October 16, 2020

‘We want to belong’: In her search for a home and a purpose, college student finds both in her Catholic faith

Cheyenne Johnson poses for a photo at Butler University in Indianapolis where the senior has embraced her desire to become a Catholic and the faith-filled community that has welcomed her. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Cheyenne Johnson poses for a photo at Butler University in Indianapolis where the senior has embraced her desire to become a Catholic and the faith-filled community that has welcomed her. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

First in an occasional series

(Editor’s note: In this series, The Criterion will feature young adults who have found a home in the Church and strive to live their faith in their everyday life.)

By John Shaughnessy

Like many first-year students in college, Cheyenne Johnson was searching.

Searching for friends.

Searching for a purpose in life.

Searching for a community where she would be welcomed, where she would feel she belonged.

She explored different options during her freshman year at Butler University in Indianapolis, including joining a sorority. But none of them provided what she hoped for—until she decided to follow a longing that had intrigued her earlier in her teenage years.

When Johnson was 13, her family had already moved several times, from Florida to California to Arizona to Indiana. Raised as a Southern Baptist, she found that in every place her family moved, there was something different and confusing about the faith experience she had in church. It left her longing for something more, something deeper, something true she could believe.

“I started Googling different things, and one of my friends was talking about Ash Wednesday, which confused me,” she recalls. “So I started looking into the Catholic Church and found the teaching on the Eucharist in [the Gospel of] John, chapter 6.”

She read the passage where Jesus says, “I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world” (Jn 6:51).

She read further to the passage where Christ declares, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in that person ” (Jn 6:56).

“That initially led me to the Church,” she recalls. “It really was the teaching on the Eucharist. But I was 13, so I couldn’t do anything about it.”

Johnson finally thought she could during her first year in college. She reached out to the campus minister of the Butler Catholic Community (BCC). And older Catholic students in that community reached out to Johnson.

“They went out of their way to talk to me when I was alone and invite me to things,” she says.

It all led to her participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program and entering into the full communion of the Church on April 8, 2018.

“I was really excited. I couldn’t stop smiling.”

As Johnson talks, she is seated at a picnic table outside Butler’s Center for Faith and Vocations. She is 21 now, a flute player who is scheduled to graduate in May with double majors in music and elementary education, with a minor in Chinese.

Still early in her senior year—in another uncertain semester during a pandemic—there is so much she has to do in the present and so much she has to figure out about her future. But as she looks back over the past few years, she knows one part of her life is marked with certainty.

“My faith life has just blossomed,” she says. “I came into college knowing I wanted to be Catholic, but I didn’t think it would be such a large part of my life. I thought it would be more of a Sunday kind of thing, and maybe a couple days a week praying. But then I dived into the community here.”

That dive included spending the summer of 2019 in Colorado, in a program created by the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), an organization “whose mission is to share the hope and joy of the Gospel with college students.”

“I worked in food service at a YMCA from 5 in the morning to 1:30 in the afternoon,” she says. “It was hard. But after that, we had adoration and Masses every day, and we had talks about different things. I’d go to sleep at midnight or one. It was amazing. That really changed my faith.

“It made me see how important a relationship with God was. I started to go to Mass daily and praying more. My faith makes me realize the goodness that is there in the world, and it helps me keep focused on what I’m doing and how I can help spread the message of Jesus Christ. My faith life has helped me to find community and to know God is my Father, and I’m here for a reason and he loves me.”

That sense of being accepted and loved is what young adults long for, Johnson says.

“We all just want community. We want to belong, to have our people who we can go to. With the BCC, I feel like I belong. I don’t feel I have to be different to be accepted. Everyone is really kind and wants what is the best for you.”

She needed that affirmation, especially during a rough time at the beginning of her junior year.

“After I came back from Colorado, I really felt alone. I had lived with a hundred people all the time. And then I didn’t have that community with me 24-7. I was struggling with everything.

“I really didn’t want to go to class. I didn’t want to hang out with people, but I wanted to be around them. I had a couple people from the BCC reach out to me and say, ‘We’re here for you. We love you. You’re still wanted here.’ That was really big for me.”

Uplifted by that support, she has sought to share her faith with others. Last year, she taught a religious education class for second-grade students at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas Parish. This year, she leads a Bible study group at Butler. And while her long-term goal is to be a teacher, she is also considering doing missionary work after graduation.

Similar to many college seniors, her future path is uncertain. Her relationship with Jesus isn’t.

“My relationship is always changing and growing,” she says. “I have really just come to see Christ as a friend, someone who wants the best for me all the time. He’s always pursuing my heart and changing me for the better.

“I feel Christ lets me know that I am loved, that I am chosen. I have a purpose in this world, and he’s fulfilling me in his love.” †

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