by John Ellis
The day after I arrived in Pensacola, my parents left town for the next six months. Traveling for a large fundamentalist organization, my dad spent most of the year visiting fundamentalist colleges and churches encouraging young men to pray about becoming a military chaplain. Before leaving, my mom kindly told me that whatever food was left in the house was mine to eat. Except I was a vegetarian and much of the food in the freezer was meat. The jar of peanut butter left behind was appreciated, though.
After my parents left, I was completely on my own.
With no job, no money, and no friends in the area who shared anything close to my worldview and interests, I felt isolated.
That first morning, I began what I believed would be a quick search for a service-industry job. Starting in downtown Pensacola, I filled out an application at every restaurant and bar I walked past. By the time the restaurants began gearing up for the dinner rush, I had walked all over downtown and my feet and legs were exhausted. That night, I went to bed discouraged that I had failed to find a job.
With the sun shining the next morning, my optimism returned. As I headed out, I pointed my car in the direction of a part of town with lots of restaurants and bars. The day ended with the same results as the previous day. As did the next day. And the next. For a month.
At night, stuck at my parent’s house with nothing to do, I sat in my thoughts.
Every evening, as the outside darkened, I despaired over my life and replayed the events that had brought me to this point – a broke, unemployed 27-year-old man with a once promising acting career that had been derailed and who was now living in his parent’s house. I felt like a failure and searched for moments in my past that made sense of my current despair. The loneliness that I had begun to feel the summer before began to grow as well.
The only face-to-face interaction I’d had that week (and subsequent weeks) had been the often harried restaurant staff members who had fetched me an application to fruitlessly fill out. Discouraged over my failure to find a job, and with nothing to do but entertain my growing despair and loneliness, I stopped sleeping. Or, rather, I stopped being able to sleep.
In The Glass Menagerie’s closing monologue, Tom mournfully tells the audience,
I descended the steps of this fire escape for the last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. I traveled around a great deal. The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something.
Tom ends his monologue, and, hence, ends the play by confessing,
I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger – anything that can blow your candles out!
It had been almost a year since I had memorized and performed those words. During rehearsals and the play’s run, I had used some personal experiences and connections to help flesh out the emotional honesty of the role and the monologue. But the words weren’t mine; Tennessee Williams experience, placed in the mouth of Tom (TW’s real name was Tom, by the way), were not mine either. After the play closed, I had left that monologue behind.
However, while there are obvious and major dissimilarities between the playwright’s life and mine, those parting words of Tom do capture some of the emotional and spiritual turmoil I found myself in at the beginning of 2003.
God in His kindness had brought my life to a screeching halt. And I do mean a screeching halt. I had nothing, and it felt like I had no one. Looking back, I realize that many of my activities and choices over the previous years were the manifestations of my running from God. But in January of 2003, I no longer had the means to “cross the street, run into the movies or bar, buy a drink, or speak to the nearest stranger.” And for the first time in my life, the light of the gospel began to flicker in my soul.
After the sun would go down, and as I would pace my parent’s house, memories began reentering my mind. I remembered the love and concern shown me by my old friends and authority figures at my Christian school, the Bill Rice Ranch, and Bob Jones University. The contrast between those friendships and the shallowness of almost every relationship I’d had over the last four years began to reveal itself to me.
Fighting the growing realization that I had alienated every person who had ever genuinely cared for me, I would pull one of my parent’s Bibles off the shelf and read it to remind myself of how their harmful beliefs necessitated my severing of those relationships. Armed with my anti-Christian books, I would search out the morally problematic passages in the Bible and scoff at those from my past who believed in such a God. Relationships were less important than truth, I told myself.
As my misery grew, I recalled, for the first time in years, the words of my old dorm supervisor about how miserable his life of rebellion against God had been. I fought back because I was committed to rejecting his solution found through faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Most painfully, I missed my parents, specifically my mom. Surrounded by photos and memories from my childhood, I really had no choice but to think about my parents. Sitting on the floor, slowly flipping through the mountain of photo albums that my mom had put together over the decades, nostalgia overtook me. In the photos, I always looked happy and my family always looked happy. As memories are wont to do in moments like that, I only remembered my childhood as gloriously happy and satisfying. Except my nostalgia created a dilemma. It was impossible to remember my childhood without also remembering my mom telling me about Jesus. Because that’s what she had done. All the time.
Those moments, remembering my family, particularly my mom, were the hardest to fight back against. Being made in the Image of God means that we long for community on existential and spiritual levels that cannot be denied. My mom’s love for me, manifest in large part through her gospel witness, was incredibly difficult to resist. During those evenings of loneliness and despair, surrounded by memories of my family and communities that had genuinely cared for me, a conflict began to grow in me.
Prior to that time, during the previous four years, my disdain for religion was not personal, I believed. My attempts to undermine the faith of others was partly to amuse myself and partly to help free the gullible. But when confronted by the pull myself, I became angry.
I reminded myself that the Bible is not true. God does not exist. Happiness based on lies is not true happiness. It’s better to be enlightened, after all.
Yet, enlightenment didn’t feel better. Because no matter how hard I fought back against my memories, no matter how much I raged and scoffed at the beliefs of people from my past, no matter how much I reminded myself of the foolishness of Christianity, my loneliness and despair grew.
By the end of the second week, I was exhausted from lack of sleep, stressed out over my inability to pay my mounting bills, discouraged by my failure to find employment, and lonely and emotionally spent from fighting against people from my past. I found that I could no longer endure it.
At night, I would sit huddled in the corner in physical pain, screaming.
A Biblical anthropology teaches what’s called holistic dualism. We’re a body and a soul, but we’re also not created to have our two “parts” torn apart. This is why death is unnatural; death separates the soul from the body. Mercifully, those who repent of their sins and place their faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be resurrected one day and have their immaterial soul and material body reunited for all eternity. One of the beautiful aspects (out of many) about Christianity is the natural synthesis of the immaterial with the material, something all other worldviews either unsuccessfully grabble with or attempt to discard one side of the equation.
So, even though I can’t really explain it, the physical pain I felt makes sense to me. First off, without the means to distract myself with sinful pleasure, I was feeling my ethical separation from my Creator; my rebellion against God was being found out. Secondly, my separation against God had also brought with it the consequence of separation from fellow Image Bearers. My body was suffering the scourge of my spiritual rebellion.
If there could only be one part of my experience rebelling against God that I could impart to those who have yet to submit to God through faith in Jesus, it’s that pain. Because no matter how awful those nights were that didn’t completely stop until I finally submitted to God through faith in Jesus, that awfulness is nothing compared to the awfulness awaiting those who die in their rebellion.
All of my lies about God, all my sinful lifestyle choices, all of my rejection of Jesus, all of my rebellion had begun to reveal its ugliness. Shamefully, though, my rebellion was not finished and instead of submitting to God I began to wonder if death was the answer. For the first time in my life, I began contemplating suicide.
Over the next week, I continued my job search, to no avail. And as my despair and loneliness grew, so did my thought that death might be the answer. One morning, not really sure why I was doing it, I drove the over twenty miles to my old Christian school.
As I pulled into the parking lot, memories flooded my mind and I fought back tears. I also felt relief, believing that I had come home to friends. For the first time in a month, as I walked into the school building and saw the faces of some of my old teachers through the office window, my loneliness and despair began to fade.
Except, when I stepped into the office, those faces stopped smiling. The room got quiet and everyone turned their backs on me. I didn’t know what to do.
Devastated, with all the despair and loneliness that had built up during the past month flooding back, I stood there.
At the moment I was about to turn and leave, utterly broken by the thought that even the people from my memories had turned their backs on me, I heard a voice.
“John Ellis! It’s good to see you.”
Turning, I saw Mr. Ron Bean, a man whom I had never had as a teacher and someone I barely knew, coming out of his office with his hand outstretched in greeting.
Grateful for friendly human interaction, I shook his hand and accepted his offer to go into his office.
I wasn’t in Mr. Bean’s office for very long, and the only thing that I remember talking about was basketball. But I do remember how kind, friendly, and genuinely interested in me Mr. Bean appeared. By the time I left, I no longer felt so alone, and life didn’t seem as bad as it had seemed prior to that moment of kindness.
Since God is sovereign, I don’t believe in “what if’s,” but I shudder to think about what I would’ve done if Mr. Bean hadn’t stepped out of his office and greeted me.
Shortly afterwards, Seville Quarter called and asked me to come interview for a bartending job. I got the job. The funny part, Seville Quarter had been the very first place that I had filled out an application on my first day back in Pensacola.
As I mentioned in a previous chapter, Seville Quarter is a debauched place. I immediately found myself working somewhere that provided me the opportunity to never be alone if I didn’t want to be alone. And after the previous month, I didn’t want to be alone.
I was also making a ton of money; I’m not sure if people realize how much bartenders in high-volume restaurants and bars make. The problem was that I was spending it as fast as I was making it.
Being the new guy, my work shifts started earlier and ended earlier than most of my co-workers. That may sound like better hours but bartending at a night club meant that my slow hours (my first couple of hours on the job) netted me less tips than other bartenders’ slow hours (the final hours leading into last call). I didn’t mind, though, because when I got off work, I didn’t have to drive to the party. My work was the party. With a wad of cash in my pocket and having already met many of the other clubbers or simply recognized by them, I had very little reason to leave.
I also spent my evenings and nights off at Seville. And since parties beget parties, I rarely slept at my parent’s house during the four months I worked at Seville Quarter. However, while my despair and loneliness from the first month of 2003 had gone into hiding, I knew that I couldn’t keep that lifestyle up; I needed to make a change.
That winter, while at a used bookstore I bought Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I immediately became enamored with the book and decided that I needed to take my own On the Road-styled pilgrimage to San Francisco. The epi-center of the counter-culture movement would surely serve to recharge me.
One morning, sitting in a Barnes & Noble with travel books and an atlas spread in front of me, I plotted my trip and determined that I could do it on a mere $1,600. The problem was that I knew that I was never going to save that amount of money anytime soon as long as I continued to work at Seville Quarter.
I put in my two weeks’ notice, called my old boss at the brew pub in Greenville, SC to get my job back, and then made plans to once again move.
Once back in Greenville, I threw myself into work with no distractions. Since I was also delivering pizzas during the day and on the nights I wasn’t working at the brew pub, it didn’t take me long to collect the needed $1,600, plus some.
My first stop on my pilgrimage was Atlanta. Over that winter and spring, Christine and I had remained in contact and I wanted to convince her to join me on my trip. Her response wasn’t what I was expecting, though.
Hearing how much money I had, she did the math in her head and concluded that I should move back to Atlanta. Telling me that we could live together, cutting down on expenses, freeing me up to pursue my theatre career. At the beginning of the weekend, I was tempted. By the time the weekend came to a close, I knew that I needed to go.
My attempts at explaining to her why the trip was so important to me fell on deaf ears. I told her that over the past year, I had become distracted by too many tangential things, that I needed to go to “my people” and recharge my counter-culture and liberal activist batteries. In her mind, though, my trip was a rejection of her, although I begged her to join me. We parted on unhappy terms, but I promised her that I would move back to Atlanta once I had made it back East.
Mimicking Kerouac, I planned on spending time in Denver at the end of the first leg of my journey. The long drive to Colorado proved much lonelier than I had imagined it to be. Stopping in St. Louis for a couple of nights and then Kansas City failed to produce anything that was even remotely reminiscent of Kerouac’s adventures. Each night, I sat alone in my cheap hotel room, watching cable TV.
By the time I pulled up to the Denver International Youth Hostel, I was excited to meet my fellow hostellers. Imagining bonding over art and politics with like-minded travelers, I walked into the run-down house with a level of optimism that I hadn’t experienced in quite some time. Instead, I was greeted by a creepy man who looked like what I imagine a love-child between Fidel Castro and Bono would look like. He ended up being the owner of the hostel, and as I checked in, he told me about the ways in which he wanted to rape conservatives. I was as liberal as you could get, but I found his violent, sexual fantasies discomfiting, to put it lightly. As I finished checking in, he leaned into me and invited me to his room later that night for drinks and “companionship.” I politely declined and made a quick exit to my room.
In a room filled with bunk beds, my one roommate was almost as creepy as the owner. After depositing my duffle bag, I made another quick exit and walked the few blocks to downtown Denver.
Irritated that my pilgrimage was not going as planned, I walked around, exploring the 16th Street Mall, a large, outdoor shopping area in the heart of downtown Denver. The corporate nature of the area added to my growing irritation, and I pined for San Francisco and the Haight-Ashbury District. I knew that at the end of the road, my people were waiting for me.
Hungry and tired of aimlessly wandering around, I entered a restaurant and sat at the bar. After I had eaten, I did the mental calculations to determine how many drinks I could afford without blowing my budget. I didn’t really want to spend any money on alcohol but wanted to return to the creepy hostel even less. As I ordered the first of two drinks, a man sat down a couple of barstools away.
I barely noticed him until he started talking to me. Clean-cut and dressed in a suit, he did not appear to me as someone with whom I would have much in common and so I only perfunctorily answered his questions. Undeterred, he cheerily moved closer and struck up a conversation.
I only half listened as I nursed my drink, grateful when he finally stood up and left.
About ten minutes later, I finished my last drink and headed back to my hostel.
As I turned up the sidewalk, I felt someone grab my backpack. Assuming that I was being mugged, I turned, ready to swing. To my surprise, I was greeted by the smiling face of the man from the bar.
“I was waiting for you, because I want to talk to you,” he sheepishly said. “Mind if I walk with you?”
I wanted to say “no,” but it was a public sidewalk, so I shrugged.
As we walked, he told me a little more about himself. All I remember is that he was in town on business and that he lived in Miami. I don’t even remember what his face looked like. If he walked into the room, I wouldn’t recognize him. Which I find odd since I distinctly remember many of the faces of those who interacted with me during that trip.
We didn’t walk long before he stopped and said that he needed to get back to his hotel. “I just wanted to tell you that God loves you and that someone somewhere is praying for you,” he quietly said, stunning me.
As I stood there trying to process what was happening while thinking about my mom praying for me, the man told me that he didn’t want to argue with me but that I looked lost and he believed that I needed to hear that God loves me. And with that, he turned and walked away.
Standing in downtown Denver at midnight, I fought back tears. Mainly angry tears. As an atheist, I didn’t believe in coincidences. But that moment seemed too carefully crafted and poignant to have been the product of random chance. A year earlier, and I probably could’ve rationalized the moment away. But considering the events of the past year, I was in no emotional state to do battle with strangers reminding me that my mom was praying for me. I was angry because my atheism made a little less sense to me in that moment.
When I found myself in Moab, Utah a week later, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of my fellow hostellers was an entomology professor from the University of Wisconsin. Every summer, this professor would bring some of his students with him to Moab to study insects on the canyon floors. I wasn’t excited about that, though; I was excited because I assumed that he was an evolutionist.
Having spent the entirety of my school years in a Christian school and BJU, I was fairly ignorant of evolution. In the intervening years, I had read some books on evolutionary theory but wasn’t really conversant in it beyond atheist talking points. While it interested me, I never felt that compelled to study evolution. Since atheism made sense to me on a philosophical level, I didn’t really need evolution to “disprove” God. All in all, I was an evolutionist by default.
However, after my encounter with the stranger in Denver, I wanted to shore up my atheism. That’s why I was excited to discover that I was in such close proximity with a real-life scientist.
He was a friendly guy who enjoyed sitting outside with the other hostellers in the evening, drink beer, and share in the telling of the day’s adventures, be they mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, or studying bugs on the canyon floors. One evening, while sitting outside, I was finally able to coral the professor all to myself.
Not knowing how to bring it up, I blurted out, “You’re an atheist, right?”
To my dismay, he smiled and said, “No, I’m a Christian.”
I can’t print the words that went through my mind when he told me that. I couldn’t believe my bad luck, but I wasn’t about to let this man off the hook. And I don’t really know what I was thinking, because I was completely unprepared to “debate” an actual scientist about science. I guess it was desperation that caused me to push back and say, “But evolution disproves God.”
Once again, he smiled and said, “No, it doesn’t.”
Stupidly, I continued.
“But geological records disprove things like the flood.”
“No, it doesn’t,” he repeated. “Did you know that there are fossils that lie across different geological stratum?”
And with that, he began explaining to me how evolution does not disprove God.
Moab, Utah, which had been the highpoint of my journey up to that point, had suddenly turned into a Christian apologetics lecture conducted by an individual whom I had mistakenly believed was my ally. Disturbed and upset, I went to bed, thankful that I would soon be in San Francisco.
About a week later, I pulled up to my brother’s apartment about thirty miles east of San Francisco.
At the time, my brother was the music pastor at an IFB church and taught science in the church’s school. The plan was for me to leave my car at my brother’s place while I went into the city for the week. Returning to the East Bay on Saturday, I planned on spending Sunday with my brother and his family and then leave on Monday.
The week began as planned as my brother dropped me off at the Fort Mason Youth Hostel. Surrounded by who I assumed were like-minded travelers, I immediately loved the place. As I unpacked, I attempted to strike up a conversation with the couple sitting on the bunk above mine. With a heavy German accent and nodding in the direction of her companion, the girl said, “He doesn’t speak English.”
As I looked around the room at the young people who looked like me, I realized that none of them were speaking English. Now, I’m sure that more people in that dorm room spoke English than I realized. But, at the time, I felt self-conscious, believing myself to be the only American in a room full of interesting-looking and beautiful Europeans. My politics dictated that in a room full of progressive Europeans, I fell just above the “ugly American” on the list of cultural hierarchies.
That evening, sitting in the dining room, I ate alone as I longingly watched groups of laughing Europeans enter and exit.
The next morning, I walked from Fort Mason to Haight-Ashbury (a much longer walk than it looked on the tourist map I had). On the way there, my anticipation grew as I drew nearer and nearer to my progressive, bohemian mecca. As I turned down Haight Street and walked the remaining blocks to Ashbury Street, the counter-culture vibe continued to feel more and more like home.
To my dismay, at the famed corner of Haight and Ashbury, I was greeted by a looming and mocking Gap store, a company that represented the enemy. Confused, I entered a used clothing store only to discover that the used concert tees were all priced over $70.
Disappointed, I wandered around, popping into stores with merchandise that I wanted but couldn’t afford. As it dawned on me that the counter-culture movement had been co-opted by commercialism, I felt betrayed.
My sense of betrayal was no match for my hunger, so I ordered lunch at a small café. The sidewalk seating was mostly full, and as I scanned the tables for a seat a woman about my age offered me one at her table.
As we talked, I told her why I was in San Francisco and confessed my disappointment at the Haight-Ashbury District. She laughed and said that I was overthinking it and that hippies had to make a living too, and then proceeded to tell me about her startup.
She was a fashion designer who had recently moved to San Francisco from Los Angeles. Telling me about her grand plans, she showed me her sketch book. Rarely pausing to allow me to respond, she recounted her time in college at UCLA, the famous people that she had met in San Francisco, and her desire to create fashion in an ethical manner while still becoming rich and famous. As we finished our lunch, she invited me to a party she was hosting at her house in the Mission District that night. With nothing else to do, I accepted. But I wasn’t happy about it.
In fact, I wasn’t happy about any of it. By the time the week ended, I was disillusioned. The City itself, the people I met in the City, and the experiences I’d had were all superficial and directed at the “self.” My hypocrisy aside, my eyes were beginning to be opened to the reality that all human endeavors enacted apart from submission to God are ultimately self-centered.
Years later, upon rereading On the Road, I realized that my experience in San Francisco was not really different than Kerouac’s San Francisco. The difference was that I had begun to long for something greater than self.
That Saturday, I returned to my brother’s apartment, ready to leave the Bay Area. God had a contrast in store for me before I left, though.
I don’t remember what was preached at either of the services that Sunday. I do remember how welcoming, kind, and gracious those fundamentalists were to a long-haired, multi-pierced atheist.
After the evening service, I was invited to join them in a game of volleyball. As we played and laughed and talked, there was never a moment when I was made to feel like I didn’t belong. Going a step further, there was never a moment when I didn’t feel like I belonged. After it began to get dark, the group invited me to join them at Denny’s for dinner.
There weren’t (aren’t?) many vegetarian options at Denny’s, but I happily joined them. During the meal, they showed great interest in getting to know me and didn’t seem put off at all by the fact that they were dining with a great sinner. And while I didn’t consider myself a great sinner, I knew that they did. But unlike “my people” from the previous week, the fundamentalists seemed to actually like me and care about me. I was impressed by that, so much so that I didn’t want the evening to end.
The next morning, while driving to Death Valley, which was my next planned stop, it was everything I could do to keep myself from turning the car around and going back to my brother’s. I did not want to leave my new friends from the fundamentalist church.
To be clear, at least from my perspective at the time, my desire didn’t have anything to do with God or the church or religion in general. It’s just that for the first time in a long time, I had felt wanted. And not for what I could do or provide, but me; I felt wanted.
Disturbed by the implications of the contrast between “my people” and the fundamentalists, I began to argue with myself. Attempting to rationalize what had happened on the trip, including the mysterious stranger in Denver and the Christian scientist in Moab, I told myself that I was being foolish. Except I couldn’t deny what I had seen, heard, and felt. Both empirically and existentially, I knew that my rationalizations were bad arguments based on special pleading. I didn’t want that guy’s words in Denver to burrow into my brain. I didn’t want to feel disillusioned after being confronted by “my people’s” hypocrisy. I didn’t want to feel loved and wanted by a group of fundamentalist Christians. I hadn’t wanted my journey to be one of growing isolation and disappointment that had culminated in a group of conservative Christians being the lone bright spot. And, yet, even though I didn’t want any of that, I still wanted to turn around and go back to that church. And that made me angry.
Arguing with myself the whole way, I didn’t stop at Death Valley, but drove straight to San Antonio instead. The drive took me almost thirty hours, and by the time I stopped I was exhausted.
Once inside my hotel room, I called my brother and broke down on the phone. Partly from exhaustion from sleep deprivation and partly from the Holy Spirit working on my tortured soul, I poured my heart out and told him that I didn’t know why, but I wanted to go back to his church. Before hanging up, he told me that the church would be praying for me.
I fell asleep almost immediately.