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Spring break whispered goodbye; no need to shout its departure; it was time to return to classes at Serra High in the countdown to graduation.  When we resumed studies, I learned that Frances Borgona and I had been named as the two candidates for valedictorian of our graduating class.  That was quite an honor, especially for someone who had been considering dropping out before the end of the year.

Track practice was on after school, in preparation for the conference finals.  During a break in the middle of practice I went over to the water stand to get a drink.  That’s where I saw the second girl I would ask to prom that year, Tiera Martin.

I had met Tiera two and a half years before, during my sophomore year.  She led the cheer squad at most of our basketball games.  Tiera was a grade below me.  In my junior year, when I ran track for the first time, I got to know her a little better.  She ran on the girls' sprint relay team.  We would talk a bit between practices, and at some of the track meets.  Apart from being physically attractive, she had a confident demeanor to her, which I liked.  She didn’t care about what other people thought of her.  I admired that.

I walked up to where she was standing, near the water fountain, and got straight to the point: I needed a date for prom, and wanted to go with her.  Would she be willing to accompany me?

Tiera said she couldn't go.  She had already turned down another friend who asked her, and it would be unfair to him if she went with me.  Plus, she said, this was her older sister’s year to “do it big”, not hers.  She still had another year to go.  Her family was not well off, and so they needed to put any money they could fork up towards her sister’s prom; they couldn’t afford to pay for two proms in the same year.

This time, however, I was not going to be so quick to take no for an answer.  I asked again, emphasizing how I really wanted to go with her.  I put a bit more emotion into my voice this time as well, seeing how the cold, unemotional approach had failed me with Sierra on the plane.

Tiera said she would think about it; she needed to check with her mother first.  We exchanged phone numbers.  She would call me back later that night, to give me her final answer.

I drove straight home after practice, excited about my prospects.  Not long after arriving home, I received a phone call.  It was Tiera.  She said she had talked it over with her mother, who didn't have a problem with her accompanying me to the prom.  Her mother did have one stipulation, though: she wanted me to pay for Tiera's prom dress.  I said that wouldn’t be a problem, and ended the call there.

I felt overwhelmed with excitement.  The hottest girl in school had agreed to be my date for the prom!  Things looked good.  But plans would soon change.

I told Sheila the good news not long after ending the call with Tiera.  She (and the rest of my family) had been on my back for months about needing to get a date.  It felt good to finally be able to silence them.

But the news did not cause Sheila to rejoice as I had expected.  She baulked at Tiera asking me to pay for her dress.  She said I should have secured a date much earlier, and I would not have had to settle for a girl who wanted me to pay for stuff.

Sheila’s negative reaction disappointed me.  Why did she always have to dictate the way I lived my life?  And why was money always such a big deal?  I felt like I just couldn’t win.

I called Jeremy not long after that, to let him know the news.  I had driven to Border’s bookstore in Long Beach, where  I often went to relax for the evening, and to do a bit of leisure reading.  I was in the privacy of my car, outside the store.

“Hey Jeremy, this is Joe,” I said through the phone.  I filled him in on developments, from Black Senior weekend, to Tiera agreeing to accompany me to the prom.  Jeremy listened empathetically, offering his opinion in a non-judgmental fashion.  I liked the way he listened.

When I finished, however, Jeremy filled me in on what was happening with him and Reinhard.  It was now the end of April, and they had decided to leave for Kentucky in just a few days.  They wouldn’t be back West until Fall at the earliest, by which time I would have already started university.  The odds of me joining the Jesus Christians before the end of the summer looked dismal, to say the least.  Jeremy’s news caused me to despair.

Then, out of the blue, Reinhard got on the phone.  He asked me the most significant question in my life up to that point.

“J,” Reinhard said in his blunt, straight-forward German manner.  “You say you have enough money to pay for a Greyhound ticket now.  How about you just come out to New Mexico to start your trial week tomorrow?”

Reinhard’s question caught me by surprise.  I had been secretly waiting for the day when they would actually invite to come out for a trial week.  Now I had reached that day.  But the timing was problematic.  I had just secured a date for the prom, and could see valedictorian honors around the corner.  The prospects of university life at Berkeley had taken a hold on me, following the Black Seniors weekend.  "Why do I have to decide now?" I thought for just a moment before replying.  But then I surprised myself with what I said.

“Well,” I said back through the phone.  “I guess nothing’s really keeping me from coming tomorrow.  In fact, now that I think about it, it may be the best time for me to do it.  I’m in.”

Jeremy took the phone back at this point.  He congratulated me for finally deciding to step out in faith, and said he would be praying for me.  I thanked him for his encouragement.

A few months earlier, while Reinhard and Jeremy had been distributing books all around Phoenix, I had planned to link up with them via Greyhound bus when they moved on to New Mexico.  But one problem even then had been how to pay for the ticket.

The only money I had was in a trust fund that my parents had set up for me for when I turned 18.  I now had a legal right to access it, but I feared raising suspicions if I were to ask Sheila for the details to the account.  To avoid a possible confrontation, I had schemed to tell Jared that I needed to purchase a text book for school online, and needed his bank card to do so.  Then, once he had given me his card, I would use it to pay for my Greyhound ticket instead.  He would not know any better until well after I had left.

I suggested this to Jeremy, but he said it was the same as stealing from my father; he could not approve of it.  Jeremy said I needed to use my own money.  If it didn’t cost me anything, he said, I wouldn’t appreciate it.  I think he was, again, trying to get me to confront my fear of my parents.

To my surprise, when I asked Sheila straight out for my bank details so I could access my account, she gave them to me without a question.  I can't remember how much there was... less than a thousand and probably closer to $500.  I withdrew it all.

Jeremy and I chatted a bit more that evening.  He suggested that I pack that night, so I could leave as smoothly and quickly as possible the following morning.  I agreed.  He also suggested that I leave a note, informing Jared and Sheila of my plans to do missionary work.  He said I should tell them I was taking my phone with me, and that I would be checking my email regularly while away so that they could communicate with me and not worry too much.  Jeremy said that good communication was essential.   I thanked him for his counsel.

Immediately after hanging up I drove home to start packing.  My big shot at a trial week with the JCs had arrived, and I vowed to make the most of it.

"But what about Tiera?" I suddenly thought to myself.  She had just agreed to go with me to the prom a few hours earlier, and I would be letting her down if I backed out without telling her.  I had to tell her something.  I picked up the phone, punched in the numbers, and waited anxiously for the phone to ring.  It rang several times.  No answer.

Finally, I got Tiera’s voice-mail.  What a relief!  The answering machine shielded me against emotional confusion.  I needed that.

“Hi Tiera, this is Joe,” I said, my voice cracking through the phone.  I started with an apology, before announcing that I could no longer go with her to the prom.  I blamed it on Sheila’s gripe about me paying for her dress.  It was just the excuse I needed.  I apologized again for the bad news, and then hung up.

The seriousness of what I was doing started to dawn on me at this point.  My feet had, in the space of half an hour, turned from the path of formal education and respectability, towards membership in a controversial group that was hated by many.  I was walking away from graduation, walking away from valedictorian honors,  walking away from the prom, and walking way from any hope of a basketball career, all in the one decision.  By default, this also meant rejecting all of the scholarship offers as well.  Even if I changed my mind in a few months, the offers would have been withdrawn by then.  I could not deny the immensity of the situation.

Jeremy had counseled me against “burning bridges”, saying that if after seven days I decided the Jesus Christian life was not for me, I could simply come back, and pick up where I had left off.  Going off for seven days in itself would not be the end of the world.

I, however, was not thinking about bridges when I boarded the bus to Albuquerque.  For me there was no turning back.  I had longed to be a Jesus Christian for over two years now; the question had always been when to make the final leap off the conveyor belt, not whether to.  The door had finally opened and nothing was going to stop me from walking through it.

I wanted to take everything I owned with me, so that I would not have to return for anything before joining, but Greyhound had baggage restrictions, so I could only take what I could fit into two bags.

Jeremy had only recommended a sleeping bag and a pillow, to sleep on during my trial week, so that is what I started with.

I packed as many of my shoes as I could carry.  Unlike most of my other clothes, Sheila and Jared could not claim ownership on those.  They had all been given to me for free by the club teams I had played with during high school.  I owned those shoes, and could take confidence in that fact.

Then there was my toothbrush, my Bible, and a few other odds and ends.  I made sure to pack my Tupac and Lil’ Wayne albums as well, to listen to during the long bus ride.  I could sense things coming together, and I had great confidence that everything would work out.

Early the next morning, after double-checking that I had not forgotten anything essential, like my ID, I grabbed a blank piece of paper and started writing a letter to Jared and Sheila.  In my mind I once again went over all that I was leaving.  I asked myself if I had what it took to go through with this.  When I had concluded that I was ready, I finished writing the letter.

Click here to read Part 14 of Joe's Story

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