Late September, 1996. Outreach Camp and the first JCF meeting of the year. (#101)

“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.”


“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.


September 26, 1994. The first thing I learned in college. (#6)

I still remember the first thing I learned in college. It happened after dinner on my second day in the dorm.

Well, I guess I learned some things before that Monday night. I learned where my room was. I learned how to set up and use some of the computer stuff I would need. I learned how to buy textbooks. But none of that really counts. Those were more like following directions. I’m talking about the first thing that someone taught me at school. And it wasn’t anything I learned in a classroom from a professor.

I walked to the dining hall for dinner on Monday night, my fourth meal in the dining hall. The common building for the South Residential Area was two stories high. On the first floor was a lounge with a pool table and couches; a little shop with frozen yogurt, sandwiches, and baked goods; our mailboxes; and a help desk that was open 24 hours in case we needed anything related to student housing. The dining hall was on the second floor, and a large, wide stairway led from the outside up to the dining hall. This was the main entrance; I don’t think there was even a publicly accessible way to get to the dining hall from the first floor rooms I just mentioned.

I walked toward a round table with a few familiar faces. To my left was a short Filipino guy whom I had met after the meeting with the RAs last night; he had introduced himself then as Taylor Santiago, and he lived on the third floor. I thought that was kind of an interesting name.  Back in 1994, there weren’t many people with the first name Taylor at all, and I’ve always thought of it more as a girl’s name.  There was a one-hit wonder from the late 80s named Taylor Dayne, and of course as an adult I can’t go anywhere without hearing about Taylor Swift, and they are both women.  But I’ve also known a few guy Taylors too, and Taylor Santiago was the first.

To Taylor’s left was his roommate, David; he was very large and built like a football player, and I thought I remembered him being one of the guys throwing the ball during quiet hours last night. Gurpreet, the RA down the hall from me, was next. Next to him was Michael-or-Ian, whom I had met yesterday when I was moving in but whose name I wasn’t sure of. Next to him was someone I didn’t know, a tall thin boy with acne scars and dark blond hair. And next to him, to my right, was a guy who I thought was named Keith; I had talked to him at some point earlier in the day, but I didn’t remember what room he lived in.

“Hey, Greg!” Taylor said. “Come sit with us!”

“Hi. How are you?”

“I’m good.” Taylor then turned to the others. “Have all of you guys met Greg yet?”

The others at the table nodded and murmured in the affirmative, except for the one whom I hadn’t met yet. “Hey, Greg,” he said. “I’m Mike.” Gesturing toward Michael-or-Ian sitting next to him, he said, “I’m Ian’s roommate.” That answered my question once and for all as to who was Michael and who was Ian.

“Nice to meet you, Mike.”

“So where are you from?” Mike asked me.


“Where’s that?”

“On highway 11, near Gabilan and Santa Lucia.”

“What’s that near? I’ve heard of Santa Lucia.”

“About 50 miles south of San Tomas. Does that help?”

“Yeah.  Okay.”

“Where are you from?”

“Pleasant Creek. No one ever knows where that is either.”

“I drove through it yesterday to get here. It’s on highway 6 next to Los Nogales. East of Bay City.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I don’t know. I just do. I’m fascinated by maps and roads and stuff like that.”


Keith, at least I think that was his name, joined in. “I bet you don’t know where Hilltown is.”

Hilltown… I thought for a minute. “On highway 11 and 94, between Bay City and San Tomas, right?”

“Whoa!” Keith said. “How do you do this?”

“I don’t know. I just do. I pay attention to these things.”

“I bet you never get lost on road trips,” Taylor said.

“That’s pretty much true.”

“Hey, guys?” Gurpreet said. “After dinner I’m meeting some friends to play a pickup game of Ultimate Frisbee. Do any of you want to come?”

“Sure!” Mike exclaimed eagerly.

“I’m in,” Keith said.

“I don’t know how to play,” I said. “What is this?”

“It’s kind of like football or soccer, but with a Frisbee instead of a ball.”

I am not a natural athlete. I am slow and clumsy. Mark got all the athletic talent in our family. “Sure,” I said, not really sure what I was getting myself into, but wanting to do something other than stay in my room that night.

“Meet me in the lounge at 7, and we’ll walk over to the field together.”

“Sounds good,” Mike said.

An hour later, Gurpreet, Mike, Keith, and I were walking to the old part of the campus, to the recreation field on A Street next to the football field. On the way, Gurpreet had explained to me the rules of the game. Scoring was similar to football, in that your team had to get the Frisbee into an end zone, but the disc could only move by passing. Players could not run with the disc. And if the Frisbee hits the ground, the other team takes it. I would learn years later that the game is officially just called Ultimate, because the governing body of the sport is not affiliated with the manufacturer of Frisbee brand flying discs.

“Sounds pretty simple,” I said.

“It is,” Gurpreet replied. “It’s going to be a lot of running, though.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Gurpreet’s friends met us at the field. They looked much more athletic than me. Fortunately, some of them were on our team. We lined up on each side, and the other team threw the disc the length of the field toward our team, analogous to the opening kickoff in football. We began passing it down the field. One of Gurpreet’s friends passed it in my direction, but further downfield from where I stood. I ran after it, but the disc sailed over my head.

“Sorry,” I said to Mike as we both ran in the same direction trying to play defense.

“It’s ok,” he said. “That would have been hard for anyone to catch.”

Someone from the other team threw a pass to a teammate in my direction. I ran as fast as I could, jumped up just in front of the intended receiver, and slapped the disc down to the ground. I waited for a teammate to get open. I saw Mike, tried to throw it about 20 yards down the field, and the disc curved off to the right, rolling to the ground far from where Mike was. So far, I was not good at this game.

We scored first, on the next possession after that one. Keith threw a short pass to Gurpreet, who noticed one of his friends open downfield; he threw a perfectly aimed pass, which his friend caught as he ran into the end zone. The opposing team scored shortly after that, with a series of quick passes down the field.

We had agreed that the first team to 10 points would be the winners. After we had been playing for a while, my team led by a score of 9 to 7. The opposing team was deep on their own side of the field. They made a short pass that should have gotten them a few yards closer to their goal, but the guy who caught the pass dropped it, for no apparent reason. Keith picked it up. I saw an opening; I ran into the end zone in a direction away from all the opposing players. I looked at Keith, about ten yards away, and waved my hands, trying not to attract the attention of the other team, who still did not seem to notice that I was in the end zone. Keith passed the disc straight to me, and I caught it, holding on with both hands.

“YEAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!” I shouted.

Keith, Mike, Gurpreet, and some of the others on my team ran toward me. “We won!” Mike exclaimed, giving me a forceful high five.

“That was a great catch!” Gurpreet said.


I was still on a high as we walked back across campus to the South Residential Area. I just scored the winning point in a game that I didn’t know existed a few hours ago. Most of the others in the game had played before, and yet the opportunity to score the winning point came to me, not any of them. I had spent much of my life in the shadows, quietly doing my work at school, staying out of the way at home while engaging in solitary hobbies that the rest of my family did not understand. But now, I had come to the University of Jeromeville, and it was my time to shine.

I’ve often told people over the years that the first thing I learned in college was how to play Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t think I said that back when I was actually in college, though. Now that I think about it, the first time I ever said that probably wasn’t until around 2003, when I was living in Pleasant Creek and Brent Wang had that weekly Ultimate pick-up game. Wait… I haven’t mentioned Brent Wang yet. I didn’t know him yet freshman year. I’ll get there eventually. But anyway, given the way that things went during my college years, it really is appropriate that the first thing I learned wasn’t something I learned in a classroom.