By SARA ARTHURS
Who is God calling you to be? And are you listening?
A talk at “The Well,” an immersive summer theological camp for high school students held at the University of Findlay this week, focused on identity. It was one of many activities meant to challenge the students into asking themselves things like Who am I? What’s my story? Does God have a specific plan for us?
Shawn Graves, assistant professor of philosophy, in introducing speaker Robert E. Braylock, said one of his favorite writers was the Catholic monk Thomas Merton, who said many poets are not poets, just as many monks are not saints, because “they never succeed in being themselves” — the particular poet, or monk, God intended them to be. At some point, he said, you need to come to terms with who you are.
“We’re only harming ourselves if we run away from that,” he said.
Braylock is director of intercultural student services for the university, and practices pharmacy part time. He earned both his bachelor’s degree and his Pharm.D. at the University of Findlay and is now, as he approaches 30, building a life in the community.
But Findlay wasn’t where he set out to be. He arrived as a freshman in rural northwestern Ohio in 2007. There didn’t seem to be very much to do compared to Cleveland, where he had grown up, and he didn’t see many other black people in his new city.
At first, he wanted to transfer. But over time, Braylock formed connections with other people. He got heavily involved in student activities, and, as he progressed through his college career, he got busier and busier.
“I was beginning to put God to the side,” giving God the “cold shoulder,” he said.
He started having difficulties keeping up his grades, too. Finally, Braylock was told that to stay in the pharmacy program he must withdraw from all extracurricular activities. By that point, he was involved in a lot of activities and held leadership roles in many of them.
He found that all that he “put my identity in” was being stripped away. He was “20 years old, having an identity crisis,” not knowing who he was outside of the student organizations.
But two major things happened around this time. Braylock realized he was called to be in Findlay, although he was very disappointed as he was “not trying to be in rural Ohio.” And, he said, God revealed who his wife would be, after “I dated a lot of the wrong girls.” It wasn’t until five years later, in 2016, that they married.
Braylock said his identity as a husband “pretty much transcends everything.”
In the Christian faith, “our ultimate identity comes from God,” although this did not come easily to him at first.
He said when God calls us to do something, we may not “feel equipped,” but we should try to do our best and not just be “mediocre.” At the same time, God loves us because of who we are, not what we do, he said.
Braylock was raised in the Apostolic Holiness Church, which he described as very expressive and “spirit-led.” But from kindergarten through eighth grade he attended a Lutheran school. He was “used to” a certain type of worship, and at first was turned off by worship in Findlay. He and a friend would show up late to church and leave early. He said we often “will run away from difference.”
Braylock has a passion for engaging students in social justice and diversity issues. He believes God wants us to “be passionate,” including being concerned with the orphaned, and with the stranger. He believes the church is sometimes “apathetic” and slow-moving toward social justice, noting that people in the United States used the Bible to justify slavery, and that the church took a long time to respond to the Holocaust.
Braylock had the teens at The Well do an exercise where they wrote about their own identity, and then were invited to share what they had written. His description of his own identity included: a 29-year-old black male, from Cleveland, married, with a child, working in diversity and inclusion as well as in health care, and with a passion for helping populations that are historically oppressed and marginalized.
But, he said, students could define their own identity however they wished. One student started with, “From the United States.” When Braylock asked why, the boy replied that he had traveled around the world, but felt his identity was connected to his own culture.
Braylock asked how the process of self-identifying was for the students. Responses included “confusing” and “revealing.”
He said when you think about what God calls us to do, you may think of the call as something static, but it may be lasting, such as a marital relationship, which lasts a lifetime.
Being still in high school, he said, these students might think they will wait to discover their calling. But “God is calling you to do things right now,” he said.
After Braylock’s talk, Graves said he was reminded of the Christian theologian Henri Nouwen, who spoke of our “production-oriented society.”
Too often, “being busy, having an occupation” is one of the main ways we identify ourselves, Graves said. We ask people “What do you do?”, identifying the person with their occupation. And this can mean people start to think “we aren’t worth very much” if you don’t meet certain criteria or have certain accomplishments, like being an athlete in a school dominated by athletics.
But, he said, spiritual identity means “We are not what we do. We are not what people say about us. And we are not what we have.”
Students Liana Burk and Jessi LaFontaine were roommates in the dorms this week, and had formed a friendship through The Well. Both are 18 and will attend the University of Findlay in the fall, where Burk plans to major in physical therapy and LaFontaine in nursing and Spanish.
Burk, from Columbus, came to The Well to learn a little more about who she is. And, she said, she wants to stay close to her faith as she enters college.
LaFontaine, who recently graduated from Liberty-Benton High School, said during the transition of starting college she wants to stay “grounded in my faith.” A member of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church in Findlay, she was meeting teens from other denominations at the camp. It made her reflect that, although they may have different beliefs, “we’re all one body of Christ.”
The Rev. Matt Ginter, the university’s director of Christian ministries, said his hope is that students who attend The Well will “start asking the right questions earlier,” like why they believe what they do.
This is the third year the university has hosted The Well. Ginter has seen some in past years go on to attend the University of Findlay, and stay engaged with their faith and even “a step ahead.” He said the high school students make connections with current university students who are active in their faith, and “they see modeled what it can be.”
The Well is open to anyone of any faith, but has primarily attracted teens from various Christian denominations, and operates with a Christian focus, Ginter said.
Students visited a variety of places of worship, both Christian and other faiths. Ginter said this is “an eye-opening experience” for the teens. They visited one church in which members practice speaking in tongues, something many of the teens at The Well hadn’t had prior experience with.
Starting college can be scary, and the intent is to prepare them to do so while remaining grounded in their faith, Ginter said. He said it’s a blessing to help initiate these relationships early.