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by John Ellis
The apartment was unusually dark and quiet when I opened the door. No low hum from the refrigerator. No flickering light from the TV that was normally switched on 24/7. Seeing my roommate slouched dejectedly on the tattered couch completed the story. Our power had finally been shut off for non-payment.
“The least you could do is help carry my stuff to my car,” I snarled at my embarrassed roommate.
Living by Kerouac’s creed “if you own a rug, you own too much,” albeit modified to allow for my books and music, it didn’t take long for us to load my car. “I’d give you a ride somewhere,” I half-apologized to my roommate. “But there’s no where for you to sit.”
Walking out the door, I forced myself to ignore the quiet tears beginning to stream down my roommate’s face as he sat among filth in the growing dusk. I had no idea where he was going to go or what he was going to do, but I had lined up another place to live after he had warned me a couple of weeks earlier that this day was coming. Whatever happened to him next was not my problem, I told myself.
Considering his car had been repoed, I wasn’t surprised to find out that he hadn’t been paying the utilities. At the time, he didn’t tell me that he also had been failing to pay the rent, but I wasn’t surprised to find the eviction notice on our door a few days later. I was a little annoyed by the inconvenience his putting my share of the rent money up his nose and in his arm created for me, but, all in all, it wasn’t that big of a deal. With a steady source of income, I assumed there were many acquaintances that would be more than happy to rent me a room. My assumption proved correct; a co-worker at the pizza restaurant quickly offered me a room in the apartment he shared with an undetermined number of people. Filthy and filled with drugs like my previous apartment, this place was bizarre; made so by the constant fluctuating occupants.
There were three bedrooms. My co-worker, whom our boss had nicknamed “Satan,” mainly to mock him, but my new roommate didn’t understand that and wore the nickname as a badge of honor, had one of the bedrooms, I had one, and a twenty-six year old cashier at a Staples and his girlfriend, who was still in high school (I never got the whole story), shared the other one, the master bedroom. Beyond that, a stripper who went by the name Blaze and her scary looking boyfriend, who worked as a bouncer at the same strip club, slept in the living room, as did a very tall, very large goth kid who carried medieval weapons on him at all times hidden under his black trench coat, which caused me to think about Columbine whenever I saw him. After I’d been there about a week, my old roommate moved in, my new roommate having rescued him off the street. He lived in the living room, too. Those are the roommates I remember the best. The others were, and remain, a blending of junkies and misfits in my mind; so much so, that I joked to my co-worker, “Someone could walk in, walk out with the TV, and I’d assume that they’re allowed to because I have no idea who lives here and whose stuff all this is.”
While joking, I was aware that the threat of having my drug stash that was intended for resale burgled was real. To stave off any theft, I refused to do deals in the apartment, even with my roommates, and I commissioned my old now new roommate as my employee, of sorts. If he kept my supply secure, his payment was free access for his own personal use; a commission he took on eagerly. To be frank, I also felt guilty about how I had left him to fend for himself after the power got shut off at our old apartment. Providing him drugs for free was also my attempt at atonement for being such a bad friend. And it was during that time that he and I became actual friends and not just roommates.
Every evening, I’d roll three joints and he and I would sit on the back patio chasing the joints with packed bowls while we talked.
To my surprise, like me, he had grown up in fundamentalist Christianity. Unlike me, he played that part of his life close to the chest. So close, in fact, that I would never have guessed that he had attended Bob Jones during middle school and another large Christian school for high school before being expelled for drug use. His Bible reading began to make a little more sense, although it didn’t annoy me any less.
Sitting on our back patio, getting high, we talked mainly about religion and philosophy. He was far less antagonistic towards Christianity than I was. In fact, he expressed an affinity for Christianity that I found unnerving. Most often, though, he quietly sat with a smile on his face while listening to me rant about the glaring moral deficiencies of Christianity and the absurdly obvious contradictions in the Bible. Those talks helped fuel the imaginary conversations I would have later with people from my past while I was trying to fall asleep. It was also during one of those late-night conversations with him that I announced my desire to be the Anti-Christ. He tried to laugh it off, but I was gratified by his obvious discomfort with my vocalized desire to be the one to pull God off His throne.
During the days when I wasn’t working, he and I spent much of our time at the movie theater. Parking on the side of the building so as to be out of sight of the main parking lot, we’d sit in my car and get high. Leaving the roach under one of the tires, we’d boldly stride past the deputy. Whether the deputies who were always at that theater were assigned to be there by the county or were working side-gigs as security guards, we didn’t know, nor did we care. Reeking of weed, we knew the law. We weren’t holding anything, and, since the roach was under a tire, there was no evidence of our drug use in my car. By the time the movie ended, we’d be sober, we assumed. Outside of possibly harass us, something we would’ve taken a perverse delight in, there really wasn’t much the deputy could do to us. One time, my roommate was so high, he unknowingly handed his ticket to the deputy instead of the theater employee tasked with tearing the tickets. Without missing a beat, the cop tore my friend’s ticket in half, handed him back the stub, and cheerily said, “Enjoy the movie.” I missed the first few minutes of that movie because I was laughing so hard. Our false bravado aside, cops aren’t stupid. The deputies working at that movie theater knew exactly what we were doing; they just had much better things to do than worry about two idiot potheads watching a movie.
I saw The Passion of the Christ at that same movie theatre, but not with my roommate. My sister’s brother-in-law, who had recently finished seminary at BJU and who, unbeknownst to me at the time, was my future pastor, invited me to go see Mel Gibson’s movie with him and his military chaplain dad. Brad and I had known each other since middle school owing to my sister marrying his brother, and I always got along with him, but I had zero desire to go watch that movie with him. Not wanting to be rude, I begrudgingly agreed.
Before leaving for the theater, I boasted to my roommates, “I’m going to laugh and cheer at the most inappropriate times.”
That didn’t happen.
Sitting in the dark theatre, I choked back tears. Some of those tears were from anger. Think of that movie what you will, and I’m aware of its flaws, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ laid bare the cost of my rebellion.
To be clear, I was in no mood and my heart was in no state to count that cost nor to accept the ramifications. But, thanks to my parents and teachers, I knew the gospel inside and out. Seeing the events of Jesus’ crucifixion played out on screen combined with my understanding of the gospel to create a completely unexpected, not to mention unwanted, response in me. If nothing else, I was acutely aware of how big a sinner I was. While I didn’t classify it as sin, and even with all my attempts to justify my rage and violence, I knew that how I was living was not okay. Using others for my pleasure and physically taking out my violent anger on strangers only fueled my growing despair. And, so, like many other surprising things, the Holy Spirit used The Passion of the Christ to draw me to the Father and give me the gift of repentance and faith. Suffering from a stifling slavery to sin, being reminded of Jesus’ love for me was more than I could bear. At the time, though, my response looked like anger because, well, I was angry.
I frequently caution those who are praying for lost loved ones to not make assumptions based on the outward responses. Living on the wrong side of our loved one’s rebellion means that we have no idea how the Holy Spirit is working in their heart. Take me for example. During that time, friends and relatives gave up on me, believing that I was too far gone. After finally repenting of my sins and believing in Jesus, several people asked for my forgiveness because they had stopped praying for me; based on my outward actions, they assumed that I was too lost and was destined for hell. From a human standpoint, their perception was correct. Thankfully, though, God has His own perception, and there is no heart of stone so hard nor so rebellious as to be able to resist the Holy Spirit.
By the time I returned to my apartment after the movie, I was livid – at the movie, and at myself. I was angry at myself over my weakness in allowing a religion’s ancient mythology to worm its way into my psyche. And watching The Passion of Christ was the second recent incident where I had found myself unwillingly drawn to Christianity.
A few weeks earlier, sinking in despair over the growing failure of my life and my deepening sense of alienation, even from myself, I concluded that ending my life was the best option. I believed there was no way out of my circumstances. By then, nothing I did salved my pain. No amount of sex was able to make inroads into my dark loneliness. No amounts of drugs were able to quiet my screaming thoughts, doubt, and despair. Inflicting physical pain on others failed to relieve my own pain. I was utterly free to do whatever I wanted, and I did whatever I wanted, the very life of freedom I longed for as a child, and, yet, I had never felt more trapped, alone, and empty. If you gain the very world you’ve always wanted, and that world reveals itself to be nothing but a mirage, what do you do? Well, for me, desperately wanting to escape my pain, loneliness, and emptiness, I concluded that the only option left for me was death.
So, as I wrote in the Prologue, I walked on to that bridge fully believing that while my suicide would be painful for my family, it would be better for them in the long run. And, I believed, it would definitely be better for me.
Looking at the rocks below, preparing to jump, I remembered something. I remembered that those foolish Christians at that absurd fundamentalist church in California loved me and wanted me. And they weren’t my family; they didn’t have a built-in obligation to love someone like me. Yet, they did. Not really understanding it, in fact, more confused than when I walked onto that bridge, I realized that I didn’t want to die. The problem, though, was that I didn’t know how to live.
Climbing down the steep embankment, I collapsed in sobs on the rocks I had believed would crush my body and save me from my pain. Alone on those rocks, my pain remained, and my loneliness grew. At a loss as to what to do next, all I could think about was going back to that church in California. If nothing else, I would be with people who loved me.
Returning to my apartment, I casually announced to my roommates, “I’m moving to San Francisco.”