Why Do I Follow Jesus?
Because the world needs it, to put it simply. Because in my brief but meaningful, emotionally-charged and blessing-filled 25 years on our planet, Jesus has been the best role model I’ve ever had. Because He lays out a path worth following. Because, well, love.
When I was growing up, my family was one of those “go to mass every Sunday” (even if it were really just to go to Dunkin' Donuts afterwards) types. Dad, a devout and devotional born-and-bred Roman Catholic, the youngest of 4 in a 100% Sicilian family, was raised that way. He attended a local K-8 parochial school, “back when the nuns would slap you with rulers on the hand or wrist for screwing up” as he would often and candidly recall, and religion was instilled in him from those early days onward. Mom, an Episcopalian by birth, was a little less concerned with organized religion by her adult years, and more concerned with making sure her five kids- of which I am the youngest- were exposed to critical thinking, problem-solving, and charity. This is not to say my mom is not a person of faith or a believer in God, because she in fact very much is, and helped lay the foundation for my personal faith journey, but I guess you can say in those days of my childhood, dad was in charge of the religious education while mom tended to lots of other things for us. We were a busy bunch, always playing a seasonal sport, always participating in some club or activity at school, generally always making honors lists and staying out of trouble. Mom and dad certainly did the best they could to keep us engaged in the world as active, passionate, caring people, but as so often happens- especially in our increasingly secularized country- faith life sorta fell through the cracks, and by my teenage years, after going through Confirmation, I saw little place or value for God in my life. Beyond the rigorous religiosity instilled on my siblings and I by our dad, and some good things I had heard and learned about Jesus through CCD and my dad’s own knowledge, a relationship with God didn’t top my priorities list. As I went through puberty and began excelling in soccer and baseball, more interested in girls and less interested in whatever was happening at Sunday mass, I became distant from the One who no matter what we’ve done or are doing will come running down the road to meet us. As I write this and remember how challenging things got later in high school for me, I wish I knew this about God back then.
Time moved along and before I knew it I was walking the stage in my high school auditorium and eagerly awaiting college to start. I chose a local school that both my parents had attended, as well as my older sister, with a good reputation, small student body, and gorgeous campus. It seemed like a good fit for me, and while it wasn’t my first choice school, I can’t say that I would be here writing this had I not become a Skyhawk. However, some of my personal and family struggles from high school and even earlier lingered into my first few semesters there, and combined with relationship issues at a school where it seemed like everyone knew your “dirty laundry”, I was a disoriented, angry, envious mess, who couldn’t have been paid to wear a simple smile on my face. I was brooding and sad and while I had great friends and still had no trouble finding myself in romantic relationships (albeit with all the wrong girls), I simply wasn’t happy, and worse than that, my life held very little meaning. Sure, family and friends and school were all important to me (at least on a surface level), but there was nothing I could really say I was passionate about, nothing I really wanted to live for. As relationships came and went, hormones continued to rage and with an increasing focus on the negative aspects of my life, I began to dig a deep, dark hole for myself that took quite a bit of work to get out of.
During my first few years at Stonehill, I spent each summer at a family house on Cape Cod. These summers were transformative in my life, as it was in the solitude and serenity that Cape Cod can afford that allowed me to do some very deep digging but in a positive way, to do some soul-searching and really find out who I was, what I was passionate about, and what I wanted to do with my life. While these summers still had their share of ups and downs, marked by my depression, anger and jealousy issues, they turned out to be some of the most pivotal and defining of my life, and I will never forget that through all of the struggles, my rock of support- my mom- always told me, “Andrew, God has a plan for you. You have to trust that. None of this is happening for no reason, your suffering, your joy, none of it is without purpose. God has a plan.” While it was hard to attach significant meaning to her words back then, they remained in my mind and heart for years to come, and helped introduce me to who God, in Jesus Christ, really is. And that reality is a deity- THE Deity- that comes running down the road to meet us and hug us after we’ve been away for months, sleeping around, blowing our money and partying all the time. The reality is He is a lifelong companion, leader, teacher, minister, brother and father. The reality is that He is forgiveness in your dying breaths, a promise to remember you, a prayer of acceptance rather than deliverance to His Will, a “reckless” and “scandalous” (as authors Brennan Manning and Phillip Yancey have said) love that knows no conditions, limits or bounds, that wants to simply drop “rose petals, endlessly, on our heads.” (Fr. Greg Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart) It took me several years to discover this reality of God, to know Him intimately through Jesus as I do now, but when I learned this truth, my life could never be the same.
While my first two years at Stonehill in particular were very challenging, one of them also presented me with a life-changing experience that also played an enormous part in my faith formation and journey to this very day. I remember one weekend day in late Fall texting my mom about college and its meaning. My grades were not so great that semester in particular, communication with the girl I was involved with then was essentially nonexistent, and I had a distinct feeling of simply drifting through life and my college years. It made me uneasy and restless, and in the middle of venting these things to her and pondering my next move, she suggested that I find someplace to volunteer. I had done some volunteering in high school, but with a full schedule of sports year-round, honors classes and being the head of my student council, free time was very limited. I thought that it sounded like a good idea though, remembering one volunteer event in particular from my junior year of high school that was extremely rewarding and impactful. So one day after my mom and I’s conversation I did a quick Google search of area volunteer opportunities and found one literally right next door to Stonehill; a Christian charity named My Brother’s Keeper. What I read on the website sounded good, so the following week I went to volunteer there, and my life hasn’t been the same since.
People often talk about God speaking to them, or how He is at work in their lives. It was at My Brother’s Keeper that I first felt God “speak” to me, not in literal words, but through an irreplaceable feeling of fulfillment and utter wholeness after ending my volunteer days there in prayer with the staff and other volunteers and walking out the door. I can’t replicate that feeling through mere words, but it was one of the best feelings I had- and still have- ever experienced. I believe that is when God was moving in my spirit and heart and showing me that goodness existed in the world, and there was a lot of need to do more of it. My own personal mantra through college, largely inspired by my frequent service at MBK, was to make as positive of an impact on the world that I could, literally to do as much good as was humanly possible. This new take on life, repetitive exposure to Christian service and genuine human goodness, as well as unfailing family support and dedicated counseling and therapy sessions got me back on the right track as my junior year was winding to a close. The rest of my college days were generally happy and light-footed for me, as I had finally discovered my true self, what I wanted, and I was growing in awareness of God’s goodness and His work in my life. (My first “real” and genuinely good romantic relationship at the time didn’t hurt either)!
So as college was winding down, decisions had to be made. For several years (really from my sophomore year onward) I was determined to do something atypical and extraordinary with my life, especially my first few years after college. I would tell friends and family that I didn’t want a “typical desk job” and was exploring other options, although not as actively as I could have been. Suddenly graduation was only two months away, and I had to get serious about my next step. One day while at my part-time job in the writing center, an idea donned on me; “What if for all of next year, I could volunteer, like at My Brother’s Keeper? What if I could just do what I do there, but full-time, not for a job, but just volunteering for a whole year?” This was a dramatic shift from my earlier-college self. When I switched majors to Communication during the beginning of my sophomore year, all I could think about and aspire for was to be the next hotshot CEO of a Boston sports team, a veritable Theo Epstein, owning two houses, three cars, and the like. I wanted a cool, high-paying job, and that was about it. (It wasn’t until later that year that my “screw the desk jobs” mentality kicked in). But there I am, just two years later, sitting at my desk waiting for work and suddenly excited by the prospect of making no money for a whole year, just helping people. Talk about a conversion moment! I believe this was another time that God spoke to me. He was pulling at my heart from my first day at My Brother’s Keeper, and now He was helping me to realize there were more ways to serve others and Him that would continue to fuel my passion for life and grow my spirituality. After searching through many volunteer programs, my dad suggested that I get in touch with a family friend who he believed had done something along the lines of what I wanted to be doing after college. (At this point I had solidly made up my mind on doing a post-grad year of volunteer service, preferably in a faith-based program). The friend- a man named Matt Johnson- had not only done a post-grad year of service, but was now associate director of the program he served with! It was Providential to say the least, and after he gave me the “pitch” on the service sites and work descriptions, I was sold. I didn’t know then, before my journey with this program- named the Franciscan Volunteer Ministry- began, that my relationship with Jesus was only just beginning as well.
While I can’t get into the full story of my journey in Camden here, (hopefully I will at some point), what I can share is this; after spending a year in America’s poorest city, in the city often ranked as America’s most dangerous, and amid folks from an entirely different culture than my own- who often didn’t even speak my native tongue- I found God in richer, more abundant and more legitimate form than I have anywhere else and at any other point in my life. Period. Jesus was with me throughout my years leading up to my time in Camden and He was walking with me during that part of my life step by step. Through working with a vibrant, faith-filled parish community, at-risk teenagers, folks living with- but not letting it define them- HIV or AIDS, and doing constant ministry in all forms, I learned for the first time in my life that God is present in all people (all creation, to be sure), but all people, people like us, who breathe, eat, sleep and dream, talk and laugh, bleed and cry. The language may be different, the culture may be different, the food may be different, but at the end of the day, we, as a human family, are united in Christ. With this perspective, all “differences” melt away. My following of Jesus was solidified from that point in my life onward, after this profound and Divinely inspired epiphany. How could I ever live my life without Him?
I follow Jesus for the reasons I have written about and so many, many more. But it was my constant encounters with His goodness through people, relationships formed and sustained to this very day through a common identity, belief, and richness in Him, and witnessing legitimate miracles, all while serving in His name in Camden, NJ, that make me continue to follow Jesus today. Won’t you?
“Let us begin again, for until now, we have done very little.”
–St. Francis of Assisi
Andrew Staiti, Storyteller