This past summer, my church was a cafeteria table.
My church was a downtown café in an unfamiliar neighborhood.
My church was the Monon Trail and my Sunday best featured a pair of Mizuno Wave Inspire runners.
My preacher of sorts was a talented, refreshing rapper from Chicago.
My homilies came in the form of 7- and 8- and 9-year-olds’ life stories.
And my prayer?
I love my parish back home, where I received my First Communion, graduated eighth grade, sang in the children’s choir, where I’ve walked down the carpeted aisles since I was a little nugget, where I’ve fainted (along with both of my siblings), where my faith has evolved over two decades.
However, this summer I encountered Jesus in less formal settings and heard the Word through new channels. Through my headphones as I listened to Chance the Rapper’s “All We Got” while running on the Monon; through the voice of a ten-year-old boy as he told me how he recognized his parents’ weariness; through the early morning pep talks and power stances my mom exercised as she told my sister, “Repeat after me: I am STRONG! I am SMART! I can do ANYTHING!” (10/10 would recommend starting your day this way.)
A few weeks into the summer, I started my internship with the Indiana Writers Center, working with kids at the St. Florian summer camp. Around that time, my sister introduced me to Chance the Rapper (late to the party, I know). After writing with the kids at camp, I would post up at Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company and transcribe their stories—sometimes chuckling to myself, sometimes swallowing a heavy lump in my throat. These children shared their deepest feelings with me and unknowingly showed me a different corner of Indianapolis.
One day, while transcribing at Calvin Fletcher’s, I listened to Chance’s newest album “Coloring Book” approximately 20 times. After a spiritually charged but Mass-absent summer, I felt a twinge of Catholic guilt. But as I continued to listen to Chance’s album, I recognized and interpreted his words as a supplemental kind of spirituality. Certain lines stood out:
Public. Speaking to God isn’t limited to His house or a spiritual little corner in front of a cross because human beings are little walking vessels of God’s light. Wherever they are—an IPS school downtown, for example—God also is. “I am happy because I can still feel my grandmother in my heart,” wrote one of our young St. Florian writers, Justin. Speaking kindly and deeply to each other—loved ones and strangers and insightful, resilient kiddos alike—must be some kind of way of praying.
I think of my small but mighty St. Florian friends, telling me their stories of mastering stampedes while mastering stampedes by telling their stories. A lot of young writers actually wrote about their resemblances to lions and lionesses because of their strength. My eight-year-old buddy Jeffrey wrote, “I was sad when my mom died and it happened 3 months ago. It was from breast cancer…At the funeral I told her, ‘I’ll see you later.’” Jeffrey still wrote, still smiled, still showed up and showed me what mastering stampedes at the age of 8 looked like. More recently, I think of close friends gracefully mastering stampedes of grief, overcoming metaphorical wildebeest with beyond-human strength.
“I think we mutual fans.”
I’d like to think God has a sense of humor—that he delights in us—and if God listens to music, I have no doubt he’s a Chance fan. I also think He roots for us in our accomplishments. It’s a pretty fun thing to imagine God with a foam finger, cheering us on from the stands, as we approach the batter’s box in this crazy game of life.
I’m not sure how or when it started, but my roommates and I have fallen into the natural habit of calling each other angels. Never before in my life have I felt so aware of the angelic humans surrounding me both at school and home. My St. Florian angels still surround me with their words sitting on my dresser at school and the sweet imprint they left on my life. Sometimes when I wear my glasses at school, I chuckle and think of my little St. Florian friend Lauren: “I don’t like your glasses,” she once told me, “I can’t see your face well.”
There’s no way for me to know Chance’s intentions when he wrote these lines. I learned in one of my journalism arts reporting classes this semester that you don’t have to be an opera aficionado to have a valid opinion of a performance; if you experience the art and if it moves you, then you have the right to feel a certain way about it. I don’t mean to compartmentalize his reach or message either; his songs can land on different ears and still perform.
Chance raps real words without the pedestal, praise without the shame, with equal parts optimism and strength and humor and cool. He’s the only radio companion that could appropriately suit both a Friday night and a Sunday morning. “Coloring Book” hit me at a time when I needed God’s message through a different channel—and some new sick beats for my running playlist.