Starting this month, To Reconcile All Things will feature a monthly post from a young adult in the Diocese of Des Moines sharing their story of faith. Through these witnesses to God’s movement in their lives, we hope you are able to see more clearly how God is moving in yours.
I was alone and in the dark, but felt warm, safe, and comfortable with the distant noises which somehow seemed familiar. Suddenly a flash of light and lots of noise, followed by the most beautiful smile you could ever imagine. We all have that one smile we can envision anytime and mine was my mother’s, experienced right away at the beginning of my story.
IN THE BEGINNING
My name is Benjamin Cohen and I am part of the Diocese of Des Moines, particularly through involvement in my amazing community at St. Augustin Parish. Like you, my faith has a story, and I’m happy to share it with you here.
I was raised in a small rural town in southern Iowa, blessed with a loving mother and father who both worked hard to make sure I wouldn’t have to worry about much outside of regular kid things even when times were tough. My mother was Catholic and my father Jewish. Growing up I never thought twice about the difference in their faith and my aunt always told me my mom just had a thing for the Old Testament. I learned a lot about the Old Testament and Jewish traditions filled with beautiful holidays and delicious food.
My four siblings and I were raised Catholic and my mom was a huge influence in our education as she lived her faith out every single day. We were involved in our parish, went to Religious Ed every Wednesday, and served often as altar servers. I can remember loving church with a passion because my mom made it so much fun. I remember playing priest when I was really young in this beautiful chapel my mother built in our house. It brought a smile so memorable to her face, like it would for any good Catholic mother who thinks their son might one day serve the lord in such a special way.
SMILE & SUFFERING
I think it’s important at this point to go back to the beginning: to that smile I led off with, because it played such an important part in my faith journey. My mother Marilisa’s smile impacted so many lives: love beamed from her actions, her words, and of course her goofy songs she blessed the world with.
When I was very young my dad called my siblings and I into his room and let us know that Mom had breast cancer. This was of course a shock and affected all of us in different ways for a long time after. But it certainly didn’t stop her from loving us, loving Christ, and showing her community what it looks like to be joyful in suffering. She never stopped serving with a smile—with that smile.
My faith in the Lord was present through and because of the love my mother showed us every day with that smile. I can remember her losing her hair but always having fun with it by letting my brother and I shock her friends when we would grab her wigs off all of a sudden in public. I remember sitting next to her in Mass and leaning into her swollen arm, which probably caused her pain but she never mentioned it: she just loved me and pointed me towards Christ in front of me.
The year I was to be Confirmed I went on retreat to Conception Abbey. There I received a handwritten letter, so very special because with her arm swollen from being sick, she must have spent a long time writing it left-handed.
My mom passed away shortly after this retreat. I was there in the hospital at the age of 12 watching her use her last moments with us trying to love us and let us know it would be ok. I can remember her saying she was never afraid of death, only dying, and that she knew she would be going home. She still went to Church up until the end, to pray for one more day with her kids.
Life seemed to halt. It didn’t make sense that she would leave us so early. This was a pivotal point in my story because everyone in my family reacted differently. One thing that forever stuck with me, though, was seeing how our community in the Church responded out of love for Marilisa and our family. My dad, committed to his promise to continue our education in our Catholic faith, did exactly that. He went to Mass with us, answered our questions, and worked hard to continue providing a life where we didn’t have to worry much. I could see his heart was broken, as were mine and my sibling’s, unsure of how to continue on—but we did. I was still at Church, still going to Religious Ed, and still involved in a youth group community. My faith was there, but something was missing.
It was her smile. I had put so much of my faith in my mom and her faith. The way she loved the Lord was the way I loved the Lord, and all of sudden she wasn’t there to model that for me anymore, and after high school I went searching for her smile in all the wrong places.
Relationships are key in all our lives. I had been hurt and had hurt others, others allowing myself to think ‘If I’m with this or that person, my faith will grow stronger’. This didn’t last, and the perceived freedoms of college life led me down a path of dissatisfaction, lost in self-searching.
The summer after my freshman year was an important one in my faith journey. I had gotten a job working for a Christian summer camp where all summer long, people talked to me about my relationship with Jesus. I realized that I had not been putting in the effort to get to actually know Jesus, I was only going through the motions, and looking back now it’s obvious why I felt so empty—there wasn’t a relationship in my faith.
Over the next 3 years I went back and forth, trying to figure out how to keep this relationship while away from camp. You see, it’s easy to be strong in the faith surrounded by other believers. At camp I would always talk about going back to the “real world” and because of this I still didn’t have a constant connection to Christ. It was like filling up your car, driving half a tank away, and then going all the way back to get more Jesus—I wasn’t actually going anywhere in the long run. Faith wasn’t mixed into my everyday life, which made it just feel like the faith I had as a child: a faith that lived only through my relationship with my mother, instead of being my own. I was still looking for that smile in all the wrong places, and after that third year I knew I had to put Christ first.
HEALING & RECONCILIATION
I remember going to Reconciliation at St. Stephen the Witness in Cedar Falls. It had been soooo long since I’d last gone to confession, and I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go now, but something inside me was screaming ‘Just go!’. Fr. Ken made an appointment with me later that week and I remember being incredibly nervous.
I thought back to the times I had gone at my home parish during Religious Ed: waiting in line, being impatient, wondering how many sins someone could actually commit—what was taking so long, and why did so many people come out crying? With all my concerns and worries, though, I knew I still needed to go and try.
It took a long time to let it all out. A lot piles up when you don’t bring it to the Lord for so long, and something so strange happened inside that confessional in Cedar Falls: I couldn’t stop smiling at the end as we were talking about some of the things I could do to continue growing in the faith. It was an unexplainable lift of pressure and satisfaction having reconciled my relationship with Jesus, knowing I was forgiven, that no matter how far off the path I thought I was, he was right there pursuing me and welcoming me back in.
After this I knew things needed to change, because I didn’t want to ever have so much build up between me and God again. I knew the Holy Spirit would keep working in me and through me and I wanted nothing else. I had decided I wasn’t going to be a priest, and was in a relationship in which for the first time I was going to include Christ more actively than ever before. We prayed together, went to church together (sometimes Mass and sometimes her church), and things seemed to be going well.
My senior year I decided I needed to change up what I did with my summers. I took an internship at a place called Wildwood Hills Ranch, and this turned out to be a tremendous pivot in how I let the Lord lead my life. That summer I worked with youth who have been through abuse, neglect, and impoverishment. I couldn’t quite relate to a lot of the stories around me but I remember being so happy to be serving the Kingdom. That summer I asked God to never give up on me and to allow me to serve these children with as much love as possible. I had been praying that God would take the lead and put me wherever he needed me most each day. Friends, it’s such a powerful prayer when you ask God to help you grow and change; you better expect things to start moving.
In fact, a lot of things changed that summer. My relationship with someone I loved dearly came to an end, and I found an amazing calling that filled my heart: continuing to serve youth by walking with them in the faith at the Ranch full-time. Transformed, I remember being dumbfounded that God wanted to take the time to work on me, love me, and show me how to change. I was surrounded by those who desperately needed His love, and God still made me a priority.
It was after that summer I realized I wanted to wake up every day and get to use the gifts God has blessed me with to serve Him and to continue making my relationship with Him my number one priority. I now get to work with the best team in the world at Wildwood Hills Ranch, who continually remind me that the greatest thing we can bring to any table, any team, any community is our personal relationship with Christ. I am blessed to now get to use that in my young adult community in Des Moines as well, and in my Parish at St. Augustin leading Youth Ministry events and engaging the young adult community there. I will always love sharing the Love of God to youth and will never forget the Christ-like smile of my mother that got me here.
Benjamin Cohen believes God has called him to the life of serving others. He studied at the University of Northern Iowa, and serves now both as the Youth Development Director at Wildwood Hills Ranch and as Youth Minister at St. Augustin Parish in Des Moines. He feels very blessed to have been given the gift of humor and weirdness to best serve the Kingdom in the glorious vocation God has called him to!