I’ve been to church once since I arrived at Stanford 10 weeks ago — this past Sunday, for about 15 minutes. I’m accompanied by an incessant baby yelping on cue every 12 seconds and a group of tourists taking their Christmas card pictures in front of the main altar, the mother loudly “whispering” directions to kids that don’t seem to understand.
I sit in my pew, head bent in some semblance of prayer, when I notice a tourists taking photos of me. With. The. Camera. Noise. On. So I pick up my bag and leave. Maybe I’ll go back when it’s less busy, or maybe I just won’t.
For as long as I can remember, every Sunday my family has gone to church. It’s this beautiful Episcopalian church backing the White House — yellow paint, classic white steeples; it’s friendly and it feels like home. Every president since James Madison has attended at least one service there. That church was an integral part of my childhood. It was where I would sing, play Mary in the Christmas pageant, recite Bible passages and try to find peace.
My faith has always been confusing for me. I love the idea of putting all my belief in a higher power, that someone is looking after me, that someone bigger than me, bigger than us, cares. That when I kneel down and ask for forgiveness, someone forgives. It brings me comfort. I don’t know what particular denomination of faith that is — or if it even qualifies as a faith — but it’s mine.
When I first got to Stanford, I briefly attempted to find an outlet for that faith. I showed up to a free Chipotle gathering right by my dorm that, coincidentally, was run by one of the Christian groups on campus. I ended up chatting with one of the members, asking about meeting times and which church they attend. They didn’t have any members that attended an Episcopalian diocese, so I immediately lost interest. This wasn’t because I was sure the Episcopalian faith was for me, but because it gave me a reason to stop attending church. It was an excuse in the simplest definition of the word and I knew it. The search for church stopped there.
I misunderstood how much I needed church in my life. Stanford does a good job at masking it. You’re dropped into these new dorm communities, surrounded by new supportive, amazing friends, new mentors, new teachers, new eating habits, a new life. I found myself changing in the most positive ways. I’m more creative, I write more, I dance more, I laugh more than I ever have in my entire life. Not going to church seemed like just another change, something that might fit naturally in my new life.
It wasn’t until the beginning of last week that I was abruptly confronted by my lack of “faith direction” (a self-coined term). I lost a friend of mine, someone so beautiful and so ethereal and so meaningful to me, and I can’t figure out if a heaven exists for her. I want so badly for it to be true, if not just for her. But the truth is, I don’t know if anything is out there. I’m so sure about a lot of things in my life, what issues I believe in, what ideals I stand for, but now I’m left reeling, desperately trying to define my faith to give myself some false sense of peace. I’m so lost and I’ve never needed to believe in God more.
I’m not trying to say Stanford is an evil institution built to take me off my path to faith — I definitely made excuses when there weren’t any, failed to take advantage of opportunities presented and ignored Memorial Church, conveniently located in the center of all my classes. It might not seem like it, but I do believe the break was good for me. I once found comfort in the Episcopalian faith because it was all I knew. Now that I’m at Stanford, I’m talking to people from other faiths, comparing their beliefs with my own and reevaluating my convictions. I’ve been avoiding this “faith intervention” for all of my life.
Stanford has taught me to be inquisitive — to question my beliefs, to reexamine my values, to figure out who I am without my family. But it’s also left me struggling to find the peace I thought I had. I can’t find it at church anymore, and I don’t know where else to look. I hope it comes with time.
Contact Natachi Onwuamaegbu at natachi ‘at’ stanford.edu.