November 5, 1996. My first time voting for President.

For the last several months, as is always the case in years that are multiples of four, much of the news media here in the United States had been dominated by the upcoming Presidential election.  This was the first year that I was old enough to vote for President, and I had been waiting for this moment for the last four years, so I could vote for whomever ran against President Bill Clinton.

This was not the first time I had voted.  I turned eighteen a couple months before the 1994 midterm elections, when federal and state representatives were up for elections, as well as some senators and the governor of my state.  The governor I voted for that year won; the election was projected to be close, but it ended up considerably more decisive.

I had never really thought about my political views until I was in high school, when I discovered that I leaned mostly conservative.  I believed that, in most cases, people should work and were not entitled to free stuff from the government.  I believed that lower taxes spurred economic growth by providing incentives for investment and the creation of jobs.  And I believed that abortion was a barbaric practice that took an innocent human life, a belief stemming not only from my Catholic background and my newfound evangelical Christian faith, but also from the fact that I was not having sex with anyone, so I was not getting anyone pregnant, and I believed that this method of birth control needed to be used more often and not ridiculed.  Or maybe I was just jealous of people who actually were having sex.  But, regardless, President Bill Clinton stood against all of those positions, not to mention he was a womanizer and involved in some very shady business dealings before he became President.

Political commentator Rush Limbaugh reached the peak of his popularity when I was in high school.  On mornings when school was out during my junior and senior years, I listened to parts of his three-hour radio show while I sat in my room playing Mario and Zelda games.  Limbaugh wrote two books outlining his views in light of the present political climate, which I had read multiple times.  He also, for a few years, starred in a half-hour television show, recounting some of the points he made in his radio show in front of a studio audience.   The establishment hated Limbaugh, but with so many liberal-leaning teachers at school, it felt good to hear someone saying things I mostly agreed with.

When I arrived at the University of Jeromeville, I made a conscious choice to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh’s show and not get involved in any political groups.  I wanted to think for myself and not have some other entity making those decisions for me.  Had I done more research on what Jeromeville was like before moving there, I probably would have gone somewhere else.  Like many university towns, Jeromeville was quirky, a bit on the snooty side, and overall much more liberal than me.  The Jeromeville City Council was known for making some unusual far-left decisions, grounded in a combination of aging hippie idealism, environmentalism, and opposition to anything that would make Jeromeville outgrow its small-town roots, despite the fact that over fifty thousand people already lived in Jeromeville.  It was hardly a small town anymore.  The proposals from this year’s candidates included closing all of downtown to automobile traffic except for people who lived downtown; making curves in long straight roads, to discourage people from driving; and banning street lights on certain quiet, dark residential streets, because bright streets encourage growth, which encourages crime.  I was not sure what reality these people lived in; where I came from, dark streets encourage crime.

But the longer I was in Jeromeville, the more it was growing on me, mostly because of the new friends I made through connections like Jeromeville Christian Fellowship that were not directly political.  I hoped that my Christian friends would have views similar to mine, but I also shied away from talking about politics, because I did not want to be disappointed in my new friends if they supported something I opposed, or vice versa.

President Clinton’s opponent in the 1996 election was Bob Dole, a longtime Senator from Kansas who had served in World War II as a young man.  Jack Kemp, a former congressman and cabinet secretary who also once played professional football, was Dole’s running mate for Vice President.   At age seventy-three, Dole would become the oldest President to begin his term if he won the election.  The media often used Dole’s age to draw a sharp contrast between him and Clinton.  Four years ago, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, both in their forties at the time, had the youngest combined ages of any President and Vice President at the beginning of their terms.  I had recently seen a Bob Dole campaign sign that had been defaced to say Bob Old.  Despite the fact that I most likely disagreed with the person who made that sign, I had to admire the creativity.  I had done the same kind of thing two years ago with a campaign sticker for a gubernatorial candidate I did not vote for

I walked across the Quad on the way to class the morning of the election.  A group handing out Dole-Kemp bumper stickers and buttons had a table on the Quad that day.  I did a double take to make sure they were real.  The other day I excited to see what I thought was a kindred spirit walking across the Quad in a Dole-Kemp T-shirt, but just as I was about to compliment his shirt, I noticed that it was actually a parody, written in the same font as the Dole-Kemp campaign stickers, but it actually said “Dope-Hemp.”  Yeah, I did not want to compliment him and get mistaken for a stoner.

I walked up to the table and pointed to the very real Dole-Kemp stickers.  “Can I have one?” I asked.

“Sure,” the guy behind the table said.  “Take a few.  Put them up.  We need everyone to vote today.”

“I will be,” I said.  “First time I’m old enough to vote for President.”

“Nice!  We’re glad to have your vote.”

I took three stickers and walked across the Quad toward Wellington Hall.  I noticed a garbage can with a Clinton-Gore sticker on the side; I walked up to the garbage can, quickly covered the sticker with one of my Dole-Kemp stickers, and continued walking.  I overheard someone say, “Did he just cover up that sticker?”  Yes, I did, I thought, not replying or acknowledging the other person’s existence.  Inside Wellington, on the way to class, I put a second sticker on a bulletin board, on top of a flyer advertising an event that had already happened last weekend.  I saved the third sticker, to remember this election, the first Presidential election I voted in, a memory of the time that I, along with millions of other people, voted Bill Clinton out of office.




I stayed on campus until five o’clock that night, because I had tutoring groups to lead.  Tuesday was a light day of classes, so I had scheduled many of my work hours that quarter on Tuesdays.  After my last tutoring group, I caught a bus home, finally arriving around 5:30 in the rapidly darkening twilight.

“Hey,” Shawn said as I walked in the door.  He was in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher.  “How’s it goin’?”

“Good,” I said.  I went upstairs and put my backpack away, then checked my email.  I had nothing too exciting; something from Mom, and from an Internet friend I had been talking to.  After about ten minutes, I went downstairs; Shawn had moved to the couch.  I went to the kitchen and began boiling water to make spaghetti.

After I finished eating, around 6:30, I walked out of the apartment to find my neighborhood polling place.  Every voter got a sample ballot in the mail; printed on this booklet, next to my name and mailing address, was the location of my polling place, specific to my neighborhood.  Polls stayed open until eight o’clock here, so I had plenty of time to vote.  The polling place was easy to find; it was the lobby of my apartment complex.  Outside, temporary signs saying “VOTE HERE” and warning people not to distribute campaign material within 100 feet had appeared today.  A line of people extended out the door; I could not tell how far the line extended inside.

The line moved relatively quickly; it took a little over five minutes for me to get to the front of the line.  I handed my sample ballot to the volunteer sitting at the table, who checked my name and address against the list of voters who would be voting here.  “Sign here,” she said, handing me a clipboard and pointing to a line next to my name.  About twenty names were on that page, alphabetical by last name.  I scanned the list out of curiosity, which was probably some kind of violation of privacy rights; I did not see any familiar names, but I did notice only one other person registered with the same political party as me.  Typical for Jeromeville.

“Here you go,” the volunteer said, handing me a ballot and directing me to an empty booth.  The voting booth felt flimsy, made of metal poles holding a plastic table with curtains around it so that others could not see my vote.  I had my sample ballot marked already, so I just had to carefully mark the actual ballot the same way.  This only took about two minutes.

This was a long ballot, with many other elections on it besides the President of the United States.  I also voted for a member of the United States House of Representatives, state legislators, city council members, a county supervisor, and a number of ballot initiatives.  My state allowed ballot initiatives to be proposed either by the Legislature or by citizens signing petitions.  In each case, the proposal was brought to the people for a direct vote, bypassing the usual legislative process.  This process had grown to become a complete mess by the 1990s, with dozens of initiatives to vote on each year, many of them poorly written laws with unintended consequences.

A long list of twelve people were running for three open seats on the Jeromeville City Council.  I had looked carefully over the campaign materials and chosen three candidates who seemed the most normal and least objectionable of the twelve.  I filled in their bubbles, hoping that they would bring some sense to this quirky city.

Two initiatives this year were getting a large amount of attention.  One of them, Initiative 119, would eliminate affirmative action in government employment and public education, prohibiting positions to be granted based on race and sex.  I believed in treating people equally; applicants to a university, or for a job, should be considered based on their merit and qualifications, not on characteristics like race and sex.  It blew my mind that so many considered those of us who wanted to treat everyone equally as the real racists and sexists.  Treating people equally is the opposite of racism and sexism.  Recently, I walked past a bit of graffiti on campus that read “INITIATIVE 119 = GENOCIDE.”  The artist probably thought that this message was helpful to persons of color, but to me it just seemed sad to see persons of color as so lowly that taking away special treatment for them would result in their extinction.  I voted yes on Initiative 119.

The other initiative in the news that year, Initiative 124, proposed to legalize marijuana for medicinal use.  Federal law in the United States still prohibited marijuana use for any reason, so this law would conflict with federal law and probably just result in a long court battle.  I had been hearing decades of Just Say No messages in school and during commercials of children’s TV shows telling me why drugs were bad, and it seemed hypocritical to turn around and legalize marijuana, even if just for medicinal use.  I voted no on Initiative 124.

When I finished voting, I walked back to my apartment, confident that I had made a difference in the world.  No one liked President Clinton.  His party had suffered historic losses in the Senate and House of Representatives in the 1994 midterm elections, and he was on the way to becoming another mediocre one-term president.  And I was a part of history for voting for our next President, Bob Dole.

No one else was in the living room when I got home.  I turned on the television to hear official election results.  On the screen was a map of the fifty states, with some of them colored in, indicating that polls had already closed with enough votes counted to project a likely winner.  “As we see,” the announcer said, “President Clinton has won reelection.  Polls are still open in some states in the West, but returns in the rest of the country show that the President will win enough of the electoral vote.”

All that for nothing, I thought.  My vote did not end up counting after all.  Apparently enough people were convinced that Bill Clinton’s ideas for the country were actually good, somehow.  It was a pretty impressive turnaround for a President who had been so unpopular just a couple years ago, but my first vote for President still felt like a wasted opportunity.

As if reading my mind, the other reporter on the television said, “But if the polls are still open in your state, still, get out and vote.  There are lots of state and local races yet to be decided, as well as important ballot initiatives in some states.”  That reporter was correct.  Just because the election for President was not close and had already been decided, I voted for many other things that day.


Initiative 119 passed.  As I expected, the media and left-wing activists, of which there were many in a town like Jeromeville, howled about how racism was alive and well in the United States.  These people defined racism very differently from me.  Initiative 124 also passed; I found that surprising.  I spent so many years learning that drugs were bad, and here were the majority of voters in my state wanting more drugs.  Of course, they were not forcing their drugs on me; I could, and did, still choose to stay away from drugs.  I just did not like the message it sent.

The three candidates I voted for in the City Council election finished eighth, ninth, and eleventh.  I was not exactly surprised, but I was a bit disappointed to find out just how far out of step I was with other voters in Jeromeville.  This would become a recurring theme in local elections in Jeromeville for all the time I lived there.  But, as I said, there is more to life than politics, and despite having views out of touch with the City Council and many of the locals, Jeromeville was growing on me.

In the United States, voters do not vote directly for President.  Each state is assigned a certain number of electoral votes, based on the total number of Senators and Representatives from that state, and typically states assign their electoral votes to the candidate with the most votes in that state.  This system, and the formula for assigning the number of electoral votes to each state, grew out of one of the many compromises made between small and large states in the writing of the Constitution.  The original states of the United States had very different cultures and populations, and while the Constitution is not perfect, I believe it to be the best possible compromise to balance the needs of the different states that would be part of the new government.  This nation has been responsible for some horrible things in the past, but as times change, we can look to the ideals of our founding and apply them to new situations.

I have voted in every single election since that year that Bob Dole lost.  It is important to exercise one’s right to vote; but it is also important to learn about the issues, the candidate’s positions, and how government works in the first place.  I have seen too many incompetent candidates get elected, and poorly written ballot initiatives pass into law, because people will vote for anything that sounds good.  These days, both political parties seem to be running incompetent candidates from the extreme wings of their parties, resulting in extremely close elections and extremely controversial figures being elected to office.  For many, sadly, the kind of compromise that founded this nation, balancing the needs of multiple populations, is seen as a weakness.  I hope and pray that the United States can rediscover the ideals of our founding and find enough compromise and common ground to truly become united again.

November 1-3, 1996. Discovering a dark side to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.

“Welcome to the Intervarsity Regional Fall Conference!” Lars Ashford announced from the stage.  JCF was part of an organization called Intervarsity, with chapters at colleges and universities across three nations.  Six schools attended this conference, which began Friday night and ended Sunday afternoon, and Lars named each of the six, which was followed by cheers from those in attendance from each school.  There seemed to be many more people here from Jeromeville than anywhere else, about as many as all the others combined.  As I walked in, I was wondering why only our worship team was playing, and not anyone from the other schools, but now I assumed it was because our group was so much larger than the others.

A guy who introduced himself as being on staff with Intervarsity at Bidwell State gave a talk about hearing God’s voice in the middle of a busy world.  He based his talk on the passage from the first book of Kings, in the Old Testament, when the prophet Elijah was hiding from those who wanted to kill him.  Elijah heard the voice of God not in a heavy wind, an earthquake, or a fire, but a gentle whisper.  That was what I needed; with how busy I was with classes, I needed to remember to listen to the gentle whispers of God.

After the talk, we sang a few more songs, and then people mingled around the room as others trickled out the door back to their rooms.  I turned around and said hi to Eddie Baker, sitting behind me.

“Hey, Greg,” Eddie said.  “How are you?  This is your first time at Muddy Springs, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d heard of this place before, because my dad grew up in Bidwell, but I’ve never actually been here before.  I want to see what it looks like outside in the morning.”

“You’ll love it.  Hey, I want to catch up, but I have to meet with the Kairos groups to talk about some stuff tonight.  I’ll see you in the morning?”

“Sure,” I said.  I did not know what Eddie’s meeting was about, or even what a Kairos group was.  The word was completely unfamiliar to me.  I saw Haley Channing a few rows away, talking to Kristina Kasparian.  I walked up to them and said hi.

“Hey, Greg,” Kristina said.

“What’s up?” Haley asked.

“Nothing,” I replied.  “This is my first time here.  Just hanging out.”

“We were actually just on our way to a meeting,” Haley said.  “We need to talk about stuff for Kairos.  But I’ll talk to you tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure,” I said, faking a smile.  Whatever this Kairos thing was, it involved a lot of my friends, and they had to meet in private.  I walked around the room, looking for people who might not be meeting privately.  Most of the people from the other schools seemed to be staying together, not mingling with the Jeromeville people.

Behind the back row of chairs, a group of people from Jeromeville stood around: Scott Madison, Amelia Dye, Brent Wang, Autumn Davies, a sophomore named James whom I had met a few times, and a few others.  They were not with the Kairos people, so hopefully they were not about to leave.

“Hey, Greg,” Scott said.  “James is teaching us a game.  Want to play?”

“What kind of game?”

“It’s called Silent Football,” James said.  “I was just about to explain it.”

The nine of us standing there sat in a circle cross-legged.  James was barefoot, just as he had been on Sunday when I saw him at church, and also at JCF last week.  Apparently this was a thing with him.  I was curious why James was always barefoot, but it did not feel like it was my place to ask.  As James explained the game, I realized quickly that it had little to do with actual football.  There was an imaginary ball that we had to keep track of, and the person with the ball could pass it to different players by making certain hand gestures with weird funny names.  Each gesture corresponded to passing the ball a certain number of players in a certain direction, or other things like that.  If a player made an illegal move, like passing the ball when someone else actually had the ball, the game would stop.  James, as the game leader, would give the offending player a penalty, which meant doing something silly and embarrassing.

James started with the imaginary ball.  I carefully kept track of who had the ball, and when it came to me, I gestured to pass the ball to the player on the right, who was Autumn.  Autumn then passed the ball further to the right, to Amelia.  I was safe for now.  Amelia gestured to pass back to the person who passed it to her, and Autumn did not respond.  “Autumn,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you didn’t pass it.”

“Huh?” Autumn replied.  “I passed it to Amelia!”

“And I passed it back!” Amelia said.

“Exactly,” James continued.  “Autumn, your penalty is that you have to act out a scene from a TV show or movie of your choice.  Stand up.”

Autumn giggled and stood.  She took a deep breath and giggled again, then she started screaming at random people.  “No soup for you!” she said, pointing right at me.  I knew, from overhearing people quote this, that Autumn was performing a scene from the TV show Seinfeld, but I had not seen the episode myself.  I always thought that show was annoying.

Autumn sat back down, and we began another round.  James passed the ball to a guy named Matt, who was not paying attention.  “Matt,” James said.  “You have the ball, and you did not pass it.  For your penalty… I’ve heard you sing the really fast verse at the end of the song ‘Hook’ by Blues Traveler.  So now, you will serenade us.  Ready?  Suck it in.”

“Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in, if you’re Rin Tin Tin, or Anne Boleyn,” Matt sang.  He got a couple more lines into the song before he flubbed the lyrics and everyone started laughing.  James started another round and passed the ball to me.  I attempted to make the gesture to pass the ball back to whomever had it last, but I ended up flailing my arms in a way that was not exactly what I was supposed to do.

“Greg,” James said, mimicking my botched gesture.  “What exactly does this mean?”  Everyone laughed, as I just sat quietly, knowing that I was about to get a penalty.  “You are a mathematics major, correct?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“And I have heard that you can recite pi from memory to three thousand decimal places.”

“Not quite that many,” I said, laughing.  “Maybe sixty or so.”

“Well, then, let’s hear what you can do.”

I took a deep breath.  “3.1415926535897932384626433832795028841971693993751058209749445923… is that good?”

“Well done.”

We continued playing a few more rounds of Silent Football.  It was frustrating, and the whole purpose of the game was for the person leading the game to embarrass the others, but it was also strangely entertaining.  I continued playing as long as everyone else did.

As I left the meeting hall, I noticed that the Kairos people were now in the lobby sitting around the fireplace talking; their meeting appeared to be over.  Eddie, Kristina, Tabitha Sasaki, Sarah Winters, and Liz Williams were sitting around the couches.  Ramon Quintero sat in a chair playing guitar, and Haley sat next to him, singing harmony.  The two of them seemed completely engrossed in what they were doing, tuning out the rest of the world.

I went upstairs and went to bed, not even trying to talk to anyone.  This was not supposed to happen.  This Kairos thing felt like a clique of insiders, not letting anyone into their secret dealings.  Some of my closest friends had felt more distant lately because of being in this Kairos group, and now one of them was moving in on Haley.  Ramon and Liz were among the first friends I made in Jeromeville, and they had been a solid couple for almost two years until just a few months ago.  Ramon was not supposed to be a threat to girls I was interested in, but now he was.  I could not compete with Ramon, with his cool curly hair and all the musical instruments he played and languages he spoke.  I went to bed feeling distraught, and did not fall asleep quickly.


After breakfast and another worship session, all of us at the retreat were given a worksheet with directions for a guided meditation and prayer.  The first line said to find a quiet place outside, so I left the building, seeing the grounds of the retreat center in daylight for the first time.  Muddy Springs was a two-hour car trip from Jeromeville, tucked into a canyon in the foothills ten miles north of Bidwell.  It was named after a natural spring on this property; the indigenous inhabitants of this area used the mud from the springs for its supposed healing properties.  In the early 1900s, some enterprising Americans capitalized on that legend and built a resort here, and in the 1960s, when their business had dried up, they sold the property to a group that turned it into a Christian conference center.  Officially, it was now called Wellspring of Life Conference Center, but most people still called it Muddy Springs.

The dormitory that we stayed in was the original resort hotel, a towering brick building four stories high with two more floors below ground.  People said that it reminded them of the hotel from The Shining, but I had not seen the movie or read the book, so I did not know.  The land sloped downward behind the hotel, toward a creek, so that the lower floors had windows facing the back.  Additional cabins were scattered around the property behind the hotel, along with basketball and tennis courts and a meeting hall detached from the hotel building, where we met last night.  The surrounding hills were dotted with a mix of oak and pine trees, and covered in brown grass, since it had not started raining yet this winter.  I sat on a low stone wall looking out toward the other side of the canyon.

I opened my Bible and tried to follow along with the instructions on the handout, but I was having trouble concentrating.  The events of yesterday, being left out of the inner clique of the Kairos groups and wondering what was going on with Ramon and Haley, kept running through my mind.  “God,” I said quietly but aloud, “I pray that I will focus on you and not get distracted.  Not my will, but yours be done.”  I sat there for the whole hour, trying to put my concerns aside and listen to what God was telling me, repeating to myself, “Not my will, but yours be done.  I did not get any clear response from God.

I wandered back into the building and toward the dining hall when it was time for lunch.  The people from the Kairos groups were all sitting together, and I did not try to break into their clique again.  Instead I took my tray of chicken nuggets and French fries over to a group of three people I did not recognize.  “Hi,” I said.  “Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” a blonde girl said.

“What school are you guys from?”

“Great Basin State,” she replied.  She continued talking to her friends, and none of them said another word for me.  They got up and left after my lunch was about half finished.  I finished eating, then just sat with my plate as the room gradually emptied.

Cheryl, one of the adults on JCF staff, saw me sitting alone and approached me.  “Hey, Greg,” she said.  “Are you okay?  You’re sitting by yourself, not eating.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “I already ate, and my friends are all busy right now.”

“Do you have a few minutes?  Can we go for a walk?  I wanted to talk to you.”

I was not expecting this question.  What could Cheryl be wanting to talk to me about?  Was she going to ask me to be a part of something, like when Tabitha asked me to be the worship team’s roadie at the last retreat?  Maybe she was going to invite me to this Kairos group thing, whatever it was?  “Sure,” I said.

Cheryl and I walked out of the hotel downhill down the road.  The weather was mild, with big puffy clouds in the sky, signaling the quick transition period every November where the weather turns abruptly from summer-like to winter-like.  The first cold and rainy day of the winter would probably arrive in a week or so.  “So how’s the weekend going for you?” Cheryl asked.

“Kind of disappointing, honestly,” I replied.  “What exactly is a Kairos group?”

Cheryl looked like she was not expecting that question; apparently I was not going to get invited to a Kairos group.  “It’s a new ministry we started last year, with six sophomores, and we’ve been gradually expanding it as more students grow through it.  It’s a small group for training and discipling student leaders,” she explained.  “‘Kairos’ means something like ‘the time something happens.’  It’s in the Greek for the passage where Jesus said, ‘The time has come, the kingdom of God is near.’  Mark 1:15.”

“How was it determined who gets to participate in Kairos groups?” I asked.

“When we were first starting this, at the beginning of last year, the staff picked six students who we thought we would be interested  Then at the end of the year, they split into three pairs, to be the leaders for this year’s Kairos groups, and each pair selected four more sophomores and juniors to fill their group.  So now we have three groups, and we’re going to do that again this year, so we’re hoping to have nine Kairos groups next year.”

“So the Kairos groups are just going to take over all of JCF?” I asked.  “What happens when there aren’t enough people?  If each group grows into three groups the following year, it’ll only be…” I did some math in my head, then continued a few seconds later.  “In less than a decade, there won’t be enough students at Jeromeville to fill all those groups.”

“That’s why we need to pray that God will bring people to us, and we need to invite our friends and tell them about Jesus,” Cheryl replied.

I agreed conceptually with telling people about Jesus, and I knew that it was good to pray that people will come to JCF and get involved, but I also knew that Cheryl’s math was off.  The Kairos group was not a sustainable model for ministry.  But I did not expect my mathematical argument to convince Cheryl at the moment, and that was not my issue in the first place.  “What happens to someone like me, then?”  I said.  “If you can only join a Kairos group as a sophomore or junior, will there be any groups left for seniors next year?”

“There will be a group for seniors.  And for people who aren’t in Kairos groups.”.

“But even so, doesn’t it kind of send the wrong message that these Kairos groups are invitation only?  Some of my friends, I’ve hardly gotten to see them on this retreat, because they’ve been doing stuff with their Kairos groups the whole time.”

Cheryl paused.  “That’s kind of along the lines of what I wanted to talk to you about,” she said.  “I’ve noticed that you seem to like to be the center of attention.”

This was definitely not what I expected to hear. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“Remember at Outreach Camp, when you grabbed the microphone?” Cheryl asked.

I did remember.  During one of the worship sessions, the band said at the end of the session that they were going to stick around for some more informal worship music if people wanted to continue worshiping.  I stayed, and at one point I felt like I wanted to sing, so I asked if I could have a microphone, and I sang lyrics that I had just made up, to the tune of the song they were already playing.  I felt a little embarrassed afterward, that I had actually done such a thing, and I never spoke of that night again.  “Yes,” I said.

“I think sometimes you’re too worried about what other people think.  You’re thinking about what you want, not what God wants for you.”

I processed this as we continued walking downhill.  “I’m a shy introvert,” I explained.  “I’m not really the kind of person who naturally wants to be the center of attention.  But I think you’re right.  Sometimes I am paying more attention to what I want instead of what God wants.”

“And you told me you’re worried about your friends in Kairos groups leaving you out.  They’re still your friends.  You aren’t worth less because you’re not in a Kairos group.

“Yeah, but that’s not what it feels like.”

We turned around and walked back uphill, toward the hotel.  “What if we had some kind of sign?” Cheryl asked.  “If I think you need to step back, focus on God, and not be in the spotlight, I’ll just look at you and tap my ear.”  Cheryl demonstrated, moving her right hand to her ear and tapping the top of it.  “I don’t have to call you out.  It’ll just be our little thing.”

“I guess,” I said.  I still did not think that I was a habitual attention hog by nature.  But, on the other hand, Cheryl had a point; I definitely did have some of these tendencies when I was in the right situation with the right crowd.  And focusing on God and not the self is always something that is naturally difficult for most people.  “But I still think it’s wrong to have the Kairos groups if they’re going to be exclusive like that,” I continued

“Just because no one picked you for a Kairos group doesn’t mean God doesn’t have a place for you.  Keep praying, and God will show you how you can serve him.”

“Then why even have Kairos groups in the first place?  You tell me not to be the center of attention, but the people in these groups, they get to be part of some exclusive club.”

“I don’t think anyone else sees it that way,” Cheryl explained.  “But I’ll bring that up in our staff meeting, to make sure we don’t turn it into something like that.”

“Thank you,” I replied.  I could see that I was not going to bring down the entire Kairos ministry, much less become one of the cool kids and make Haley want to go out with me, just from this one conversation with Cheryl.  But I voiced my concerns, and I learned something about the way people see me that I needed to work on.


Cheryl and I returned to the hotel after spending the rest of the walk just talking about life and classes.  When we returned, I found some people behind the hotel playing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. They were playing on a paved surface, given the lack of flat grass on the grounds, so I had to be a little careful, but it was fun and I did not fall down.

Later, at dinner time, I walked down to the dining hall.  The people from the Kairos groups were still sitting together, and I still felt frustrated enough at the situation that I did not bother to ask if I could join them.  I found a group of three freshman girls from Jeromeville with an empty seat next to them; maybe they would be more friendly than the Great Basin State students, since we had seen each other before.  “May I join you?” I asked.

One of them, I thought her name was Carrie, looked up at me and smiled.  She was somewhat taller than average, the tallest of the three but still at least six inches shorter than me, with straight medium-brown hair and dark brown eyes.  “Sure!” she said.  “Greg, is it?”

“Yeah.  And you’re Carrie?”  Then, to the girl on Carrie’s left, I said, “And you’re Angie?  And I don’t remember your name,” I said to the third one, who then introduced herself as Susan.

“How’s your weekend going?” Carrie asked me.

“It’s okay,” I replied.  “I’ve had some frustrating stuff happen lately, but I think God is teaching me something through it.”

“God does that,” Angie said.

“Yes he does,” I replied.  “How’s yours?”

“It’s great!” Carrie said.  “This place is so beautiful!  We went for a walk this morning down to the creek during the quiet time.  It was so nice.”

“Yeah,” Susan added.

“That’s good,” I said.  “I’ve never been here specifically, but I’ve been to Bidwell many times, because I have relatives there.  This part of the state is so beautiful.”

“That’s cool,” Carrie said.

I did get to talk to my friends from the Kairos groups a little bit that weekend, since they were not meeting together that night.  It was mostly small talk, but it was better than nothing.  Other than my clique-related frustration, the weekend was good overall.  It was nice being away from Jeromeville for a couple days.  Silent Football was fun and silly, and I made friends with some freshman girls, one of whom I am still friends with today.

Cheryl only had to use the ear-tapping thing twice for the remaining years that I was involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  The incident she mentioned was not my normal behavior, but it was true that JCF should not primarily be a social club.  I was here to grow closer to God among friends as we encouraged each other’s spiritual growth.  Being social with Christian friends is not inherently bad, but it should not be the goal in itself.  God would lead me to a place where I could serve him, even if it did not involve a flashy attention-getting position.  He already opened the door for me to be the worship team’s roadie this year.

A few months later, God led me to a new place to serve.  He opened this door when I was not looking for it, and this ministry was not part of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  But that is another story for another time. Even though the Kairos groups were cliquish, I did stay friends with those people.  Being cliquish is part of sinful human nature.  And in the fall of 1998, when I heard that JCF was dropping their Kairos ministry completely, it felt like a victory.



Author’s notes:
What are some stories you guys have about being left out of cliques?

Also, I never knew what the actual lyric was after “Rin Tin Tin” until I looked it up while writing this episode.  It always sounded like “rambling” to me.  I’ve been singing those words wrong for a quarter-century.  And I really did type pi from memory when I wrote this.

October 23-25, 1996. A pen pal on another continent.

The way people communicate has changed radically over the course of my life.  When I was young, telephone calls outside of one’s own city cost a lot of money, so when friends moved away, I often never heard from them again.  Writing letters in the mail was an option as well, for people committed enough to do so.  In high school, my friend Catherine went to Austria for a year to be an exchange student, and we wrote letters the whole time she was gone.  When the young people of today have friends who move away, they stay in touch through texting and social media.  Some of them have thousands of followers on social media all over the world, some of whom they have never met before.  Many of them do not want to be bothered with traditional voice-based telephone calls, and many of them do not know how to address an envelope or use a stamp.

I attended the University of Jeromeville during an awkward transition period when both of these worlds existed simultaneously.  Some of my friends used email, some of them communicated by writing letters, and some I never heard from again once I moved.  I spent a lot of time on text-based Internet Relay Chat, usually looking for girls to talk to, because I was not good at meeting girls in real life.  I stayed in touch with some of them by email, but I also sometimes got handwritten letters from them.  Sometimes we wanted to exchange photos, and in an era when flatbed scanners were relatively uncommon and digital cameras were not yet mainstream, it was easier to send a photo in the mail.  Other times, someone I know would lose access to email temporarily, and stay in touch by writing letters.  That was the case for many of my university friends when they went for the summer.  That was also the case with Laura Little, although her story was a bit more interesting.

I met Laura on IRC in the spring of my sophomore year at UJ.  She was seventeen years old, and she lived in upstate New York, on the other side of the United States from me.  In one of our first conversations, she told me that she was going to be leaving in July for a year, to be an exchange student in Switzerland, where she would not have Internet access.  I had been getting letters from Laura regularly since she left; she had a difficult transition to life in Switzerland, and her German was not good, so she wanted to get letters to read in English.

Laura and I had never met, obviously.  I did not know what she looked or sounded like.  Right before she left for Switzerland, a romantic interest named Adam whom she also met on the Internet had come to visit her for a few days.  Whenever she mentioned Adam, her answers were a bit inconsistent and evasive; first she said they had a good time but decided to just be friends, but then in the next letter she said something about having to get her mind off of what happened with Adam, and then she said something about regretting what she did with him, that she felt stupid and that she should have known better.  Clearly I had not gotten the entire story, so the last time I wrote to her, I asked exactly what happened.

I got home in the late afternoon after a long Wednesday of classes to find a letter from Laura on the kitchen counter next to the phone; one of the other roommates had apparently gotten the mail earlier.  Shawn was in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.  When he saw me pick up Laura’s letter, he asked, “Hey, who are all these girls who write letters to you?  You’re getting letters from all over the world!  You’re a ladies’ man!”

“Not exactly,” I said.  “Laura is someone I met on the Internet; she’s from New York but studying in Switzerland this year.”  I conveniently left out the part where she was only seventeen. Even though that was only a three-year age difference between Laura and me, Shawn was turning twenty-three next month, so to him, she would seem significantly younger.

“And you got a letter from Hungary last week.”

That’s Kelly Graham.  You know Kelly.  She was roommates with Haley Channing and Kristina Kasparian last year, on Baron Court.  She’s studying abroad in Hungary this year.”

Shawn thought for a minute.  “Kelly!  Oh yeah.  And don’t you have a girlfriend back home?”

“Wait, what?”

“Yeah.  That girl from Gabilan who has written to you like four times already.  That’s where you’re from, right?  Plumdale is right near Gabilan?”

“Who are you talking about?”

“Cecilia, or something like that.”

Cecilia?  From Gabilan?  I laughed loudly as I figured out who Shawn was talking about.  “That’s my grandma!” I said.

“Your grandma!” Shawn laughed.  “This whole time, I thought you had a girlfriend back home.”

“I wish I had a girlfriend back home who wrote me as often as Grandma did.”

“She sure likes to write.”

“She does.  And my cousin Rick, the second-oldest grandchild, went away to North Coast State this year, so he’s gonna get just as many letters from Grandma now too.”

“That’s nice of her, though.”

“Yeah, it is.”  I walked upstairs to read Laura’s letter.  Laura had very small handwriting; she sometimes wrote in cursive and sometimes printed, sometimes both in the same letter, and she often did not bother to separate her letters into paragraphs.  This letter was handwritten on tan stationery, with a typed paper inside the envelope as well.  The typed paper appeared to be a math assignment of some sort.


Greg,

Guten tag!  Meine Deutsch ist besser.  (My German is better.)  I understand more than I did before at least. I’m doing well.  The weather here is getting colder.  I just spent 200 francs on sweaters and a long sleeve shirt.  My mom would kill me if she found out how much money I spent.  I’m supposed to be taking this test, but it’s a take home test so I’ll make a copy and send it to you.  I’m so lost and I have told the teacher that I don’t understand any of this.  He just told me to do my best but I just sat for half an hour debating if I did the problems correct but I left half of them blank because I don’t know what to do.  Maybe you can help me.  I’ll write what it means in English if I know it.  I would really appreciate it if you could help explain these.  I know it is really sad how lost I am.  I told my mom about you and said that I was going to ask you for help with math, and she says thank you.  I do too.  So anyway, last weekend I went away on a trip with the other exchange students in my program and I got to talk in English all weekend.  It was so good.  We went to the mountains and in the morning we took a cable car to the top of a mountain and it snowed.  I love it.  And we had a big party that night.  It was cold, but we had a snowball fight and took a lot of pictures.  We have Herbstferien here, it’s a fall school holiday, I CAN’T WAIT!  I’m going to go skiing, I’ve never been before.  I hope you don’t think different of me after I tell you what happened with Adam because I know it was a mistake and I should have just been friends with him but I’m so stupid.  Sometimes when I’m put in a pressure situation I don’t think straight.  Only you and one of my friends back home know about this because I don’t want anyone to know.  I was so stupid to let it happen but it’s too late to fix it now and I just want to forget about that.


I had a feeling I knew what was coming next.  It was pretty obvious where she was going with this.  I continued reading.


Well I kinda slept with him.  Only once though but we also did some other stuff.  I don’t want to say anything more, I’m so stupid to let it happen.  But on a lighter note I got my ear pierced at the top.  It didn’t hurt as bad as I thought it would but I couldn’t sleep on that side for a few days.  One of my friends from school here and I got it done together.  I like it.  I’m not feeling homesick as often.  I know how to prevent it now and I don’t think it will happen again.  I know my writing is messy but I haven’t slept much.  I hope you don’t think of me different because of all that.  Oh yeah, you’ll be happy to know my butt doesn’t hurt as much when I ride my bike to school.  I’m happy now but I can’t ride long distances like you do sometimes.  How are you?  Have you met anyone yet?  It made me sad when you said you felt like giving up on girls.  Just talk to someone.  Ask her to coffee or ice cream or lunch or something.  And tell me all about her.  Any girl would be lucky to spend time with you.  I hope to hear from you soon.

❤ Laura


I was not entirely sure how to react to what she said about Adam, although I had a feeling that was what she was going to say from the moment she told me in her last letter that she regretted what she did.  Part of me was disappointed that this happened; Laura was not the kind of nice Christian girl I was hoping to meet.  She had never claimed to be Christian, though, so that was just wishful thinking on my part.

But I also did not blame her or Adam one bit.  If I had been Adam, I probably would have been having fantasies about going to bed with Laura the whole time I was visiting her, even though I knew it was wrong.  I must admit, I had had those fantasies about her before, although I could not bring myself to tell her that, of course.  This sounds paradoxical, but such are the trials of a lonely, girl-crazy Christian young adult like me.

I only had one class the next day, and one of my students for my tutoring job did not show up, so I had plenty of time to get homework done during the day.  After dinner that night, I went upstairs to my room and began writing my next letter to Laura.  


October 24, 1996

Dear Laura,

Thank you for your honesty.  Don’t worry about me thinking differently of you.  Everyone does things they wish they hadn’t afterward.  And please don’t call yourself stupid.  You aren’t.  You said you regret what you did, so learn from this.  You told me that you know you don’t think straight in pressure situations, so when you know you’re going to be in a pressure situation, set boundaries in advance.  If there’s a guy who likes you, for example, don’t be alone with him if you don’t want to feel pressured.

I wish I got a fall break.  That sounds like it’ll be fun.  I’ve never been skiing either.  I don’t know if I want to try it.  I’m not usually good at things like that where I have to keep my balance by going fast, and I would probably just get frustrated.  But tell me how it goes.  Your ear piercing sounds cute.

I started going to a new church a couple weeks ago.  I really like it.  A lot of my friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship go to that church.  But I don’t want to start going there just because I have friends there.  That shouldn’t be what church is about.  So I decided for the rest of October to go to both churches every Sunday and pray about it.  So far I like the new church.  People there seem more serious about following God and reading the Bible.

Things are going well at the apartment.  I’m adjusting well to having roommates.  Four of us share a three bedroom apartment; Shawn and I share the big bedroom.  It hasn’t been a problem so far.  We both get up early for class, so I don’t have to worry about waking him up or him waking me up.  Brian is really nice too.  The fourth guy, Josh, he works weird hours, and I don’t see him very often.

I don’t have a girlfriend.  I’m not good at meeting girls.  I feel like I have a lot of acquaintances these days, but I’m kind of on the outside of a lot of my friends’ social groups.  There’s this one girl I know from JCF who I would love to get to know better and spend more time with.  She’s really sweet and she has beautiful blue eyes.  I just don’t know what to do, though.  I don’t get to talk to her very often, and lately she’s been acting a little different.  I’m not sure why.  Last week at JCF she was talking a lot with this other guy, but I couldn’t tell if they were together or anything.  I met her in January when I was having a really hard day, and this guy invited me to hang out with some of his friends, and we hung out at her house.  A couple months ago, around the time all the year leases run out, I rode my bike past their house and everything was dark, and that inspired me to write a poem.  I’ll send it to you. It’s a Shakespearean sonnet; I’ve always liked that format for poems.


I continued writing, telling her all about trigonometric ratios on the next page, which apparently her mom wanted to thank me for.  I wondered exactly how much Laura’s mom knew about me.  I told my mom very little about all the girls I had met on the Internet, although she knew about one, Molly from Pennsylvania, because Molly wrote me letters the summer after freshman year when I went home for the summer.

Next I opened a file on my computer called “2234.”  This was the title of the poem I had mentioned in my letter to Laura, about a time when I rode my bike past the house where Haley and her roommates lived, but Haley was home for the summer and everyone else had moved out by then.  I titled the poem 2234 after the address of the house, 2234 Baron Court.  I printed the poem and put it on my desk with the rest of Laura’s letter, which I would mail in the morning.


“2234”
by Gregory J. Dennison, 1996

Inside your walls, that January night,
My life began again, in joy and love;
My brand new friends had shown to me the light;
Set free from gloom, I praise my Lord above!
Today your door is locked, your curtains drawn,
Along your quiet street you make no sound,
Your residents, and all their friends, are gone,
No sign left of the friendship I once found.
But though the cast has left, the show is done,
The drama rests forever in my heart;
This friendship still is shining like the sun,
We’re miles away, but not so far apart;
   Though now, O house, you’re empty, cold, and dark,
   My night in you forever left its mark.


I took a long time to fall asleep Thursday night.  I kept thinking about Laura, having sex with Adam and partying with all of the other exchange students, probably getting drunk in the process.  I wondered if she made any other decisions she regretted on her weekend with the other exchange students.  I knew consciously that that line of thinking was horribly judgmental, and that I was being a bad friend by entertaining those thoughts, but I could not help it.  I woke up tired Friday morning, still dwelling on these dark thoughts.

I was not feeling angry with Laura, though.  My brooding was directed more toward myself, at my failures with girls, and at a society where fake people with loose morals always got the girl or guy they were after, and guys like me were ridiculed and made outcasts.  I did not know how meeting girls and dating worked.  Laura tried to encourage me, but her suggestions just were not easy for me.  I did not know how to talk about things that girls would be interested in, and sometimes I felt like I was on the outside, or at best on the outer fringes, of cliques that seemed to spend a lot of time together.

During a break between classes, I went to the Post Office to mail Laura’s letter.  There was a small Post Office in the Memorial Union building, around the corner from the campus store.  Four people were in front of me in line, and with two friends in Europe that I was writing to that year, I had spent enough time in this line to know that I would be here for at least fifteen minutes.  Usually only one employee worked at the desk, and whenever he had to get something behind the desk, or place a package where the outgoing packages went, he seemed to move so slowly that I wondered if he was exaggerating his slow movements on purpose.  Did he have special training to learn how to work so slowly and inefficiently?  If I had been working behind that desk, I would be moving a lot faster, just because it was in my nature to get things done.  It probably would have saved time to buy stamps in the denomination of what it cost to send a letter to Europe, but sometimes I wrote long enough letters that it cost more, and I would have had to stand in line anyway to get the right postage.

I finally mailed my letter and walked toward the other end of the Memorial Union looking for a place to sit.  I was thinking about Laura’s encouragement to talk to girls and not be afraid, and as if on cue, I saw Haley walking toward me.  Before I could overthink myself out of it, I said, “Hey, Haley.”

Haley stopped and looked up at me with her bright blue eyes, smiling.  “Hi,” she said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much,” I said.  “Glad it’s Friday.”

“I know!  I had a big midterm yesterday.  It was a long week.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “Hey, what are you doing this weekend?”  The words just came out; I was not sure where I was going with this line of conversation, but it felt right to ask.

“Not much.  But I’m going to play games at the Albert Street house tonight.  Did you hear about that?”

“I don’t think so.”

“After JCF tonight. Just hanging out and play games.  I’m sure you’re invited.”

“Eddie and Raphael’s house?  That Albert Street house?”

“Yeah.  I have to get going, but will you be at JCF tonight?”

“I will.  I’ll see you there?”

“Yeah!  See you there!”

I did go to the game night after JCF that night, and it was a lot of fun.  About ten of us were there, and we played Uno and Taboo until well after midnight.  Nothing special happened between me and Haley, although we did get to talk a bit more.  That felt like progress.  Maybe next time I would ask her to do something specific, just me and her.

After the game night ended, I headed home on the nearly empty streets of Jeromeville under the dark night sky, driving over the overpass with trees on it and flipping around the stations on the car radio.  As I heard Alanis Morissette singing about how “you live, you learn, you love, you learn” in her pain-inducing voice that sounded like the sound some sort of bird would make as it was being stabbed, I instinctively reached over to change the station.  But just before I pressed the button, I stopped.  Maybe Alanis was right.  I was living my life and learning from my missteps and mistakes.  And so was Laura, on another continent.  I was not doing myself any favors when I got down on myself because of my social and romantic failures, and neither was Laura when she called herself stupid because of what happened with Adam.  Laura was my long-distance friend, and friends were there to encourage each other, and help each other learn and grow.


Dear readers: What are some experiences you’ve had with learning not to be so judgmental? Or learning from your mistakes?

Also, I know this is a day late. I might be taking an unplanned week off from writing here and there, because I’m behind on real life right now. Next time I skip a week, you can always read an episode from the archives.

Late October, 1996. Together with You, I will look for another sea.

Previously, on Don’t Let The Days Go By, Greg attended Jeromeville Covenant Church for the first time.  Many of Greg’s friends from Jeromeville Christian Fellowship attend that church, and it was the first time Greg had ever attended a church that was not Catholic.  Greg, not wanting to go to a new church just because all his friends were there, decided to go to both churches for three weeks and pray about it before making a final decision…


On October 16, three days after my first Sunday at Jeromeville Covenant Church, I got back to my apartment in the late afternoon and brought my backpack upstairs.  I had checked the mail on the way in, and all we got was junk mail.

When I got to my bedroom, I took out of my backpack the bag from the campus store, where I had bought two birthday cards earlier.  My brother Mark was turning 15 this coming Saturday.  I took his card out of the bag; it had a basketball on the front, and on the inside, it said, “Hope your birthday is a slam dunk!”  I was hoping to find a good fart or poop joke card for Mark’s birthday, but I only found one such card at the campus store today, and I was saving that one for the other upcoming birthday in my family.  Mark played basketball, so I went with the basketball card instead.  I wrote on the inside, “Happy birthday! — Greg.”  I put a stamp on the outside and wrote our home address; I would drop it in a mailbox in the morning.

The card with the fart joke was for my dad, who would be turning 47 at the end of the month.  That card said on the outside, “Farting is an art,” written inside a giant brown cloud of gas.  On the inside, the card said, “Happy birthday, Rembrandt.”  I did not fill out Dad’s card yet, since I still had a while before his birthday.

I turned on my computer and opened a new email, one I had been dreading sending all week.  I had been involved enough with the Newman Center that, if I started going to J-Cov, my disappearance from Newman would be noticed.  Among the adults who run things at Newman, Sister Mary Rose was probably the one I knew the best, so I at least felt like I should tell her what was going on.  I started typing:


To: maryrose11@aolnet.com
From: gjdennison@jeromeville.edu
Subject: wondering

Hi… I need to talk about something.  As I’ve said before, I’ve gotten involved with Jeromeville Christian Fellowship over the last year.  Many of my friends from JCF go to Jeromeville Covenant Church, and last Sunday I went to church with them.  I really liked it there.  I feel like it is a place where I can really study the Bible and learn what it means to live for Jesus.

But I also do not want to turn my back on 20 years of Catholicism and everything I was raised with.  I don’t want to start going to J-Cov just because all my friends are doing it.  So I decided to go to both churches for the rest of October, while I pray about this.  I just wanted to let you know what was going on.  Any thoughts you might have would be appreciated.

gjd


The rest of the week went well.  I only had one class Thursday, so I had scheduled four hours of tutoring for my job with the Learning Skills Center.  On Friday, all of my closet met.  I walked into room 2 of Wellington Hall, a lecture hall with around 200 seats, for New Testament, and sat in the back.  A minute later, Margaret Seaver walked in and sat next to me.

“Hey, Greg,” Margaret said.  “What’s up?”

“Not much.  Glad it’s Friday.  I’m tired.”

“How come you haven’t been at choir practice at church the last couple weeks?  Are you coming back?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  I explained to Margaret that I had been to J-Cov and was wondering if the Newman Center was really the right place for me.

“We’ll miss you in choir,” Margaret said.  “But I understand.  And I think it’s good that you’re taking your time and not just rushing off to follow your friends.”

“Yeah,” I said.

When I got home from classes that Friday, I had an email from Sister Mary Rose.  I opened it and read.


To: “Gregory J. Dennison” <gjdennison@jeromeville.edu>
From: Maryrose11@aolnet.com
Subject: Re: wondering
Date: Fri, 18 Oct 1996 11:03 -0700

Greg,

What you are experiencing is called a faith crisis.  Sometimes God puts us in situations where we really have to listen to Him for answers.  Keep praying about it.  Say a rosary.  Listen for God’s voice.  And let me know if you ever want to meet to talk about this more.  Don’t feel bad about this experience.  Many wise spiritual leaders have experienced faith crises and come out stronger in the end.

I think you are wise to take your time and try out both churches for a while, not wanting to base your decision on what your friends are doing.  We would be sad to see you leave Newman, after all of your involvement here.  But wherever you go, keep following Jesus.  He will never lead you wrong.  You will definitely be in my prayers.

Sister Mary Rose





On Sunday, since J-Cov only had morning services, I did the same thing I had done the week before.  I attended J-Cov in the morning for their service and the college Sunday school class, which they called 20/20.  I felt the same way about J-Cov as I did the previous week: I loved the Bible teaching, and everyone there made me feel welcome.

The Newman Center had two Masses in the morning and one in the evening, so I had been attending the evening mass at Newman during this period of going to two churches.  I had been with the choir at the late morning Mass for over a year, so last week, the first week I attended evening Mass, it felt a little strange not to be with the choir.  I recognized a few faces from social events where people from all three services attend.  The Newman Center was a student-focused congregation, but some families attended the morning services as well.  There seemed to be an even higher percentage of students at the evening Mass.

As Mass began, Sister Mary Rose stood up front and announced that this was El Salvador Sunday.  Jeromeville had a sister city in El Salvador, and the Jeromeville Newman Center once a year updated the congregation on what was happening at the Catholic church in that city, with a second collection taken for that church’s needs.  “Their roof is in need of repair,” Sister Mary Rose explained.  “The second collection today will go to their repair fund.”

The choir began singing a song in Spanish, I assumed because it was El Salvador Sunday.  The song was unfamiliar to me, not a direct translation of anything we normally sang in English.  I did not know most of the people in the evening service choir, since I normally attended the late morning service.  I missed singing at the late morning service, and I felt bad for saying that I needed a few weeks off.

After the opening song, we said the Kyrie and sang the Gloria in English as we always did.  The lector approached the podium for the Old Testament reading next, but before she began, she said, “Today’s readings will be said in Spanish only.  As you listen to the words, put yourselves in the position of a refugee, in a strange land where you don’t understand the language.  Remember the plight that they go through, as you sit here comfortable in your surroundings.”

What the actual crap?

God loves refugees.  God commands us to take care of foreigners, because his people were foreigners in strange lands in the past.  I know that.  But this was a bit ridiculous.  Now, in the middle of Mass, was not the time for this kind of political posturing, and this was not the way to draw attention to the plight of refugees.  What kind of church would deny its congregants the opportunity to hear or understand the Word of God in order to make us feel guilty for what God has blessed us with?  Of course, had this happened at Jeromeville Covenant, I would have had my Bible with me, but typically Catholics did not bring Bibles to Mass.  Back home at Our Lady of Peace, we used a missalette, a publication issued three times per year that had all the Scriptures and prayers for that time period, but the Jeromeville Newman Center did not use this.  People just listened to the words being read.  This was looking less and less like a church where I could learn more about the Bible.  I recognized a few words here and there, but my three years of high school Spanish were not enough for me to understand everything from these readings.

After the Old and New Testament readings in Spanish, Father Bill read the Gospel reading and gave his homily in English.  I was not sure if Father Bill or Sister Mary Rose even spoke Spanish, for that matter.  

Later, during Communion, the choir sang a song called “Pescador de Hombres,” literally meaning “fisher of men.”  I had heard this song once before, last year when we did El Salvador Sunday.  We sang two verses in Spanish, then one verse in English.  The refrain was sung in two-part harmony, with one voice singing a third higher than the other.  It reminded me of the music I would hear on Spanish-language radio stations when flipping around looking for something to listen to.

I remembered some of the words of this song from last year.  The lyrics took the perspective of one of Jesus’ early disciples, who were fishermen when Jesus called them.  The first disciples left their boats and fishing gear behind and followed Jesus.  “Junto a ti, buscaré otro mar,” the choir sang at the end of each refrain.  I understood those words; they meant something like “together with you, I will look for another sea,” with “you” in this line referring to Jesus.  When the choir switched to English for the last verse, they sang “next to you, I will seek other shores,” the same meaning but with the correct number of syllables to fit the song.

I will look for another sea.  I will seek other shores.  Was that me?  It certainly felt like those lyrics were speaking to me.  Jesus seemed to be calling me to look for another sea, one where I could learn to follow him instead of being caught up in a shallow faith of political posturing and memorized rituals disconnected from the life I live the other six days of the week. Maybe I needed to be around people who did not find it acceptable to get tipsy from Communion wine and joke about it, as that girl from the early morning service had a few months ago.

After Father Bill dismissed the congregation and the choir finished the closing song, I sat in my chair for a few minutes, watching everyone else file out.  I had committed myself to attending both churches for three weeks before I made a final decision, but after last week and this week, I felt like the right decision was becoming clear already.  Unless something changed drastically in the next seven days, Jesus was calling me to look for another sea, and that other sea appeared to be Jeromeville Covenant.

“Hey, Greg,” I heard a familiar voice say next to me.  I looked up to see a thin, short-haired guy my age.  It was Sean Richards, one of a very small number of Catholic students who also attended Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  “What’s up?” Sean asked.

“Just thinking,” I said.  “The last two weeks, I’ve been going to church at Jeromeville Covenant in the mornings.  I know a lot of people there from JCF, and so far I like it there.  But I don’t want to leave Catholicism and start going there just because all my friends are doing it.  So I’ve been praying about it, and I decided to go to both churches for the rest of October before I make a final decision.”

“That’s probably a good idea.  What made you want to look at Jeromeville Covenant?”

“I’ve been more involved with JCF and studying the Bible more.  I’m just not sure I’m going to find that in Catholicism.”

“You could always try getting involved in one of the small groups here,” Sean said.  “They do Bible studies in those groups too.  But I know JCF has good Bible studies.  I’ve been going to a JCF Bible study this year.”  I knew of the existence of small groups at Newman, but I was not sure exactly what happened in them.

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’m going to keep praying about it and see what happens.”

“That’s a good idea.  And either way, you’re still following Jesus, and that’s what’s most important.”

“Yes.”

“I’m gonna get going.  Have a good week, okay?”

“Thanks.  You too.”


The following Sunday, October 27, was my dad’s birthday.  I called my parents after I got home from J-Cov, and Dad said that they all loved the birthday card.  Mom was already calling Dad “Rembrandt” every time he farted now.

Sometimes, when I have to make a big decision, I will feel confused for weeks or months at a time.  Other times, I just kind of know what the right decision is.  And in those times when I think I just know, it can be difficult to discern whether this knowledge is truly the Holy Spirit guiding me or just something I want for selfish reasons.  This time, I was pretty sure I knew what the Holy Spirit was saying.  I had committed to going to both churches for the rest of October, but the evening Mass at the Newman Center that night just felt like it was not my thing anymore.  That night was the last night I ever took Communion in a Catholic Mass.

I did not make a complete break with Catholicism, however.  To this day, I still attend Catholic Mass when I visit my family on Christmas.  I believe that the different branches of Christianity have much in common and should focus on this more than the things about which they argue.  I believe that the Catholic rituals are rooted in deep and meaningful experiences of worship, and I believe that it is possible for a Catholic to have a personal relationship with Jesus.  However, this aspect of faith is not emphasized in Catholicism, so many who consider themselves Catholics do not actually know Jesus.  I no longer take Communion when at Catholic Mass, out of respect for the fact that Catholics only offer Communion to other Catholics.  I also had a small scholarship from the Santa Lucia County chapter of the Italian Catholic Federation, and I turned down the money for the following school year, since I did not feel right taking their money not being Catholic anymore.

My mother never had a problem with me going to churches that were not Catholic.  She told me that Grandma was a bit suspicious at first, because Grandma was raised in a time of more tension between Catholics and Protestants.  When I got involved with JCF and decided to go to their national convention in Urbana, Grandma told Mom that she was worried that I was joining a cult.  But then, according to Mom, Grandma mentioned Urbana to one of her old lady friends, who then said that her son had attended an Urbana convention in the 1960s.  Grandma was okay with Urbana now that it had the Old Lady Friend Seal of Approval.

When I walked into 20/20 on November 3, my fourth Sunday at J-Cov, I walked up to Taylor and Pete and Charlie, who were standing and talking.  “Hey, Greg,” Taylor said.  “Wait, weren’t you just doing your thing at both churches for October?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And I decided I’m here for good now.”

“Nice!”

“We’re glad to have you here,” Pete said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’m glad to be here.”

I attended Jeromeville Covenant Church for almost five years, right up until I moved away from Jeromeville in July of 2001.  I stayed in touch with many people from J-Cov for many years, some of whom I am still in touch with today.  I got involved with a ministry there that had never been anything I ever thought about doing; I will tell that story soon.

In 2001, shortly before I moved and left J-Cov, we voted to buy a larger property about five miles away on Bruce Boulevard, at the eastern edge of Jeromeville.  I came back for the first service in the new building two years later.  After I moved out of Jeromeville, I came back to visit J-Cov once or twice a year through the rest of my twenties.  I was very involved with another church in my thirties, so for a while  I never made it back to visit J-Cov.  But twice in my forties so far I have had occasion to attend a Sunday service at J-Cov.  These days, there are not many people whom I knew who are still around, but there were still enough that it felt like coming home.

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!

October 3-5, 1996. Often, one has no idea that something has just happened for the final time.

“Greg?” Brian said, poking his head into my bedroom.  “Your friend is here.”

I walked out of the bedroom and down the stairs, smiling as I saw her standing in the entryway at the bottom.  “Hey!” I said.  “Good to see you!”

“Hi, Greg!” Rachel Copeland replied, pulling me in for a hug.  She looked a little different from how she did the last time I had seen her, over a year ago.  Her light brown hair had grown even longer, most of the way down her back.  Last year, Rachel’s freshman year at St. Elizabeth’s College, she seemed to have put on the proverbial fifteen pounds that many say inevitably appears during everyone’s freshman year.

“Rachel, this is my roommate Brian,” I said, gesturing toward Brian sitting on the couch watching television.  “And Shawn,” I added, pointing toward the kitchen where Shawn was making something on the stove.  “This is Rachel, my friend from high school.”  Brian and Shawn both said hello to Rachel.  “So what’s the plan?  I’m going to show you around, then we’ll find something to eat?”

“Yeah!” she said.  “Can I get a drink of water and use your bathroom first?  I’ve been in the car for an hour.”

After Rachel finished, we walked to the car.  “I like these apartments,” she said.  “They’re nice and spread out, with landscaping.  Do you like living off campus better than on campus?  You lived in a dorm when you were a freshman, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you like it?  Did you want to move off campus?”

“It wasn’t my choice, really,” I explained.  “Everyone is guaranteed a spot on campus their first year, but UJ has so little dorm space right now, they only have a small number of rooms left for returning students.  This year, the freshman class was bigger than expected, so there’s absolutely no room on campus for returning students, and they even have people in rooms that are supposed to be study rooms.”

“What?” Rachel asked as we got into my car.  I started the car and headed out of the parking lot, south on Maple Drive.

“Yeah.  We were filling out a new phone list this year for the church choir, and this one girl, Margaret, she’s a freshman, and she put her address as Room 101 Building M.  Those letter buildings, remember I was in Building C my freshman year, they’re all the same, and there is no room 101, they start at 112.  She said they put two beds and two cots in the study room.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah.  The housing market in Jeromeville is all kinds of messed up.  The university keeps growing, but they haven’t built any new dorms in over a decade, and they even tore some down a couple years before I started here, because they weren’t up to code.  And the city wants to stay small and not become a sprawling suburb.”

“That doesn’t seem right.  Are they going to replace the buildings they tore down?”

“I think so, eventually, but it’s still just an empty field right now.”  At that point, we were passing by the Forest Drive Housing Area; I said, “At some point in the past, the University bought some apartment buildings in this neighborhood over here and turned them into dorms.  We’re not far from campus now.  But even if they do more of that, that also takes away from the total housing in the city and campus combined.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s been frustrating for me, because I’ve always had a hard time finding roommates.  You have to make plans early in the spring for the next fall.  This year worked out perfectly, though.  At Bible study, we were doing prayer requests, and I mentioned needing a roommate, and one of the group leaders said that he needed a place to live.  That was Shawn, who you just met.”

“Oh, wow.  That did work out.”

I turned left on Fifth Street and right on Andrews Road, entering campus by the North Residential Area.  I pointed out the basketball arena and the pool, with its landscaped berm popular with sunbathers which my dad had once nicknamed Thong Bikini Hill.  I turned left on Davis Drive and right into the South Residential Area, where we drove past Building C.  “This is where I lived freshman year,” I said.  Pointing at my window, I said, “That was my room.”

“Cool!  These buildings are smaller than the other ones we just drove by.”

“Yeah.  It was nice.  And, remember, I was in that program where everyone else in the program lived in the same building, so we all knew each other.”

“That’s cool.  I’ve just been paired with a random roommate both years.  Last year my roommate and I got along, but this year we aren’t very close.  It’s not that we don’t like each other, we’re just different.  You know.”

“Yeah.  There are definitely some people from Building C that I didn’t stay friends with.”

“Were those cows back there?” Rachel asked.

“Yeah.  The dairy was right across the street.  People in the dorms always made fun of the smell, but you get used to it after a while.”

“I guess that would make sense that Jeromeville would have a dairy, if it’s known for its agricultural programs.”

As I drove around the outer edge of campus, I pointed out other highlights: the Arboretum; Marks Hall, where the administrative offices were located; Krueger Hall, home of the offices for my part-time job as a math tutor; the odd-looking building nicknamed the Death Star, where I got lost playing Sardines; and the football stadium, which looked like a high school stadium, but a little bit bigger.  I pointed out that many of the academic buildings were to the west of us, in the part of campus closed to vehicular traffic.  I turned right on Fifth Street and pointed out the Newman Center.

“That’s a cute building,” she said.

“It was the original building for the main Catholic Church in Jeromeville.  But they moved into a bigger building eventually.”

“Are you ready to eat?” Rachel asked.

“Yes.  Do you know what you want?”

“Not really.”

“I’m terrible at picking food,” I said.  “I mostly just know fast food, and I haven’t found any local restaurants yet, except for another burger place.”

“What about if you just drive around and I’ll look for something that looks good?”

“That sounds perfect,” I said.  “We’re downtown, so there’s a ton of restaurants nearby.”

I began driving up and down the downtown grid on the streets named for low numbers and letters at the beginning of the alphabet.  As I passed the corner of G and Third Streets, Rachel pointed at the Jade Dragon Restaurant and asked, “Do you like Chinese food?”

“Sure,” I replied.  “I’ve never been there.  Let’s try it.”

A public parking lot ran the entire length of the block between F and G Streets.  I pulled into a parking place and walked with Rachel back to the restaurant.  After we sat down, I looked over the menu and said, “So it looks like if we get this dinner for two, we can each pick an entree to go with all of those sides?”

“That’s what I see.”

“Back home, the summer after I graduated, I went to that Chinese place on Valencia Road by McDonalds with Catherine and Melissa and Renee and Anthony and Kevin.  I was confused about how to order, and I got a little frustrated.”

“We can go somewhere else if you don’t like Chinese food.”

“No, I do,” I said.  “We just never went out to eat and sat down when I was a kid.  My brother and I always acted squirrelly whenever we went out to eat, you know, like little boys do, and as we grew up, Mom just assumed we were always going to misbehave in restaurants.  So we always got take-out.  As far as I knew, Chinese food came in little white boxes.”

“That’s kind of funny.”

After we ordered, I asked, “So who is it that you’re on your way to visit tonight? Is it someone I knew back home?”

“No,” Rachel explained.  “She was one of my friends at St. Elizabeth’s last year, but it wasn’t working out for her there, so she moved back home and transferred to Capital State.”

“It must be nice not having classes tomorrow.  That way you can do three-day weekend trips like this whenever you want.”

“It is nice.  This is the first time it’s worked out that way.”

“It seems like every math class at UJ is Monday-Wednesday-Friday.  So I’ll probably never have Fridays off.  And now that I’m doing University Chorus, their rehearsals are Monday-Wednesday-Friday too.”

“How is chorus going?  What kind of music are you doing?”

“I don’t know classical music well enough to describe it,” I said, chuckling.  “But we’re doing Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass and some Christmas thing by Vaughan Williams.”

“I don’t know either of those.”

“I didn’t either until last week.”  Our food arrived, and we began eating.  “This is good,” I said.  “Good suggestion.”

“It is,” Rachel agreed after taking a bite.  “And thanks for the campus tour.  Jeromeville is so much bigger than St. Elizabeth’s.”

“I’ve never been to St. Elizabeth’s, but I would imagine it is.”

“Do you have a favorite part of the campus?”

“Hmm,” I replied, thinking.  “Maybe the Arboretum.  It’s peaceful, like you’re out in nature with all the trees nearby.  Or some of the roads on the rural side of campus, where they do agricultural research.  I ride my bike out there sometimes.”

“That sounds nice,” Rachel said.  “My favorite part of St. Elizabeth’s is this big cross.  Sometimes I just walk out there at night and watch the stars.  I’m not very religious, but it feels spiritual being out there.”

“Is it weird going to a Catholic school when you’re not Catholic?”

“Not really.  There are a lot of students who aren’t Catholic.”

“That’s true.  I’ve never been to Catholic school at any level, so I don’t know what it’s like.”

“What are you doing this weekend?” Rachel asked.

“Tomorrow is Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Then Saturday I’m going to the football game, against Capital State.  It’s our big rivalry game, the Drawbridge Classic.  The rest of the weekend I’ll just be doing homework.”

“That should be fun.  Do you go to a lot of games?”

“Some.  Not as many as I did freshman year when I lived right on campus.”

“I haven’t really followed sports at St. Elizabeth’s,” Rachel said.  “Apparently football and basketball are pretty big there.”

“I think they’re Division I,” I replied.  “That’s considered the top level of college sports.  Jeromeville is Division II.”

“Really.  It’s kind of funny that Jeromeville is so much bigger but St. Elizabeth’s is in a higher sports division.”

“I know.  I’m not really sure how all that works.  But there’s this local band that I’ve seen three times, called Lawsuit.  They’re playing at the pre-game show, so I definitely wanted to go to this one.”

“I think you’ve told me about Lawsuit before.  Were they the ones who were, like really different from anything you’d heard before?”

“Yeah.  Like rock with horns.”

“That should be fun!  I wonder if they ever play out my way?”

“I think so.  They play around Bay City a lot too.”

Rachel and I spent about another hour, long after we had finished our fortune cookies, talking about classes, college friends, campus activities, mutual friends, and what we had done over the summer.  Eventually, Rachel said, “I should go.  It’s getting dark, and I still have to drive to Capital City.”

“You don’t have too much farther to go,” I said.

“Yeah, but I don’t know where I’m going.  That makes it stressful.”

“True.”

We got back in my car and drove back to my apartment.  I parked and walked Rachel to her car.  “Thank you so much for visiting,” I said.  “It was so good to see you.”

“Yeah!” Rachel replied.  “You too!  It was good to see where you live, finally.”

“Drive safely, and have fun with your friend.”

“I will!”  Rachel put her arms around me, and we hugged, a long lingering hug that lasted about ten seconds.  “Good night, Greg.”

“Good night.”  I watched as Rachel exited the parking lot, then went back into the house.  Rachel may be on a three-day weekend, but it was still Thursday and I had numerical analysis homework due tomorrow.


The weather in early October in Jeromeville was basically Summer Junior, warm and sunny during the day, although not as hot as actual summer.  I rode my bike to the football stadium Saturday afternoon, arriving as Lawsuit was setting up their instruments and equipment on a temporary stage that had been erected for this pregame show.

This scene differed greatly from that of the last time I saw Lawsuit, at the benefit concert for the C.J. Davis Art Center.  For one thing, the show started at five o’clock, and it was not completely dark yet.  People were spread out over a much larger area on a practice sports field next to the stadium, with booths set up for snacks and drinks.  Not everyone was actively paying attention to the band.

Lawsuit played many of the same songs I had seen in the three other shows of theirs that I had been to.  They opened with the same song as the other times I had seen them, “Thank God You’re Doing Fine,” followed by “Useless Flowers.”  I had the two most recent of their five albums, so I recognized at least half the songs, but they played some that I did not know.  I was unsure if these were from older albums, or if they were new songs that were not released on albums yet.  Being that it was a shorter set and part of a football pregame show instead of just a Lawsuit concert, the show felt more like when they performed at Spring Picnics rather than the benefit concert at the Art Center.  They did not have as much banter or inside jokes between the band members as they did at the Art Center, which did not particularly bother me, since most of the inside jokes went over my head.

I made a mental note to go to more Lawsuit concerts this coming school year.  Their monthly flyers told their fans to bug radio stations to play them; maybe I should start doing that too.  I did not know how all of that worked, however.  I thoroughly enjoyed every bit of the pregame show tonight.

After Lawsuit finished, I walked into the football stadium, sitting with the Colt Crew, the free general admission section reserved for undergraduates.  A group of students led the Colt Crew in silly cheers all night, with plenty of giveaways during the night.  I got excited during a timeout in the third quarter, when the Colt Crew brought out one of their most random traditions, Tube Sock Madness.  All of the Colt Crew leaders dressed in silly costumes, tossing rolled-up tube socks into the crowd.  I caught tube socks once freshman year from a guy in a cow suit, but I came up empty at this game.  I did not know if the guy in the cow suit tonight was the same guy as two years ago, but I noticed that this cow suit had a nipple ring on the udder.

By now, I had been to enough University of Jeromeville Colts football games that I recognized the tunes of all of the marching band fight songs, and I even knew the words to a few of them.  I hummed along and sang quietly under my breath a few times, taking in the college football atmosphere and forgetting the stresses of studying for one night.  I was already on a high from the Lawsuit show, and the excitement of a good, close game made the night even better.  Unfortunately, the night ended on a disappointing note; with the score tied in the fourth quarter, Capital State marched down the field and kicked a field goal, which Jeromeville was unable to answer in their final remaining drive.  The Colts lost, 27 to 24.

All things come to an end, somehow, someday.  Often, one has no idea that something has just happened for the final time.  That early October Thursday evening was, as of now, the last time I saw Rachel in person.  Rachel’s emails would become less frequent as the year went on, and we gradually lost touch as life continued to get in the way.  However, early in the social media era, when Rachel and I were in our early thirties, she found me on Facebook, and we have been sporadically in contact ever since, occasionally liking and commenting on pictures and such.  She now lives in Mt. Lorenzo, a hippie beach town near where I grew up, working as a sex therapist.  As an unmarried man with conservative Christian values, I have little to no need for a sex therapist and no idea what her career is like.

That football game was also the last Drawbridge Classic I would attend for a decade.  The game was played in Capital City in odd-numbered years, and I did not want to watch it in front of a hostile crowd.  My remaining even-numbered years in Jeromeville, I was busy with other things and not following football as closely.  It was not until 2005 that I would begin attending Colt football games again, this time no longer as a resident of Jeromeville, and not until 2006 that I would see the Colts play Capital State at home

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, that night was also the last time I would ever see Lawsuit perform live.  But that is another story for another time.


Note to readers: What about you guys? When was a noteworthy time in your lives when you did something or saw someone for the last time, and didn’t realize it?

End of September, 1996. The time I joined chorus.

“The mass has ended,” Father Bill said to the congregation at the Jeromeville Newman Center.  “Let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” many in the congregation replied.

Those of us in the church choir began singing and playing the closing song.  The choir had changed a bit from last year, since two people graduated, but most of the people I knew were still singing with us.  Danielle Coronado, a junior like me, and her sophomore sister Carly; Danielle was one of the first friends I made in Jeromeville in my freshman dorm.  Phil Gallo, a sophomore.  Heather Escamilla, a senior who was my neighbor last year before I got the new apartment and roommates.  Matt Jones and Ryan Gambrell, two seniors who played guitars, who grew up in Santa Lucia County like me but went to Catholic school.  Two senior girls, Claire Seaver and Sabrina Murphy, and their freshman siblings whom I had just met today, Margaret Seaver and Chad Murphy.  A woman named Karen, not a student, who played piano.

After the last song, as we were packing up the instruments and sheet music, I asked Claire, “Can I look through the sheet music?  I have my audition for University Chorus on Tuesday, and I need to bring my own music to sing.”

“Sure!” Claire replied.  “I’m excited you’re gonna be in Chorus!”

“You are?  For sure?” Danielle asked, overhearing our conversation.  “Yay!”

“I will if they let me in,” I said.

“The audition isn’t hard,” Danielle explained.  “You’re pretty much just showing them that you can carry a tune.  And there are always more girls than guys, so if you’re a guy and you aren’t tone deaf, they’ll let you in.”

“I hope so,” I said, flipping through pages of sheet music looking for something I knew I could sing.  “I’m really nervous.”  I had no idea whether or not an audition of Catholic Church music would be frowned upon, given the reputation that large public universities sometimes had for being anti-Christian.  Christianity influenced much classical art and music, however, so I figured it would be okay, particularly if I sang something well known.  The songs were arranged alphabetically, so after about a minute I found “Amazing Grace.”  I said, “I think I can sing Amazing Grace.”  I had never sung it with the church choir, but the worship band at Jeromeville Christian Fellowship had played it a few times, so I felt like I knew it well enough.

“Sounds good!” Claire said.

“Good luck,” Danielle added, patting me on the back.  “You’ll do great.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

I drove home with the radio off, singing Amazing Grace to myself.  Growing up, the few occasions when I heard this song were always met with my mother saying that she hated it, particularly Joan Baez’ hippie-era recording of the song.  I mostly liked the lyrics, having recently learned about the history of the song.  The lyrics were written by an 18th-century British slave ship captain who turned to God to save him from a shipwreck, later turning away from the cruelty of the slave trade and becoming an abolitionist.  God had not saved me from anything that dramatic, but he certainly had saved me from my life of hopelessness, loneliness, and depression during sophomore year.


Two days later, I rode my bike to campus with the sheet music to Amazing Grace in my backpack, along with the usual binder that I would not be using today.  I rode all the way across campus to the east side of the Quad, with the Death Star building and Old North and South Halls on the left.  Just past the Quad, I passed the library on the right and a classroom building called Orton Hall on the left.  Beyond the library, East Quad Avenue ended in a T-intersection with Davis Drive, with the art, drama, and music buildings clustered together on the other side of the street.  I parked my bike and walked into the music building, looking for room 111.

The music building was small, with two floors.  I walked in through a lobby to a hallway extending to the left and right with a bulletin board in front of me.  I was not sure which side room 111 was on, but in a building of this size, it did not take long to find.

Room 111 was rectangular, with the entrance on the short side.  The wall to the left of me had a chalkboard along most of the length of the wall, with groups of five lines permanently imprinted on the board for writing music.  To the right were about a hundred and fifty seats, in rows which were each a step above the row in front of them, like stadium seats.  Two aisles divided the sections into thirds.  The ceiling and parts of the walls were off-white, covered in some kind of material that probably had to do with acoustics or soundproofing or something like that.  A thin woman, probably around thirty years old, with wavy hair dyed dark sat in a chair next to a slightly younger-looking man with a goatee sitting at a grand piano.

“Hi,” the woman said.  “I’m Sharon.  What’s your name?”

“Greg Dennison,” I said.

Sharon looked down at her list of students who would be auditioning today.  “Greg.  There you are.  What did you bring to sing today?”  I opened my backpack and gave her the sheet music of Amazing Grace, which she handed to the pianist.  “Amazing Grace,” she said.  “In F-major, so it starts C-F.”  Turning back to me, Sharon said, “Whenever you’re ready, Greg.”

The pianist played a C and an F, the first two notes of the song.  I took a deep breath and began singing.  “A-ma-zing grace, how sweet the sound.”  I took a breath and continued, “That saved a wretch like me!”  Another breath.  “I once was lost, but now am found.”  Another breath.  “Was blind, but now I see.”

Sharon stopped me.  “That’s good,” she said.  “Welcome to University Chorus.”

“Thank you,” I said, smiling.  Danielle was right; this audition was not difficult at all.  I had had nothing to worry about.

“Are you Baptist, by any chance?” the pianist asked.

“No,” I said, a little confused.  “I’m Catholic.  I sing in my church choir.”

“You kind of sing like a Baptist,” the pianist explained, demonstrating how my voice tended to not quite hit the pitch of some long notes and then quickly adjust.  Hopefully I had not done something wrong.  If this was not good enough for the way I was supposed to sing in University Chorus, I would do my best not to sing that way.

“Interesting,” I said, not particularly wanting to have that discussion.  “I hadn’t thought of that.”

“So I’ll see you Friday at 12:10?” Sharon asked.

“Yes!”


After my audition, I went to the basement of the campus store to get my textbooks for the quarter.  Chorus was technically a two-unit class called Music 144, graded pass/no-pass.  There were two thin books of sheet music on the shelf for Music 144, along with a compact disc labeled as optional which I did not buy.  The longer of the two pieces for chorus was called Missa in Angustiis, by Joseph Haydn, also known as the Lord Nelson Mass.  It was first performed right at the same time that Horatio Nelson had defeated Napoleon’s forces, in the late 18th century, and it had always been associated with that event.  The other book of sheet music was called Fantasia on Christmas Carols, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1912.  I did not know that name.

Thursday, September 26, was the first day of classes.  As was often the case, Thursday was a light day for me, with only my discussion section for New Testament.  We had no class material to discuss, since the first lecture would not meet until tomorrow, so the teaching assistant just introduced the class and what we would be doing in the discussion section.  I was going back to the part-time job I had for part of last year, tutoring lower-division math classes for the Learning Skills Center on campus ten hours per week, and with only one class on Thursday, I could make myself available for tutoring on Thursdays.

My class schedule for Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was much busier, with one math class and the New Testament lecture in the morning and another math class in the afternoon.  In between, chorus met from 12:10 until 1:00.  The room was about half full when I arrived on that first Friday.  Sharon, whom I had met at my audition, sat in the front at the piano, with a balding middle-aged man in a suit also in the front of the room.  I found a seat near the right aisle and waited for class to start.  “Greg!” a familiar voice behind me said.  I turned around to see Phil Gallo from church.

“Hey, Phil,” I said.

As I looked at the people around me and watched the rest of the chorus trickle in through the door, I recognized a few other familiar faces.  Jason Costello from my freshman dorm, who also goes to Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  Danielle, Claire, and Margaret from the church choir.  A couple of faces I recognized from the dining hall freshman year.  Scott Madison and Amelia Dye from JCF.  Scott saw me looking around and waved; I waved back.

Sharon stood up and spoke, introducing herself as the TA for the class.  She would be the contact person for most of our concerns.  She introduced the balding man as Dr. Thomas Jeffs, the professor who would be conducting the chorus.  Dr. Jeffs then introduced himself with a long list of accolades and prestigious choral groups that he had been a part of over his career.  As one with little knowledge of classical music, most of that meant nothing to me, other than that the accomplishments sounded impressive.

Next, a blonde girl walked to the front.  “Hi!  My name is Carolyn Parry, and I’m the section leader for the sopranos.  The section leader for altos couldn’t be in chorus this quarter, and the section leader for basses graduated.  So, altos and basses, take five minutes to find the others in your section, and decide who will be section leader.”

I had no idea who the other basses were.  I noticed that the guys mostly seemed to sit in the middle, with the girls mostly on the sides, but with a few girls near the aisle in the middle, possibly because there was not enough room for all the girls on the sides.  “Are you a bass?” one older-looking guy sitting next to me asked.

“I am,” I replied.  Apparently the seat I chose was coincidentally in the bass section.

“No one really wanted to be section leader,” a guy sitting behind me said, “so we were wondering if you’d want to do it.”

Wow.  My first day of University Chorus, and I’m already being asked to be section leader.  “What exactly does the section leader do?” I asked.

“Mostly just take attendance,” the guy who asked if I was a bass said.  “Just pass around a sign-in sheet, everyone makes sure they sign it, and then you give it to Sharon.”

“I guess I can do that,” I said.  I hoped that it was actually that simple, and that the other basses were not hazing the new guy or anything like that.

After the selection of section leaders, the actual rehearsal began.  Dr. Jeffs told us to turn to the Credo in the Lord Nelson Mass.  Each section practiced a few measures, then we sang them together.  This Credo seemed difficult to sing, because instead of harmonizing, it was sung like a round, with the sopranos and altos starting, and the tenors and basses coming in a measure later.  But unlike round songs I knew as a child, like “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” the tenors and basses sang in a different key than the sopranos and altos, which created some very non-intuitive harmonies.  I had taken piano lessons for three years as a child, so I knew how to read music, but I quickly discovered that I was not very good at it.  I could follow along with sheet music when someone else sang or played, but I found it difficult to learn an unfamiliar song, particularly one with four part harmony, just by reading sheet music.  By the end of the class, I felt frustrated and overwhelmed.  Maybe I was not good enough for University Chorus.  But, as we were leaving, Dr. Jeffs said something that changed the whole experience for me.

“It’s about time to go,” Dr. Jeffs said.  “Section leaders, be sure to turn in your sign-in sheet for your section.  And, remember, if you don’t have the sheet music yet, go get that.  And they have a CD of the Haydn in the bookstore.  I will see you Monday.”

As soon as I left the building, I immediately headed to the campus store.  I remembered seeing that compact disc stacked there next to the books of sheet music, labeled as optional, and after today, I realized that I needed it.  I had no trouble following sheet music when a song was playing, so I suspected that I would be able to learn my part better by listening.

The first meeting of Jeromeville Christian Fellowship for the year was that night; that was when we performed the Scooby-Doo skit.  The next morning, I put the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass in my stereo and pressed Play.  I skipped to track 5, the Credo.  I knew enough from being Catholic that a Mass is the words from a church service set to music.  Although the Lord Nelson Mass was in Latin, I could understand what the words meant, since I knew the words to the Catholic Mass in English, and I studied Spanish, which evolved from Latin, for three years in high school.  The Credo was the part called the Nicene Creed in English, beginning with “I believe in one God,” or “Credo in unum Deum” in Latin.  The sections of this Mass appeared to be named for the first couple of words from each part.

I sang along while following the sheet music.  The women’s parts seemed louder than the men’s parts on the recording, but if I turned the stereo up loud enough, I could hear the bass.  Not only that, but I was able to follow along with the bass part on the sheet music.  I played the track a second time, this time singing along.  I remembered how, yesterday in class, Dr. Jeffs had reminded us to trill the R in “credo” at the beginning.  On my sheet music, where the words “cre- do” were written under the notes, I wrote “crrrre- do” underneath it, so I would remember to trill the R.  I started the song over and sang along.

My roommate Shawn came home in the middle of the song.  He poked his head in the bedroom door and asked, “What are you listening to?”

“Haydn’s Lord Nelson Mass,” I explained.  “It’s one of the pieces we’re doing for chorus this quarter.”

“Oh yeah,” Shawn said.  “You’re in chorus.”

“It’s my first time doing it.”

“How’s it going so far?”

“I learned really quickly that I think I’m going to do better listening to the piece over and over again while I practice my part.  I can read music a little bit, but I don’t learn new music very well that way.  So I bought the CD.”

“Makes sense,” Shawn said.  He crossed the hall to the bathroom, and I closed the bedroom door and sang through the Credo two more times.

For the rest of that quarter, I listened to the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass over and over and over again.  When I was first learning a part of the Mass, I would follow along with the sheet music.  After that, as I was learning the part better, I would put the CD on while I was doing math homework or talking to girls in chat rooms, and I would sing along to my part.  This way, I would just learn it by performing, much as how I learned the words and tune to songs on the radio or on my other CDs by listening over and over again and singing along sometimes.

Something odd happened a few days after I got the CD of the Lord Nelson Mass.  I was sitting at my computer, at the desk under the bed loft that I had bought from Claire, doing homework for Advanced Calculus while the Lord Nelson Mass was playing.  I took a break, looking up from my textbook for about a minute.  Then I stood up and turned toward my bookshelf, about to look for a dust rag, when I realized what was happening.  In the summer between freshman and sophomore year, I was back home working in a bookstore where the owner always played classical music.  The sound of classical music coming out of my stereo triggered some dormant muscle memory in my brain, memories of when the bookstore was empty of customers and I walked around to dust the shelves.  I laughed when I realized where this thought had come from.  I mentioned it to Danielle at the next rehearsal, and she laughed too, having remembered my stories from working at the bookstore that summer.

Although I loved listening to music, I always had a complicated relationship with performing music.  We had an old, out-of-tune piano in our living room at home, which had belonged to Dad’s grandmother, and I just liked playing around on it, but Mom always made a big deal of me playing piano and wanted me to perform for relatives and family friends.  I quit after three years of piano lessons in elementary school because I was self-conscious.  I never thought of performing music in front of others again until last year, when Danielle invited me to choir practice.  Now I was part of a chorus that would have to perform in front of a large audience at the end of the quarter, in a less comfortable environment than a church service, and once I got used to how things worked at University Chorus, I was excited about this.  The last year had been a time of great change and growth for me, and more changes were coming.

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.

September 9, 1996. My first great prank.

Author’s note: This is the 100th episode!! Thank you to all of you for following along with this story. It means a lot that you find enjoyment in my storytelling.


Toilet-papering houses has long been a traditional prank among teenagers and young adults.  High school and college students would decorate houses, yards, and trees with toilet paper as a way to play a good-natured joke on someone.

At least that was what I had always heard.  I was never one of the cool kids, so my house never got toilet-papered when I was in high school.  I lived far from most of my friends, and none of them knew where I lived, and even if they did, I did not have the kind of social connections that led me to be involved in any of these pranks, either as an instigator or a recipient.

This year, though, I felt like I was living with the cool kids, or at least closer to the experience than I ever had before.  Many of the students in Jeromeville Christian Fellowship lived with each other in large houses and apartments, and many of those students’ social lives revolved around JCF.  I had begun attending JCF about a month into the school year last fall, and over the course of the year I had gotten to know many of the other students in the group over the course of the year.  One of the cool kid houses split up because most of the residents graduated, but two residents of that house who were still in Jeromeville, and they were now my roommates for this year.  Shawn Yang was still a student at the University of Jeromeville, in the teacher training program, and Brian Burr was working part-time for JCF, supported by contributions, and taking the year to apply to medical school.

Shawn and I moved in the first weekend of September, and Brian moved in a few days later.  Our fourth roommate, Josh McGraw, had not moved in yet.  On the first Monday after Brian moved in, I had a chicken pot pie from the freezer in the oven for dinner.  When I came downstairs to eat, Brian was in the living room.  He had been busy that morning, so this was the first I had seen him that day.  He wore a shirt with the logo of the Bay City Captains football team; the shirt said, “One for the thumb!” next to a drawing of a hand wearing the Captains’ five football championship rings, one on each finger.  The Captains had won their fifth championship recently, in the 1994-95 season.

“Nice shirt,” I said.

“Hey, how was the game yesterday?  Looks like you saw a blowout.”

“I know.  34 to nothing.”

“Where were you guys sitting?”

“Section 27.  We were pretty far up, though.”

“Nice.  Do you guys go to Captains games often?”

“This was my first one in person.  The doctor that my mom works for has season tickets, and no one was using them this week, so he asked if we wanted them.”

“Nice!  It’s been a few years since I’ve been to one.”

“It was so much fun!  Traffic was really bad on the way home, though.  It took longer to drive across Bay City from the stadium to the bridge than it did to get from the bridge to Jeromeville.”

“Wow.  That’s crazy.”

“I know,” I said.  The distance from the bridge to home was about ten times as far as the distance across the city.  It took almost three hours to make a trip that would have taken an hour and a half with no traffic.

Shawn walked in the front door a few minutes later, covered in sweat and wearing nothing but running shorts and shoes.  “Hey, guys,” he said.

“What are you doing tonight?” Brian asked.  “I wanna pull a prank.  It’s been a long time.  Let’s toilet-paper someone’s house.”  I could not tell from Brian’s tone whether or not I was going to be included in any potential toilet-papering, and I did not want to impose.  Instead, I sat at the table eating my pot pie, listening eagerly and hoping I would be explicitly invited, or at least that I could find a way to ask that did not come across as awkward.

“Hmm.  Who do we know who’s around, but not home right now?” Shawn asked.

“I need to get Lorraine back for last year.  But I know she’s gonna be home tonight.”

“How do you know?”

“I saw Mike Kozlovsky earlier.  He’s in town today.  He said they’re gonna watch a movie over there tonight, and a few other people will be there too.  That won’t work unless we find a way to get them out of the house.  Or… unless…”

“Unless what?” Shawn asked.

“We could TP their house while they’re watching the movie.  The sound will be turned up, so if we’re quiet enough, they won’t hear us!”

“You know what would be really fun?  If we hid somewhere after we finished, and then, when everyone was leaving after the movie, we’d hear their reaction.”

“That would be amazing,” Brian said.  “They’d probably catch us, though.  And they’d recognize my car parked outside.”

Unbeknownst to me, I possessed a hidden power that would be very useful to Brian and Shawn in their prank.  Shawn realized it first.  “Let’s take Greg’s car,” he said.  “None of them know Greg’s car.”

“Yes!” Brian exclaimed.  “And Greg’s car has plenty of room, so we can hide in the back of Greg’s car and wait for them to come outside!”

“Sounds good,” I said.  Sounds like I was invited after all.  “When do we leave?”


A few hours later, after it was dark, the three of us piled into my Ford Bronco with an unopened 12-pack of toilet paper in the back.  As I pulled out of my parking space, Shawn said, “Hey!  Remember how Mike Kozlovsky is scared of snakes?”

“Oh, yeah!” Brian said, laughing.  “That was hilarious that one time.

“I saw a dead snake in the middle of the road when I was out running earlier.  If it’s still there, we should go get it and leave it on their porch.”

“Dude.  That’s kind of messed up.  But we totally should.”

“Where am I going?” I asked.

“Turn left,” Shawn instructed me.  I turned left on Maple Drive and followed it north, to where it makes a curve to the left at the edge of the Jeromeville city limits, becoming a frontage road to Highway 117.  “Turn on the high beams,” Shawn said.  “The snake was right up here somewhere.”

I slowed down to about fifteen miles per hour, hoping that no one would come up behind us, looking at the road below me.  After about a minute, I saw it, just as Shawn described: a snake, about two feet long, lying dead in the road, its body making the shape of the letter S.  “Is that it?” I asked.

“Yes!” Shawn exclaimed.  “I’ll get out and get it.”  Shawn got out of the car, picked up the snake using a napkin he found in my glove compartment, then returned to the passenger seat holding the snake.

“Where am I going?” I asked.  “Lorraine’s house, right?  I don’t know where that is.”

“Corner of K Street and Columbine Court,” Brian answered.  “So take Coventry to K.”

I made a U-turn and headed back down Maple Drive, past our apartment, and turned left on Coventry Boulevard, past two shopping centers, the high school, and the C.J. Davis Art Center.  The street crossed over a railroad track, and at the bottom of the overpass I turned right on K Street.  I certainly had to admit that this was a new experience for me.  As much as I was looking forward to having fun with roommates this year, I never expected that, just a week after moving in, I would be driving across town in the dark with a bunch of toilet paper and a dead snake.  This would definitely be a night that I would remember for a long time.

That stretch of K Street between Coventry Boulevard and Ninth Street had a long row of apartment complexes on the right, wedged between the street and the railroad track, with detached houses on the left.  Lorraine’s house was on the left, the east side of the street; I did not know her well, but I knew who she was.  Her loud boisterous personality made her hard to miss at JCF events.  Mike Kozlovsky, one of Brian and Shawn’s other roommates the previous year, had graduated and moved back home, but he had a younger girlfriend, Jeanette, who was still in school.  Jeanette was one of Lorraine’s roommates in this house.

I parked across the street from the house.  “I’m gonna go make sure the coast is clear,” Brian said.  He tiptoed across the street into the yard, staying low and close to the bushes planted below the living room window.  The front drapes were closed, and a dim light glowed through the other side of the living room window, presumably by the television on which the people in the house were watching the movie.  Brian tilted his head to listen to what was happening in the living room.  After about a minute, he looked directly at Shawn and me, still in the car, and motioned for us to approach.  I grabbed the toilet paper and tiptoed quickly across the dark street, with Shawn following me carrying the dead snake.

I quietly opened the package of toilet paper, and each of us took a roll.  Shawn put the dead snake on the porch, far enough from the door to be visible to whomever opened it, and unrolled his toilet paper across the bushes.  Brian and I each took our rolls and threw them into the large maple tree in the yard.  I watched in awe as the unrolling toilet paper left behind a long stream stuck in the branches.  I picked up the roll and tossed it again, watching as the tree became covered in toilet paper.  I continued throwing two more rolls into the tree when I noticed that Brian was no longer next to me.

Brian had walked back out to K Street, where he was now covering a black Chevrolet S-10 pickup truck with toilet paper.  “Mike’s car,” Brian explained in a whisper as I approached.  I unrolled more toilet paper to decorate the outside of the truck, then I went back to covering  bushes near the front door.  Shawn was adding to the toilet paper already in the tree.  When I noticed there was no more toilet paper in the package, I stepped back to the sidewalk to admire our work.  A few minutes later, when Brian and Shawn were finished, we grabbed the empty bag and the cardboard cores of the toilet paper roll and quietly walked back to my car.

“Shawn,” Brian said.  “Hop back here with me.  Greg, can you stay out of sight up front?”

“Sure,” I replied as Shawn and Brian climbed over the back seat into the cargo area.

“Roll down the windows, so we can hear them.”

“Okay.”  I lowered the windows, then reclined the driver’s seat all the way back so that as little of me would be visible from the outside as possible.  The glow of the television was still showing from behind the living room drapes, and the occupants of the house did not appear to react or notice our handiwork.

“Now we wait?” I whispered.

“Now we wait,” Brian replied.

The minutes dragged on in silence as I lay on the reclined driver’s seat, my head poking up just enough to keep an eye on the house.  Nothing had changed.  I had no idea how long it would be until the movie was over and people left.  After a few minutes of silence, Brian began making small talk.

“Greg?” Brian asked.  “Are you going to Outreach Camp?”

“Yes,” I replied.

“It’s your first one, right?”

“Right.”

“You’ll love it.  I always had a great time at Outreach Camp.”

“I wish I could go this year,” Shawn said.  “But I’ll be teaching.”

“That must be kind of hard juggling everything,” Brian said.  “The school where you’re teaching and Jeromeville being on different schedules.”

“Yeah, but it’s only for one year.”

After a few more minutes of silence, Shawn spoke up with more small talk.  “Greg?  What classes are you taking this quarter?”

“Math 127A and 128A, Religious Studies 40, and chorus,” I said.

“I liked 127A.  127B and C not so much, but 127A was pretty easy.  It’s just the theory behind everything you did in calculus.  And I never took the 128 series.”

“I loved RST 40,” Brian added.

“It’ll be the last class I need for my general ed requirements,” I explained.  “And I’ve heard a lot of people from JCF say good things about it.”

“Did you say chorus?” Shawn asked.  “I didn’t know you sang.”

“I’ve never done it before.  I have to audition, and I’m a little nervous about that.  I haven’t had any formal vocal training, but I’ve been singing in the choir at my church for almost a year.”

“That’s the same chorus that Scott and Amelia are in, right?” Brian asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“I’ve heard the audition isn’t hard.  They just want to make sure you can carry a tune.”

“I hope it’s that easy–”

“Shhh!” Shawn interrupted.  “Movie’s over!”

I looked across the street to the house.  The living room lights had come on, and I could vaguely see movement behind the drapes.  About three minutes after the lights came on, the front door opened, and dark figures began leaving the house.

“Aaaaah!” someone screamed.

“Whoa!” a girl answered.  “Where did that come from?”  I thought it sounded like Jeanette speaking, so the scream was probably Mike seeing the snake.

“Dude, you guys got hit!” a guy said loudly.  Possibly Lars Ashford.

“What?” answered a second female voice, whom I was pretty sure was Lorraine.

“Holy crap!” exclaimed a third female voice loudly.  “Mike, they got your car!  This was someone who knew you were gonna be here tonight!”  I saw the outline of this girl’s body and curly hair in enough light to recognize her as Kristina Kasparian, the girl who gave me her extra Bible the previous winter.

“Wow,” Mike said after seeing his car.

“It must have been someone who knew about that time last year with Mike and the snake,” Lars said.

“This has Alex McCann written all over it!” Lorraine shouted.  I giggled a little, because Alex McCann was not involved in this prank in any way.  I hoped that they could not see or hear us across the street.

“We better go inside and clean this up,” Jeanette said.

As everyone was walking back through the front door, Brian loudly whispered, “Go!  Go!”  I started the car, made a sharp U-turn, and turned north on K Street.  Brian and Shawn began cheering loudly enough for the others to hear, with the windows still rolled down, and I joined in, also honking the horn.

“That was perfect!” Brian exclaimed, as he and Shawn climbed back into actual seats and buckled their seat belts and I rolled up the windows.

“Yes!” I replied.  I held my hand up behind me in a high-five pose, while facing forward keeping my eyes on the road and my other hand on the steering wheel.  Brian and Shawn both slapped my hand.  “That was so cool!” I said.

“Now both of you are sworn to secrecy.  If anyone ever asks you about this night, say nothing.  Find a way to deny it.”

“Of course.”

I never said a word, and no one ever suspected me.  Shawn’s idea to take my car, which none of them recognized, was ultimately the little detail that enabled us to get away with this prank for so long.  A couple weeks later, after we got back from Outreach Camp, Brian told me that Lorraine had mentioned the prank in the camp cafeteria one day and asked him if he was involved, or knew who was.  Brian played dumb and acted like he did not know.

Despite Brian’s insistence on our vow of silence, he was the one who finally cracked.  Months later, in the spring, Brian mentioned to me that this night had come up as a topic of conversation, and he admitted his involvement to Lorraine.  He did not, however, implicate me or Shawn in that conversation.  As far as I know, none of the people in the house that night ever knew that I was involved, or that my red Bronco was parked right across the street as they discovered our prank.

Over the course of my life, particularly my early twenties, I was involved in many more pranks involving toilet paper.  If God watched down on all of us and kept a ledger of how many rolls of toilet paper each of us had thrown with mischievous intent, compared to many rolls others had used playing pranks against us, my ledger would be far out of balance with many more rolls given than received.  Hopefully, everyone who ever got pranked by a group including me knows that it was done in love and with no malicious intent.  Sometimes it was obvious to the recipient who was involved, sometimes it remained a mystery, but when asked about these pranks, I always played dumb and never gave away my secrets.

When I was younger, I would often lament all the things I missed out on in childhood, because of my sheltered upbringing and lack of childhood friends.  However, I have also come to find a silver lining: with so much that I never did when I was young, I still had lots of new things to enjoy as a young adult.  Some of the people who played a lot of pranks in childhood engage in more risky behavior as young adults, because the thrill of a simple prank has worn off, but for me, it just took a simple night of toilet-papering to feel like one of the best nights of my life.  The world is such a big place, and even today, I have so many new experiences to try.

September 2-3, 1996. Moving in and getting mail.

“This is the front door key, and this is the mail key,” the woman in the office at Sagebrush Apartments explained, placing the keys on the desk as I filled out paperwork.  “Looks like you have roommates; are they all moving in today?”

“Shawn should be here later today,” I said.  “Brian is moving in later this week, I think.  I’m not sure about Josh.”

The office employee took me around the grounds, showing me where to find the pool, laundry room, and mailboxes, and where to empty garbage.  She handed me a brochure, the same brochure I got when I first came here in May, but this one was the actual color printing, not the blotchy black-and-white photocopy that they had given me on that day when they were out of color copies.  The brochure had a map of the complex on it; she circled my apartment’s location, as well as the locations of the communal areas she had shown me.  “Just come back here if you need anything.  We’re open until six.  And once you get your phone connected, you can call this number.”  She underlined the office phone number.

“I will,” I said.  “Thanks.”

I walked back to the car in the office parking lot.  Mom and Dad were parked next to me, waiting in Dad’s gray pickup truck.  “I have the keys,” I said.  “Follow me.”  I drove my red Ford Bronco around to the back of the complex and parked next to building K.  Sagebrush Apartments consisted of around a dozen small buildings, named with letters, each containing six to eight individual apartment units.  While I waited for Dad to find a parking place, I looked through the brochure that I had gotten from the office.  Inside, on the second page, was the floor plan for each of the different types of apartments, and as I looked at my apartment, I saw something that made me recoil in horror and shame.  I may have made a huge mistake when I signed this lease four months ago.

On the blotchy photocopy I was given in May, when I was deciding between this apartment and another one, it looked like the large bedroom that I would be sharing with Shawn was 11 by 18 feet.  But on this clear copy, it was definitely 11 by 13 feet. The other place I had considered did have a very large bedroom, and I had told Shawn and Brian that the two places were similarly sized, and this one was less expensive.  I supposed, however, that if the others wanted to save money, they did not have room to complain about the place being a little small.

I tried to hide my disappointment at the room size when I unlocked the door and went inside, Mom and Dad behind me.  “This is nice!” Mom said.  “There’s that wood-burning stove you told me about.  That’ll come in handy when it gets cold.”  The stove was right in front of the door, with a stairway on the left leading upstairs to a small loft and the three bedrooms.  The living room was on the right, with the dining area straight ahead and the kitchen to the right of the living room, open to the living room through a bar behind the sink.

I went upstairs to my bedroom and looked around.  It was not huge, but not as tiny as I had feared.  I said to Mom and Dad, “Claire from church has a bed loft she’s going to sell me, with a desk underneath.  Do you remember Claire?”

“I’m not sure,” Mom replied.  I remembered Mom saying something embarrassing about Claire when she and Dad came to church with me freshman year, and I chose not to remind her.  

“Once I get that set up, I’ll have more room,” I said.

“That’ll be good.  You said Shawn is moving in later today?”

“Yeah.  I think so.  He’s back in Jeromeville already for his student teaching program.”

“Oh yeah, he’s going to be a teacher.  What’s he teaching?”

“High school math.”

“I didn’t know he was a math guy too.  But you met him from that Christian group, right?”

“Yes. Jeromeville Christian Fellowship.  He was my Bible study leader last year.”

Mom and Dad and I emptied the truck of the things we brought from home.  Next, we drove across Jeromeville to Second Street Self Storage, where I had stored everything from the old apartment.  It took us two trips to unload it all.  The Post Office was just around the corner from the storage unit, and we stopped there on the second trip.  I waited in line for five minutes, then I filled out a form to have mail forwarded to the new apartment and picked up the mail they had been holding.  Coupons and other junk mail.  Notices from utilities acknowledging that I had canceled service at the old apartment.  And a letter, in a small, off-white envelope.  When I saw who it was from, I felt an excited surge of adrenaline run through my body, and I tried to make myself look calm and normal when I got back in the truck.

“Did you get anything good?” Mom asked when she saw me holding a stack of mail.

“A lot of junk,” I said.  “And a letter.”

“Who’s it from?”

A sweet girl with pretty blue eyes, I wanted to say.  I wish I had the guts to ask her out.  And even though she’s a good Christian girl and I know it’s wrong, I wish both of us could fit on Claire’s bed loft.  “A girl from JCF,” I said instead.  “Named Haley.”

When we got home with the rest of my things from the storage unit, I put Haley’s letter and my other mail on top of the dresser.  I wanted to read it, but I also wanted to finish moving, and I did not want to read the letter in front of anyone.  I put the mattress on the floor, where the bed loft would eventually go, with my computer on the floor next to it.  That would not be particularly comfortable; I needed to call Claire soon.

We moved the rest of my furniture, what little I had, into the apartment.  The bookshelf went into the bedroom, between the mattress and the closet.  The television, the little table that held it, and the chair I sat on while watching it went into the empty living room; I would adjust it as necessary after the others brought more living room furniture.  We kept my kitchen and bathroom supplies, and my books and clothes, in boxes; I would unpack those gradually over the next couple days.  We left the box spring and the folding table I used as a desk in the truck, for Mom and Dad to take home; I would have no need for those once I got the bed loft set up.

After we finished unpacking, Mom and Dad took me to McDonald’s, where I ordered an Arch Deluxe.  “Are those any good?” Mom asked.  “I haven’t tried one yet.”

“I think so.  I like it.”

“What’s so special about it?”

“It’s on a different kind of bun, with special sauce, and supposedly higher quality ingredients.  It’s supposed to be marketed more toward adults.”

“I’ll try it next time.  I’d ask for a taste, but I don’t want to eat your burger.”

“Sounds good.”

“So what do you have going on in the next few weeks?  You’re going to that camp with JCF, right?”

“Yeah.  The camp is the 16th through the 20th.”

“Where is it?”

“A retreat center somewhere outside of Green Meadows.  About a two hour drive.”

“Is Taylor going to be there?”

“I don’t think so.  He’s been more involved with his church lately instead of JCF.”

“Are Liz and Ramon going to be there?”

“Yes.”

“Will that Haley girl be there?”

“I’m not sure. Probably.”

Mom, apparently having exhausted all of my friends whose names she could think of at the moment, changed the subject, telling me about my brother Mark and his friends and the start of their school year a week ago.  It was Mark’s first year of high school, and so far he seemed to be enjoying it.

After we finished eating, Mom wrote me a check for three hundred dollars.  “This is for when you go grocery shopping,” she explained, “and anything else you might need for the new place.”

“Thank you,” I said.

When we got back to the new apartment, we had to park several spaces down from where we were before, because a moving truck was in our old parking space.  Shawn and a guy I did not know were figuring out how best to unload a couch from the truck.

“Hey, Greg,” Shawn said, seeing me out of the corner of his eye.

“Hi.  How’s moving going?”

“We got most of my big things unloaded.  Looks like you did too.”

“Yes.  Mom and Dad, this is Shawn.”

Shawn walked over to shake my parents’ hands.  “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“You too!” Mom replied.  “We were just going to head out.  We have a long drive back to Plumdale.  And it looks like you guys have everything under control.”

“Sounds good,” I said.

“Enjoy the new apartment,” Mom said, giving me a hug.  “And good luck with the new school year, and with camp.  Nice meeting you, Shawn.”

Dad hugged me afterward.  “Dad loves you,” he said.

“You too,” I replied.

After Mom and Dad left, while Shawn was busy with the couch, I went upstairs to read Haley’s letter, quickly, so that Shawn would not see me.


August 29, 1996

Dear Greg,

Thanks so much for writing!  I was glad to hear about your summer so far.  Sorry it took me a while to write back. I’ve been so busy!  It sounds like your new apartment with Brian and Shawn will be good, and it’s in a good location too.  You mentioned Urbana – that’s exciting!  I’ve heard great things about it.  It’s awesome that you want to know more about how God has called you to serve Him.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going.  I really want to, but I’m just not sure if I can.

Summer has been great so far!  I’m working at a kids’ day camp, which is so much fun!  It’s been very nice to be home relaxing with my parents.  I love summer!  Tomorrow is the last day of work, so I’m really excited for the next three weeks of relaxing vacation.

Well, thanks again for your letter!  I love getting mail!  Have a great end of the summer.  I’ll see you in a few weeks!

In Christ,
Haley


That was sweet, I thought.  Haley actually wrote me back, finally.  I smiled and put the letter in a drawer, thinking about what I would say when I wrote to her next.  After that, I found the box where my telephone was, plugged it in, and dialed Claire’s number.  As I was waiting for an answer, I realized that if I got Claire’s answering machine, I was not entirely sure what number to tell her to call back.  I assumed that Brian had successfully transferred his telephone service to the new apartment, since there was a dial tone, so my phone number was now Brian’s number.  However, I had not actually confirmed this with Brian or Shawn.

“Hello?” a female voice said, making that thought a moot point.

“Is Claire there?” I asked.

“This is Claire.”

“Hi.  This is Greg.  I’m unpacking, and I was calling to ask about the bed loft.”

“Yes!  Are you ready for it?”

“I am, but I don’t know if it’ll all fit in my car.”

“My new roommate is coming up tomorrow with a U-Haul.  Can we just drop it off after she finishes unpacking?”

“Sure!  That’ll be perfect!”

“You’ll probably need a ratchet to put it together.  Do you have one?”

“No, but I can get one.  It’s probably a good thing to have around.”

“Good idea.  I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

“Yes!  Sounds good!”

After the phone call, I went downstairs and helped Shawn until we got everything out of his truck.  This place was starting to feel livable, although when it was time for bed and I slept on my mattress on the floor, it suddenly felt a little less livable.


The following afternoon, Claire arrived with the disassembled bed loft in the truck.  “Here it is,” she said.  “These two big pieces go on the ends, and this long flat one is the desk underneath.  These two go across the top to support the bed, and then these three flat pieces go between them.  You put the mattress on top of those.  And those go diagonally to brace the corners.  All the nuts and bolts are in that bag.”

“I think I get it.”

“These other pieces over here, you can make a shelf that goes around the desk.  But that’s optional.”

“I see.”

“I don’t remember exactly how that goes.  My dad built this for my older sister when she was in college.  It’s been great, but I don’t need it anymore.  I’m excited to have my own room!”

“I’m a little nervous about not having my own room,” I replied.  “But this will help with both of us fitting into that space.”

“Definitely!  Should we start carrying it in?”

“Sure,” I said.

With Claire’s help, I carefully carried all the bed pieces upstairs into the bedroom.  “This is a nice place,” Claire said.  “It has an upstairs.  And a wood stove.”

“I know.  That’ll be useful in the winter.”

After several trips up and down the stairs, we finished unloading the bed; I was sweating and breathing heavily by now.  “Thank you,” I said, giving Claire the fifty dollars we had agreen upon for the bed loft.

“You’re welcome!  I’ll see you at church?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “Bye.  Have a good one.”

“You too!”

After Claire left, I went upstairs, trying to figure out exactly how to assemble the bed.  First, I got out the new ratcheting socket wrench I had bought that morning.  I propped up the two large side pieces, wondering if it mattered which was the right and which was the left.  The side pieces had holes for the diagonal braces, which went in the back; I used this to figure out which one was which.  Next, I found the two long beams that went across left to right, and attached those to the right side piece, with the extra holes in the back again.  Each beam attached to each side with two bolts.  I tried to attach the diagonal pieces next, but I seemed to be missing a bolt, so I only attached one diagonal brace.  Next, I bolted each of the three flat pieces that held the mattress to the frame.  I adjusted the position of the bed in the room, making sure the back and the right were almost touching the walls, but not quite.  This would definitely make the room feel less crowded.

After that, I lifted the mattress into position.  Then I slid the desk, which was really more of a table, underneath the mattress.  The table did not attach with bolts; it rested on wood bars that protruded from the side pieces.  Finally, I shoved the unused shelf pieces under the table, and I moved the ladder up against the frame, near where the pillow would eventually go.  I took a step backward and admired my work, then I got in the shower, since I was dripping sweat at this point.  This was perfect.  After I got out of the shower, I read Haley’s letter again, then I sat at the desk under the bed, found a sheet of paper, and began writing.


September 3, 1996

Dear Haley,

Hi!  Thanks for writing!  It was so good to hear from you!  I’m getting settled in the new apartment.  Shawn moved in yesterday too, and Brian is coming later this week.  It’s been an adjustment sharing the large bedroom, but Claire Seaver sold me her old bed loft, so that saves a lot of room.


I added no further context to the name “Claire Seaver.”  I knew that Haley and Claire knew each other, through an embarrassing moment that happened back in the spring.


The rest of my summer was fun.  My birthday was August 15, and my Bible study made me cupcakes.  I wasn’t expecting that at all.  Then I went to my parents’ house for a couple weeks.  My brother and his friends and I have this game called Moport, like a cross between soccer and hockey and football, and we had a two-on-two Moport tournament.  I’ve been riding my bike a lot too.

I hope you get to go to Urbana.  I keep hearing such good things about it.  As a new Christian, I don’t know if I’m ready to go fly overseas and preach the Gospel, but I want to find out what kind of service opportunities are out there, especially with so many of my friends doing stuff like that.  I saw the guys from J-Cov when they got back from Morocco; it sounds like that was a great experience.

I’m excited for Outreach Camp!  I’ve never been up that way.  And it’ll be good to see everyone.  It’ll be good to get more involved with JCF and find out what God wants me to do.

What classes are you taking this quarter?  I’m taking advanced calculus, numerical analysis, and Intro to New Testament.  I’ve heard such good things about New Testament and the professor.  I’m going to do chorus too.  People from my church choir keep telling me I should, and Amelia said the same thing at Bible study once.  You said you used to do chorus, right?  Is the audition hard?  I’m a little nervous.  I forget; are you going to Outreach Camp?  I’ll see you soon!

Sincerely,
Greg


As I have gotten older, I have noticed that one peculiarity of adulthood, particularly for a storyteller like me, is that certain inanimate objects will acquire backstories because of memories of how they were acquired.  To this day, I still have Claire’s bed loft.  I used it as my bed for the remaining five years that I lived with different combinations of roommates in Jeromeville, as well as two living situations later in life when I rented a room in someone else’s house.  When I bought my current house, in my early thirties, Claire’s bed loft became a storage shelf in the garage for a while.  I set it up again some time later as the guest bed, where it remains today, and it became my bed again for four months when my house was torn up for repairs and I had nowhere to move my regular bed.  Claire’s bed loft was quite possibly the best fifty dollars I have ever spent.

I walked to the mailboxes and dropped Haley’s letter in the outgoing mail slot.  It was warm and breezy, with that smell of late summer afternoon all around me.  A day like today felt exactly like the way life should be.  I had the next two weeks to get used to living with Shawn and Brian and Josh.  Then I would be spending a week in God’s creation with dozens of my brothers and sisters in Christ.  And I would see Haley soon.  Great things were going to happen this year.  I knew it.