“Hey! Excuse me, but… I’m new to Lethbridge. Is this the way to St. Martha’s Church?”
It was Sunday, September 7, 2014 — my first Sunday in a new city, in my first week of university, my first time to Sunday Mass without my family — and I was in a bit of a panic. My first week of university had already been a washout — I’d already managed to double-book my classes, look like an over-enthusiastic know-it-all (the lesson was on the parts of the Mass — child’s play!), get completely overwhelmed in wind orchestra rehearsal, and terrify my new roommates with my rice cooker.
Google Maps told me it was a 22-minute walk to St. Martha’s Parish from my residence building, but I was 20 minutes into my journey with no church in sight. I was not about to have getting lost on my way to my first Mass in Lethbridge, crown off my week of failures, so mustering a bit of the remaining confidence I had, I ran ahead to a group of three young women who were also walking down Columbia Boulevard and asked for directions.
“We don’t know. We’re new here too. If you’re headed there too, we must be going the right way.” What a relief! We walked the last block there together.
Mass ended. It was so unlike anything I had known growing up in the Anglican Use liturgy at St. John the Evangelist in Calgary, and I was homesick for my parish community. We walked back to the university together and then parted ways. It would have been wise to get contact information, but in that first week of university, one meets so many new people only to never see them again… Another failure.
Monday afternoon. I sat eagerly in Music and did my best to put the last week behind me. Suddenly, I hear someone ask, “hey, do you mind if I sit here?” It was one of the women I had walked to Mass with on Sunday! “Of course you can!” Another relief.
Later, I would learn that she had seen me answer way too many questions in that class in the first week and decided that we should be friends. (Thanks be to God for extroverts.) We sat together through all of our first year Music History classes, sharing lunch in the cafeteria before each class. We endured some of our first university experiences together — we stayed up until 4 a.m. writing our first papers, and we were the last two to finish our final exam. She and her roommate (another one of the trio I had walked to Mass with) became close friends with a high school friend and me, and there are many fond memories of sharing meals, playing board games and going on late-night drives through Lethbridge together. In many ways, this friendship became the rock on which I leaned on during this difficult first university year.
She also challenged my faith to become more vibrant. Entering university, I had a very dry, legalistic understanding of Catholicism, which she pushed back against gently, teaching me to temper my scrupulosity and legalism with gentleness and charity. I learned from her how to lean on God’s grace when confronted with new stressors and challenges. We went to our first young adult events together in Lethbridge, without which I would have never become so deeply involved in that ministry. We also travelled to World Youth Day in Kraków together, where I learned to grow deeper in God’s ardent, merciful love, and to follow this love to the ends of the earth.
The Lord has everything within the palm of His almighty hand — He knew I needed a friend in that difficult time, and the friend he sent me changed my life for the best. If I had not met Natalie on the road to St. Martha’s, how else might my life have looked? Would I have been pushed to love my God and my neighbour more deeply? Would young adult ministry have become such a huge part of my life? Would I even have graduated from university? There is no such thing as an accidental encounter — God introduced me to Natalie as part of His plan for my life, and I hope that our friendship has been of value for Natalie as well (even though I’m still very much the junior partner in this friendship!). God places friends within our lives intentionally — to challenge, encourage and push us to grow to love and adore Him more.
I had been reflecting upon this idea with Natalie near the end of our first year of university together. Her response was perfect, “Christians are like grapes. We grow best in bunches.” May God give us this grace so to grow as clusters of friends together, fed by the one true Vine.
By: Solomon Ip
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Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers