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 I have this little schedule sitting next to my desk here in Mattoon. It is not in a planner or a calendar. It is thick black magic marker on plain 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper, each day with a different task on it.

• December 3: Finish family chapter.

• December 4: Start St. Louis chapter.

• December 5: Edit family chapter, continue St. Louis chapter.

That sort of thing. It’s hardly the most efficient way to organize a project as all-encompassing as a book - not to mention its brutal lack of environmental consideration - but it works for me. Problem is, if I even fall a day behind, I begin to freak out, like I’m wasting my time here and I’m never going to make it in the world and I’m a failure and so on and so forth. But creative paralysis does hit from time to time, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, regardless of any stupid schedule I’ve made for myself.

So in a time of gridlock last week, I, on a whim, decided to head back to my old high school for the home opener for the Mattoon Green Wave boys’ basketball team. They were playing Decatur Eisenhower, nicknamed the Panthers, a team memorably marked by the school’s cheerleaders, who hold up two signs to pump up the crowd: “Pant” and “Hers.” I was armed with nothing more than a pen, notepad and about 15 more pounds than I had when I’d last stepped foot in the gym. I sauntered to the top of the stands, hopefully not noticed or recognized. I needed to be alone and absorb.

It took about three minutes for that plan to fall apart. I’d just grabbed a bag of popcorn - provided free by the Kiwanis Club! - when I looked up. Heading up the grandstands was Travis Spencer and his wife Joy, both of whom I graduated with.

I’ve known Travis since I was 5 and enrolled at Columbian School. We were close friends then, spending the night at each other’s place all the time, even occasionally going fishing. One time, we decided to stay up all night and do a fake radio show, broadcasting imaginary games and hosting warped cooking shows. We made it two hours, which is impressive when you’re 8.

But it had been years since I’d seen him. Last I’d heard, he was a journalism major at Eastern Illinois University and the editor-in-chief of the Daily Eastern News while I drank heavily and impersonated the managing editor of the Daily Illini. I was told he’d married Joy and worked at the Effingham paper for a while, but we’d lost touch. Upon seeing him, though, I remembered my mom telling me he’d made a career change; he had decided to go into youth ministry, moving back to Mattoon with Joy. Leave it to a journalist to switch to a career that earns even less money

I shook Travis’ hand vigorously, surprised by how pleased I was to see him, and invited him to sit and chat for a while before the game started. We caught up a bit - “Well, Travis, I write for a Web site called Ironminds, and I live in New York. Uh, yes, I’m here now though. Uh, no, actually I’m unemployed. Yeah, and broke too. Nope, single. Things are just great!” - and started talking about my cousin Blake, who goes to his church and is just about one of the most mature people I know. Travis asked me how my parents were.

Without being prompted, I started talking about how Mom and Dad had recently joined the Catholic Church. I don’t know what it is about meeting ministers or priests or nuns or whatever, but it seems impossible to talk much about anything other than church stuff. I guess you just imagine that’s what they’re always thinking about; “God bless this electric blanket.” “Thank you Lord, for this unfortunate facial blemish.”

Travis raised an eyebrow. “Hey, didn’t you used to go to the old Broadway Christian Church? Do you still go anymore?”

When I was 15 years old, I wanted to be a minister. It’s difficult to say what exactly made me decide to join the church; my parents never went, I wasn’t raised with any strong faith and back then I didn’t feel guilty about everything all the time. It was mostly boredom, I’d bet. Plus, at 13, puberty was rearing its ugly head, and I wasn’t sure quite to do about that, so to make sure I didn’t lose my head, it seemed like a good idea to start attending church. The next-door neighbors went to Broadway Christian, so I called them up one night and asked if they would maybe take me to a youth group meeting some Wednesday night.

There were two reasons I immediately took to the church. First is the obvious one: There were girls. Four of them, in fact. Tonya Claypool, Andrea Goldsmith, Kyla Sampson and Barbara Icenogle. Had a huge crush on all four. But the second reason is the one I still haven’t quite grasped; I had some sort of awakening.

It was wonderful, really. Intellectual atheist friends of mine love to scoff at Christians, thinking them foolish dolts who prefer to live in a fantasyland than face the real world. Whether or not God is a mirage, though, the smartest way to live life is clearly to believe in Him. Do you realize how easy it is to handle all the shit that’s thrown your way when you’re positive God has some sort of Plan For All This? Life’s so much more pleasant; every minute of every day, I walked with around absolute certainty that God was watching over me, that what I was doing mattered. And I wanted to devote my life to Him. I wanted to be that cool, wacky youth minister all the kids liked, the one who cracked jokes all the time and talked about baseball and took everyone on trips to Six Flags and stuff. I even spent two weeks two consecutive summers attending Lincoln Christian College’s Future Minister’s Camp.

I’m not sure if I became smarter or dumber, but something changed at the beginning of my junior year. Maybe the hormones revved up too high, maybe I just lost interest, maybe I grew tired of being the long-haired kid whispered about in the pews (“I hear Will actually drinks all the time and just says he’s a Christian.”). But I stopped going for a few weeks, and then next thing you knew, I wasn’t going at all. I’d like to say there was some new awakening, a dispiriting one, some realization that this was all crap, but there wasn’t. I just didn’t show up anymore. And then I had a girlfriend, and then I was having sex, and then I was in college, and then I was drinking, and next thing you knew, I didn’t believe in God anymore. But there was always a seed there, still is, and Travis - whose job, after all, is to identify non-believers and convert them - noticed it immediately.

He began talking about his youth group. Apparently he holds weekly meetings in a barn - “We call it ‘Church in a Barn,’ you see!” - and a stunning total of 90 kids show up each week. “Just a bunch of good kids, loving God,” he said, beaming. “It’s really a beautiful thing.”

And then came the hammer. “You should come by. Maybe write a story about it or something.”

I’ve never understood why non-Christians get so upset when the faithful begin preaching to them. “Don’t foist your religion on me,” they say. But the basic tenet of Christianity revolves around trying to convert sinners. They might be annoying, but they go in with a pure heart. They just want to save your soul.

That said, I completely blew Travis off. “Well, I’m pretty busy with the book and all. Wednesdays are bad for me. But it sounds like you’ve got a good thing going over there. Good luck with it.”

Travis looked me dead in the eye. “Well, here’s my card. We’re there at 6:30 every Wednesday. I think you’ll enjoy it more than you might admit to yourself.” And then he said goodbye and headed back to Joy’s side. Travis looked good. All grownup, confident, secure, happy. Damn nice to see him. Godspeed to you, Mr. Spencer. See you at the 10th reunion.

And it’s funny ... for some reason I can’t get the guy off my mind.



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