BY DOMINICK WONG
I’m sorry for making your name visible to everyone who follows this scrappy, little, Christian magazine… but I couldn’t resist the opportunity to publicly embarrass you (winky face).
This letter is being written a week from your first day at Cal and, honestly, I envy you and the boatloads of jittery excitement that just drip off of every text asking: “do you think I need three binders or one?”, “is sixteen units too many?”, “what if I don’t have enough time to walk to my next class?”
As you know, I’m speaking here from the opposite side of the college experience. Having just graduated, my feelings towards the future are characterized less by excitement than they are by… dread, haha. Four years (give or take) at the, “Number One Public University in the World Go Bears!” hasn’t afforded me any greater certainty of what I’m supposed to do with my life.
So believe me when I tell you that, in many ways, I feel no better off than you for having completed my college education. And yet, I have confidence that God has brought me to this university for a reason; that He has used this crazy crazy place to grow me in ways that might, in turn, inform your growth.Standing where you are now, my head was filled to the brim with expectations. This was my first time living away from home. A clean break from everything I’d known in my, then, eighteen years of existence. I had been told that my time at Cal would make up my formative years; that I’d find out what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, who I wanted to be. And so, my first year at Cal was spent in a broad search for the answers to these questions, for a greater understanding of my identity.
In your time at Cal, you’ll most likely find that one of the most popular methods of defining personal identity here takes place, ironically, by way of group affiliation. I was no exception to this trend. During those first few months I found myself floating in and around, through and between, a hodgepodge of Berkeley’s many vibrant communities.
I became obsessed with hunting down that one mythic group of like-minded individuals with whom I could identify. From highbrow academics, to dedicated humanitarians, to impassioned Leftists, to weekend hobbyists; I discovered that if I was even remotely interested in something, someone else at Berkeley was too. Having been raised in our overtly religious household of Wongs, a good chunk of these groups happened to be Christian as well.
In fact, in short time, my experience with the Christian community at Cal came to dominate that early process of self-discovery, and it’s not hard to see why. In the place where I least expected to find anything of the sort, I came face to face with the most vibrant, diverse, and passionate body of believers I had ever encountered.
I remember being surprised by the dozens of Christian organizations flyering on Sproul that first welcome week. I vividly recall a very visceral sense of amazement at the sheer number of the many churches and fellowships worshipping together at Cal’s annual “Jesus in Berkeley?” event (which you should definitely go to). And I won’t forget that paralyzing sense of being overwhelmed by the abundance of options in choosing a Christian community. You’ll get to know this feeling all too intimately as you become more and more acquainted with those odd, itinerant practices of “Church-hopping” and “Fellowshopping.”
I spent the better part of my first year in this lonely process of searching. I would find a group, stay there for a couple weeks, and then, as the flaws and imperfections of these very human communities of believers inevitably made themselves apparent, I would leave. I worked my way through a great many churches and fellowships of various flavors and styles, and, eventually, gave up hope altogether. Nothing seemed to fit. Perhaps, the Christian community was just not for me.
Then, in the summer after my first year, I encountered God in a much more real way than I had ever experienced. On what was supposed to be an ordinary stroll around the city, God met me, first by letting me get hopelessly lost, and then by beating down my stubborn, selfishly selfish self until, at 10pm at night, I asked Him to take the lead and guide me back home.
The memory of that singular event has stuck with me to this day. College had been, so far, a disorienting experience that left me feeling lost in the same way that I did that night. My quest to find a group, to define my identity by way of other people, had revealed just how empty of an approach I had undertaken.
I was not wrong in my initial assumption. College is, indeed, a very distinct time during which you will discover a great many things about yourself. What I did not know, though, was that, as children of God, self-discovery rests not so much in figuring out where we belong, who we want to be, or what we want to do, but in finding out who we are in relation to God and what he made us to be.
So, if I may, I’ll leave you with a word of advice: keep God in the center of your life.
“Yes, I already know this, Dominick, stop being cliched.” But I assure you, this is no small task. It is stupid easy to lose sight of God in Berkeley. The people of this city have set up idols of success, both academic and professional, that will demand sacrifices of you, your time, and your heart. No matter what your classmates say, no matter what the world around you seems to be doing, do not let school, or jobs, or friends, or accomplishments, or even church define who you are. Give that right to God and God alone. Stay grounded in His word; keep His promises in your heart and you’ll be just fine.
We’ll be praying for you,
Dominick Wong is a recent Cal grad and staff writer for To An Unknown God.