In good company: Young adults search for community
If you're looking for a faith community, you're not alone.
The day after graduating from Marquette University, Michelle Scaperlanda packed her vitals into a Toyota Highlander--laundry detergent, Macbook, Nike running shoes--popped the sun roof and embarked on a 500-mile trek from Milwaukee to Omaha.
She was trading one dynamic faith community for another, Marquette for Magis, a two-year Catholic teacher service corps coordinated by Creighton University that allows participants to "live together in intentional Christian community," according to its website-and she was being intentional about it.
Scaperlanda, 21, was keenly aware of what she was leaving: a four-year affirmation of faith by her peers, the wisdom of Ignatian spirituality, "a beautiful experience," she says. It was hard not to look back during her westward roadtrip, to recall evening talks, noon Masses, and the silent retreat that had led her to a semester in Athens and a daily prayer of thanks.
In many ways, she figured, Magis offered an extension of what she had cherished most about undergrad. "I'll be with other first-year teachers who are going through the same pressures and excitements and triumphs that I'll be going through," Scaperlanda says. "I really like the idea of being able to share my experience and my faith, because I don't think the two can be completely divorced from each other. Continuing in another faith community will allow that."
Few young adults make such a swift and seamless switch to a new, vital faith community--which means many feel pangs of panic and loss. It's hard to replicate the built-in, tight-knit community of on-campus Catholics, says Elizabeth Moriarty, 32, who has worked as a pastoral associate and now serves as assistant director of the Gender Relations Center at the University of Notre Dame. "That structure is in place, and when it's not there and they have to do a little more work to get it, people don't know what to do."
That aimlessness is sharpened by a sense of isolation, says Paul Jarzembowski, director of young adult ministry for the diocese of Joliet, Illinois. "Can I find my peers? I don't see them in the office. I don't see them on the train, and they're out there somewhere."
Teresa Crowe, 28, a high school physics and chemistry teacher from Alexandria, Virginia, took that search to Google. She had just graduated from Duke, having immersed herself in its Catholic Center. The day after graduation, she cried for two hours. One night, back at her parents' home, she hopped onto the family computer and poked around the web, reviewing churches in Arlington, where she was preparing to move. She says she was "mindful" of what she was leaving and took heart when she found St. Charles' website, which mentioned a young adult group. "I definitely wanted to continue that."
But it didn't happen naturally. "I remember being at Mass [at St. Charles] for the first time and looking around and wanting to talk to all the people, but nobody really talked to me," Crowe recalls. "Hmmm, this isn't the same," she had thought.
Try and try again
Because of her positive experience at Duke, Crowe made a point to get involved at St. Charles-a necessity for those seeking community.
Another hindrance is often discovery: Attending Mass is sometimes necessary in order to hear an announcement about a group or to pick up a bulletin detailing the next meeting. Church websites often miss the mark, either neglecting to mention young-adult groups, burying the information, or broadcasting two-month-old events.
Crowe tried out a young-adult group advertised at St. Charles but immediately sensed a singles-mingle undertone. "I found that most of the people there were about 35, and I was only 22, so I didn't really connect," she says. She attended only one gathering. Her sister had a similar experience and resolved it by attending events at a nearby Catholic college.
Crowe's saving grace didn't come until nearly a year after graduation, when she joined an eight-person coed scripture group designed around Lent. The smaller size and narrower scope appealed to her. In that setting it became easy to share her career dissatisfaction, followed by the frightening job-searching process she launched.
The group's expression of support and pledge of prayers made a big difference, Crowe says. "From them I didn't feel any of the pressure that you would feel from the rest of the world. There were some people who thought I was crazy for quitting the good job I had and taking the huge pay cut I took, but they saw the importance of following your vocation."
The scripture study allowed Crowe to not only reap others' wisdom but to discover her own. The group took turns leading discussion, and Crowe chose to share Paul's Letter to the Philippians, which brought her to arresting verses like 4:6-7: "Have no anxiety at all, but in everything by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus."
Peace is exactly what Crowe experienced after quitting her engineering job and becoming a teacher. "I've never felt so guided and so carried by God and so confident that it was his plan and what was meant to be," she says.
Though the scripture group has disbanded, Crowe still enjoys residual benefits, seeing several members regularly. She's even the godmother of one member's daughter.
Two kegs and a priest
Other young adults seek a faith community they didn't experience in college. Clint Fedler, a 26-year-old annuity representative, began church-hopping when he and his wife moved to Waukee, Iowa. "I knew I'd strayed away in college, and I wanted to get back to it. That was part of my motivation," he says, "and I also wanted to get to know more people in my area. It was definitely dual purpose."
It took two years before they found a satisfying home. One church that had a convenient Mass time required a long drive, prompting them to look into nearby St. Boniface.
Taking the first step felt like a risk. The church hosted a "Surviving Winter" party noted in the bulletin. Fedler and his wife attended "with an escape plan, thinking, ‘OK, this is a church party.' "
That's a common source of concern: dynamic faith communities can be obscured by a churchy perception or bad PR.
Fedler, for one, was surprised to ditch his escape plan at the winter party. He found two kegs and a priest who asked, "Are you guys going to dance?" So he stayed, drank, and danced.
Since then Fedler attended a Christ Renews His Parish retreat--a parish-based, single-sex retreat program begun in Parma, Ohio--and proceeded to plan and lead another one with a group of 11 men.
"Now we're hooked," Fedler says.
It's rare if he doesn't chat with at least one church friend a week. Conversation ranges from papal infallibility to Harley-Davidsons. And when it comes to parenting strategies, Fedler, who hopes to be a dad one day, is all ears. "I'm like, ‘I gotta write this down!' "
Fedler grew up without brothers and lost his dad to cancer as a boy, so he may be particularly grateful for the rich, layered network St. Boniface has provided. Now he feels as though he can tackle any issue--whether he needs directions, legal advice, or a helping hand. "When we moved here I didn't have that foundation calling me to church," he says. "This has definitely given me that rock."
Fedler's two-year church hunt paid off, but other young adults are less persistent. Throw in a busy schedule and a wavering attraction to church, and one dull meeting can be reason enough to quit.
Youthful idealism can yield standards that are hard to meet, adds Grace Sheedy, 26, a research assistant from Washington, D.C. "I've had times when it's been difficult to find a community or a parish that was a good fit, and I've seriously considered giving up," she says. "I have a tough time when I perceive a disconnect between the one hour spent at church on a Sunday and living a more just and Christian life the rest of the week."
That's why Sheedy was drawn to social justice groups, beginning with JustFaith, a Louisville, Kentucky-based social ministry program that hosted weekly meetings, followed by a year with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
Sheedy credits a handful of diocesan activities targeted to teens for cultivating her interest in Catholic communities. "It was one of the very few ways I made friends outside of my school, and I liked connecting with people who shared my faith," she says. "It added another dimension to our friendships. I've continued to seek that out ever since."
And yet, for all the rewards that continued pursuit has brought, there is also a subtle discomfort. "Sometimes I feel like young, progressive Catholics are discounted as not being really Catholic," she says.
John DeLaporte, a 27-year-old Chicago teacher, understands how Sheedy feels. He attended Theology on Tap one summer but didn't sip much spiritual sustenance and says parish offerings leave much to be desired.
"It was difficult to [find a faith community] namely because young adults who are enthusiastic about their faith are kind of hard to come by these days and typically the ones who are enthusiastic and want to do something extra tend to be more conservative and traditional in their approach," he says. "They want to talk about Eucharistic adoration or go over the pope's latest encyclicals, and that's all very important, but for myself I was seeking that balance between spirituality and social justice."
DeLaporte was grateful to find that in NextGeneration, "an inclusive community of reform-minded Catholics in our 20s and 30s," according to the website, sponsored by the Chicago-based movement Call To Action. He had learned about the group after attending a Call To Action conference. Later, when he was preparing to move to Chicago, he emailed the NextGen coordinator.
"Moving to a new city, not knowing many people, I was really interested in getting involved in some kind of faith community," he says.
The group has been wonderful. "In coming together we support one another and commiserate with one another, and it gives us that energy and lift to go out and do the hard work of social justice or service."
But keeping that going isn't effortless. "Even in our own community, it takes a lot of energy and commitment to make something like that go," he admits. "It's hard for new people sometimes to come into our group because we're sort of established now."
At least the hard work of founding the group had already been done, DeLaporte says. "Had I not come to Chicago, I would have really had to take the bull by the horns and start up a group by myself. It is discouraging."
Starting from scratch
Just ask Zaid Jazrawi, 42, of Cedarburg, Wisconsin, who had to create his own community after experiencing a life-changing trip to Medjugorje.
"I came back and thought, ‘Oh my God, what do I do with this now?' " he says. "As we were coming back, people were having the same problem: no community. If you're going to walk this walk, then you need community. Otherwise [like in the parable of the sower] you're going to get choked up by the weeds."
Jazrawi kept thinking of the phrase, "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." So one day he quit complaining about the absence of faith communities and founded a group called IHS312, dedicated to Mary and named after the year the Emperor Constantine experienced the vision that inspired his conversion.
The group was initially intended to facilitate Medjugorje pilgrimages, but in seven years it has expanded in unpredictable ways. Today it claims 4,000 members and hosts a wide array of events, including concerts, speaker series, and hiking retreats.
Managing the group has become a full-time job. "What I found out is that God does not call the qualified, but he qualifies the called," Jazrawi says. He's made a point to "keep the doors open," so the group has attracted members with diverse backgrounds and varying degrees of commitment, which Jazrawi appreciates.
Interacting with parish-based groups has not been easy for his independent organization, even though he considers IHS312 members more likely to engage in their parishes. "Some groups may be threatened at first, and that's OK," Jazrawi says. "Through some growing pains we have learned to help when our help is needed and to stay away when our help is not needed anymore. Some pastors are very open and welcoming, and others are closed and skeptical."
When Elizabeth Moriarty worked as a pastoral associate, she tried to keep the young-adult group within the context of the parish. "There's always a cross-referencing of other events and groups," she says. "You're always aware of how it all connects."
The group leader must possess a certain nimbleness, she adds. "You have to be light on your feet. It's important to say who you are and who you aren't and hold on to that." At the same time, she says, a leader must relinquish control and allow a group to grow organically.
That's when the good stuff happens, says Paul Jarzembowski, the young adult minister from Joliet. "Community for young adults is a chance to not do this alone."
This article appeared in the September 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 9, pages 23-27).
Image: Tom Wright