right.”
“And you went from a complex belief system to a simple one.”
“Hmm,” I replied. Something about the way she said that surprised me. I wondered if “complex” and “simple” in this case had specific meanings in that field of study, because I had never really thought of evangelical Christianity as being any less “complex” than Catholicism. But maybe she was right. Evangelical Chrisitanity offered a simple plan of salvation: just believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. Catholicism had hoops to jump through and sacraments to perform, or at the very least a much stronger emphasis on these than evangelical Christianity.
But if Christianity was so simple, why did I feel like there were so many rules to follow? Why did some people get picked to be in Kairos groups and others did not? Why did I have to get over the head with messages about how being single is a gift from God, and how Christians should only be in relationships with other Christians, only to see Amy skip Bible study to go on a date with a non-Christian? Something about this did not seem simple to me. From what I heard, Amy and Glen did end up in a serious long-term relationship. I do not know if Glen ever found Jesus.
And if it were actually true that Chloe had turned her back on Christianity, what would happen to her? Could one who was saved by Jesus Christ be lost? I had heard that Christians interpreted the Bible differently on that topic. Regardless of one’s position, it was entirely possible that Chloe was really good at following the rules to give the appearance of being a good Christian, but had never had her heart completely transformed in the first place. Only God knew what Chloe really believed in her heart. I prayed that night that she would find her way back to Jesus.
I spent all weekend thinking about what I really believed. I did not feel like I had an unusually strong or close relationship with God, but knowing that a Bible study leader like Chloe could just walk away from Jesus made me wonder if my faith was strong enough. Was I a good enough Christian? Did it mean anything that I often got left out of the cliques at JCF?
I knew that Christianity was not a religion of following rules. But I was seeing more and more that many Christians acted like it was. They also acted judgmentally toward those who did not follow the exact same rules as themselves. I recognized that I was judgmental sometimes as well, such as how I disapproved in my mind of Amy’s date with Glen. It was difficult to discern sometimes which rules were God’s actual commands and which were cultural.
I do not know what happened to Chloe; I did not see much of her after she stopped attending JCF. I hope she found her way back to Jesus somehow. While I still had a lot of unanswered questions about myself, I knew that all I had to do was keep seeking the answers in prayer and Scripture. God’s Word would never steer me wrong
Author’s note: Have you ever made a major change in your cultural or religious beliefs? Tell me about it in the comments.
If you like what you read, be sure to follow this page. Leave a comment too.