When Javi moved to Chicago after graduating from college, he was lost — in more ways than one. This is his story about finding a special place that anchored him during a tumultuous time.
When I moved to Chicago after graduating college, I truly had no idea what the hell I was doing.
I had been living in my parent’s basement for about six months after my plan of “becoming the next great European filmmaker” had fallen through. Just a week before I was set to move into my studio apartment, the job offer at a TV production company fell through without warning. I only had one friend in the city, and going from the suburbs of Boise, Idaho to the high rises of Lakeview was a total shock to my system. I was lost. And at 23, I had no idea how to find my way.
I think the greatest revelation after graduating was how unstructured adult life could be. No set times for classes. No deadlines for assignments. But that also meant there is no clear path for advancement and recognition. There is no freshman/sophomore/junior/senior year in adulthood — you’re just on your own with the horrifying expanse known as “life” before you. It was overwhelming, especially when I didn’t even have a job to anchor me.
So as my mother tearfully said goodbye and left me in my cruddy 300-square-foot studio with rent that was way too high, I knew I had to get to work to put structure into my life and make sense of it. At the very least, I was going to have to pay that way-too-high rent after all.
While I was able to get a job after hustling my networks and falling into some blind luck, I still had to confront the bigness of life. I remember walking the streets of Chicago, looking up and up at the buildings and feeling dwarfed by them all. I was in a city thousands of miles from home — one my immigrant family never would have considered for me — trying to find a path totally outside anything I was familiar with. I often felt adrift. Lost. Floating toward nothing I could make sense of.
In college I had found support through my spiritual life. I had gone to a Catholic university and it was easy to stumble into an evening Mass. After a too-fun weekend, it was a calming punctuation point — the week was done, a new one was beginning. Sitting beside a set of stained glass windows, I could reflect on where the days had taken me and where I was headed in those to come. More than anything the priest said, this time of peace and reflection became a rock of my college years.
Which made me think, “Maybe I should find a church in the city?”
I was worried at such a prospect. Once again, there was no structure for me to figure this out. Growing up, I just went to the church my family went to. And frankly, it left a lot to be desired — boring homilies, boring architecture, zero community. On my college campus, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting a chapel celebrating Mass. But how do you find a faith community in Chicago? I still couldn’t get on the L without getting turned around and somehow arriving at O’Hare.
And so, in the same way I had found my go-to coffeeshop and Korean take-out place, I went to the food review app, Yelp. I entered “Catholic Church” into the search bar, wondering if celebrating the Eucharist counted as a restaurant, and was greeted by several parishes within walking distance of where I lived. There were even a few reviews, and one sounded as cool as a Catholic church can sound.
Sunday came and I made my way five blocks south. I got turned around three times along the way, discovered an entire section of the neighborhood I had never seen before, and was once more overwhelmed at just how BIG Chicago was. Sweaty and frazzled, always the type who hated being late, I made my way through the doors of St. Clement’s. It was the 7 p.m. Mass — perfect for the night owl that I was — and to my surprise, completely full of young people. This was a far cry from the quarter-filled Masses back home.
I slid into the last pew and the ritual began. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the homily or the readings that night. The church itself was beautiful, but honestly what held my attention was seeing so many people my same age. Chicago has a massive amount of recent grads in the city, and it felt like they were all at this Mass.
I didn’t meet anyone that night as I slipped away and back to my studio apartment, but I was encouraged enough by the other young people to come back again the next week. I only got turned around once this time, but still snuck into the last pew. The city had me so intimidated that I was terrified of talking to new people, but looking out at the congregation before me, seeing so many folks like me, I felt some warm comfort. I was alone in the city, but maybe not as much.
I wish I could say that each new week in the city brought some new discovery, some new great development in my young adulthood, but that just wasn’t the case. My new job as a production assistant was demanding and demoralizing, and as an overachiever accustomed to climbing the ladder of clubs and classes to become top dog, I had no idea what I was doing without a syllabus. Finding new friends felt impossible. Everyone seemed to be at the bars, and soft-talker that I am, I could never carry a conversation over the din. Chicago was kicking my butt, and many Friday and Saturday nights were spent in my shoebox apartment eating Domino’s pizza alone. I was still so terribly lost.
But at least on Sunday I had the 7 p.m. Mass at St. Clement’s. Even after several months making my way south, the only people I had spoken to were the few folks sitting around me at the sign of peace. Yet I looked forward to going each week. In the confusion and uncertainty of my daily life, I knew exactly where I could be for at least one hour. It was a safe space, a calm space, a certain space.
The last pew on the left became a sacred space for me. Whatever stress and confusion the week had brought me, I could bring it there, to the back of the congregation, and look out at all the other young adults before me, thinking, “I wonder if they’re going through the same thing?” And as one hard week came and another after it, with Mass at St. Clement’s in between, I found myself answering that question, “I’m sure they are, too. But we’re all here now.”
My Sunday trek to St. Clement’s became a pilgrimage of sorts, especially in the winters when snow and wind would slap my face while I dodged traffic. But they were moments of incredible peace. I was walking to Mass. I knew where my feet were leading me. I knew what would happen for the one hour I was sitting in that pew. I knew that I wasn’t alone in looking before the altar and hoping for some sort of salvation — from my loneliness, my confusion, my uncertainty. It became an anchor to my week.
The future seemed so unbearably big — stretching out as long as the Sears Tower was tall — but this 7 p.m. Sunday ritual was a calming refuge in the face of it. It was a moment and a place where I could step outside of the race of adulthood, a race I had no clue how to “win.” It was a place where “winning” didn’t matter. Just sitting there was all that was asked of me, and that was exactly what I needed.
All too often we think of “going to church” as some great production. As children, we were likely woken up early on Sundays and dressed up, told to be quiet and sit still. There was a sense that this worship is important, that we’re supposed to get something life-changing from what appears to be a usually dull and repetitive ritual. No wonder so many of us abandon the Church as adults.
But even after leaving Chicago and finding steadier ground to walk on in adulthood, I’m still a part of this Church. Largely because I believe something truly incredible does happen around the altar, but also because Mass is an hour of peace in my week. In all honesty, I often tune out the priest’s homily. I let my mind wander. I let myself just sit there. It’s crazy enough to let God into a busy week — why not give an hour to let Him try?
I got lucky with my Yelp search. Luckier still that Saint Clement’s had such a young parish for me to find myself in. But the routine and regularity of Mass is open to anyone. I didn’t find some vast community of friends at church each week, but I found some measure of peace and certainty. And when you’re trying so hard to find your place in the world, that hour of refuge can make all the difference.