A few days after graduation the Conleys, Pacific Union College Alumni, had purchased a plane ticket for me to go out and visit Angwin, California to see if I could go to school there. Mrs. Conley, the registrar, had been one of the people that had consistently gotten on my case about my failures and arrogant approach. She thought I could really be someone if I could get over those; unfortunately, she was convinced that these were because of my environment and/or friends so she was trying to get me to branch out. I had received really big scholarships for Southwestern in Dallas, Union in Nebraska, Southern in Tennessee and Oakwood in Alabama. I was open to all of them except for Southwestern because I wanted to venture out and get out of the great state of Texas for my college career. PUC had not really entered my brain at all but as soon as I stepped into it, it was amazing. I flew into San Francisco and was immediately impressed with the beauty of the city. Once I arrived onto campus, it didn’t take much to sell me into deciding, the place was in Napa Valley and I was a kid who had never been anywhere except Texas and the deserts of Mexico. It literally was a city that sat on top of a hill, overlooking vineyards and beauty, a place where air conditioning was rarely necessary, where everything was green and gorgeous.
School was out for the year when I visited so it was fairly lonely so I took to walking the campus. In a moment I can’t seem to blur away, as I was overlooking campus from the top of one of the high points, I clearly got an impression that said that there at PUC I would have my last chance. I turned to see if someone was talking to me, my last chance at what exactly wasn’t sure or where it had come from. It was a fleeting moment and I’ve tried to dismiss it as dramatic self talk but it’s a memory that simply won’t fade.
I returned to VGA for a few days and went to church there one last time informing friends that I had decided to go to PUC and that they had offered me a full tuition, room and board scholarship. The elders of the local church congratulated me but warned me to not become like those California Adventists who dismissed things related to purity and wanting to live for themselves. They warned me that out there far too many people didn’t care about things like the purity of women, that they didn’t stay away from jewelry and make-up thus bringing unnecessary sexual attention to themselves; they didn’t’ care about staying away from movies and keeping their mind clean since it was the land of Hollywood. Enjoy your time there, they cautioned, but don’t become like them. With complete sincerity, I assured them that I would absolutely not.
Shortly before the summer was over, I had dinner with Jerry Cates in Odessa as my mom was still feeding him. This was the man that had made it possible for me to attend Christian boarding school; all my friends and my girlfriends and great high school events had been made possible due to his giving. And now I found out that he was not going to be attending church, because he was no longer a church member. Jerry had been on the governing body of the state and now he was no longer a believer.
I don’t know what caused this turn of events but it floored me. We sat and talked; there was no story, no tale of what had happened. He merely made it an intellectual exercise and began to tear up some stories of the Bible and how God’s word itself made God look foolish or mean. Some of his examples were relatively minor: Why did Adventists follow the levitical eating code but not the chapter before or after? Why had Jesus cursed a fig tree for not having fruit when the texts itself points out that it was not the season for fruit? Why were there what appeared to be two separate accounts of creation in Genesis? Why was God as petty as to keep Moses out of the Promised Land for striking a rock? Others however were haunting: why did Paul and Peter seem to have fought over whether the early church would be actively racist? Why had God encouraged, in fact ordered, the genocide of seven different nations after the Israelites entered the Promised Land? Why had God ordered Abraham to kill his own son as some type of pump fake illustration? Those questions were ones I spent much effort trying to figure out, each one taking up a paper or two during my pursuit of my degree; the Abraham one taking up my senior thesis. The bigger question, the one I never was able to answer, is what happened with Jerry. This wasn’t some naïve thinking that anyone who ever accepted Jesus automatically kept him for the rest of his life. I had family members and friends who had not attended church; in fact I fully expected that some of the people who had claimed Christianity in high school would abandon it. Jerry was a giant in my book who, along with people like Pastor Gonzales who baptized me and Pastor Cruz who mentored me, were the guys I wanted to grow up to be like. If a guy like that couldn’t keep his faith, who could?
I spent much of the summer thinking about this as I prepared to go to college. Interestingly enough, Sheryl had worked very hard at trying to get me to go to Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska. She had been such a good influence on me and such a motherly type the one year I spent with her at VGA, I actually went there just to be near her. I lasted all of two days in a dorm where the view out my window was a brick wall and way too many of the students looked like they hadn’t seen the sun in years and winters had been very kind to their eating habits. Something about the Nebraskan culture and I didn’t click; it was conservative and simple, encouraging people to think in one specific way, the way you do to children, instead of letting them think for themselves. It was intent on giving you something to be grounded in but it was unclear whether or not they wanted you to leave the ground. I went to the enrollment office and told them I’d like to withdraw; they were shocked at someone who had been there such a short time and who they had given such a scholarship to. For some reason, they sent me to talk to the president of the university to talk and let him try to sell me. He asked me to stick around through the weekend, make some friends and let them know what I decided on Monday. The next day the president of the college had the sermon at the church and he preached about Jonah running away from Niniveh saying “it was like God calling you to Union and you running away to PUC.” The crowd got a good laugh out of that one.
Come Monday, they still had not sold me. I dropped out but because Union was on the semester system and PUC was on the quarter system I had two or three weeks to figure out what to do. Sheryl’s husband was a home builder and he hired me to help put up roofs and do all kinds of work. I learned quite a lot and continued to go to church with Sheryl and her family. I argued with her and we often made each other angry but it was one of those relationships where I learned that it was okay to have strong emotions; you could still be friends.
I met a girl there Tanaya, a friend of Sheryl’s, who I clicked fairly well with. A couple of nights before I was scheduled to leave, we went to dinner with each other. I had been staying at one of the houses we were working on and we headed back there. Tanaya was a girl who wanted to do what was right, wanted to follow the path of God and stay as close to it as she could. She was fairly conservative and lived within a box of thinking. The room I was staying in had a window that led to the ceiling where I had spent several nights thinking and praying. Inviting her to go sit and talk on the roof surprised her and it took an unreasonable amount of effort to talk her into it but she finally conceded. We sat out there and talked about the things of God and how to best hear His voice. What was most fascinating about her was that she was attending a class at the local church designed for girls who were going to be pastor’s wives. Being a pastor’s wife requires the political instincts and domestic capacities of a politician’s wife if not higher since each’s constituents often see the pastoral calling as more important than the political one. Taking this type of class before getting into the ministry seemed like the right thing for anyone to do before taking that plunge. There was only one quirky thing about it all: Tanaya was single, not dating or engaged to or even interested in any particular person who was pursuing the ministry. But in her heart, she felt and believed that God had called her to be a pastor’s wife. By this time, I had been “called” to be a pastor for a dozen years and I’d never heard anyone say that before (or since) but at the time it made perfect sense that if God called some people to be a pastor, he had to call someone to be their spouse. I don’t know what happened to Tanaya but I hope her calling went better than mine.
In a day or two, it was time for me to head to California and start college again. I didn’t have any money except what I had made in the last couple of weeks. I was going to college with only a suitcase worth of stuff so carrying my things wasn’t going to be too hard. I took the money that I had made building houses those two or three weeks and bought a greyhound ticket that would take approximately 38 hours to get out to California. Sheryl dropped me off and cried when she did, in her own motherly way. I never had anyone with her strength around regularly when I was at PUC. Maybe if I had I would have been a better person.
38 hours to think about Jerry, Mary, Sheryl, Tanaya, being away from Shannon, starting in a new place without anyone I knew. What drove people like Jerry and Tanaya in such different directions? It was on that ride that I completely committed to the two disciplines which a few days later I would be pursuing as separate degrees: psychology and theology.