by John Ellis
Waking up the next morning, I felt much better. Remembering my phone call with my brother the day before, I cringed in embarrassment. “Whelp,” I ruefully thought, “that’s going to stoke everyone’s desire to see me converted.”
With every intention of disappointing those who would take that phone call as a sign that I would soon be converted, I got in my car and drove to Pensacola.
Since I had “accidently” cut my trip short, I still had over a thousand bucks to blow. From a human standpoint, the smart thing would’ve been to take that money, move to Atlanta, and restart my acting career. Thankfully, I didn’t do the smart thing.
My “thankfully” probably needs an explanation. While the next ten months included some of my most shameful moments, if I had done the humanly smart thing and moved to Atlanta instead of wasting my money on riotous living, my life might be completely different now. Even as a Christian, I struggled with my acting career being an idol. I can only imagine how distracted from spiritual things I would’ve become if I had focused on my acting career at that point in my life. In fact, so focused and distracted, I probably would’ve found my salvation, once again, in something other than Jesus.
So, thankfully (I think), I took that money and threw myself an extended party until the money ran out.
I was angry at myself and embarrassed at what I perceived as a weakness that had been exposed in me during the trip. Unlike in 1998 when I wanted to prove to other people that I wasn’t a Christian, during the fall of 2003 I wanted to prove to myself that I was immune to superstitious faith. And, scarily, unlike 1998, I had the knowledge and ability necessary all on my own to shout down the doubts and questions prompted in me during my pilgrimage to San Francisco.
With my parents back on the road, I decided to spend a week or two in Pensacola. That came as quite the shock to the newly married PCC couple that my parents were allowing to live in their house that semester.
I knew that they were staying there because when I called to inform my parents about my plans to crash at their place for a week or two they had told me about the young couple. Based on the looks on their faces when they first saw me on the front steps smoking, my parents hadn’t been able to get ahold of this young couple before my arrival. To be fair, it had been less than a day since I had informed my parents.
During my time there, I did everything possible to make that young couple uncomfortable. Leaving alcohol on the counter, peppering my speech with as many obscenities as I could, and bringing home girls I met while partying. My attitude towards them set the tone for the next ten months – lashing out at Christians because of my embarrassment over my response to the events of my trip became somewhat of a hobby to me.
To their credit (or simply because they didn’t know what to make of me), that young couple worked hard to not give me the satisfaction of seeing them squirm. That being said, I’m sure that they were quite happy to see me leave.
Running short on cash, I drove back to Greenville where I had jobs waiting for me and options for places to live. I also brought with me an increasing antagonism towards Christianity.
At the time, finding a non-Christian in the Upstate of South Carolina was difficult. Almost everyone claimed to be a Christian, including my co-workers who lived as atheists. Annoyed at their claims to be Christians while living in ways that contradicted that claim, I began to find ways to taunt the professed Christians who worked with me.
One couple who lived together were among the most vocal about their faith. Knowing that I was an atheist, the female homed in on me in order to save my soul. I quickly made her regret that.
After listening to her tell me about how much God loves me and how I needed to embrace that love, I responded, “Why should I believe in God when you don’t really believe in Him?”
Confused, she insisted that I was mistaken.
“You can say that you believe in God all you want,” I responded. “But the fact that you’re living with your boyfriend tells me that you don’t actually believe in Him.” Digging the knife in deeper, I added, “I bet your pastor doesn’t know that you’re living together.”
Red-faced, she protested that they were hoping to get married one day and that living together in the meantime was the financially prudent thing to do while they were in college. She insisted that since God is love, He would understand.
Having grown up the son of a fundamentalist pastor and having been a one-time BJU preacher boy, I knew the answer. Gleefully, I quoted Romans 6:1-2 to her.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
She quickly learned to keep her witnessing to herself. I, on the other hand, ramped up my own proselytizing. At every instance of less than perfect obedience to God’s law, I would pounce.
Whenever her bartender boyfriend would ghost-shot customers (charging friends’ drinks to another customer, preferably an inebriated customer who wouldn’t notice his bill was more than it should be) I would remind him (and her) that the Bible has something to say about lying and stealing.
Whenever they would stick around after their shifts had ended and get drunk, I would point out that the Bible frequently condemns drunkenness.
Every little misstep, including failing to report all their tips at the end of the night, became fodder for my game. At times, other professing Christians would offer a rejoinder to my harassment, but they too quickly learned that at least a working knowledge of the Bible was requisite for silencing me.
I pray that the Holy Spirit saw fit to ironically use my mocking “Bible-thumping” to convict some of my targets of their sin and call them to repentance.
That fall, a co-worker introduced me to a friend of hers named Sherry. An unemployed single mother who was on her way to becoming a meth addict, Sherry was a mess. I also thought she was hot, so, shamefully, she became what is referred to as my “sure thing.” She also became the doorway into my short-lived career as a drug dealer.
Suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, at least according to the therapist appointed by her social worker, she was prescribed a variety of pills. Most of them she didn’t take because she didn’t like how they interacted with her high from other drugs. So, she gave them to me.
Not really having a use for them outside of occasionally popping one myself, I quickly accumulated a sizeable stash. However, the problem of what to do with them resolved itself after a conversation with co-workers in which they bemoaned their lack of pills.
Mostly schedule 3 narcotics, I began selling the pills for between 2 to 5 dollars apiece, depending on whom I was selling to. I didn’t tell Sherry what I was doing because I assumed that she would want a cut. The way I looked at it, since I paid for much of her food, alcohol, cigarettes, and other drugs, the profit from her pills should be mine. Not to mention, the amount of profit paled in comparison to the amount of money I was shelling out to keep her around.
As the weeks went on, since it was easy money, I schemed a little about how to get my hands on more pills. But it never moved past the scheming stage. It was when I moved in with a friend that November that I was provided full access to the world of drug dealing; a world that I had only been dabbling in up to that point.
That fall, after getting kicked out of a friend’s place because she and I had different ideas about why I was living there, I moved into an extended stay motel. That run-down motel introduced me to another layer of society’s underbelly.
Surrounded by pimps, prostitutes, real-life drug dealers, career criminals, and homeless people who had gathered enough money to get off the street for a week or two, I found myself living in a place in which I was a curiosity to the other residents, especially since I had gainful employment. It became normal for someone to knock on my door late at night (early in the morning) with a proposition of some sort.
Thankfully, there were levels of degradation that even I hadn’t sunk to, and so I quickly concluded that I needed to find another place to live. Not to mention that I was scared that the day was fast approaching when I would cease to be a curiosity and become a mark for some of the other residents. Asking around, I discovered a solution; a friend of mine who lived about 25 miles up the road in a small town called Spartanburg was looking for a roommate.
As it turned out, what he was really looking for was someone to pay for his drug addiction. But I didn’t know that at the time.
Shortly after moving in, I was cast in my first show in almost a year. While I wasn’t overly thrilled with the play, an Agatha Christie murder-mystery, I was itching to get back on stage.
At the first read-through, I fell madly in love with Allison, the actress cast to play my girlfriend (or, at least I thought I had fallen in love). The problem was that she was engaged. She was also a devout Christian.
Since we were basically in all the same scenes, our rehearsal schedules mirrored each other’s. In fact, we were usually on stage at the same time, which meant that we spent our off-stage time together in the green room.
In the four months since my trip had ended, I had devoted much of my energy to quieting the doubts that had entered my mind. And, as mentioned earlier, I channeled my anger at my response to the experiences I’d had while traveling into attacking the faith of others. Not this time, though.
Over the course of the rehearsals, Allison and I became fairly good friends. To the point where I convinced myself that I had a shot at getting her to break her engagement off. While she knew that I was interested in her beyond just friends (I flat-out told her), I’m not sure that she was aware of the role that she played in giving me reason to think that the door to her heart was open, if even just a crack. Who knows, maybe it was open a crack. However, her motives and level of awareness are irrelevant because God used her to push the door of my heart open even further to the gospel.
I stopped partying, opting instead to hang out with her as much as possible. Since Allison didn’t drink alcohol, my after-rehearsal activities changed quite a bit.
By that point, Sherry had begun introducing me to people as her boyfriend, so I was ready to jettison that relationship anyway. My feelings for Allison were the final push I needed to completely end it with Sherry.
During our many conversations, I told Allison about my upbringing, and we talked about Christianity quite a bit. Thinking that it would further my cause, I told her about my experiences from the summer before and confessed that questions and seeds of doubt had been planted in my mind. I thought that I was lying to her when I told her that I was beginning to wonder if God was real and if the Bible was true. Except a strange thing began to happen.
Having slammed the brakes on my pedal-to-the-metal lifestyle intended to silence my thoughts about God, I found myself ill-prepared to deal with those thoughts once they began returning. To make matters worse, Allison told me that if I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity she’d have coffee with me and discuss the book, just the two of us. Up to that point, all my time with her away from the theatre had been in group settings. While I knew that it wouldn’t really be a date, it would be a start. So, I read the book.
By the time I finished the book, I was no longer an atheist. I was something worse.
No longer able to intellectually deny the existence of God, and yet still unwilling to submit to God, I became angry at Him. Convincing myself that He was lying to us, I set out to tear His throne down. That also meant that my relationship with Allison changed. By the time we sat down to discuss the book, I had lost the ability to pretend to care about her faith in the way that she wanted. Saddened yet unable to stop it, I watched our friendship fizzle to that of merely cast mates.
About the same time, my new roommate came to me with an idea – if I would bankroll the operation, and with his connections, he and I could make a lot of money selling drugs. I agreed. I’ll never forget the first night that I stepped completely into that world.
Most street level dealers are working for someone who is essentially working for someone else and so on and so forth until you get to the main source of distribution. My roommate was friends with someone who was one step below the main source of distribution – well, as much as someone can be friends with someone like that.
Driving up to the house off State Park Road, I felt like I was in a movie. It was surreal and scary and exciting. On the way there, my roommate told me that I had to wait in the car until he came and got me. Making me more than a little worried, he told me that his connection would not be happy if he brought a stranger into his house; he had to vouch for me first.
As he got out of the car, he cautioned me once again, “Stay here.”
I wasn’t about to go anywhere.
Sitting in my car, with the shadows from the moonlit trees imbuing the scene with an even more ominous tone, I thought about my life. As an individual who constantly looked for drama in his life (I probably still do), I was acutely aware of the meaning of this moment. Six years earlier, I had been a scared Christian school kid receiving an education in depravity from roadies while working a Matchbox 20 concert. My graduation ceremony to full-on, God-rejecting depravity was about to happen, and as scared as I was, I was also thrilled. I believed that I was about to remove myself outside the reach of Christianity.
My friend stepped out of the darkened house and motioned me to follow him. We quietly walked through the dark living room. Even though my eyes were adjusted to the darkness, I didn’t really want to see what I was seeing. Some of the scariest people I had ever seen were sprawled out around the room. A few guns were visible. By the time my drug dealing career had ended, I’d had guns pushed in my face. But that night, the mere presence of guns possessed by people who looked like they would have no qualms killing me was quite unsettling.
In that moment, my “graduation” seemed more like a failure and I found myself wishing that I had turned down my roommate’s business proposition. It was too late to turn back, though, so I followed him into a bedroom in the back of the house.
Unlike the rest of the house, the room’s lights were on and the bed was occupied by my friend’s supplier and what I presumed was his girlfriend. He was young, younger than I expected, and much friendlier than I expected.
During my interactions with him over the next five months, he always seemed genuinely pleased to see me. Frankly, I assumed, and still assume, that it was because unlike most of the people in his life, I could carry on an intelligent conversation with him about a variety of topics. However, I never made the mistake of assuming he actually liked me.
That first night, after my friend introduced us, our supplier offered me a pipe and said, “Try this.”
I didn’t want to “try this” because I didn’t know what was in it. I didn’t have many rules, but not smoking crack or heroin were two of my rules. However, I also didn’t want to risk doing something to offend my new “friend,” so I smoked whatever was in that pipe.
I never asked what was in it, but the high I got was quite subdued. While I’m not entirely sure about the science, I can’t help but wonder if the massive amounts of adrenaline coursing through my blood stream had a hand in tamping down my physical response to whatever it was that I smoked. Or maybe it was simply the grace of God, because I’m fairly confident that whatever was in that pipe was a level of drugs that even I stayed away from.
My roommate, on the other hand, as I had already discovered, had no qualms about putting anything into his body. Even though we had only been living together for a little over a month, I had already found him passed out on the floor a few times after he had projectile vomited all over the bathroom. And by “passed out,” I mean that he would lie in the same position for a day or two, to the point where I’d wonder if I should take him to the ER.
So, when our supplier urged us to “try this,” my roommate eagerly did. By the time we left with what we’d come for, my fear hadn’t subsided. My roommate made fun of me on the way home.
I immediately began selling to a few of my cast mates, who spread the word that I was dealing. That ended any chance I had with Allison once and for all.
By the time the show closed, most of my energy was put into selling drugs. Not only was the lifestyle lucrative, it was also exhilarating.
I knew that being immersed in the drug culture meant that my chances of being arrested had skyrocketed, but I enjoyed the feeling of power it gave me (not to mention the money). I kept telling myself that I was only going to do this for a short period of time, but I also began to explore ways to grow my new business.
By that time, I had moved since my roommate had put all the money I had given him for rent up his nose and in his arm. I didn’t care about the eviction; once I realized what was happening, I expected it. A mutual friend nicknamed “Satan” told me that he and his roommates needed someone to rent the third bedroom. What he didn’t tell me was that at any given time upwards of a dozen people lived in that three-bedroom apartment.
I had a room, “Satan” had a room, and a couple comprised of a twenty-six-year-old deadbeat who mooched off his high school girlfriend who worked at a Staples after school had the other room. Everyone else slept on the floor throughout the apartment. Once I realized the living arrangements, I stressed that no one was allowed in my room without my permission. My main concern was the large amount of drugs that I had stashed in my closet.
By then, the winter of 2004, the painful loneliness from the year earlier had returned. Getting high helped somewhat, and so every night I would sit on the back deck and smoke weed with my roommates. Frequently our conversations would turn to theology, much to my displeasure. I got high to escape from thinking about God, but my roommates seemed to only think about God when high. Worse, they wanted to talk about Him when high.
Beyond just lonely, my anger at God grew into a rage. One night, while on the back deck, I told my roommate that God was lying to us and that He was afraid of humans. I concluded my blasphemous rant with the declaration that I hoped that I was the Anti-Christ so that I could be the one to beat God. My more spiritually-minded roommates were aghast and begged me to recant. Instead, I doubled down.
My anger against God grew to encompass other humans, especially humans who looked happy. As I became more miserable, I wanted others to be just as miserable. Picking fights with strangers who looked happier than I thought they should be, I entered that spring angrily violent, lonely, and hurting, and I couldn’t stop thinking about God.
My thoughts became unbearable and my loneliness became all-encompassing even when with people. Because I wrestled with thoughts about God, I began to feel like a fraud and convinced myself that there was no one in the world who could relate to me. One afternoon, unable to take it any longer, I walked out onto the highest bridge that I could find with the intention of jumping off.
As I stood gripping the railing, looking down at the rocks below me, I thought about that church outside of San Francisco that had treated me so kindly and with such love. Crying, I walked off the bridge, and collapsed on the grass.
As I lay there sobbing, all I could think of was that I needed to go back to that church. Then and there, I decided to move to San Francisco.
By the end of that week, my reason for moving had morphed into the opportunities that San Francisco held for my theatre career. But I was still moving.
The plans were easy. My brother was happy when I called and told him, and he asked me to housesit for him that summer while he and his family were back east so that he could do some work on his master’s degree. That gave me a moving date, and so I mentally circled the beginning of June on my calendar, less than two months away.
As I readied myself to move, I met with both of my sisters individually. I wanted to tell them goodbye. And not just goodbye because I was moving, but goodbye because I believed that I would never see them again.
I confessed to each of them that it was becoming harder and harder for me to hide who I was from their kids, and that I understood if they no longer wanted me in their kids’ lives. I told them that I loved them and that I would harbor no ill-will or resentment if they chose to cut off contact with me. They both pleaded with me to repent and place my faith in Jesus. I quietly explained that I couldn’t do that because God was a moral monster who delighted in torturing humans.
A couple of years later, one of my sisters told me that when I left her house, she thought that would be the last time that she would ever see me.
The night before I left, my roommates and I sat on the deck smoking weed. As we talked, I told them that if they ever heard that I was a pastor not to believe it. I told them that it would only be for the women and the money. Before turning in for the night, I screamed obscenities into the sky at God as my roommate nervously laughed.
The next day, I drove to Atlanta to spend some time with Christine before heading west.
She was distraught that I was moving, and like the summer before begged me to stay. By then, she was renting a house and told me that I could stay with her. Her arguments made sense. Even though they were dormant, I still had connections in Atlanta’s theatre community. I had zero connections in San Francisco’s theatre community. She even promised to financially support me while I broke back into theatre in Atlanta.
If she had known about all my activities of the past year, she wouldn’t have been so eager to do whatever was needed to get me to stay. She believed that I still loved her, and during those few days she almost convinced me that I still loved her. But, like the previous summer, even though I contemplated staying with her, I ultimately landed on the decision that I needed to drive west.
Before heading west, though, I drove north to Bloomington, Indiana.
Assuming that it would be years before I ever made it back east, I wanted to see my grandmother as well as my aunt, uncle, and cousins before moving to San Francisco. Unbeknownst to me, my parents were in Bloomington when I arrived.
I hadn’t told my parents my plan because I assumed that they would try and talk me out of it. Of course, my brother had told them. When they brought it up, I quickly changed the subject, not wanting to hear a lecture.
My grandmother, who was nearing ninety, was getting to the point where she couldn’t live by herself. While in Bloomington, I began to wonder if I wouldn’t be better off staying there to help take care of my grandmother and go to IU. The more I thought about it, the better the plan sounded. I decided to stay.
When I floated the idea to my aunt, she nodded and said that it might work, but didn’t really offer an opinion. I took that as a yes.
Two evenings later, I went to dinner at a Fazoli’s with my aunt and one of my cousins. For me, the dinner was a celebration of my decision. However, while in the bathroom a nagging question entered my brain – was I making this decision out of fear and/or for financial reasons?
I prided myself on not allowing money to control me, and so I was embarrassed by the question. But, the more that I thought about it, the more I realized that I was staying in Bloomington out of fear and because I was worried about money. I had saved up several thousand dollars before moving, but I knew that if I didn’t find a job quickly that money would soon run out. Standing in the bathroom at Fazoli’s, I reversed my decision.
My aunt seemed strangely happy about the news.
Since my brother was expecting me to house-sit for him, I was on a time crunch. It was Monday evening, and he and his family were flying east on Thursday. My decision to stay in Bloomington had put me two days behind. By my calculations, I had just enough time to drive from Bloomington to Antioch, CA before my brother left. Explaining that to my Aunt, I quickly drove back to my grandmother’s house to collect my stuff. My parents were there when I arrived.
Cursing my bad luck because I believed that I was about to hear a lecture, I quickly told my parents that I had changed my mind. Shocking me, my mom smiled and said, “Good. We’ve been praying that you would change your mind. We believe that you should move to California.”
I thought that the last place my parents would want me to move was to San Francisco. And, yet, here they were encouraging me to abandon my grandmother and pursue my acting dreams in the most liberal city in the entire country. It didn’t make any sense, but I didn’t have the time to figure it out.
Throwing my stuff into my car, I sped off.
Wednesday night, exhausted, I pulled into my brother’s driveway having driven over 2,200 miles in a little less than 48 hours.
During my journey, I’d had several adventures that had stoked my optimism about the move. The next afternoon, I woke up to an empty house with the California sun streaming in the windows. As I rolled out of bed, I smiled thinking about how much my life was going to change from here on out.
Little did I know how true that was.
(addendum: I almost left my roommate’s nickname out (Satan) because it’s far less dramatic than it might seem. He worked with me at a Papa Johns. Our manager, whom I could write an entire story about, gave all of his employees nicknames. For some reason, he nicknamed my roommate “Satan.” I don’t remember why. Whatever the reason was, it was most likely silly.)