NORTH CHILI — Steven Lawson recently rediscovered his faith, and shared with about 40 young adults his journey from agnosticism to Catholicism.
Lawson spoke of his experiences Jan. 30 at St. Christopher Church as part of a young-adult fellowship coffeehouse program, the second such program the parish has offered in the past year. Coffee, tea and desserts were served in the well-lit room, and the guests were friendly, often making an effort to extend a welcome to strangers. Before Lawson began his talk, young-adult performers warmed up the audience by playing live music.
During his talk Lawson, 23, noted that he was born in Buffalo and graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a degree in animation and film, which has been his passion since he was 10 years old.
"I wanted to live to be my hero, Walt Disney," said Lawson, adding that as a child, he would wake up early to study his hero’s animated shorts, which he said was weird because "most kids would want to be sleep in." Lawson’s parents were both Catholic, but his mother — who had fallen away from the church as a young adult and then rediscovered her faith — had a particular zeal, especially a great devotion to the Blessed Mother.
"I couldn’t stand the Blessed Mother," Lawson remarked with a grin. He said that when his family said the rosary, he would refuse to pray along, instead insisting that he was praying in his head.
Despite his stubbornness, Lawson attended his church’s youth group during high school. He said, however, that he attended more for the social aspect than the spiritual.
"It wasn’t that I loved to pray, it was that I loved to go to the LIFETEEN program at my church. I guess it kept me out of trouble," he said.
After graduating from St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute in Buffalo, he had a chance to pursue his dream of animation; he was accepted into a film program at RIT. College provided a lot of room for freedom, and Lawson soon made friends who were only interested in girls, partying and being cool.
"I had always had this need to be desired, but when I went to school it really started manifesting itself," he said, noting that he would drink five to six times per week while at RIT. He also told stories about running from campus safety officers, fighting another student and making friends with drug dealers.
"Morally, I was going further and further down the tubes," he observed.
Philosophically, however, he said he began to ponder new questions about faith that came up in his liberal-arts classes.
"I had always wanted to live what the truth is, and I still feel that way," he said.
But Lawson said he had trouble finding that truth in the Catholic Church: "I had no way of believing that the Catholic Church was (speaking) the truth, per se."
Still, though, Lawson was achieving much success by worldly standards. He was the only member of his class to receive a prestigious co-op in New York City working in an animation studio.
"(Living in New York City) really changed me, and opened my eyes to a few things," Lawson said, noting that every day in the city he saw homeless people living on the street and construction workers waking up early to go to work, all fighting to get by. "I started realizing the human struggle, the everyday suffering that unites us as a people. It made me feel like a part of the world again. (Suffering) is what grounded me."
More importantly, though, Lawson said he had an experience one day at St. Patrick’s Cathedral that strongly affected the way he saw his faith. As he stood at that church in front of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he said he felt a profound sense of peace.
"I experienced a little bit of the Blessed Mother’s love. It was this intense maternal love," Lawson remarked. "Even with all my philosophies, it was something I couldn’t deny. It was the most real experience I’ve ever had."
After this experience, Lawson began to learn about the Catholic Church by reading stories of the saints.
"I wanted to live my faith now," he said. "I was fired up!"
Lawson said he gave up his dream of being an animator, believing that God had other plans for him. He now works for Station of the Cross Catholic Radio, 1460 AM in Rochester, spreading his story and his message to listeners.
Coffeehouse participant David Hebding, 25, said he found Lawson’s talk "pretty relevant. I think everybody kind of goes through that at college."
Maranda Skolen, who organized the coffeehouse, agreed.
"I thought it was really inspiring," she said of Lawson’s story. "Hopefully it will encourage (young adults) to stay true to their faith."