It is very common, as humans, to abuse our free will, and think that our plan is the plan. I am very guilty of this, but what happened became a rock to set my faith in. My name is Jonah Celeski. I am a sophomore? Junior? At UAB. I’m from Huntsville, Alabama. I am a brother of the International Fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, more commonly known as FIJI. Some of you may know me as the guy with the funny hair that sings at Thursday Mass. This is my faith story.
Growing up, I was, like many of us, a good Catholic kid. Besides the occasional rebellion, my faith was strong, and it showed in my actions – and then came high school. Somewhere along the way, because of my demeanor, people began to stereotype me as somebody who was, to say the least, not very religious. If you want to ask me what stereotype, come talk to me in person. Regardless, I began to live up to the stereotype, because that is who I thought I was. I remember at one point that my best friend told me about somebody finding out I was Catholic. He said they were surprised and they thought I was an atheist! This hit me hard, but not hard enough. I continued to make bad decisions, and my faith suffered because of it. This continued until senior year, when I decided to get my act together so I could join the military without any trouble. At this point, I was so far in, and so deep in guilt, that I actually couldn’t believe that anyone, let alone God, loved me. I was stuck in a weird, backwards, twisted, prideful ditch, and I couldn’t get myself out alone. I couldn’t bring myself to receive Communion, even directly after Confession and penance. I felt that it would all be over once I joined the military and left my hometown. Now, as for the military…
The U.S. Army was my key to unlock the ideal life I had in mind. I’ve wanted to go into the medical field for as long as I can remember, and my dad introduced a round-about way that would mean the whole thing would be monetarily free. It sounded too good to be true! I decided on that early on and when it came time to take my ACT, I didn’t because I didn’t need to! I was joining the U.S. Military, baby! The summer of 2018 came around, I had graduated high school, I had just gotten my National Certification of Emergency Medical Technicians, and I thought I was headed into the army as a 68N cardiovascular technician. We started hitting some roadblocks with my recruiter, and next thing I knew, it was the fall, I was jobless, I was friendless, and I was painfully alone. I finally got the call to get to the recruiting office ASAP! They told me they were sending me to the medical processing center so I could get the signing and swearing in process started. What happened next quite literally changed my life.
I failed the hearing test. Twice. I never saw it coming. I have acoustic trauma that keeps me from hearing the frequencies that the army needs of their soldiers. The significance of this is that I never had just one incident that messed my hearing up. All my life I’ve been around guns, loud cars, football stadiums, loud music, lawn mowers, pressure washers, motorcycles, you name it. If it was loud, my friends liked it, and we made it louder by not wearing hearing protection. This is my fault, and it was dumb for us not to be smarter. All these things that happened years before I tried to join the military prevented me from actually joining. There are few coincidences in life, and they are rarer when they are reoccurring and so significant that they turn your life upside down. This was a wake-up call from God, and the military wasn’t the plan.
To keep this short, after many months of emotional pain from not knowing what I was going do with my life, I ended up here at UAB, which was once again a small chance. I almost didn’t come UAB, and the only reason I listed it on the ACT website was because I was prompted to add another college to my list. I’m here now, and I’m doing my best to find out why. There is no possible way that the things that happened to me were coincidental. I saw the power of the Lord and decided to bow to it.
Take every moment you have and live in it completely. Don’t plan so hard for the future because whatever is divinely written into existence is going to happen, and you don’t know if that is your plan or not. Have no expectations. Face your fears. Do that thing you’re scared of. Dance in the rain. Kiss your loved ones. Ask someone on a date. Hike a mountain. Run a marathon. Learn guitar. Whatever it is, get off your phone and go experience life. You are not on your own terms, and you will never know what’s next.
-Jonah Celeski, UAB, class of 2022
“You guys should come to St. Stephen’s sometime!” These words out of a now treasured friend’s mouth were definitely some of the last that I wanted to hear upon entering into college. While I was planning on still attending Sunday Masses, I had never thought about diving in any deeper than that. I was standing in shallow water, and I was completely fine with that. I had heard about college being the best years of one’s life, and I was ready to live it up. Having struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, I longed to be free from all fear and control. I had my mind made up about who I was and who I was going to be, and I had all my plans laid out in my head. I was ready to embrace and live life to the fullest. Little did I know that I had no idea what that actually meant. Thankfully, God made it evident that He also had a plan - one that is so much better than anything I could have imagined.
All the plans that I had laid out in my head instantly shattered into a schmillion pieces the first time I set foot inside St. Stephen’s and was greeted by humans I never knew existed. I grew up Catholic, attended Sunday Masses, and even went to a Catholic school. I was constantly surrounded by God’s message, constantly reminded of His love, and yet I never truly believed/experienced it until encountering God in His presence and love through these wonderful beings. To hear about the light of Christ shining through His creation is one thing, but to be a witness to this light burning brightly in others is completely different. I found myself being drawn to this light, and wanting so badly to shine too. I could hear God’s voice calling me closer and closer, but looking at the people around me, I did not know how I was to ever compare. They were so full of love, so fully open - all the things I was scared to be. I was not open to the gifts God is longing to give all of us. I was closed off - placing a limit on the love of God, thinking He could only love those who rightly loved Him too. I could feel and see His love through others, but I did not know how to receive it. When I tried, I still found myself (and still find myself) clinging on to my own desires, plans, and wants. I knew I needed help giving everything over to God. It was then I realized that I was trying to do what no one can do without the grace of God. I had to surrender to Him in the place that I was - a place of weakness and confusion. It was not until I embraced my weakness, my monstrous ways, my brokenness, that God started working and transforming me. Only then could I receive God’s love and truth into my heart - when I realized that to live is to live in Christ.
It took me way too long to realize that my life is not mine to live. To learn that surrender to the will of God is the only way to be at peace. To dare to hope in something greater -the true wants and desires placed on human hearts. To dive into relationships that will leave you open and vulnerable, but full of so much joy and love. To let love lead me on a never-ending adventure. To embrace the little deaths of life - thousands of deaths every single day for the greater glory and purpose for which I am called. To push back against insecurities and fear that ultimately do nothing but harm. To be okay with not knowing anything - and to understand that a lot of the time I am not supposed to. To seek the face of God in everyone and everything around me. To experience the beauty of a true fulfilling presence - and to allow myself to be filled with it. To be constantly learning, searching, and listening for His voice. To not be afraid, to share these truths with others, and to recognize that I will constantly fail at doing all of these things (and more) for the rest of my earthly life.
I would have never come to these realizations without the grace of God and surrounding myself with people who allowed Him to work through them. I now know what it means to be set free in Christ - to know that the journey towards the kingdom is one that will never end on this earth. Without St. Stephen’s, FOCUS missionaries, authentic friendships, and most importantly the abiding presence of God, I do not know where I would have ended up. Probably somewhere thinking I was free and living my life to the fullest - and oh how wrong I would be. Here’s to the never-ending journey and seeking, growing, learning, and transforming! Here’s to truly living life to the fullest!
-Jessie Clark, UAB, class of 2022
I was born and raised Catholic. I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and religion class was more of an extra history lesson to me. It was boring, church was boring. When I started going to public high school, I didn't have many Catholic friends. I went to church every Sunday with my family and we prayed together occasionally, but that was the extent of my prayer life. I didn’t have a great community to help me learn and grow in my faith. When there were youth groups or bible studies, I would rarely attend them, and I wasn’t comfortable enough to participate. My faith was not my top priority, and towards the end of my senior year, I began to realize how detrimental my life would be if I didn’t change this.
I am currently attending the University of Alabama at Birmingham. When I got to UAB’s campus I decided I would change my prayer life for the better. I knew of St. Stephen’s and was lucky enough to have friends already involved in the Catholic community there. I joined a bible study and started attending events like Abide and Adore and Thursday Mass and dinner. I felt welcomed and loved. The St. Stephen’s community gave me a sense of what being Catholic actually meant. I was encouraged to go to Adoration, daily Mass, and retreats. Before college, I didn’t have a group of people to help me in my walk toward Christ; but at St. Stephen’s, everyone was encouraging and more than willing to share Christ’s love. I could tell this was a group of people who were actively striving to live out their faith and bring people closer to God. St. Stephen’s was the Christ-centered fellowship I had been missing my whole life.
I have only been attending UAB for a year, but I have already grown so much in my faith and in my love for the Catholic Church. The community at St. Stephen’s helped me realize why I was Catholic. I went from dreading Sunday Mass to going almost every day. Being taught about the beauty of the Mass and the Eucharist made me realize how incredibly magnificent it is. Mass is nowhere near boring to me now. The person I was in high school and the person I am today are so very different. My priorities have been changed for the absolute best. I can honestly say my life became much more joyful, brighter, and full of love when I was shown the beauty of Christ’s love again. My first year at St. Stephens revealed to me how loved I am, and I cannot thank the St. Stephens community enough for that. I can't wait to see what God has planned for my future at UAB and St. Stephens. I know it will be absolutely beautiful!
-Julianne Naro, UAB, Class of 2023
St. Stephen's is home to students from UAB, Samford, and Birmingham-Southern.
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