“Mom, this sounds like a cult,” I complained as she parked our car in a vacant lot downtown.
“It’s a youth group. Mr. Lloyd runs it.”
Right. Mr. Lloyd, a substitute teacher who met my mom via dog park.
“What kind of youth group meets in The Children’s Place?”
“It’s in the basement.”
“Why not their church?”
“It’s not associated with a church.”
“So it’s not a religious thing?”
Her eyebrows squeezed together. “I’m not sure. Just give it a try.”
Droplets of sweat leaked from my clenched fist as a approached the crowd. A group of at least twenty teenagers huddled in a pack on a sidewalk. I recognized the group as Young Life, which was what I was here for, at least according to my mom. But the individual faces were a jumble of unfamiliar upperclassmen. I recognized a sophomore from my Child Development class and two classmates from middle school. The rest were heaped into a pile of my brain labeled uncategorized.
Two much older girls, maybe college age, bounced at the opportunity to introduce themselves. “I’m Tanya,” the first one greeted. She had luscious locks cascading down her shoulders like a blonde Niagara Falls. “This is Melissa. We’re leaders.” She beckoned to her friend, a shorter women with athletic attire and brunette curls.
“Hi,” I squeaked, uncertainty spilling out with a single syllable. Just as the word managed to escape my quivering lips, Mr. Lloyd—my mom’s friend—opened the door.
The brunette girl danced her way ahead. Everyone else somehow managed to flood through the narrow doorway in a single squeeze.
The basement wasn’t the cryptic cellar my mind painted it to be. It appeared to serve the purpose of a meeting room, with folded tables and stacks of chairs. It could barely fit the whole of Young Life dancing around to 90s music that I had never heard before, but everyone else somehow knew the lyrics to. They waved to me and introduced themselves. Their names went through one ear and out the other, but at least they expressed an interest in interacting with me.
Just as I was getting the hang of how to communicate with these strange but friendly people, an unexpected silence swept across the room. Mr. Lloyd heaved a rectangular table in front of the audience as if we were on a game show. He assembled an assortment of ingredients: anchovies, chocolate, oranges, and a scoop of soil. The myriad of items surrounded a blender that looked older than me. My stomach churned at the thought of what this substitute teacher/dog owner/possible cult leader would do next.
I felt my face blanche watching him place each ingredient into the blender with exaggerated hand motions. His recipe screamed “Stay away!” but his Cheshire-cat grin invited me to join in on the weirdest initiation I had ever received. The kids surrounding me shrieked in disgust, but continued to cheer him on. Applause erupted, loud enough to drown out the buzz of the blender. A group of jocks in the back of the room made a fuss daring one another to drink the brown mesh.
A beefy upperclassman with maroon curls and a freckled face swaggered through the cross-legged congregation. He downed the smoothie in a single gulp.
Just before I had to dash into the bathroom and hug a toilet, the brunette leader from before leaned over my shoulder. She whispered, “He replaced it with an Oreo milkshake under the table.”
I exhaled, giggling at the boy holding the blender over his head like a trophy. The “cult initiation” turned out to be a few teenagers goofing around.
Mr. Lloyd returned to center stage, this time bearing an easel and Bible. I leaned forward, curious as to what type of message could follow an anchovy smoothie. Before focusing my senses in on the scribbles consuming the easel, I allowed my eyes to glaze across the basement. The girl next to me checked the time on her cell phone. A duo in front of me exchanged hushed whispers. The group of jocks panted, still sweating profusely from jumping and dancing. I laughed internally at the thought of a room full of teenagers with the attention span and motive to pay attention to a sermon, especially after an hour of pandemonium. I leaned back.
“It’s awesome to see everyone again!” Mr. Lloyd exclaimed, to which the crowd responded with an outburst of cheers. My face paled. Was I the only newcomer in the room?
I didn’t have enough time to worry as he launched into the next part of his talk. “The purpose of Young Life is to create a close community that holds together when nothing else in high school does. Your friends will change, your interests will change, and your life will change. But Young Life is always going to be a place for you, and the friends you make here will be friends forever, even if you only see them once a week.”
Everyone nodded with enthusiasm at every word. My interest piqued. This place might be weird, but it seemed worth it.
“There’s also a spiritual element. Some of you might be religious, some of you might not. Both of those are okay. Here, we want faith to be something you can be honest about and not have to worry about logistics of it. God is a friend, not a boss.”
My mind wandered during his speech, but not due to boredom. This group seemed so passionate in every aspect of the night, whether it was chugging a blender of raw fish or discussing God. I’d never witnessed such a beautiful amount of zeal in my entire life.
Finally, teenagers began ascended up the stairs and onto the sidewalk one by one. I retrieved my phone from my pocket. Although the night did take a turn for the better, I was more than ready to curl up in my bean bag with my Biology homework and some type of drink sans anchovies.
“Are you coming to Five Guys?” one of the girls asked me.
I glanced up in confusion. She was the first of the other teenagers in the group to speak to me directly, let alone invite me somewhere.
When I didn’t answer right away, she piped up again. “We always go to Five Guys and buy a huge order of Cajun fries while we wait for our rides.”
She was the only other girl in my grade here, and I wasn’t about to pass up an opportunity to make a new friend. “Alright,” I agreed, ignoring the automatic reluctance clutching at my instinct. Biology could wait another half an hour or so.
“You’re Erica’s daughter, right?” Mr. Lloyd asked.
I swallowed my fry. “Yes. My name’s Kelly. It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Lloyd.”
He laughed. “You can call me Jim.”
I opened my mouth to reply, but a hoard of upperclassmen interrogated me about anything they could ask in a thirty-second span. What school do you go to? Are you enjoying freshman year? Who brought me to Young Life?
A wave of relief surged through me when my mom’s car pulled up in front of the curb. It was time for that Biology book.
The brunette leader I met earlier rushed toward me. Her curls bounced behind her in a shoulder-length ponytail. “Will we see you next week?”
I didn’t think. “Yes.”