I arrived at college with an individual spirituality I’d found through imagining my own success. Jesus was my friend and wanted me to succeed. My version of the gospel was rooted in a few verses taken out of context, such as “ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7, NIV) and “all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27, NIV). I went to a Christian college because of their football team, still hoping I was better than I really was. Such an attitude fit my faith at the time, too. I went to different churches with friends, hoping my faith was better than it really was. I had no sense of purpose, and although I seemed successful from the outside, I was caving in. It turns out that my years away from church had helped me find a spirituality that was too thin, too small, too shallow. My personal faith that Jesus would help me succeed wasn’t deep enough to create any real change in me, especially when I felt I was failing.
During these first years at college, I’d sometimes go up to visit my friend Nick in Seattle. I looked to him for support since he was the one who had the solid faith and credentials for college success. He’d done the right things in high school, and he was positioned to do really well in college and in life. Usually, I’d just go for the day and we’d hang out or go to the mall or go to lunch at Pike’s Place Market, a downtown outdoor gathering place. One of the last times I saw him, however, was in the winter of our sophomore year when I spent the weekend with him. Two things happened that weekend that had an impact on my life.
The first event was about music. I’d grown up on rock music—from classics like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and the Who to 1980s groups like the Clash, REM, and the Talking Heads. On that weekend, Nick’s roommate played the first “Christian” rock music I’d ever heard. It was by a band called U2, and I made copies of all his cassettes. I was captivated by the pulsing and God-haunted sounds of “October,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Gloria,” and “I Will Follow.” As I listened, something clicked together that had never before met: my faith and what you might describe as my culture—the music, friends, and life I lived from day to day.
The second event was about drugs. I’d grown up in small-town America, so drinking a beer was no surprise to me. During high school, we used to sneak into the fraternity parties at the college in the town where I grew up. But Seattle is not small-town America. Nick took me to a party at the University of Washington where people were smoking marijuana and other things I didn’t recognize—the first time I’d seen drugs like this. I remember being totally shocked while wanting to seem totally cool. But truthfully, having come from listening to U2 in Nick’s apartment to now seeing people making bongs out of cola cans and sniffing powder up their noses like I’d only seen in movies was too much. I had been drinking, but all of a sudden I experienced a sobering surge of fear and heard voices exploding in my head saying “get out.”
After that weekend, I went home feeling sad and confused. Who was I, and who was my friend I thought I knew? What were we supposed to be and do? What mattered? I teetered on the verge of personal collapse. After throwing myself into training for football and failing to get the preseason invitation that all varsity players receive, I faced the fact that I was pouring my energy into the wrong place. I quit football. I floated, not knowing what to do or where to turn. Jesus had not worked it out for me. I thought I’d found Jesus and that he was my man, the one to help me succeed. And when I failed, I felt I’d lost him.
In the midst of these struggles Jesus found me and turned my life upside down. I began attending the campus church on Sundays. A new team of campus pastors had begun in my second year, and they genuinely seemed to make space for questions. I wasn’t ready to toss out my faith yet. One night that fall, a religion professor was presenting a lecture on homelessness in the Seattle-Tacoma area. I went not knowing what to expect. There I learned that four thousand people slept on the streets each night, and many more were hungry and had inadequate housing. As if for the first time, I stopped looking in the mirror, and I looked at the world. I saw tremendous, shocking, and inexcusable suffering. I vowed that night that I would work to change this. I call it my conversion experience—the night Jesus came to me and told me to help the homeless, just as he said to his friend Peter, “Feed my sheep” (John 21) so many years before.