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Too Many Masters


Weeks passed, and I had yet to reconcile with John. It was awkward trying to live around each other without resolving our differences.

At the same time, my basketball skills were not improving as quickly as they should. My main weakness was my jump shot. Scouts liked my speed, ball-handling, and defense. But my jump shot was 'wack', to put it bluntly.

To improve, I was told I needed to shoot 500 jump shots a day.  This would take around two or three hours, in addition to other drills I needed to do. And I had to fit in school and homework as well.

In reality I wasn't doing half of what I was supposed to be doing.  What Tim had told me about basketball and serving God made me double-minded about whether I should even be playing at all. What little training I did was useless compared to what it would have been if I had been single-minded about improving. My heart was no longer in the game.

The turning point on that front was a weekend game at Hollywood High School. John had decided to come and watch.  I was hopeful that it was a step toward healing the relationship between us.  

I played horribly, not even scoring a point, which was a big no-no as far as my family was concerned. But more than that, I wasn't even trying. I didn't care how I played anymore; it was clear to everyone in the stands something was wrong.

The ride home from the game to our house in Carson was a quiet one. John was biting his tongue. I could tell he wanted to get stuck into me about how badly I had played.

When we got home, I announced that I had something to say. John and Sheila listened intently.

I told them I was quitting basketball. Sheila, and then John, asked me why.  I said I was quitting because I had to, in order to be a Christian.  They reacted angrily, demanding to know who had told me such a thing.

I pulled out a few Bible verses which Tim had given me to support his position against Christians participating in sports. Sheila shot them all down. I told her about Tim, and the fact that we had been talking. Sheila assumed Tim and the Jesus Christians were the same people, and demanded that I never visit their website, or have anything to do with the Jesus Christians, again. I agreed.

At some point, Jared and Josh came into the discussion. Josh laughed at me, saying I was stupid for thinking I needed to quit basketball to be a Christian. He shook his head at me in disgust.

Jared, on the other hand, had a different reaction. He looked at me sternly, and told me not to be stupid. He said the Bible was a good book, and it was good to use it to our advantage. But, he said, we weren't supposed to believe what was written in the Bible. The Bible, he said, was written by "the White man". We weren't supposed to believe what the "White man" said.

I was shocked to hear him say that. I knew he was racist against Whites, so that was no surprise. But not believe the Bible?  How could he say that, at the same time that he claimed to be a Christian?

I then realized that "being a Christian" was just a front for Jared, just another way to get ahead in the rat race. He didn't believe what the Bible said at all. That would later explain his strong reaction against my decision to practice the teachings of Jesus.

Following that discussion, I made a genuine attempt to take Jared and Sheila's advice. After listening to Sheila's arguments, I reached the conclusion that Tim's reasoning against playing basketball was wrong.  Sheila started preaching for me to "obey my parents", saying that it would bring me blessings, and they knew what was best for me.  If Tim was bad for me, so were the Jesus Christians.  I decided to do what I could to follow Sheila and Jared's orders. That lasted for about a month.

During that time, I did what they had told me to do, which was to go to school, and to be the best I could be at basketball. I stopped visiting the Jesus Christian website, and ceased communication with both Tim Spiess and the JCs. Still, I felt empty, like I was dying spiritually. How could that be, if "obeying my parents" was supposed to bring me abundant life? Something did not add up.

At the end of the month, I decided to risk it. I had given Sheila's orders enough time, and the fruit of my obedience was pathetic. I was back where I started, a loyal systemite on the path towards making a lot of money. But it was even worse now, because I knew I was heading in the wrong direction. I had to make a change.

One evening while my family was out and I was on my own, I went on the web site.  Because I had not been to the JC website, or talked with Tim, for over a month, my family was convinced that I had renounced what the JCs stood for as well. Their lapse in vigilance gave me the perfect 'in' to pick up where I had left off.

Dave had written several new articles by this time, which I treated like food after a fast. I ate them up, savoring every morsel of truth. I searched for areas where I could apply them in my own life.

I made up a new email address, for fear that Sheila had somehow managed to break into my account, and stolen my password.  All this time the JCs had never known my real name or address, so that it was impossible for them to contact my family.  I wrote to them, explaining that I was J, the guy who had been writing to them from the other address.

When I had first written to them, after receiving Survivors from Sheila, around February, 2004, Cherry had responded.  She had put me in touch with a guy named Casey, who was living in the Los Angeles area. It was now June, four months later and almost the end of my sophomore year.  I wrote to Casey and resumed communication. He said it was good that I was hungry to follow God above all else.  

At some point, I wrote to Dave as well, just before leaving for the Nike training camp.  I asked him for advice on how to approach the camp, explaining its significance.  Dave had actually supported my parents in saying that there was nothing wrong with playing basketball, even though there could be spiritual issues in relation to it.

He said I should approach the camp with a relaxed attitude, and see what I could learn from it.  Not taking myself too seriously, he said, would help me manage the pressures I would face at the camp. Dave also warned against getting proud, sharing how it is easy for athletes to become proud of their sporting accomplishments. I took Dave's advice, and tried to stay on guard.

I travelled a lot that summer, between my sophomore and junior year. We went to tournaments in Texas and Nevada with Belmont Shore. I played okay, though I still lacked the enthusiasm I had for the game just a few months earlier. It didn't help that I had suffered a back injury weeks into the spring season.

In July, I flew to Indiana for the Nike camp. My neighbor and friend, Ray Reese from Westchester High School, joined me there. We played on the same team at the camp, and talked often between games and practice sessions.

The camp went well. I did well, but not great. One thing I had in my favor was my grade point average. Ivy League schools, like Yale and Harvard, were on the lookout for good players who could qualify academically as well. So I at least had them on my side by the end of camp.

School resumed in September.  I felt confident entering my junior year. The JCs had counselled me to make the most of my time at school and not get uptight about what I would do when I finished.  They said I should play basketball and study, doing both 'to the glory of God'.  There wasn't the same double-mindedness which I had struggled with when I was seeking counsel from Tim. It was going to be a good year.

It was shortly after the start of my junior year that I met two members of the Jesus Christians for the first time. Via email, I had invited Casey, and another Jesus Christian, Barry, to the church we were attending at the time, Carson Christian Apostolic Church.

I came up with an elaborate plan to hide the meeting from my family. I wrote Casey, explaining that the church only sat between 20 and 40 people. Everyone who walked through the door would get noticed, especially a White person.

The plan was for me to drop a pen near the end of the service to let Casey know who I was. He would pick the pen up, then ask me if I had dropped it. I would say yes, grab the pen, and then we would both be sure we had met the right person. It was like something from a spy movie.  I think Casey and Barry assumed the pen stunt would just be a way to make contact, and that we would then share together after that.  Still, they let me call the shots.

Casey and Barry arrived before me and my family. They sat near the front of the church. Casey stood out, being the only White guy in such a small congregation. Barry blended in more, as he had darker (Bangladeshi) skin.

The pastor, Thomas Alexander, gave a whooping, emotion-filled sermon. Casey and Barry enjoyed watching him preach. Thomas clapped his hands enthusiastically, shouting and screaming as he preached from the book of Acts. The church was Pentecostal, so we had lots of singing, shouting, and ‘praising’. It was quite a lively affair.

After about two hours, the service ended. The pastor stood near the door to shake people's hands as they left.  Casey and Barry went out before us, so they were waiting near the door.  We walked by.  Just as I passed Casey, I dropped my pen. A second lapsed, and then Casey shouted out, "Excuse me.  I think you dropped this pen."

I took the pen, thanked him, and left. That was the extent of our first meeting. I had been nervous Sheila and Jared would suspect something if I had said anything more.  Poor Casey and Barry!  They had sat through two hours of screaming and shouting just to pick up a pen and say goodbye. But they did it, and I appreciated them for that.

Later that year I got my driver's license. Jared and Sheila offered to buy me a ‘nice’ car, which would make all the girls at school want to ride. But I was interested in a small two-passenger truck, like the one John drove. I didn't want to have to carry a lot of people. There was just enough room for Josh and me. That was all I wanted.

The truck also freed me to cover a little more ground in getting to know the Jesus Christians.  Getting on toward winter of 2004, I arranged to meet Casey and Barry at the McDonald's across from El Camino College. It was only a five minute drive from my high school in Gardena.

First period on Mondays was a "free" period. This was my window of opportunity to meet members of the community without Sheila and Jared finding out. And just to be safe, the JCs were still being kept in the dark about my real identity and my address.  It's ironic that they are often condemned for not checking with my parents about those meetings, and yet they had no way to do that, since they did not even know my real name, much less where I lived.

My first meeting at McDonald's was with Casey and Barry.  We talked for about an hour. Barry seemed empathetic, and caring. I liked that about him.

Casey struck me as a sincere guy, with a lot of wisdom. I would rely on him for guidance as I sought to learn more about the Jesus Christians.

That winter of my junior year, just before basketball season, something strange happened, which gave me a scare. I went in for my physical, and learned that I had high blood pressure. I needed further tests.  It turned out that I had an irregular heart beat, and a heart murmur. The doctor said I shouldn't play that season with my medical condition as such. My mother, however, thought differently.

Sheila blamed my high blood pressure on the weight-lifting I had started doing shortly before taking the test. She said we should 'believe on God' that I was healed, and play the season anyway, 'in faith'. I feared I was doing the wrong thing by going against the doctor's orders, but I did it nonetheless, and without any further problems, at least not that year and the next.

Throughout the rest of my junior year, I continued to meet with the Jesus Christians once or twice a month, at our usual spot, McDonald's. Casey was the most consistent, although I also met Jayme, Jeremy, Rene, Barry, Paul, and his wife, Ulrike. I felt inspired by my meet-ups with the Jesus Christians, and I felt encouraged to put the teachings of Jesus into practice as much as I was able to, in my own life.

In February, 2005, halfway through my junior year, Casey read out to me an article by Dave about calling one's parents by name. I had been asking Casey what I could do to obey Jesus, while still living at home with my parents. He said I could forsake small things, like clothes that I wasn't using, and give them away to charities. But now Dave had raised another issue which I could consider.  I contacted him by email.

Dave asked me to read Matthew 23 from the Bible. In verse 9, Jesus commanded His disciples to "call no man on earth father". Dave said that he thought Jesus meant for us to take this command literally. And because the Bible spoke in masculine terms to include both genders, the command could be applied to our mothers as well.

This was another interpretation of Jesus' teaching which I had never heard before. I had been going to church all my life, and had never once heard anyone say we should take Jesus literally with that command.  But I was hearing that now.

I had another look at the gospels. I noted how Jesus never called his mother (Mary) 'Mom' or 'Mother', the way most children do.  This was a ‘second witness’ for me that Jesus wanted us to take him literally in that respect.

A very simple truth had now been pointed out to me quite plainly. What was I going to do with it?

I decided that one way around it was to put off calling Sheila or Jared by any name or title, and to do the same thing with teachers at school. I feared my parents' reaction, and I did not want to rock the boat at school.

Toward the end of my junior year, I developed an interest in a girl I had met that year, which, along with basketball, became another distraction.  I didn't want to upset my smooth life by applying a hard teaching of Jesus, which I knew would prove controversial.

In March, just before we were to play our arch-rivals, Verbum Dei High School, I hurt my back going up for a dunk in a practice session before the game.

The injury was a huge blow to my ability on the court. I played, but my effectiveness was limited. I had always relied on speed, and now with a bad back, that was gone.

We ended up losing the conference finals to Verbum Dei that day.  I made a three-point shot to send the game into ‘overtime’, but other than that I had a blah game. The season was over, and it was time to move on.  But first, my back needed to heal.

I decided to give track a try. I had always been quick on the court. But I had never considered running track.  This was partly because professional basketball players make a lot more money than professional track runners.

Anyhow, I rested my back for a couple of weeks, then came out to run for our school's track team. David Washington was our coach, a relaxed guy who still ran himself on the side.

Track was fun, and I enjoyed it. I didn't post the times I would have liked, due to my back injury, but I enjoyed the experience nonetheless.

Track was also a new experience for me in terms of interaction with girls. I had been a prude when it came to females, shying away from them. But now I was making more friends.  I met one girl whom I would ask to the prom the following year.  Her name was Tiera. It was good for me to be a bit more social, I felt, and I was glad I had made the decision to run.

Spring also meant travel team time with Dinos Trigonis' Belmont Shore basketball team. We had trips planned for Nevada and Texas again, amongst other places. I needed to hone my skills, if I wanted to impress the scouts.

During our tournament in Las Vegas, Dinos asked to speak with my parents (who accompanied me on the trip) and me over dinner. He shared that James Jones, the head coach for Yale University, was interested in me coming there to play basketball. Dinos felt I should accept Jones' offer while it was still on the table.

In terms of making it in the NBA, Yale was not the best university to go to. It was an Ivy League School, with steep academic requirements.  Often the players with the most talent could not make the grades to gain acceptance at Yale.

But my SAT score of 1960 just met the minimum requirement for Yale.  I had one other thing in my favour: I was Black.

The Black student population at Yale was less than 1%. The university was always on the lookout for qualifying minorities, to boost the racial diversity of the campus.  This was more a political strategy than anything else.

The icing on the cake was that I was not a bad basketball player. My rating had dropped, but I was still ranked as one of the top point guards on the west coast. I may not have been Yale's first choice had there been no academic requirements to consider; but under the circumstances, I was at the top of their list. Dinos communicated all this to us that night over fried chicken and cheesecake.

Sheila and Jared wanted me to go to UCLA, USC, or Stanford, because these were closer to home, where they could keep any eye on me. Yale was on the other side of the country, in Connecticut. Stanford was trying to recruit me, but hadn't offered a full scholarship yet. And UCLA and USC weren't showing much interest at all. Together we decided to wait.

In April, I got word that Dave, the guy who wrote most of the material on the Jesus Christian website, was coming to town. He was keen to meet up with people showing an interest in the message, and I was keen to meet the real 'Zion Ben-Jonah'.  We arranged a meeting at McDonald's.

I later learned that Dave was actually quite skeptical about me.  His experience was that schoolkids often talked about things they were going to do, but rarely followed through when they left school.  He said it was part of the reason for him challenging me on the verse about calling no one father, i.e. to make me put up or shut up.  Nevertheless, he had agreed to meet with me.

There were about eight JCs in all, far more than I had ever met at one time before. There was Dave, Cherry, Casey, Paul, Ulrike, Jeremy, and two other Jesus Christians at the usual spot during my free first period.

Dave came across as rather gentle, contrary to what I had expected. He didn't seem to take himself too seriously, which surprised me. I had pictured him as quite stern, based on his writings, but he didn't come across that way at all.

We talked about life, about how I had been going spiritually, and about myself in general, as well as about the community. We also discussed Matthew 23.  I shared that I had yet to address my parents by name, because I feared how they would react.

Dave picked up on this and suggested that I find ways to practice the teachings of Jesus without needing to join the Jesus Christians.  He said I didn't have to limit the teaching to just my parents.  Jesus also said to call no one 'master', or 'teacher'. Mr. and Dr. were two translations of those forbidden terms.  I could stop calling my teachers 'Mr.' or 'Mrs.' at school.  I could stop calling my doctor Dr.' too.  I thought about it for a moment, and then shared that James Jones, the head coach of Yale, was coming to visit me at Serra in a few days. What about the title 'coach', I asked?  Was that a title Jesus had forbidden as well?

Dave said Jesus didn't specifically say we shouldn't call anyone 'coach'.  He did, however, suggest I ask myself if I was addressing my coaches by title out of fear, because he said that he felt that was the real reason for the rule. Jesus said for us to fear no man; and if that was my motivation for calling someone ‘coach’, then I should consider not using that title either, just to confront my own fears.

According to Dave, calling his parents by name caused him to make more of an effort to be respectful towards them, so they would not think that he had stopped using titles out of disrespect. The goal was not to do away with showing respect for parents or anyone else, but just to get one's relationships with others into the correct perspective.  True respect, he said, was something quite different from fear.

Dave believed that if I could calmly and rationally explain my reasons for not using such titles, these people would most likely come to respect my decision. I was not so sure.

James came by to visit me at Serra a few days later. I decided not to call him 'Coach' Jones, just to be safe, and to confront my own fears. But to avoid causing a scene, I decided not to call him by his first name either. Instead, I didn't call him anything.  This was a strategy I would use for the next year, both with my parents and with my teachers, until I left school and home to join the Jesus Christians.

The day James came to Serra stands out in my memory. I was in Calculus class when I learned of his arrival.

Dwan Hurt, who doubled as the head basketball coach and the dean of discipline at the school, came to get me out of class upon James' arrival.  He told me to tuck in my shirt, and look smart for the coach. I followed his advice.

We went to his office, where I met James for the first time. He was a dark, middle-aged Black guy, a few inches taller than me. He looked smart, and business-minded.

James gave a short speech, telling me about Yale, and the benefits that came with attending the school. He showed me a picture of the crowd at one of the basketball games to give me an idea of what life on campus was like. I scanned a sea of about 15,000 students in the crowd. There appeared to be about five or ten Black faces amongst them all.

James told me about Yale's famous "Skull and Bones" secret society. He also told me several former US presidents had graduated from the school, including then president George Bush.  The university had the second largest academic library in the world, and an endowment of about $15 billion.

James explained that, being an Ivy League University, Yale could not offer me an athletic scholarship. Ivy League universities did not give athletic scholarships, he said.

There was another option, though: financial aid grants. Though I came from a middle-class family, by comparison to the rich alumni of Yale, we were really quite poor.  So financial aid grants would be available for me, and they would be enough to cover half of my tuition.

The other half would be covered through me working at one of the libraries at the university. James said I wouldn't have to do much at the  library, and could just use the time there to do my homework. The money from just turning up would be enough to cover the rest of my tuition, and would leave me a bit over for spending money. It sounded appealing.  But I was not convinced.

Then James gave his final pitch. He said he wanted to be honest with me: Yale was not the best university to go to if I wanted to go on to play professionally in the NBA. Still, at 5'10" he said it was risky for me to put too much stock in going pro.  The slightest injury could ruin all my years of hard work, and I would be left with nothing, he said.

James said the best thing about coming to Yale was the money. The average salary for graduating students was $500,000 a year. And that was just the average. If I accepted his offer, he said I would be set for life financially, and never have to worry about money again.

I bet James thought that those final lines would be his best selling point to me, and that was why he had waited until the end to share them. But it was more of a turn-off than anything he had said previously. I was expecting to be told about how much fun I would have at the university, or how much I would grow as a person. But instead I was just being told that if I went to Yale, I would make a lot of money. It was depressing, and disillusioning.

Soon the meeting was over, and James was off to visit his next recruit.

Dwan was good about not pressuring me to commit to Yale, though it would have surely been a uni he approved of.  Still, he tried to come across as neutral, as though he was happy for me to decide for myself. Little did he know what I would decide for myself in just one year's time.

It was June, and nearly the end of my junior year when my grandmother became seriously ill.  I was close to her. She was my grandmother on Sheila's side, Mary Simpson. Mary took care of me when I was a child, and helped nurse me. We visited her each Sunday, at her house in west Los Angeles.

Mary had skin cancer, and we all knew that she was dying. A few years before, Sheila's relationship with Mary had started to deteriorate, but we visited her more frequently now, knowing that she was nearing the end. Apparently Mary blamed Sheila for her sickness, and Sheila took offense. She continued to visit, and tried to stay positive, but there was still tension between the two of them.

Mary passed that summer. A funeral was held for her at West Angeles Church of God in Christ, where we regularly attended church together. I was asked to give a speech at her funeral. I read out Psalm 27.

My grandmother's death was a turning point in my life. It made me think about how short life is, and how quickly our lives can be taken from us.  It also made me decide to get serious about my relationship with God.  Soon after Mary's funeral, I made up my mind. I was going to actually obey the teachings of Jesus, and my first step would be to address my parents by name.  

The day was one I'll never forget. It was a morning in early July, during summer vacation between my junior and senior year of high school.  If I had not been forced to repeat a year of middle school, I would have been out of high school by then and on my way to university.  I was no longer a child.   My father was at work, and my mother was downstairs on the couch, watching TV.

I walked down the stairs, and saw Sheila sitting down. "Where's Jared," I asked timidly. I braced myself, waiting for her response.

"Joseph!" Sheila replied. She gave me a stern look, and asked me what I had just said. I told her I was putting into practice Jesus' command to call no man father, as per Matthew 23:9 .

Sheila sat me down, and told me Jesus wasn't speaking literally when He said that. She asked me if I had been back talking with the Jesus Christians. I told her no, that I had just read the passage myself, and decided I wanted to obey Jesus. The truth was the teaching had been brought to my attention by the JCs; but that was irrelevant.  What was most important to me was whether or not Jesus meant what He said.   That was the real issue, and it was the issue which Sheila did not want to address.

I ended our talk agreeably, saying I wouldn't call them by name.  I decided I wouldn't call them "Mom" or "Dad" anymore either, but I didn't want to escalate any confrontation by calling them Jared or Sheila. That compromise on my part continued until I left for my trial week nine months later.

Click here to read part 10 of Joe's Story
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