by John Ellis
Safely back in Pensacola with my new life of freedom stretching out before me, I needed a job. Unfortunately, the job I landed was at the tree service company where my brother worked.
My brother and I only worked together for about a week, though. By the time I got the job, the summer was almost over, and he had to be back at BJU early due to his job in the Campus Store. I didn’t describe the job as “unfortunate” because of my brother, but because of the job.
Out of all the many different types of jobs I’ve had, working tree service during the Florida summer is, without question, the worst. Just to give you an idea, we would soak towels and freeze them overnight and then tie them around our heads or necks the next day while working. By the time the sun went down, which is when we quit for the day, having started when the sun came up, we were covered in sap from pine trees, cut up from the branches, muscles screaming at us, and barely able to drag ourselves to the work trucks, our clothes drenched with sweat. I hated that job.
The one positive aspect of the job was in the form of my co-workers, specifically one co-worker who had recently moved to the area from Phoenix.
Not having a car, he depended on me to give him rides to and from work. After work, we would stop at the convenience store around the corner from his trailer, buy some hot wings and beer, and then spend the evening sitting on his front steps eating, drinking, and talking.
He taught me how to roll my own cigarettes and how to light a cigarette while sitting in the back of a moving truck with the wind whipping around you. He also openly scoffed at Christianity and told me the number of ways that he believed it to be a racist and overall harmful religion.
Here was someone who could educate me on the ways of non-Christians, I thought. I ate his “wisdom” up.
And, so, excepting the job I hated, I thought my life was great.
Roughly three weeks into the job, I got fired.
I’ve been fired four times in my life, and three of those firings were my fault. This time, though, I can honestly say was the one time that I did not deserve to be fired.
At the end of what turned out to be my last day in my tree service career, whoever hooked up the wood chipper to the truck forget to connect the safety chains. After the error was discovered back at the shop, the company’s owner blamed me.
I knew who had hooked the wood chipper up, but I wasn’t about to rat him out. All I could do was insist that it wasn’t me. My enraged boss became angrier and angrier while he cussed me out, telling me that if the chipper had come undone and killed someone, it would’ve been my fault.
He ended his screaming session by firing me. Frankly, I was relieved. I hated that job.
At home, as I related the story to my dad, I didn’t even think about the fact that this was the second time I had been fired that summer. My dad didn’t say anything about the firing, but sighed, “Son, I know that you’re not as smart as your brother and sisters; I just want you to do your best.”
To this day, I don’t know if he was using reverse psychology on me or if he really meant that. Regardless, it offended me. So much so that when he approached me the next day about returning to BJU, I agreed.
While I mainly assented to his suggestion because I wanted to prove him wrong, there was a part of me that assumed that it was too late, classes had just begun. I thought it was safe for me to go along with him. I could get credit for agreeing with him but without having to actually do it.
Boy, was I wrong.
I should’ve known better than to discount the power of personal connections within fundamentalism. My dad called his friends in BJU’s administration, and the next day I found myself on the way back to Greenville, SC.
One the way up, I realized what I had done. By the time my dad happily deposited me back on campus, I was fuming.
Unlike my very first semester, I no longer had any qualms about allowing my anger and resentment full play. I had already been “kicked out” out of one fundamentalist institution. With that Band Aid ripped off, may as well make it two.
My first evening back, I walked into the Snack Shop and after locating my brother and a friend from back home, announced, “This place sucks! I’m going to the movies.”
I then walked off campus to the movie theatre down the road.
About a week later, after an evening off campus with a friend who had graduated the year earlier, I returned to my dorm room drunk.
I remember leaving Corner Pockets, a bar in downtown Greenville, and then I remember waking up at around 2 in the morning, fully dressed, on top of my blankets. The next day, a friend who lived on the same hall as I did came up to me and asked me what my deal was the night before. I responded that I didn’t know what he was talking about. He informed me that I had come into his room after prayer group acting strangely.
I smirked and responded, “I don’t know, man. Just messin’ around.”
Those childish acts of rebellion became the norm for me during the remainder of my time at BJU.
By the fall of 1996, my exploits (demerits and grades) had caught up with me and I was assigned to a hall leader’s room. I was amused by that development. Being in close proximity to the “enemy” would be fun, I thought.
Except my hall leader roommate “selfishly” refused to play the game correctly.
At the onset, he bent over backwards to accommodate me and to show me that he cared for me. And, man, did I push that dude.
Having never set foot on a surf board, I portrayed myself as a surfer and peppered our door with pictures of professional surfers. I did that because I believed that the surf culture was outside of the comfort zone of many fundamentalists. However, my hall leader roommate cheerfully took his stuff off the door so that I would have more room to put up surfing pictures.
I brazenly flaunted necklace. My hall leader roommate would warn me that he could see it and that I needed to be careful, but never once even suggested that I should take it off. In his words, “Other people will give you demerits if they see your necklace.”
I began wearing blue jeans around campus. My hall leader roommate cheerfully commented on how comfortable they looked but never once told me to change.
Instead of hiding my Walkman, an object that was against the rules at BJU, I left it sitting atop my pillow every morning. My hall leader roommate never even mentioned it to me.
I hung a Clinton/Gore sign on the door. My hall leader roommate politely asked me why I was planning on voting for Bill Clinton and then politely listened while I explained to him how Republicans hated poor people and were racists and misogynists. He only asked me to take the poster down after he was instructed to do so by those in authority over him.
When asked to pray in prayer group, I declined. My hall leader roommate never made an issue out of it.
Second semester, I grew my hair long-ish. By the time I went home from the summer, my hair was almost to my chin. I was able to get away with it because having a hall leader as a roommate meant that I knew when hair check was scheduled each week. On those days, I would volunteer to work in the Campus Store during chapel. With my hair slicked back and plastered down, I made it through the semester with my long-ish hair intact. My hall leader roommate saw my long hair every morning pre-plaster. He never said a word.
No matter what I did that year, I was never able to get a rise out of him or get him to turn me in for anything. What I did get, though, was someone who constantly asked me how I was doing, questioned me about my spiritual life, and, worse, would then cheerfully tell me what he was learning from his Bible reading. He always made sure to inform me that he and his girlfriend were praying for me.
I resented him. I was also never able to forget his kindness. A memory I resented up until I became a Christian.
That first semester I racked up demerits but failed to reach the 150 needed to get kicked out. To be honest, even though unlike my very first semester I was mostly uncaring about it, the fact remains that if I had really wanted to be kicked out, I could’ve made it happen. Surviving the semester, I returned home for Christmas break with zero intention of returning to BJU, blaming my decision to not go back on my large school bill.
As Christmas break ended, I gleefully watched my brother return to BJU. I was free.
Except, a couple days later I received a phone call from the BJU business office. They were happy to inform me that someone had anonymously paid off my school bill. I couldn’t believe my bad luck.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that many people who attended BJU resent that story as much as I resented having my school bill paid by some generous soul.
Yes, I was one of the people that you would occasionally hear about in chapel who had their bill miraculously paid by an anonymous donor. Unlike the people you heard about in chapel, I was not happy about it.
Upon receiving the news, I drove to my sister’s fiancé’s house and unleashed my unhappiness. My future brother-in-law’s dad not only offered a sympathetic ear but also offered some wise advice. Although, looking back on it, and considering that he was not only a fundamentalist but also a preacher/missionary, I’m pretty sure that he played me (in a good way with good motives). There is no way that he agreed with my whining.
He told me that my longed-for freedom would be waiting for me when I returned home, and that it was not wise to kick a gift horse in the mouth.
I begrudgingly returned to BJU.
My first night back was spent off campus with some friends who were town students. Their apartment that night was filled with BJU girls and alcohol. As the morning dawned and we began to fall asleep, I thought to myself that maybe this semester wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Unlike the previous semester when my goal was to alienate everyone around me, I launched myself into second semester with the agenda to make the best of the situation. In other words, have as much fun as was possible while a BJU student. Since I didn’t really care about getting kicked out, the sky was the limit, so to speak.
Because my idea of the epitome of fun involved a member of the opposite sex, my first objective became finding a like-minded girlfriend. That can be somewhat tricky at a school like BJU; I ran the risk of investing much time and energy into a relationship only to discover that she was not as anti-BJU as me. As “luck” would have it, I had already been provided a solution.
That Christmas break, while at the movie theatre in Pensacola’s Cordova Mall, I met a girl who happened to be a BJU student. We connected a couple of times over the break and so I already knew that she was not a stereotypical BJU student, at all. It didn’t take long before she and I were a couple.
Dating her brought with it an unforeseen problem of sorts, though. Since she was part of the “cool” kids at BJU, by default I became a part of a group that I had mostly avoided up to that point. Most the people I hung out with were on the fringes, like my town student friends. From my perspective, my new “group” was more concerned with showing off their “coolness” to everyone than they were in actually doing anything (that I wanted to do).
I soon discovered that my perception was mostly correct.
Yes, they broke the rules. Yes, every year a group of “cool” kids got busted for things like going to the movie theatre, drinking (usually at Super Bowl parties), and making out in the Mack Library’s Jerusalem Chamber.
But there was a dualism present in their personalities that irked me and that I believed hindered their ability to have fun. And, hence, hindered my ability.
I was already vaguely aware of this. Being in the “rebel society,” Chi Delt, I sat through society meeting after society meeting that mocked BJU, the rules, and fundamentalism as a whole. However, on Sunday mornings, during society Sunday school, the same guys would put on a completely different face – a face of piety and love for Jesus. Except I knew enough about Christianity to know that mocking and rebelling against your authority figures all week and then claiming holiness on one day of the week was a charade of the worst hypocrisy.
My society was one thing, though. I could ignore them. In fact, I had begun skipping most society meetings and escaping campus to get donuts at the Krispy Kreme down the street. In hindsight, and setting aside the breaking of the rules part, I’m sure that even my authority figures from the time will admit that getting donuts was more productive than attending Chi Delt’s society meetings.
My girlfriend’s social sphere was a different story. I couldn’t really escape their hypocritical nonsense.
At the time, among other anti-Christian books, I had become a big fan of Mark Twain’s Letters from the Earth. During a lunch conversation when my girlfriend and her friends were mocking BJU’s creed, I chimed in.
The response to my claim, that I “borrowed” from Twain, that God’s immoral for giving us instincts, like the desire to have sex, and then punishing us for acting on those instincts was not the response I was anticipating.
My dinner companions were aghast and let me know that it was not okay to speak so sacrilegiously. I sat silently, stewing in the thought that they should either rebel or not rebel. “Pick a team,” I wanted to say.
That event, and others like it, foreshadowed an absurd moment that was still two years down the road.
After my career as a BJU dorm student had come to an end, I attended an off-campus Chi Delt party. Living in Greenville at the time, one of my roommates was still a BJU student and a member of Chi Delt.
Having BJU approved female chaperones meant that females were able to attend the party located at a student’s house in the Appalachian foothills outside the small town of Traveler’s Rest. Since those BJU approved female chaperones had been selected for their willingness to look the other way, the Chi Delt members and their girlfriends made the most of the dark corners of the backyard. It was a normal Chi Delt party that would have resulted in almost everyone there being kicked out of BJU if the authority figures had been made aware of the goings-on.
It was in that environment that I decided to pretend to be the devotional speaker for the party. My roommate fetched me a Bible from his car, and I strode up to the fire pit.
Keep in mind, at the time, my hair was long, I had piercings, and had been drinking. I was also not unknown by many of the people at the party. It had only been about a year since I had been a BJU student and a Chi Delt member myself. Those facts meant that I was completely unprepared for what happened.
When I announced that it was time for the evening’s devotions, I expected to either be laughed at or told that it was a dumb joke. I was not expecting the BJU couples to materialize out of the dark corners of the back yard and find a seat around the fire. Being an actor, and slightly drunk, I plowed forward, opening my Bible to a passage of scripture and began “expositing.”
I don’t remember what the passage was, it was in the Minor Prophets, and I don’t remember what I said. I do remember the first bottle cap hitting me in the face which caused me to take stock of what was happening around me.
Girls were crying. With looks of horror on their faces, guys were beginning to stand up and move menacingly towards me. Their shouts were a blur as I quickly made my exit, heading towards my car.
Later that evening, after my adrenaline had returned to a normal level, I reflected on the events of the party. And as I reflected, I became angry.
What right did those BJU students have to condemn me? I mean, they had attended that party with deliberate motives to run rough shod over the rules and engage in activities that they knew were wrong.
That hypocrisy shouldn’t have surprised me, though, having been exposed to it while hanging out with my girlfriend and her friends during my time as a BJU dorm student.
By the end of that semester, I had broken up with my girlfriend. Her friends smugly told her that they had warned her about me, that I was no good. Which is funny, if you think about it. Many of them deliberately fostered a reputation of being “rebels,” and yet their rebellion had a limit – a contradiction of terms.
No worries, though, because upon arriving home in Pensacola that summer, we got back together.
Unlike the previous two semesters, I intended to go back to BJU once summer ended. Mainly because my girlfriend would be there and my job at the library was only available during the summer. I looked at the coming semester as a place-holder for my life that allowed me to figure out how to take steps into the world of professional acting.
A year earlier, when I decided that I was going to be an actor, I had no clue what I was doing. I simply knew that I enjoyed my theatre classes and that being a professional actor was so far outside of the world of fundamentalism at the time that it would be a great career in which to make my break with Christianity complete and final. Like most of my youthful assumptions, that too proved to be wrong.
When looking back into my past, my perspective as the 97/98 school year began is probably the weirdest for me to reenter. Unlike the previous years and the years to come, I simply did not care. About anything, really.
I didn’t care if I got kicked out but I also didn’t care if I was considered a shining example of what a BJU student was to be. I was going to do what I wanted, and others could respond however they saw fit. Unlike the previous year, I didn’t begin the semester with the desire to needle anyone or to create chaos.
God had other plans, though.
Unlike my old hall leader roommate, my new hall leader roommate was openly antagonistic towards me from the get-go.
I don’t know what kind of information or advice was provided to hall leaders about the students on their hall, much less in their room, that had the potential to cause problems, but my roommate appeared to have a predetermined idea of who I was and what I was going to do. To be fair, he wasn’t wrong and looking back on it, I can see how God used his zeal to force me out of my attitude of genuinely not caring. My roommate quickly became an irritating rock in my Dr. Marten boots.
Throughout my career as a BJU dorm student, I rarely got in trouble for room violations. I always did my room job (my assigned area of cleaning) and I always honored the light bell. I think that my willingness to adhere to those types of rules can be attributed to my time as a ranch hand at the Bill Rice Ranch. Whatever the reason, I could be counted on to obey those rules.
Ironically, during my final semester, I earned more demerits for room violations than anything else. And I honestly didn’t deserve the demerits. My hall leader roommate seemed to assume that since I was “bad,” my rebellion would carry over into the room and he looked for reasons to lecture me; inventing reasons, if needed.
To my growing annoyance, I couldn’t do anything right that semester. He once gave me demerits because he didn’t approve of how I had organized my books. To be clear, my books were not messy; he didn’t approve of my organization – as in, which books were next to each other.
After challenging those demerits, the dorm supervisor, a man who is now a pastor in Colorado (and who plays into my story later), wisely overruled my roommate. My victory was pyrrhic, though. It only served to further motivate my roommate to make my life miserable.
By mid-terms, his constant riding herd on me had pushed me out of my attitude of not caring and back to my attitude of “I hate this place and can’t wait to escape.” However, unlike previous semesters, I had a reason to not jeopardize my freedom as long as I was a student.
Since my girlfriend and I lived in the same town, we were able to line our cuts up to go home at the same time (at the time at BJU, students were required to get what was called “cuts” to leave campus for the weekend). Likewise, my girlfriend had good friends who were on staff and were willing to look the other way (or just leave the house) whenever we were over at their house and they were supposed to be acting as our chaperone.
Getting socialed and/or campused would have ruined my ability to fulfill my lust. I had to be careful not to get into trouble. At the same time, after my roommate had pushed me back to my anger at being at BJU, I wanted to poke the system.
One way that I did that was through buttons that I pinned to my book bag. Peace symbols, the anarchist A (which I could probably type if I understood computers), a yin-yang button, and even a small button with a single marijuana leaf printed on it. The yin-yang and marijuana leaf buttons prompted the most noise.
Walking into chapel, class, the dining hall, or really anywhere on campus, I could hear the whispers of people behind me asking their companions, “Is that marijuana?”
Sometimes, it was incorrectly concluded that it was not a marijuana leaf. However, not once did any of those who knew what it was ever confront me. I’m not sure why not. Maybe my reputation preceded me and they were wary about confronting me. Maybe they were so taken aback by my boldness that they were stunned into inactivity. Whatever the reason, I made it to the end of the semester with a marijuana leaf button on my book bag.
The yin-yang button prompted one of the dorm supervisors to stop me and inquire about it. He asked me if I knew what it meant. I informed him that I did and explained that it represented the male and female energies coming together to create nirvana. My mostly correct yet still ill-informed explanation seemed to trouble him, and he asked me to visit him at his office later that week. I responded in the affirmative, and then walked away with zero intention of making that meeting.
The next week, he again stopped me on the sidewalk and told me that I had missed the meeting. I apologized, and then lied and told him that I had been unable to find his office. He kindly gave me directions and scheduled another meeting.
Rinse and repeat.
I don’t believe that he actually accepted my lies. It was my seventh semester as a BJU student. Obviously, I knew how to find his office. I believe that his concern for my soul took precedence over my blatant disregard for his authority.
After about three weeks, he stopped pestering me to come to his office. However, I did receive an unannounced visit from my dorm counselor who fingered my books on Zen and Buddhism and then sat down.
That summer, while working in the library, I had read The Tao of Pooh and decided to give Taoism a try. My new religion quickly morphed into Buddhism because I was able to find more books on Buddhism than I could on Taoism. Besides, I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about Taoism. It’s hard to cause an effect when you have to explain yourself. A fundamentalist kid saying he’s a Buddhist in front of fundamentalists prompts an immediate reaction.
I lost some of my bravado, though, when my dorm counselor looked me in the eyes and asked me about my books. Waffling a little, I told him that I was interested in Buddhism and Taoism. Keeping his smiling gaze affixed on me, he asked if I considered myself a Buddhist.
Proving myself a coward, I mumbled, “I don’t know; I’m just trying to figure some stuff out.”
From my perspective at the time, that proved to be the wrong answer because the dorm counselor then spent the next hour going through the Bible and showing me how Buddhism was a false religion.
Proving myself even more cowardly, I attempted to explain to him that he had misunderstood and that I didn’t want to become a Buddhist, I was just curious about the religion. I told him that I had the books purely as an academic endeavor, to learn.
Wisely, he ignored my protestations and continued to share the gospel with me while using the Bible to demonstrate the problems with Eastern religions.
When he left, he told me that he’d be praying for me and that his door was always open if I had any questions. I never took him up on his offer to talk, but I was never able to scrub my memory of his graciousness while he shared the gospel with me. Years later, during my darkest moments, that conservation haunted me.
During that semester, my beloved grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Some of the most comforting memories from my childhood were of crawling into my auto mechanic grandfather’s lap as he sat in his oversized recliner while he quietly read his worn Bible. The scratchiness of his five o’clock shadow, the smell of grease, oil, and Brut mixing together, and his strong arm around me were moments that made me feel utterly loved and safe.
He would pause his Bible reading and listen intently to whatever story I had to tell him. When I was finished, he would make his comments, and then quietly return to his Bible reading.
Repeating myself somewhat, during my darkest moments, my heart frequently went back to those times on my grandfather’s lap when I was a young boy.
By God’s grace, one of the things I’ve tried to carry into my life as a father is modeling reading my Bible quietly while my kids play around me and pausing that Bible reading to listen whenever they have something that they want to tell me.
So, the news of my grandfather’s terminal cancer shook me.
As the semester concluded, it became obvious that my grandfather was swiftly nearing the end of his life. My family planned at trip to see him. We assumed, correctly so, that it would be the last time all of us would be able to be together with him on this earth. The trip was scheduled for early December, which placed it outside of when BJU allowed for normal “cuts.”
The school did provide for emergency cuts, though, and my parents believed that the trip would qualify.
My brother applied for the emergency cuts before I did, and he was told that it did not qualify to be considered an emergency. Fairly soon after his attempt to get emergency cuts, I met him and he told me what the Dean of Men’s office had said.
As my brother told me what had happened, my emotions about my grandfather mixed with all of my previous doubts and questions about God as well as my desire to escape Christianity, specifically fundamentalism. In that moment, I decided that I was finished.
Angrily marching into the Dean of Men’s office, I didn’t even wait to be acknowledged before I began screaming at the shocked dorm supervisor behind the desk.
In a profanity laced tirade, I let everyone in the office (and everyone within earshot) know exactly what I thought about BJU and their rules. I informed the office that I didn’t care what they said, that my brother and I would be visiting our dying grandfather. Upon my conclusion, not waiting to hear the response, I stormed out.
The reality is that the school would’ve allowed us to take emergency cuts. I don’t know if my brother didn’t explain the situation fully or if the person who told him that it didn’t qualify for emergency cuts was new at his job or was simply a zealous contrarian. The situation would’ve quickly resolved itself, and we would’ve been allowed to make the trip to see our grandfather.
Regardless, I had reached the end of my career as a BJU dorm student.
My grandfather died a few weeks after my family’s visit. Shortly after the funeral, and like the previous January, my brother returned to BJU for the second semester while I stayed behind. Unlike the previous January, there was no chance that I would be returning.
No longer a Godless Fundamentalist, I was now just a godless man in full and open rebellion against my Creator and unaware of how dark my life was about to quickly become.