Elk River’s campus was spread over three large hills, with the academic buildings arranged in a quadrangle overlooking the gorge. Lacey and I lived in one of the three dormitories on East Hill. Our hall, Warner, alternated male and female floors. Another, Klein, housed only women, while Paxton was for upperclassmen in sororities or specific academic programs.
I hadn’t yet made it over to West Hill, where there was an all-male dorm, two others co-ed by floor and Fraternity Row, but one of the girls down the hall from us said there were tons of cute guys over there. It seemed wise to make a point of eating in the Reid dining hall every once in a while, even if the food in Paxton was reputed to be better.
To go anywhere on campus on foot required going down one steep hill and up at least one other. My calves and upper thighs ached from the repeated climbs we had already made going from our dorm to the Quad for orientation activities over the past few days, not to mention our walk to the Pentecostal church down the street from campus on Sunday.
On the way to the Quad, a few unlucky souls who had 8:00 a.m. classes passed us on their way back to the dorms. Each one smiled, waved, or said hello.
“Is everyone in Ohio this friendly?” I asked Lacey as we climbed the stairs to the Quad.
“It’s the Elkie Hi,” Lacey explained. “An Elk River tradition. Everyone greets one another when passing. It’s actually how my oldest brother met his wife more than 20 years ago.”
“You have a brother that much older than you?”
“Yeah, I’m the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. My whole family are alums. Anyway, Benjie and Neely passed each other every day on the bridge, and always said hi. One day Neeley stopped on the bridge, the one over the lake we just crossed. Benjie stopped to talk to her and the rest is history. They even started CSF together.”
“What’s CSF?” I asked as we approached the steps of Montgomery Hall.
Lacey appeared not to have heard me. “Well, this is where we go our separate ways. Wanna meet up for lunch?”
“Sure, let’s meet back here by the steps at 11:30.”
I waved good-bye, thankful that Lacey and I were getting along so well. There were two girls on our floor that had already requested room reassignments due to irreconcilable differences.
I headed into the building, excited to meet more of my fellow freshmen and learn about our awesome God.
There were two other students in the classroom. A heavy-set guy with an unruly shock of white-blond hair hanging down over a unibrow waved and smiled at me, revealing a mouth full of snaggly teeth. With his ragged-looking plaid shirt and ripped jeans he looked like one of the panhandlers that frequented the off-ramps of Southern California freeways. On the other side, a tall dark-complected girl with close-cropped hair and a piercing through her lip doodled in her notebook.
I sat in the middle of the room. The girl leaned over to me.
“Hi, I’m Breanne,” she said. “I love your hair! What fun to have all those curls to play with.” She reached a hand out as if to touch me, but stopped short.
“Thanks. I’m Giselle.” I eyed her notebook and instead of doodles saw a rough but still lovely sketch of the view out the window.
“What an unusual name. Mind if I call you Zell?”
“I guess not.” I didn’t really care for nicknames, but “Zell” was at least better than the cutesy “Gigi” that my family always used for me. “That is so cool,” I said, gesturing to her notebook. “I wish I could draw like that.”
“Just doodling. Sucks that this class is mandatory, huh, Zell? Not exactly how I want to start my week.”
“Oh?” What did she mean? Wasn’t this a church-affiliated school? Why would anyone choose to come here if they didn’t want to go to a religion class?
Breanne continued, “Hey, at least chapel’s not mandatory. My RA was telling us that up until her sophomore year, everyone had to go. So, where are you from?”
While I explained what brought me from California to Ohio, the seats around us filled with students.
The professor got class started about 5 minutes late. “Welcome to Religion 101. I want to assure you, this is not a Bible study. We’ll spend the first half of the semester examining all the world religions, and then the second half taking a look ‘Is the Bible True,’ a book that summarizes the latest critical scholarship on the origins of the biblical myth.”
My heart sank. Church-affiliated didn’t mean anything. This wasn’t a Christian school at all. I wasn’t safe from the world’s temptations, I was right in the middle of them. I was no better off than if I had gone to UCLA. In fact, I might have been worse off, without my family and church to keep me on the right track. At least I had Lacey for fellowship.
On the way out of class, Breanne caught up with me. “Hey, Zella-bella, want to grab lunch with me over in Reid?”
“Oh, I would love to, but I already promised my roomie I’d meet her on the other hill. How about after class on Wednesday?” It would be just the chance I’d been waiting for to check out those cute guys over on West Hill.
“It’s a date,” giggled Breanne.
As we said goodbye, a bulletin board with various announcements caught my eye. A hot pink one stood out from the rest: “Christian Student Fellowship meets TONIGHT in the top of the student center.”
I mentioned the meeting to Lacey on our walk to the dining hall for lunch.
“Yeah, that’s the CSF I was telling you about, the club my oldest brother started.”
“How neat to be the founder of a club.”
“It’s more than a club, really. His vision was that it would be the body of Christ on campus. It’s modeled after the early church, you know, like in the Book of Acts. Instead of twelve apostles, it’s led by twelve leaders called Shepherds. All my brothers and sisters were Shepherds when they went here, and I’ve always wanted to be one. It would be such a honor to serve God that way.”
“I’m sure you’ll be great at it.”
“Well, it’s not a sure thing. Each leader is selected after prayer and discussion by the current Shepherds.”
She made the group sound so perfect. Could I measure up to such high standards? Lacey seemed to have a vitality to her faith that I’d never felt for myself. I’d been hoping to feel something extra after responding to that altar call on Sunday, but so far, nothing. But, I’d been so busy with meeting new people and settling in to our dorm room, so maybe the silence was my fault? I’d get up early tomorrow and read the Bible and see if that made a difference.
That night at the CSF meeting, we arrived a little late and there weren’t many open seats. Lacey waved as if she recognized someone and started walking. I followed, and saw the big blond ragamuffin from my Religion class wave us over.
“Hi, Ian,” said Lacey. "This is my roommate Giselle Gottlieb. Giselle, this is Ian Fletcher. He’s a family friend. We practically grew up together.”
“Giselle Gottlieb, nice meet you.” He had a firm, warm handshake. “Anyone ever call you Gigi?”
Before I could answer, a petite woman in a denim shirt dress called for our attention.
“Welcome to Christian Student Fellowship. I’m Phoebe Daniels, Chief Shepherd of CSF. I’ll introduce the rest of our Shepherd team and then we’ll have an open discussion time so we can all get to know each other.”
During discussion time, Ian told a story about an experience he had crossing the bridge over the lake at the center of Elk River’s campus. “One goose stood on the shore honking, and the others all turned toward it like a congregation, and I thought, I wonder if they need to know the gospel too?”
He participated heavily in the discussion, his words a strange mixture of the silly and sacred. He obviously had a deep love of God. I’d never met anyone quite like him.
As the meeting went on, I idly traced a finger over my jaw, wondering if I could find the lump from yesterday. It was still there, and once I found it I couldn’t leave it alone. Was it my imagination running away with me, or was it actually bigger? It was definitely a little sore. It wouldn’t hurt to get it checked out. Better to have a doctor tell me I’m fine so I could quit worrying.
When the meeting came to a close, Phoebe asked for prayer requests.
Ian raised his hand. “I’m having a hard time settling into college life. For one thing, my roommate’s feet stink something awful, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings about it. I need the Lord to show me how to speak the truth in love.”
I smirked at Lacey, but she didn’t appear to find it as funny as I did. I originally wasn’t going to share any requests, but hearing Ian changed my mind. If he could pray for stinky feet, I could ask for prayer for my own silly worry.
“I have a little lump under my jaw that is probably nothing, but could be something. So, I think I’d better go to the health clinic and have it checked out,” Faces around me furrowed with concern. “It’s probably nothing,” I repeated, more to assure myself than anything. “Pray that God gives me peace.”
“You’ll need prayer that you survive the health clinic,” an upperclassman called out, and suddenly the room was abuzz with anecdotes of all the ways the doctors had demonstrated their incompetence or uncaring or simply an inability to keep up with the heavy case load in the too few hours the clinic was open.
“Alright, alright,” Phoebe said at last. “Enough scaring the poor girl. Let’s pray.”
I went to the campus health clinic the next day. The doctor on duty didn’t seem too concerned, but noted that my temperature was slightly elevated and wrote a prescription for antibiotics just in case it were a sign of some sort of infection. Instructions were to return if I didn’t show any improvement by the time the antibiotics ran out.