The crowds were thinned by early evening rains, still it was a Thursday night in downtown Kent. Thousands of college students (with surprisingly sparse schedules on Friday)… Dozens of clubs, bars, and run-down rental properties hosting their own parties… An early-autumn evening cloaked in mist and darkness… Together, these elements combine to create a phenomenon known in these parts as “Thirsty Thursday.”
Our group of four started walking east, up Main Street, praying for the city and trusting God to provide opportunities to strike up conversations and friendships. A few of the fraternity houses were bumping, but it was mostly quiet. A walk across Lincoln Street and down College Street yielded few encounters, but when we circled back to Main Street we blended in with a crowd of a dozen students strolling towards campus.
Our chatter was entirely superficial: the score from the Cleveland Indians baseball game earlier that evening… which places everyone had visited around town… how drunk each person felt — or felt their companions might feel… One of the young women was particularly intoxicated, and particularly talkative. Dressed all in white, with very light blonde hair, she talked freely about all the dark deeds that went on in the fraternity houses.
“If a guy wants to get into the Sig Ep House on Halloween night, he has to have at least three girls with him.”
“And they give you whatever you want to drink!” Another girl chimes in.
“For free!” The Woman in White resumes. “But only the girls.” She gestures in an exaggerated way, like a teacher talking in front of a classroom. “The guys have to fend for themselves.”
I feel completely out of place: a 40-year-old pastor walking around at midnight with three of the students from my church and a bunch of strange, drunk teenagers. But I’m thrilled that we’re figuring out ways to engage with the party scene in Kent. We’re inspired by the way Jesus hung around with the outsiders, the gluttons, the drunkards, and the sinners of his day, and we figure this is a way to be out among the people of Kent State University. We’re making friends. We’re looking for opportunities to plant seeds of the Gospel into everyday moments. We’re bringing the presence of Christ to the outsiders, gluttons, drunkards, and sinners of our day. But I have to admit that I feel a little awkward in these moments. I wonder how much the drunken strangers pick up my awkwardness, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue. We traipse toward a string of fast food joints, where their garish lights cut into the darkness.
At the intersection of Main and Lincoln, several of the people at the front of our commingled cluster staggered out into the street, in the direction of the Wendy’s. Oncoming headlights cause them to scream and scatter — some to the far side of the street, some back to our curb.
The Dad in me couldn’t help but call out: “All right, everybody! Let’s be careful here.”
A bespectacled young woman glanced back at me before careening out into the busy roadway herself. “You be careful,” she slurred. Laughing, she kicked up her heels and made it across the intersection, without incident.
We rejoined our cluster as soon as the traffic conditions allowed. East on Main Street. North on University Drive. One of the guys at the front of the pack knew about another party. Up ahead on the left, the lawn was littered with debris and people talking in small clusters. Cars pulled up to the curb with stereos thumping to deposit more people. One young fraternity guy bellowed down the street toward one of his friends. But we didn’t stop for any of this. We just kept walking, swept up in the crowd: past the lawn, left up the driveway, around the back of the house, and down into the basement of the Kappa Sigma fraternity house.
It was a crappy, concrete basement. The space was pretty confined: maybe the size of a basketball court’s three-point territory, with the landing of the rickety old stairs about where the free throw line would be. It was the sort of basement one would expect from a house built in the 1930s. But what made the place exceptional was the crowd, perhaps 75 young people, throbbing to dance music. Stage lights provided the only illumination: red, blue, green. It silhouetted faces and shoulders, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, swaying and heaving like a living organism. The only place to stand was in a back corner of the room, by the beer pong table emblazoned with the fraternity’s ubiquitous alligator logo. I watched a ping-pong ball bounce twice on the table and then disappear onto the floor, hopelessly lost among the dancing feet.
At the far end of the dance floor, a rhythmic chant started building. “Weewo… weewo… weewo mmm mahee…”
I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but with each repetition of the chant it grew louder and spread further, back across the room to where I was standing by the beer pong table. “Weewo… weewo… weewo mmm mahee…” It was a fun moment, everyone so caught up in the chaos of the crowd, everyone chanting and swaying, arms in the air. I smiled and swayed to the rhythm of the chant.
Until the actual words of the chant hit me: “We want… We want… We want some pussy!”
In that moment of comprehension, I caught a glimpse of one of the H2O student leaders: a young woman whom I had brought into this environment. Our eyes widened. The chant echoed a couple more times before it started dying out. I noticed a trio of pretty young sorority sisters mouthing the words of the chant themselves, on one of its last iterations, though their faces betrayed an understandable level of discomfort and fear. Of course that’s what the fraternity guys wanted. But I felt overwhelmed with sadness and horror to hear it chanted so explicitly. The music was far too loud for conversation, so I motioned that I was headed back out onto the lawn. Out to get a breath of fresh air.
I started to pray for the city in a new way, out in the cool night air. It wasn’t long before the H2O students joined me, which is what I’d been hoping for and expecting. But what I did not expect was our Main Street Cluster emerging shortly thereafter, while we were still standing on the lawn. I’m not convinced we had a whole lot to do with their departure from the frat party, but there they were: the Woman in White, the Bespectacled Caretaker, the Guy Who Knew the Guy at Kappa Sigma… We all started walking back toward the fast food corridor.
As we walked, the Woman in White screwed up her eyes and stared under the brim of my ballcap. “Hey, how old are you, anyway?”
I took a breath and considered my response. “You’re not going to believe it… But I’m 40.”
“Whoa!” she said and staggered off to the right. It was clear that her Pervert Alert had been triggered. “What are you doing out here, then?”
“I’m with those guys,” I said, pointing to the H2O students. “I help to lead the student organization that they’re involved with. It’s called H2O.”
“Wait! You said you’re 40?!?” The Guy-Who-Knew-the-Guy-at-Kappa-Sigma interrupted. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Eric. What’s your name?”
My very existence seemed to blow his mind. “Wait! I have an Uncle Eric!” Clearly, my cover was blown. My awkward feelings from earlier in the night resurfaced and danced on the sidewalk between us. There’s only so much that a ballcap, a dark night, and a few drinks can conceal. My mind started wheeling with next steps for the conversation. I prayed that the Holy Spirit would fill me and use me. But then just as quickly as the flame of discovery had ignited it started to dim and dissipate.
“He’s joking, guys,” the Bespectacled Caretaker pronounced. “Seriously, I’m guessing you’re…” she sized me up as if she were a carnival midway guesser, “25.”
I don’t know how or why things shifted so suddenly, but I felt kind of relieved. Was the relief personal insecurity or the reassurance of God’s timing? That’s hard for me to say, but I spoke up: “That’s very kind of you. But I’m serious.”
“No way!” Another tall dark-haired woman on the left chimed in. “I bet he’s 19.”
I laughed at this. And honestly, I don’t know if they were sincere in their youthful revisions of the narrative surrounding my presence. In any event, these doubts from the others had the effect of calling off the hunt, stamping me as safe. We talked about plans for the rest of the semester, and when the group discovered that Gera was studying Russian at the University, everyone coerced her into a demonstration. We talked about plans for the rest of the evening. My H2O friends and I indicated that we were heading back downtown, where there were free pancakes at the corner of Main and Water (an H2O initiative). We said they should come.
When we got back toward the intersection where we had first joined forces, however, our new friends suddenly peeled off to the left, crossing the street, cutting back toward campus. I didn’t know quite what to make of their quick departure, but we shouted our farewells and kept walking toward the pancake table. Back up fraternity row, back past Kent Stage and the restaurants and shops of the Main Street hill, we prayed for God to water any seeds of friendship and the Gospel that may have been planted that “Thirsty Thursday” night.