I’ve been church shopping for more than three years now. I’m not much of a shopper so it’s getting tiring, but I’m not about to give up. I’m choosey: I want good music, a diverse and accepting community, a priest who consistently gives relevant and challenging homilies, and a church culture that embraces social justice. I’ve found churches that have some of the things on my list, but finding all of them in one place has proven to be a challenge.
My church shopping began in August of 2008 when I moved from Maine to North Carolina to transfer to Salem College. At first I rode with friends to a Mass on another college campus. I liked the priest, but student Masses have always seemed to be missing something for me. For one thing: They’re almost always without families. Maybe I like being distracted by the antics of children, but I also enjoy seeing families celebrating Mass together. Another complaint I have about student Masses is that sometimes — though definitely not always — the priest tries too hard to connect with college students in his homily and fails to challenge students on anything outside college life.
I didn’t have a car my first year at Salem, so I looked up churches I could walk to. There was only one, and Mass was at 8:30 a.m., which any college student knows is almost impossible to go to (I only managed it twice). Sometimes I went to the Moravian church on campus and occasionally I got rides to other Catholic churches, but never consistently enough to get used to one.
Growing in faith
At one point when I wasn’t able to get a ride to church for more than two months I realized something: If I didn’t have a church to go to or a church that was “home,” I had to put more conscious effort into my relationship with God outside of the structured Mass I was so used to. I started going to the chapel on campus a few times a week to read and pray between classes and that was the first time my spiritual practice went beyond my daily prayers, reading scripture, weekly Mass and the occasional retreat.
As I’ve learned to bring my faith and spirituality into nearly every aspect of my life. At the same time, I have experienced stronger doubt and anger toward God and the institutional Church than I felt before becoming an adult.
Many times in my life I’ve taken the “fake it ’til you make it” approach. And when it comes to spirituality and faith, the approach has had moderate success. For most of my senior year of college I was questioning Catholicism, but I faked it and only missed Mass once that year because I was trying to hold on to my religious practices even when they felt empty or when I felt the Church stood in the way of my relationship with God.
Despite my doubts, it was partly the service work I did with other Catholic students while at college that helped me decide to do a year of full-time volunteer service with Catholic Charities Service Corps in Buffalo, New York. Volunteering full time gave me an opportunity that not many people have: We spent a year focusing on simplicity, social justice, community, and spirituality.
What I learned about myself and my faith was that I can’t separate spirituality from the other three ideas. My spirituality became learning to practice simplicity (in the material sense, how I use my resources, and how I spend my time), committing myself to my community, and living out my passion for social justice. For me, social justice in particular cannot be separated from spirituality because if I’m not working to help those in need and to stand up for the oppressed and marginalized, the ritual practice of attending Mass and saying prayers seems empty and meaningless. If I’m not answering God’s call to care for others, or if I’m not doing something to help God’s people and creation, it doesn’t matter how much I pray or follow rules.
My church shopping continued when I moved to Buffalo. For a while I was complacent and went to a student Mass that was a five-minute walk from my house, but I was even less interested in student Masses once I wasn’t a student myself. This spring I started venturing out to more churches and to churches that aren’t Catholic. I’ve found two that I’ve been attending somewhat regularly, but I still wouldn’t say I’m at “home” in either church.
Volunteering, having meaningful conversations about spirituality, learning about different spiritual traditions, going on retreats, and sticking with my already established spiritual practices kept me connected to God even without a church to call home and on the weeks I didn’t attend church.
Despite not having a spiritual home, the last three years have been a time of great spiritual growth for me. I found the place within myself where God resides and I’m learning to find that place in others — and not just in people I already love. I now know I have a muscular faith that will carry me as far as it takes to find a church because my true spiritual home is all around me in nature, in other people, and within myself.