By my third year in seminary, I thought there was something wrong with me.
I was depressed. I spent my Friday nights in my room watching the O.C. or LOST, pining after the experience of family that I saw in those stories. I was addicted to porn.
My formation director saw my habits as symptomatic of disease - he arranged for me to be put on ADD meds. But I suspected that the problem went deeper.
I had volunteered myself for seminary on the last day of a Steubenville retreat in high school. The open community that developed at that retreat undid me. I crowd surfed at a punk rock concert during lunch, got confession from a friar with a gigantic beard, exchanged free hugs with the people outside the entrances, joined an impromptu dance circle in the cafeteria, and shared tears on the bus with a cheerleader from my high school who opened up to us about her parents divorce.
Heaven is free hugs.
To me, this was a taste of heaven, a utopian vision of love. It was a place where the social rules of my high school were inverted, where everyone acted like members of a family, even with strangers. I dreamed that all the passion and community, love and joy that I saw on a retreat would be characteristic of the seminary, where people were most passionate about God.
Seminary was more like having 176 brothers all competing for a single father’s blessing.
I grew through spiritual direction and formation, but my chaotic creative personality didn’t fit the ideal Germanic model of masculinity that our rector was shooting for. We had a mutual break-up during my fourth year of undergrad, and I left deeply disillusioned. I now carried a deep skepticism about the promises of God that I had seen at the Stuebenville retreat. Those promises of belonging, freedom, people dwelling together in intimacy and vulnerability, now seemed more like a trick of good programming. In this world, at the end of the day, everyone is really just out for themselves.
During the following years I worked in ministry, but couldn’t coax myself to join any Catholic young adult communities. I didn’t want to have to hide the fact that I did yoga in the mornings or listened to NPR. Deep down, I honestly had lost my dream for the utopic Catholic community I saw at that Steubenville conference. I kept my distance, instead making friends in the Dallas start-up circles.
That is, until I found Edmund Mitchell’s facebook profile.
I had heard there was a new Youth Minister in town and that he was bringing out Audrey Assad for a concert right in my backyard. I fell in friend love at first Facebook stalk. He had posted a song from Sufjan Stevens and something about This American Life. I paced around the narthex of my church trying to work up the nerve to call his church office and ask him to coffee. When I finally worked up the nerve, he said yes.
The following week he showed up to Starbucks with killer sunglasses and a high-and-tight to make Ryan Gosling jealous. Nic Gutierrez (of Sunday Psalm) joined him. We talked about home-brewing beer, podcasts, our ideas for businesses, how important it was that our churches get better at design. Our breakfasts became a regular thing.
Two months later, between bacon strips, we were wistfully ideating about a Catholic Conference that we would actually want to attend, when something strange happened.
I found a dream that I thought had died during those lonely nights in seminary, whispering once again in my ear.
“At this conference, religious orders bring their home brews and we have a brewing contest.”
“There is a makers market with all these crafty people making cool catholic art.”
“We give everyone little stamped booklets for them to take notes.” (that one was Edmund).
Then, caught up in the giddiness of ideas, I blurted out with the enthusiasm of a ten year old boy,
“Then we all decide to move into a neighborhood together
and make a community.”
The CC Summit Dream
Where monk-made beer flows like manna from heaven
This, of course was the beginning of Catholic Creatives. But it was also the beginning of a long and painful journey that God has called Marcellino and I to walk. We were dreaming of community - of friendships that were open, that lasted, that didn’t just come together for a conference and then go away. As as we started working towards that community though, our original team of ideators and dreamers started to dissolve.
An epic team, all trying to do good, torn apart by life.
Like in that one movie.
Nic had to stop coming to the breakfasts (though he remained very supportive). We added a new designer to the group, a bad-ass, high-powered woman who cared about the same things we did. But after the initial joy of becoming friends, and as Catholic Creatives started to really grow, our relationships became complex. Eventually the breakfasts stopped and Marcellino and myself were alone in our dreaming once again.
I thought that would be the end for CC and for my dream for community… but somehow it wasn’t. Somehow, Marcellino and I were able to defy our fears just long enough to put out ticket sales for the first CC Summit. Then there was no turning back. The original team wasn’t able to assemble for it, but somehow a small crew of incredible people volunteered their time to make it happen and 100 internet strangers took the leap to trust us & each other for a mystery box weekend.
That first night before the first Summit I stayed up all night in my Airbnb in Dallas, terrified. They were all here… and they aren’t going to like me… they weren’t going to like each other… it was going to be like seminary all over again. That next morning, I showed up strung-out to the conference, an anxious wreck. Then my idols and heroes started sitting down in front of me, and I was supposed to say something.
I stood in front of 100 faces composing my greatest fear and deepest hope, and, at a loss for words, I sang the doxology about an octave higher than any man should sing.
Pictured… Anthony about to sing the doxology in the style of Queen.
The room erupted into the most unbelievable polyphony I have ever heard in my life. A hundred voices raised a song of hope into the atmosphere, a song of “we’re here, we’re with you.”
Friendships I made there were as deep as it gets - and even stranger, they didn’t go away after the conference.
I’d like to say that this was when I started to trust God with the dream for community again. But the truth is, that has been a gradual, almost invisible growth of vision for me.
At every juncture, the fundraising for 8beats, the second Summit, and even now, as we prepare to share our new vision, that old fear would return.
The fear is this: that we are supposed to be a new family.
We are supposed to come together across our crazy differences, and pray to our Father - that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. But when it comes down to it, it’s easier to believe that the twisted trials of earth will beat heaven every time. Every time I’ve posted a post-it to a wall during one of our events, it’s been an act of desperate rebellion against the fear that the dealer always wins, that the Church will always be this broken, and that how things have always been is how they will always be.
The week after the 2018 CC Summit, I was in a comatose state, driving across Dallas-Fort Worth to help Augusta unpack the two U-hauls worth of decor into her shed. I watched the September sky turn into a pale tangerine, as I listened to the episode of Catching Foxes where Luke talks about his experience at the CC Summit (“Luke Gets Catholicy Creative”). In it Luke asks Gomer, “I wonder if life shouldn’t be a little more like that all the time though- like the retreat high. Maybe we don’t have to always come down from that. I am thinking now, maybe we don’t always have to feel so alone.”
And Gomer in an almost shocked voice said “Ok?” My perceived subtext: what the hell did they do with my friend?
I laughed out loud in the car, and then broke down into a slobbering mess...
I teared up because I could hear in their two voices the two parts of myself that have fought since my cold nights in seminary: Luke’s “naive” hope for family, and Gomer’s skepticism: the voice of someone who has fished all night and caught nothing, fighting back as if to say, “Don’t try to make me dream that dream again. It hurts too much.”
I wanted to call Gomer after and just say, “I know. Me too.” I know.
We’ve all tried. We’ve poured countless dreams into relationships that looked like love but ultimately broke up. We were pulled into the wakes of contagious priests or bishops who turned out to be toxic. We over-committed our time and money on projects for churches or ministries that burned us.
When someone else tells us to throw our nets out, how could we possibly believe in our dreams again?
I don’t have the answers for how to keep our hopes alive. I’ve been a reluctant prophet for it the whole time: a Jonah who simply couldn’t get away and who never expected to be successful. I am terrified of raising a banner for the Catholic Creatives cul-du-sac, the family of broken but hopeful siblings, offering free hugs, impromptu dance circles, and home-brewed beer to each other on their mutual pilgrimage through this veil of tears.
But what I can say is that friendship heals.
It has healed me. When I was the deepest skeptic, I needed a friend who could understand me to thaw out my dream. And now— I run an agency with people that I met at the first CC meetup - people who understand my fears and dreams and who call me on everyday to be a better man and son of the Father. The other day, I got off the phone with someone in the Church, who I wildly respect, who let me know that he just dedicated hundreds of thousands of dollars to award to creatives in our community for to help them bring their ideas and dreams to fruition.
So many of the dreams that I thought were too impossible, too naive, too far-fetched are manifesting into truth - a truth of God’s love for us, and for every person who has journeyed fought for the hope that beauty can save the world.
So if the vision of a neighborhood of artisans, start-up owners, and religious specializing in beer brewing feels impossible and far-fetched, that’s OK. If you are struggling with believing that our children could grow up with truly beautifully told stories of saints, going to Churches with gorgeous music, lead by pastors who aren’t burnt out - I understand what that feels like.
I’m still working on my belief for the dream of a wholehearted, thriving body of Christ.
If you want to call bullshit on the hope in a church where Catholics actually take care of each other - that someday you won’t have to always watch your back in business deals with other Catholics,
I get it.
But the quiet growth of friendships, through late night beers, inside jokes, collaborations - into the catastrophic pitfalls, and back into forgiveness... that is powerful. Perhaps we can start by just believing in that, and then putting one foot in front of the other towards each other.
Thank you all for the healing that you have worked in my life. Thank you for your friendships and for adding your hopes to mine, for working so hard at not being like a bunch of sibling rivals competing for a father’s love.
Thank you for testifying to me with your lives that God’s love is enough, and that the body of Christ truly can be a new family.
Thank you for the dance circles, for the tears you’ve shed with each other and me. Thank you for lifting your glasses and for rolling up your sleeves to stay in community with each other, even when it's hard. Thank you, for being my friends.
At the second CC Summit, I invited Nic and Edmund to the stage to thank them for the role they played in founding this movement. Nic approached me afterwards and said, “you know, back at those breakfasts, when you talked about that whole neighborhood of artisans thing… I didn’t come on board because I just couldn’t see it then. But here, now… I see it. I see it man.”
Co-Founder of Catholic Creatives