As I write this, I’m sitting in a small-town coffee shop in Texas, and the people at three of the six tables around me are talking about God. A couple of state college guys are discussing how to witness to their friend who’s questioning her faith, a Bible college student is getting life advice from a mentor, and a woman on the phone is making a plan to return a Bible forgotten in her car. I find it a little odd.
33,000 people live in this town, which is somewhat smaller than I’m used to. I grew up in small towns, but this year I’m serving as a missionary in Boston, Massachusetts, metro area population 7.6 million. Last year was about the same: I was in Washington, DC, metro area population 7.06 million. Even those cities are downright cozy compared to my experience as a college student in New York, population 8.4 million. While in New York, I heard of things I never had before—like the terms “working class” (which it turned out I was) and “Reformed Jewish” (which I wasn’t). Some things were overwhelming, but it was such a blessing to be able to learn from and about more kinds of people than I had ever met before.
In a diverse urban environment, practicing your Catholic faith can look a little different than it does in a Christian hometown. For me, living in New York was the challenge I needed to make a commitment to Jesus, but I saw many classmates lose the faith they had grown up with. From a country-turned-city girl, here are my tips for living your faith in the city:
1. Take advantage of resources. Comparing notes at training one year, a missionary in Oklahoma told me that Catholic students on her campus were eager to attend daily Mass, go to Confession regularly, plan and attend events, and lead their friends to Christ. The new missionary team couldn’t train students fast enough! The problem? There was a lack of resources. Priests couldn’t come to campus every day, and missionaries didn’t have hours in the day to organize everything the students wanted. In a city, that’s often not an issue. Masstimes.org can show you options for daily Mass and Confession that fit with any schedule, religious men and women offer possibilities for spiritual direction, and there is no shortage of volunteer opportunities. If you’re in a city, visit the parishes around you and see what they have set up! If you’re already involved, make sure you know about resources that are helpful for others, too. In New York I tried to carry Sisters of Life business cards wherever I went, all so I could have the address of their reception center to give to a vulnerable pregnant woman that I might meet. It helped spread the word about their beautiful community and was a way to witness to the faith that so many don’t know is alive and well.
2. Find a Catholic community. This is true anywhere, but when most of the people you meet don’t explicitly encourage you in faith, it’s extra-important to find a community of people who do. Luckily, young adult groups and events are no exception to the resources available in a city. Check out different retreats, Theology on Tap, or outings and socials around the city from those parish young adult groups. College campus ministries (your own and others nearby) also tend to have awesome events made with you in mind.
3. Know your stuff. When you do get the opportunity to talk about your faith in a city, you can’t assume a cultural knowledge of Christianity like you can in a lot of places. That means that you need to know the “what” and “why” of everything you mention. Growing up in Texas, I may have needed to know the apologetics for why we’re justified by faith and works, but in Boston, I also need to make sure I can explain what justification is and why we need it in the first place. On different issues, this kind of preparation has made me realize that though there are thousands of ways to get there, the important core of any topic is the Gospel message! Study, read, talk to your friends and mentors about faith issues, know at least a little about a lot—but the most important tip here is know the Gospel. Reflect on it, find its place at the heart of any other question you’re discussing, and always be ready to give a reason for your hope.
4. Remember the poor. When I went on my first international mission after college, I didn’t have the life-changing experience that many in my group did. Reflecting on this, I realized that it was because several of my mission teammates encountered Christ in the poor for the first time on mission, which is important in the journey to truly know him. But living in cities, Christ had shown himself to me in the poor and homeless before I went on an international mission. It can be uncomfortable to see the realities of poverty, but it is valuable to hear that discomfort as a wake-up call to follow Jesus’ instructions and serve those on the margins of society. In a city, you can volunteer with many different services, or you can take the opportunity for a more direct encounter by stopping to talk with homeless people, hearing their stories, praying for and with them, and giving food, socks, money, or prayer cards. It’s an eye-opening and humbling way to remind yourself that, regardless of circumstances, everyone is infinitely loved as a child of God.
5. Find Quiet and Beauty. One of the wonderful things about the countryside is natural beauty that draws your mind to God. In the quiet of the mountains or fields, God’s still, small voice is often more readily heard. Cities can be loud, even in a church, and greenery can be hard to find, so you have to find creative ways to make quiet time for God. I started carrying earplugs in college, which is a small thing that I recommend. If you need to, get a carshare subscription and get out on the weekends to take care of your soul. And remember that although you don’t have natural beauty close at hand, you have hundreds of thousands of opportunities to appreciate the greatest created beauty of all: the human person in all his complexity and ingenuity. It’s this beauty that will endure, and it’s in this beauty that we can see the image of God himself.
There are certainly difficult things about being faithful in an urban environment. Distractions and temptations are rampant, and the pace of life can make you feel slow and insufficient. Cling to Jesus. You probably have the Blessed Sacrament within five miles; go spend time with the Lord! Unique challenges give way to unique lessons, and with grace, they can make you a saint who will live with joy in the city of God.