A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 14 “A Jack Kerouac Inspired Pilgrimage”

abandoned church

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by John Ellis

The Pensacola I found in January of 2003 was not the Pensacola I had left in 1998.

In the spring of 1998, I was filled with optimism as I made plans to head north. While delivering pizzas to the rich neighborhoods, I would idle my car in front of the largest mansion and wonder if my future mansion would look similar after I became a movie star. Like many other times in the car, on the drive to Greenville I daydreamed about winning my first Oscar and composed my acceptance speech. As I prepped for my wedding that summer, I fantasized about the beautiful women that I would one day sleep with, a perk I imagined that came with being a famous actor. My supposed glamorous future colored the world around me. Pensacola was great. Greenville was great. Everything was great and in a few short years, John Ellis would have it all.

While my career priorities changed over the next few years, my outlook had not. In fact, for a while, John Ellis was on his way to having it all. While not rich, I had become a respected actor, enjoyed a steady stream of invitations to parties, some of them glamorous, and found that there were more than enough beautiful women around me to satisfy the lusts of my flesh.

However, as the last chapter attests, and as anyone who believes the Bible can confirm, my optimism and happiness were built on a lie. As 2003 began, my life had reversed and, from my perception, Pensacola mirrored my current state, both physically and mentally. It didn’t help that it was rainy and dreary in the Panhandle when I arrived home that January.

So, waking up in my parent’s house on that first morning, I was broke and scared and angry. Worse, I was lonely and filled with self-doubt.

My parents had just 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. Stupidly, I planned my arrival so that I would miss them. That first morning, though, I regretted that decision and longed for my mom. I had never felt so alone and empty in my life, and it scared me.

My lack of money was the source for some of my fear. It never occurred to me to regret my decision to blow the money my parents had generously given me, though. Instead, all of my emotions were directed at outside sources that I believed I had no control over. And that’s where my anger came from. A selfishly myopic anger that ultimately became directed at God, but in 2003 I was still an atheist. My anger didn’t really have an object yet. But existential musing had to wait; first and foremost, I needed a job.

That first day back, 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 that I would find a job 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 and no one to talk to, I sat in my thoughts. I still needed a job, of course, but my repeated failure to find one fed the existential musing I’d had no time for during my first few days back in Pensacola.

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 continued 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 for me 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. A light I believed I had successfully blown out.

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. My rebellious motives for reading the Bible, though, were no match for the promise that, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it (Isaiah 55:11).” However, at the time, I wasn’t thinking about any of God’s promises.

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. Instead of drawing the correct conclusions, I blamed things like my insurance company that had refused to pay to get my car fixed, the theatre that had changed the terms of my contract, and a whole host of other events that I had no control over. But no matter how hard I fought back, Mr. Hafler’s words had returned to my mind to stay.

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, for some reason, 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 continued to worsen.

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, sobbing. I don’t totally understand why I experienced physical pain, but I know that my loneliness and despair produced real, material pain. And I also know that 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, along with my soul, was suffering the scourge of my spiritual rebellion.

I wish there were a way for me to impart that aspect of my experience rebelling against God to those who have yet to submit to Him through faith in Jesus. Because no matter how awful those nights were, and those nights 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. But that pain, both spiritually and physically, I believe, was a small taste of the eternal pain in store for those who die in their rebellion against their Creator.

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.

In the mornings, I continued my job search, to no avail. And as my despair, anger, and loneliness grew, so did my belief that death might be the answer. One morning, after talking to my mom on the phone, in pain and 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 weeks, 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. Walking through the front entrance, my entire being eagerly strained with the anticipation for positive human contact.

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, fighting back sobs.

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, who had been hired as the school administrator after I graduated, 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 to myself if Mr. Bean hadn’t stepped out of his office and greeted me that day.

Shortly afterwards, Seville Quarter called and asked me to come interview for a bartending job. I got the job. The funny part is that 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 did not want to be alone.

I was also making a ton of money – well a “ton of money” by my standards. That being said, I’m not sure if people realize how much money bartenders in high-volume restaurants and bars can make. The problem was that I was spending it almost 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 place of employment 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. While those four months acted as a sort of emotional oasis, I began to long for something else. And before continuing, I want to make sure that I’m not misunderstood. By “emotional oasis” I’m not intending to imply that my time working at Seville was good or right. But during my time there I wasn’t suicidal, and I was having fun. Which made that growing longing for something else odd. From my pre-conversion perspective, I had a great job, friends, all the partying my hedonistic heart wanted, and, to top it all off, a local theatre troupe had asked me to join them. What else was there? My life was back on track.

Well, that winter, while at a used bookstore, I paid fifty cents for a dog-eared copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Upon reading it, I immediately became enamored with the book. As my undefined longing for something else grew, I began to wonder if I needed to take my own On the Road-style pilgrimage to San Francisco. The epicenter of the counter-culture movement would surely serve to recharge me, I believed.

So, 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 little more than $2,000. 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 mean, I could make that amount of money fairly quickly; I was aware, though, that most of that money would go back into Seville’s till just as quickly. After finally deciding that a cross-country journey was what I needed, I next concluded that I would need to find a different job.

After calling my old bosses at both the brew pub and the pizza delivery store in Greenville, SC, and getting both of my old jobs back, I put in my two weeks notice at Seville. Once back in Greenville, I threw myself into work with no distractions. Since I was also delivering pizzas during the day as well as the nights I wasn’t scheduled at the brew pub, it didn’t take me long to collect the needed $2,000, 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.

She pleaded with me to move back to Atlanta and restart my theatre career. When she went back to college in the fall, just down the road in Milledgeville, I could move in with her since she was going to be living off campus. My commute to Atlanta wouldn’t be that bad, she insisted. She confessed that she was worried I wouldn’t come back East after I got to San Francisco. That thought had crossed my mind, but I didn’t tell her that. Instead, I attempted to explain to her that over the past year I had become distracted by too many tangential things and that I needed to get my priorities back in order. Theatre and progressive activism had fallen by the wayside, I admitted, and recharging my counterculture and artistic batteries was what I needed. “After I get my life back together, we’ll be a lot happier,” I promised her, adding that I’d move back to Atlanta upon my return. While still unhappy with my refusal to change my mind, she accepted my promise.

And, so, with Christine’s semi-blessing, which I was surprised to find I cared about, I headed West.

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 was aided by having survived driving through Kansas and eastern Colorado, all in one shot. Instead, the Denver International Youth Hostel turned out to be one of the oddest youth hostels I ever stayed in. Odd in a creepy way that drove me out of my room as soon as I had chosen a bunk and unpacked.

Irritated that my pilgrimage was not going as planned, I slung my bookbag over my shoulder as I stepped out of the hostel and began the roughly 15-minute walk to the 16th Street Mall. At the time, and maybe it still is, 16th Street was filled with chain restaurants and stores, not my usual scene, in other words. Since one of my expressed purposes for my journey was recharging my progressive activism batteries, the 16th Street Mall fed my disappointment in my pilgrimage so far. I was starving, though, so I popped into a well-known casual dining chain restaurant and headed to the bar without even pausing at the hostess stand. I was hungry, made even more irritable by my own hypocrisy, and wanted to get out of this locus of mindless consumerism with as little human interaction as possible. I couldn’t wait to get to the Haight-Ashbury district in San Francisco among my people and away from corporate America.

While placing my order, I barely noticed the man sitting two stools away. When he attempted to strike up a conversation, I was less than thrilled, wanting to reread The Trial in peace while I waited for my black bean burger. He was persistent, though, and gregarious, so I grudgingly engaged him.

He asked me what I was doing and seemed curiously amused by my Kerouacian journey. During the conversation, I managed to let slip that I had grown up a preacher’s kid. He made some vague religious comments that I wasn’t really listening to, replying that I was an atheist. And that was that. Or, so I thought.

Paying my bill, I gave no thought to my unwelcome dinner conversation partner who had left a few minutes before me. My only goal was to walk back to my hostel so that I could get some rest before driving to the Garden of the Gods the next day.

It was late as I stepped onto the sidewalk. Turning in the direction of my hostel, I felt a hand on my bookbag. Assuming I was in the process of being mugged, I angrily wheeled around, ready to swing.

The man from the bar sheepishly stepped back, grinned awkwardly, and said, “Sorry, I was waiting to talk to you.”

He then asked if I minded if he walked with me. The whole thing felt weird to me, but since I didn’t own the sidewalk, I shrugged and replied, “I’m headed back to my hostel, man. Walk with me if you want.”

After a brief, awkward few steps, my unwanted travel companion stopped, looked at me, and bluntly said, “I want to tell you that God loves you.”

What?!?

I was stunned. Out of all the possible things I was expecting to hear in the middle of the night in downtown Denver, that was not it. He continued.

“Look, I don’t want to argue with you. I get the impression that you know more about the Bible than I do, but I felt compelled to wait for you to tell you that God loves you and someone somewhere is praying for you.”

With that, he turned and walked away.

Stunned, I stood there with tears beginning to stream down my face. In that moment, all I could think of was my mom on her knees praying for me.

I was also angry. Angry at that man. Angry at my mom. Angry at myself. Angry because those words were too specifically poignant to be a coincidence. Prior to that night in Denver, my atheism had been unassailable. But it felt like an unseen hand has just taken a tire iron to my worldview. 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 atheist and 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. Evolution fit with my worldview, and so 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 while we drank beer and shared 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 laughed a little and said with a friendly smile, “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.”

Arrgghh!

Stupidly, I continued.

“But geological records disprove things like the flood.”

“No,” he repeated, slowly shaking his head. “Did you know that there are fossils that lie across different geological stratum?”

And with that, he began a lecture detailing to me how evolution does not disprove God.

Moab, Utah, which had been the highpoint of my journey up to that point, the only highpoint, for that matter, 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 finally 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 independent fundamental Baptist (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 that Monday.

The week began as planned with my brother dropping 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 beautiful and interesting-looking 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. No matter, though, my excitement was growing at the thought of what I would discover at Haight-Ashbury the next day. When I happily went to bed that night, I fell asleep almost immediately.

 

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