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by John Ellis
While standing in the Snack Shop that first evening back after my unanticipated arrival on BJU’s campus, I snarled to my brother, “This place sucks. I’m going to the movies.”
No doubt, the astonished look on my brother’s face was mirrored in the faces of those seated within earshot of my explicit and actual throwing down of the rebellious gauntlet. I don’t know for sure, though, because I wasn’t really paying attention to anyone as I strode out the door, muttering profanities throughout my exit. I had already gotten “kicked out” of one fundamentalist institution that year, may as well make it two.
I cannot overstate how angry I was. My gambit to earn points with my dad had backfired in a spectacular way that would’ve impressed me if I wasn’t the one suffering the consequences. The last place on earth I wanted to be was Bob Jones University. Yet, here I was. The stifling rules, constant drumbeat of Christianity everywhere I turned, and the smiling faces teeming around me that made me think that everyone else was in on a secret that they refused to share with me all crushed me that first night back. Standing on the precipice of an entire semester at the world’s most unusual university halted the breath in my throat. I HAD to escape.
I did go to the movie theatre that night, and many subsequent nights. The nights I wasn’t at a movie theatre often found me at a local bar or hanging out with an ex-BJU student who lived in town and who became my chauffeur. We were friends, too, I guess, but I prioritized the access to freedom he and his truck provided me. Having been placed in the hall leader’s dorm room, I had much to escape from.
A hall leader is BJU’s version of an R.A., but with the added responsibility of riding herd over the spiritual formation of the other students. Hall leaders also passed out demerits to rule breakers. Upon the realization that my new roommate was the hall leader, I assumed that my time back at BJU was going to be brief. I was, after all, an inveterate rule breaker. And, he, of course, was tasked with meting out punishment to rule breakers. Turns out, he didn’t play by the rules of engagement, to my frustration.
No matter what I did, he refused to bring the hammer down, at all. More concerned with the state of my soul than with my compliance to BJU’s long list of rules, my hall leader roommate refused to give me what I wanted – my freedom – and, instead, prioritized modeling God’s forbearing grace, all while constantly inserting the gospel in as many conversations with me as he could. I mean, he didn’t even say a word when I hung a Clinton/Gore campaign sign on our door. With no attempt at masking my disdain for Christianity and Bob Jones University, my anger and frustration grew as those around me, starting with my hall leader roommate, seemingly turned a deaf ear and blind eye to everything I said and did.
About two weeks after my return to campus, fed up with it all, I returned to my dorm room drunk.
While at Corner Pockets, a bar in downtown Greenville, my friend laughingly warned me to slow down. “Dude,” he pleaded, “you’re going to get kicked out if you go back to campus drunk.”
It wasn’t the first time I had gotten drunk while living in a BJU dorm room, nor would it be the last. However, it was the one and only time that I was so drunk that I have no memory of even getting back to campus, much less what I said and did upon my return to the dorm. I do remember leaving Corner Pockets 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 asked me what my deal was the night before. I responded that I didn’t know what he was talking about because I didn’t remember anything from the night before. He informed me that I had come into his room after prayer group acting strangely. “You tried to go to sleep in my room,” he informed me. “We had to physically take you to your own room.”
I smirked and responded, “I don’t know, man. Just messin’ around, I guess.”
True, the naivety of those around me prevented the hammer of being kicked out from coming down on me. It’s also true that because many of them realized that I was hurting and that something was spiritually broken in me, they looked the other way many times. Their desire to see me healed was more important to them than the rules. Yet, it’s also true that I could’ve forced BJU’s hand. I could’ve proudly announced to my friend and everyone within earshot that I had been acting that way the night before because I had been drunk. Doing so would’ve ensured that I got what I wanted – kicked out. The university would’ve had no other choice. So, why didn’t I? Why didn’t I announce to my friend that I had been drunk? Why did I exert so much energy going so far only to always turn back at the last minute? For that matter, why did I agree to return to BJU when my dad brought it up? Sure, the semester had already started and it was plausible for me to assume it was too late, but, still, that had been an opportunity to completely cut bait and begin running as far from Christianity as I could.
This may be hard for those who didn’t grow up in Christian fundamentalism to understand, but I didn’t know how to escape. By that I mean that I knew where the exit door was, I just didn’t know how to go through it. Even scarier at the time, I didn’t really know what was on the other side of the door. My small taste of freedom made me realize that I was far more stained by Christianity than I had believed. I may not have belonged within fundamentalism, but that previous summer had also revealed how much I didn’t belong outside of it, too. Leaving everything and everyone you’ve known is a frightening proposition, no matter how alienated and angry you may feel. So, I stayed, because I didn’t know how not to.
My already-not-yet exit from fundamentalism, specifically from BJU, meant that childish acts of rebellion became the norm for me during the remainder of my time at the university.
It didn’t take long for my Clinton/Gore sign to come down because, predictably, someone (or, most likely, several people) complained and my hall leader roommate was instructed to make me take it down. As revenge, I plastered our door with photos of famous surfers. It must be noted that I am not nor have I ever been a surfer. In fact, I’ve never even been interested in surfing. People who got to know me the fall of 1996 believe otherwise, though.
Laugh at this if you must, but I developed an “interest” in surfing because I believed that the surf culture was outside of the comfort zone of most fundamentalists. To my surprise, and undermining my objective, my hall leader roommate cheerfully took his stuff off the door so that I would have more room to put up surfing pictures. Again, he proved himself an un-antagonistic antagonist. It was almost like he didn’t see himself as my enemy but as my friend.
Brazenly flaunting my necklace, which was against the rules, my hall leader roommate would warn me that he could see it and that I needed to be careful. But never once did he even suggest that I should take it off. In his words, “Other people will give you demerits if they see your necklace.”
Other people?!? I wanted him to give me demerits.
My acts of childishness included wearing blue jeans around campus, even to classes, in direct violation of BJU’s strict dress code. 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. In fact, later in the day, I would often discover that someone had “helpfully” hidden it under my pillow.
When asked to pray in prayer group, I declined. My hall leader roommate never made an issue out of it. And, trust me, refusing to pray during a BJU prayer group is a big deal.
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 hated and attempted to suppress all the way up until I became a Christian.
Over the course of the semester I racked up demerits, mainly for skipping classes, but failed to reach the 150 needed to get kicked out. As I already wrote, I walked all the way up to the exit door but was unable to step through. As far as I was concerned, it didn’t really matter because I assumed that I would not be returning for second semester. My excuse to my parents for not returning was my large school bill. That was a reality they understood and accepted, no doubt with the belief that I would be returning to BJU the following fall. I let them think whatever they wanted to think because I knew I wasn’t ever going back to BJU as a student.
My return to home was short lived because my oldest sister had a baby, my parent’s first grandchild. And, so, we made the trek all the way to a suburb of Cleveland where we met the newest member of our family. All in all, I enjoyed the trip, but was anxious to get home, find a job, and start my new life.
1997 opened with me doing side-work for a friend’s parents while I looked for steady work. I spent the evenings at the movie theatre or hanging out with friends. One evening, while standing with my brother in the lobby of Cordova Mall’s movie theatre, a girl walked up and started talking to my brother. I had no idea who she was and, for the life of me, couldn’t figure out why such a beautiful female would talk to my brother when I was around. Turns out, she and my brother had taken a class together that previous summer at Pensacola Junior College. It also turned out that she was a junior at BJU.
One of the great oddities of my life is how in the world I managed to make it through five semesters at BJU without even being aware of the existence of a fellow Pensacolian on campus, much less not being aware of a beautiful girl from Pensacola. Being from Pensacola and a BJU student was somewhat of a unicorn. The inevitable first question fellow BJU students asked when discovering that I was from Pensacola was, “Why didn’t you go to Pensacola Christian College?”
I thought I knew every BJU student from the Panhandle. I was either related to them, went to high school with them, or knew them because their youth group used to go roller skating with my youth group. Standing in that movie theatre’s lobby, I was baffled at my lack of knowledge, but grateful that the problem had been remedied. She gave me her dorm room phone number, to which I responded, “I’m not going back, but maybe we can get together over summer break.”
Ironically, after nearly two and a half years of being on the same campus with her and not even being aware of her existence, I ran into her again a couple of days later. This time, I was with my sister and her fiancé. We were killing time in University Mall (the lesser of the two Pensacola malls) while we waited to go see a movie at the dollar theatre located outside the back entrance of the mall. Walking down the wide, middle corridor, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Bronwynne call out my name. The fact that she was on a date did not temper my delight, at all. In fact, with a little egging on from my future brother-in-law, I followed her and her date into Sears. Catching up with them, I focused all my attention on her, completely ignoring the dude she was with.
“We’re going to see Romeo + Juliet at the dollar theatre. Want to come?” I boldly asked.
Without even checking with her date, Bronwynne replied, “Yes, I’d love that.”
We ended up watching The Ghost and the Darkness instead, but the movie mattered little to me. Sitting next to her in the dark, I was aware of the import of her unilaterally deciding that her and her “date” would join me at the movies. I almost wished that I was going back to BJU. Turns out, even though I didn’t know it at the time, I was going back to BJU. I also didn’t realize at the time how life altering my boldness in asking Bronwynne to go to the movies with me would turn out to be.