I’m not here to tell you how to be a good Christian, because I’m not one.
My name is Paco Abiad, and I’m a first-year who went to Core Group on a whim one night with a friend, and had my life turned around forever.
I can’t tell you how I’ve always dreamt of coming to UVa, or how I’ve been waiting for the chance to join a Christian fellowship, because that’s not the truth. Until April of this year, I didn’t even know that I wanted to come here. But here I am. Let me tell you my story.
Like every average Filipino, my roots are in the Catholic Church. I was baptized, received the Eucharist, and confirmed before I even knew what it felt like to talk to God. I still have yet to experience that. For 18 years, I had faith. But that wasn’t my faith; it was more like my family’s. If faith is supposed to come from within, why was it thrust on me from someone else? Most of my life has been spent not knowing what it’s like to believe in God, but knowing what it felt like to sit through Mass every Sunday morning.
Like my faith, my life was pretty much planned out by someone other than myself. The plan for UVa was simple: work hard, get good grades, don’t get distracted, and build your resume for medical school. These were my parents’ directions for me as I headed off to college. They told me, “Don’t do that thing you do where you get passionate about something meaningless and let it take you away from what you need to do.” Student government was not supposed to be part of my life. Neither was joining a Christian fellowship that sounds like a fraternity. Yet here I am.
I didn’t realize it at first, but Chi Alpha is the reason I am here at this University. On April 17th, 2015, I stepped onto Grounds for the first time as an accepted student for Days on the Lawn. I would spend the night with a first-year host by the name of Kunrui Peng who would show me what life is like here. He ended up taking me all over Charlottesville in one night, changing the course of my life forever. We went downtown that night to the Tom Tom music festival, toured the Corner, ate Qdoba at 1:30 in the morning, and watched as his friends streaked the Lawn. We ended the night back at Kellogg in his room, where we had a spontaneous talk about Jesus. This random man who had never met me before didn’t just let me see into his life, he made me a part of it. I went home the next morning and committed to UVa with no hesitation. This one night with a stranger and all of his friends had somehow made what previously been a dilemma a no-brainer. To those people who are still close to my heart, thank you for an unforgettable night.
My best friend once said, “Chi Alpha people just have this radiance about them.” He couldn’t be more right. Sure, they reach out to all incoming first years in hopes of getting you to join them, but even if you say you aren’t even Christian, they still act the same. You’re all so kind, so genuine, and so caring.
I met a person at Orientation who would later become a friend of mine. Before we moved in, she talked to me about being a Christian at UVa, and if I wanted to join Chi Alpha like her and her older sister. I chuckled at her and shook my head, saying, “All of my upperclassmen friends at UVa are in Chi Alpha, but I don’t think I’ll join. Jesus isn’t really my thing.” I thought that since I already had these friends, I didn’t have to join their organization in order to keep seeing them. I thought I was different. I wasn’t a Jesus lover. I thought I didn’t belong in Chi Alpha.
I went to the famous Mug Party the first Saturday night of college. I wish I’d stayed longer, because the people were so nice, so welcoming, and there were so many free mugs to choose from! But the whole time I was there, all I could think about was the next on the agenda for the night: Block Party. Honestly, I wasn’t too excited to go, but I felt like “going out” and getting “hammered” were just acquired tastes. Everyone else seemed to be having so much fun at it, so why not me? I could have fun, too. I didn’t want to feel left out, so I tried out the frat scene.
Block Party was the worst part of my first weekend of college: every bodily fluid possible on the ground, beer that tasted like water, waiting in line just to get into an already crowded house, and practically having to rub against all these drunk strangers who are either laughing, crying, dancing, or passed out. As hard as I tried, something just wasn’t right with this scene. I was a puzzle piece that didn’t know if there was even a place for me to fit into.
Every first-year, regardless of how happy they might seem or comfortable they are with other people, is looking for one thing: their niche. A place to call home, a group of people to become your friends, somewhere that would be welcoming at all times. I didn’t know where that was. I didn’t even know where to start looking. I didn’t fit in with Chi Alpha, the Christian fellowship that sounded like a fraternity. I didn’t have the mindset to be a frat boy. The problem with being so social and well-rounded is that you’re pulled in all every which direction, but you don’t have that one core group, the epicenter of your life, your safe haven. I was already so lost at this point, and it had only been a week into college.
On the second week, I decided to try out Chi Alpha’s version of Block Party, hoping that maybe this scene might work. I met up with my one friend from orientation (she made us very late) and also ran into a buddy of mine who I’d had breakfast with. In my phone, he made his contact information “Nate the Breakfast Kid”. Together, the three of us had an awesome time, meeting new people, lighting up sparklers and singing, “The Only Exception” and having way too much Cheerwine. It started getting late, and we were far from our dorms. Nate said, “Hold on, I got us a ride.” He disappeared momentarily and brought back a 3rd year by the name of Caleb, who said he’d give us all a ride. Despite the possibly sketchy circumstances, I didn’t hesitate to jump into the trunk of this guy’s CR-V.
It was a fun night, a vast improvement from last weekend. Classes started soon after, and I lost myself in trying to navigate my way to classes, meeting even more people, while still trying to find my niche. On Wednesday night, I texted Nate, “Hey dude, want to grab dinner?” He told me yes, but it would be with this thing called Core Group with other guys in Chi Alpha. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, and I had no idea what a Core Group even was. But I was looking for something, anything, so I said why not. Truth be told, I walked into Ohill Dining Hall that night to find Caleb, the same stranger from before whose trunk I’d willingly jumped into. Now he was a Core Group Leader, along with two other guys, Brian Nguyen and Ben Casillo. Nate was there, but I was surrounded by guys that I didn’t know at all. I wasn’t sure what to do. After dinner, we went back to the place where Block Party had been and did a Bible study in the house called the Benji. I hadn’t touched a Bible since I was 14. So reading verses, discussing God’s word, was a very new and very weird thing for me. I remember when Caleb said, “Open up to John Book 1”, I watched as everyone around me grabbed a Bible and somehow knew what exact page to go to. Me, on the other hand, checked to see if Bibles had a table of contents. Or a “Control F” function.
Chi Alpha forced me out of my comfort zone, and also welcomed me back to a home that I didn’t know I had.
The week after my first core group session, I went to Monday Night Live for the first time. The energy, the passion, the music, the singing, the Christian rap…? It was so new to me. Never before had I been so thrilled to be dong something for Church. For the first time, people around me were so excited to do church things. And on a Monday night? The thought of it all nearly blew my mind. Because I’m a notoriously bad singer, I was never one to sing at Mass. I followed the rhythm, tapped to the beat, and on a really good day, I’d hum half a verse. But now I was singing alongside my core group, joining in the song rather than taking a back seat.
As all of Chi Alpha came together to worship, people closed their eyes and sang their hearts out. Nate was right next to me that night, and watching him lose himself in the moment was truly something. In the middle of a song, he nearly knocked me out, spontaneously throwing his arms up in praise. I was so confused, was this part of the song? Why were so many people singing, eyes closed, arms raised as if they were Jesus on the cross? It was then that I realized that this was the power of God. These people weren’t acting; this wasn’t some show. Nate and the rest of these students were literally being moved by their love for God, and singing in worship made them so happy. I wanted to be like that so badly. But inside, I knew that if I copied Nate, that would be all it was: copying. I’d be continuing to fake my faith, and that was something that I didn’t want.
I made a promise to myself to only move the way they do when I could actually feel something moving me to. Every week, I did a little bit more than the last time. At my second MNL, I managed to start by placing my hand on my heart as I sang out to Jesus. The next week, I held up both palms facing skyward, ready to feel the Lord a little bit more. I didn’t feel anything the next week, though, so I didn’t try anything new. Everyone goes on this walk of faith at his own pace. Mine was apparently at turtle speed, and that infuriated me for the longest time.
As luck would have it, Pete, the UVa campus pastor, spoke during MNL about how maybe it’s good that my walk is slow. Looking at Mark 4 together, we read the parable of the farmer spreading his seed. Some seeds are scattered on the road, and quickly eaten up by the birds. Other seeds fall on rocky ground. They spring up suddenly and impatiently, because they don’t have deep roots. But when the sun comes out, it scorches these seeds and they wither without bearing fruit.
Without knowing it, Pete had just called me out. At the moment, I was one of those seeds without deep roots. I had a little panic attack from the accuracy that Pete was describing my feelings, as if he knew what was going on in my head and heart better than I did myself. I was scared. I didn’t want to be scorched. I didn’t want to wither away. For the first time in my life, faith was something that I wanted, and I wanted it so badly. So maybe it was good that I wasn’t able to throw my hands up like Nate was. Maybe it was God’s way of making sure I really grew some seriously deep roots.
It’s easy to get a Jesus High from MNL. It’s a real thing, I swear. After every MNL that I’ve gone to, I come out emotional, happy, and just so inspired to embrace anything that comes my way. I’m a huge fan of hugs, so if you ever talk to me after MNL, you’re guaranteed to be wrapped up in an embrace.
Getting the Jesus High is super easy, and super cheap, too. You just have to show up every Monday night. The hard part is not letting the Jesus High die out the next morning.
It’s not enough to be faithful for one, maybe two days a week. I wasn’t even at that level before I came to UVA. I had lost my relationship with God. Now here I was, trying to be a consistent Christian. But what was that supposed to mean? I had so many questions, no real answers, and still hadn’t “experienced” God’s touch.
During a core group later that semester, Caleb asked me if I wanted to come on the Chi Alpha Fall Retreat. At first my answer was no. Immediately I thought of the work that I would have on a normal weekend, and my mind came up with a million excuses not to go: Money, time, permission from parents to go away, anything to keep me from going. I said I didn’t have enough time to spend a weekend with God. But then I realized that I was just making excuses. The thought of a Christian retreat actually kind of scared me. At the time, I still didn’t feel Christian enough to belong at an event like that. To my core group leaders’ credit, I wound up accompanying the Young Guns to the Pine Creek Camp.
I’d heard stories of how people’s lives had been changed at Fall Retreat. Instances where God comes down and touches your shoulder and you suddenly realize that you’re His child. He speaks to you at Fall Retreat. Well, that didn’t really happen for me. After retreat, I realized that I still have so much more to go in my walk. The progress I’ve made so far to this point was minimal.
Although Fall Retreat was a really fun time for me, spiritually, it was also a very challenging weekend. Some things come easily to me, like playing Gaga Ball with Pete late at night. But things like prayer sessions bewildered me. I realized that I still don’t know what it’s like to pray. I absolutely suck at praying, so how could I call myself a Christian? I still had so many doubts, so many unanswered questions.
I shared my troubles with my core group and my leaders one night, and afterwards my leaders took me aside to talk me through it. And although they tried their very best, I still doubted my faith and God as my core leaders gave me advice. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that God touched people sometimes, as they prayed, as they sang, and especially when people come up during worship with messages from God.
Maybe it was because I was jealous. I was jealous of my brothers who could pray so beautifully out loud, jealous of sisters who would give up anything to help another human being, jealous of Christians who could talk the talk and walk the walk. I’m often told that comparing ourselves to others is one of the greatest sins we can commit. But it’s also the easiest thing to do in this world.
As hard as I tried, I couldn’t figure out how genuine my own acts of Christ were, and I was ashamed of that. Did I really feel moved by God as I worship danced? When will I know that I’m 100% for real in my actions? When will the acting stop? How do I become a Christian with no artificial flavoring?
I wish I could tell you that I’ve found all the answers I was looking for. But to be honest, I still have lots of questions. I realized, though, that that’s okay. It’s just proof that I will continue to grow as time goes on. I’m not a perfect Christian. I probably never will be, but I can do my best regardless to continue my walk of Christ. I made the decision to turn down my hall-mate’s offer to party and relax in Puerto Rico this Spring Break in order to sign up for my first missions trip. The thought of going to Atlanta (also known as Hotlanta) excites me every time that I think about it. I pray that all goes well. How can it not, though? I’m with Chi Alpha now.
Without Chi Alpha, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I am so grateful to be at this university, to be a Young Gun, to be in Chi Alpha, and to be a Child of God. I have been uprooted, and the journey isn’t over yet. Your Jesus High should be felt all the time, not just after MNL. It’s going to be a long haul, but I’ve finally found the place where I belong. Don’t ever think that you don’t have time for God, because He never left you when you thought you walked out on Him.