In the classroom, Dr. Curtis Ellis is electric. He has red hair, a tidy beard and glasses balanced on his nose. He looks intelligent. There is no question this man is somewhat brilliant, yet inexplicably humble.
His end of the year student opinion survey read: “The class kicked my butt, but at least I knew he cared about me.”
During his lectures he’s engaging and honest, so different than the typical university lecture. He isn’t shoving knowledge into his students’ heads, he’s beginning a conversation.
“[My wife and I] love college kids,” Ellis says, “I don’t know why that’s our passion. For whatever reason, our small groups were always a place where people would bring their friends who wouldn’t go to church… and we get to watch people get saved.”
It is difficult to envision the man Ellis was before he was in the classroom, before he took the reins of the ORU History, Humanities and Government Department just over a year ago, and before his passion was seeing college students see Jesus.
It’s 2006. The tears are pooling in his eyes and slipping down his cheeks quickly. He’s a grown man, this is a simple task, but it is still so difficult.
His marijuana pipes sit in a gallon plastic bag on his kitchen floor. In his right hand is a hammer. It should be easy; one smash and the fragile glass will shatter.
But what if he wants them later?
The Bible had been feeding him, and he was hungry for more.
But what if this is all a stupid fad?
It’s been 10 years since he sat on the kitchen floor, debating his future. Now he sits at his desk on the fifth floor of the GC with tears in his eyes. The desk is cluttered with paper, and a framed painting is leaning against his desk speaking of his gradual transition into his role at the university. As he tells his story it’s difficult to see anything of the man he claims to have been.
“I was raised heathen. I went to Catholic middle school,” he says, leaning across the desk. “But I would sort of reason my way out of this one path to heaven, one God sort of thing.”
When attending grad school, his friend Erin, who became his wife, spelled out the salvation story for him. He wasn’t instantly devoted to the idea.
Grad school progressed, becoming more and more difficult. Ellis was miserable.
“I was so restless,” he recalls. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t get tired. I was so stressed out.”
He was the superstar grad student, preparing to graduate, who supposedly had it all. He was completely miserable.
“One night I thought, ‘maybe I should start listening to Christian music. Jesus is supposed to bring peace, right? And I need some peace.’”
He started listening to Christian music throughout the day as he studied and did research. Then he added the Bible to the mix.
Wake up, pour coffee, take a bong hit, take a shower and go to work. It had always been his routine.
Waking up 30 minutes early, pouring coffee, taking a bong hit, reading his Bible, then getting ready for work became the norm.
“I quickly realized you can’t read your Bible for 30 minutes a day without things happening,” he says.
The first thing to go was the weed.
“Are you coming or not?” the Lord asked while he smoked his pipe one night.
Ellis wasn’t sure. But God had protected him for some reason for all those years.
Was he coming or not?
He wound up on the kitchen floor; his bong and pipes sealed in a gallon Ziploc bag and a hammer in his hand. He was sobbing, completely vulnerable.
“Are you coming?”
He sobs and swings the hammer.
The hammer meets the plastic, then the glass, then the floor. The bag’s contents exploded; small flecks of glass filling the bag. A burden lifted from his shoulders; a darkness that had followed him for years was gone. His shoulders become lighter, the room brighter. A dark, heavy, nasty thing leaves.
Ellis is crying. Again. But there is nothing wrong with these tears; they are happy.
Today, there is no remnant of the man Curtis Ellis was 10 years ago. The man sitting on the kitchen floor during grad school is gone.
Most mornings, his routine involves being startled awake by a small child between the ages of 1 and 5 around 6 a.m. He makes them breakfast, distracts them so they will let their mother sleep and attempts to read his Bible and avoid emails before he goes to work.
He is electric; it is obvious he is in love — with his Savior, his family and his students.
“Are you coming?”
He’s already there.
Story by Sydney Ilg, Photo by Abby Friedman