A city most famous for its leftist political history and hippie youth movement, Berkeley, California, doesn't always appear brimming with committed Christians. They're there, of course, but they're sometimes hard to spot.
Born, baptized, and raised in this town I love, I spent my early years trying to find folks who walked and talked like me. Our small Presbyterian church was of little help. It seemed to lose members every Sunday, and my parents often shook their heads at the ever-emptying pews. My younger brother once returned from Sunday school telling our mother he never wanted to go back.
"Why?" she asked, concerned.
"Because I'm the only one there."
My youth group bore an equally small population. Don't get me started on Vacation Bible School.
But I had camp. Every summer for the 11 years before I departed for college, my parents shipped me off to Westminster Woods among the redwoods of Northern California. Those weeks of music, fellowship, and requisite felt hats (don't ask) were one of the highlights of my year, and kept me grounded in a faith that sometimes felt like it took a backseat in Berkeley.
For several years at camp, I had learned about what it would mean to accept Christ into my heart—that it would change my life and the way I approached the world. I had heard, but I hadn't been ready.
Until the summer I was 12. One night, after a miserable, strange day spent wandering the grounds, wondering what it would mean if no God existed at all, I made my decision. A simple solo prayer on the steps of my cabin sealed the deal. My counselor gave me her NIV Student Study Bible, her name scrawled in pink and dotted with hearts inside the front flap. I use it to this day.
For the next dozen years, my faith rose and fell. Some years I felt close and connected to God. Other years I went through the motions.
Leaving Berkeley to complete my undergraduate and graduate degrees at Stanford University (less than an hour away, in Palo Alto), I was amazed at how the atmosphere of faith could feel so different so close to home. I found more fellowship in my early 20s, both in and out of church, than I had in my teenage years. Over the next few years, I continued my Christian walk, going to church, attending a small group Bible study, and teaching Sunday school.
But I still wasn't all in.
In 2006, I traveled to Kenya to climb a mountain. It was the last stop on a yearlong journey around the world.
Although I had already spent several years living overseas at that point, an entire year on the road was a new kind of high. My passion for travel took my best friend and me to 19 countries in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Lara and I spent months on beaches in far-flung locales, climbed to Everest Base Camp, and took the Trans-Siberian Railroad until the dust and grime got to us, then hopped off to reach Moscow by plane instead. That year included moments when I experienced the presence of God more tangibly than ever—on a run in an Indian monsoon, on the rooftop of a hostel in Morocco, in a cemetery in Paris.
I anticipated that I would experience his presence again atop Mount Kenya.
Altitude sickness on the trek to Everest Base Camp had had me shivering in my sleeping bag for 24 hours before I could stumble down several thousand feet to clearheadedness. But I had heard that one experience with the sickness didn't predict another, so Lara and I charged ahead with our plans to scale the second-highest peak in Africa.