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Catholic, Jew, Mormon – Gen Z San Diegans deeper than you would imagine

Three in their 20s tell why they left the nones

During his sophomore year of college, Cameron Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations.
During his sophomore year of college, Cameron Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations.

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z — people born after 1997 and before 2012 — is the least religious generation since people began paying attention to such things. Nearly one third of Gen Zers are unchurched, and 18 percent identify as agnostic or atheist. This news is not shocking. Research consistently finds that each new generation of American adults is less religious than its predecessors. (That same Pew study found 29% of Millennials, 25% of Gen Xers, and 18% of Baby Boomers to be unchurched.)

However, something interesting happened during the pandemic. More people began Googling religious terms, things like “prayer,” “Jesus,” and “God.” Another Pew study in the summer of 2020 discovered that many Americans credited the pandemic with strengthening both their personal religious faith and the faith of those in their communities. Nearly three in ten Americans reported a stronger connection to faith due to the pandemic. Despite getting their doors shut during the lockdown, San Diego’s churches found themselves with new converts, many of them Gen Zs. Here are the stories of three of them.

The Catholic

Cameron Williams found Jesus during the pandemic. “Not because of the pandemic but during,” Williams clarifies over coffee while sitting at a small round table outside of Public Square in La Mesa. He reminds me of a 1950s sitcom character, so much so that when I picture Williams in my mind, he appears in black and white. At 21, he is the oldest of old souls. Here among the trendy coffee house crowd in its Doc Martens and wide-leg jeans, his wholesomeness lends him a unique aura of unworried hipness. Williams rattles on excitedly about his latest adventure: the quest to find the perfect barber shop. “I am trying out a handful of local barbers. It’s been really fun so far,” he explains, his hazel green eyes twinkling below his freshly cut dirty blond hair.

His choice of faith tradition was similarly researched. I imagine some sort of PowerPoint pro and con list was created, sometime after the seed of Christianity began to root in Williams’ mind after his freshmen year of college at Boise State University. Now, two years later, despite having zero prior affiliation with Catholicism, Williams is undergoing the lengthy process of conversion. He explains, “In the movies, you see that college is about getting hammered and all that. That was what my freshmen year was — a lot of empty, meaningless activities, pursuing drinking, girls, that kind of stuff. It did not make me feel good about myself. I was like, ‘Shit; if this is life, I am not a fan! I am not into this!’”

Williams shakes his head, and a look of disgust clouds his normally serene expression. “I would say that [I was at] a low point after my freshmen year of college. And things continued to get worse from there. Overall, I just felt like I did not see a lot of meaning in the world. I was totally self-involved. I was kind of consumed by own misery. Everything felt so fleeting. I was chasing dopamine and empty pleasures. That experience of living a meaningless life for a year started making me think about things more.”

The search for meaning in religion was not exactly a matter of returning to roots: Williams was not raised in a churchgoing home. Religion was not discussed. “My mom was raised Lutheran. I think my dad leans more towards agnostic. Growing up, religion was always kind of in the background. But I had a lot of religious friends, and I went to a preschool at a church. I went to vacation bible school as a kid, but just because one of my buddies went to it and I wanted to hang out with him over the summer. I went to a few youth groups as a senior in high school. I was curious. I just wanted to figure out what it was all about. That [exposure] kind of planted the seed in my head,” he reflects.

Then, during his sophomore year of college, Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations. It was evident that Williams was struggling, so his roommate asked him, “Have you ever considered that maybe there is more to life than just what you have been doing? Maybe there is something greater out in the beyond.” Here, Williams pauses, ruminating. “That kind of hit me in a weird way,” he says. In that moment, Williams felt a strong call to faith. And eventually, he attended Mass with his roommate. The service had a profound effect on him. Still, Williams is not the type to jump into things.

He explains, “I have always felt like there has to be something more to life than just a bunch of atoms and matter bumping around with each other, and that we are just the byproduct of that. Going to Mass and hearing the service really struck a chord. I was like, ‘Okay, this is something I need to start actively pursuing.’ It took me some time, though. If I am going to do something, I am going to do it right. I was not ready to say, ‘I am a Christian.’

"I was not ready to hold myself to those moral standards. It took some time for me to change that. It took me hitting another low point, where I was not doing well academically. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t succeeding. I was actively damaging the lives of those around me, because I looked at myself as though I was hopeless, as though I was doomed. It was a sad thing.”

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Williams recalls a life-changing moment after a particularly rough day. “It was like 3 am, and I was just so tired of everything. I had not prayed before that, but I thought, ‘I am exhausted! I don’t want to feel like this anymore! I just want to see what the right path is.’ I wanted all my doubts to be resolved. I prayed. I just wanted to be able to commit to [Catholicism], but I still had all these reservations. I woke up the next morning and I felt good about it. I didn’t have answers necessarily to all my questions, but I didn’t have doubts anymore. That moment gave me the confidence to really jump headlong into it. It’s been great.”

When it came time to find a particular church, he again wanted to check off all his boxes. But then he realized, “I should go to the one that is most closely tied to my community. The religious aspect of my life can’t be separate from the rest of my life. If I have to drive 30 minutes to go to church, I feel like that would be easy to place in a separate corner.” Cameron pauses before adding, “So far, It’s going well. I have an RCIA meeting tonight.” RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. All adult converts to Catholicism must go through RCIA. The course begins in late summer and runs until after Easter. Converts learn basic Bible studies from a Catholic point of view and Catholic theology and practices.

The Jew

Meanwhile In Salt Lake City, Utah, Courtney Smith also found herself questioning life and matters of faith while away at college. When I meet her at a small coffee shop on Silverado Street in La Jolla, I spot her easily, thanks to the star of David earrings she wears. “I wear these every day,” the 24-year-old Smith says proudly, pushing a wayward natural curl behind her ear. “I worked really hard to be able to wear them. It is my way of letting other Jewish people know, ‘Hey, I am part of the crew.’”

When Courtney Smith was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes she began to feel the heavy weight of her mortality. She turned to religion, and found she was particularly drawn to Judaism.

At the age of 14, her father — who is now deceased — was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Smith began to feel the heavy weight of her mortality. She turned to religion, and began methodically researching different churches. She found she was particularly drawn to Judaism. However, her family was vaguely Christian. She decided that Mormonism was the next best option, believing that it might be a more digestible option for her family to swallow, and that many of its traditions and ideals were similar to those of Judaism. She joined the LDS church and eventually enrolled at BYU.

Six months into her freshmen year at Brigham Young, Smith realized she had made a poor choice. “In order to attend BYU, you need to take religious classes. After a while, I [knew] I didn’t believe what they believed. I have nothing against the [Mormon] church, we just don’t agree. I spent six months actively studying [the Mormon religion], and I would always turn to the Old Testament. Ultimately, I started reading the translation from Jewish sources, like Haggadah. I would sit in my bedroom, reading scripture and trying to make sense of where I was in life. I found myself turning to the Torah, not the Book of Mormon.”

That was Smith’s ah-ha moment, but she worried that there were real Mormons who could take her spot at BYU. So she pretended. Courtney became an undercover Jew. “Since I applied to school as a member of the church, I had to go to church at least 80 percent of the time,” she says. “Any time the bishop would ask my roommates where I was, they would say, ‘Oh, she goes to another ward,’ even though I was just at home. They were really great friends.”

When I point out that practicing Judaism is an interesting form of rebellion, Smith demurs. “I was being what I thought my mother expected me to be. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t being my true self.” Even so, she kept up the ruse until just before her senior year, when she told her mother she would not be going back to BYU. “Oh, and by the way, I am Jewish.”

Recalls Smith, “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I did it for four years! It was exhausting! When I told [my mom], of course she was supportive. She was like, ‘You are my child. This is your life. Do what makes you happy.’” Courtney smiles at the memory, exhales, and, for the first time since we sat down, relaxes her body. She goes on to say that her family took her conversion in stride — mostly. “My sister was not happy. She is a weirdo! I think she was more worried about it being dangerous for me, because I am Black. As a Black person, a woman, and now as a Jewish person, she was like, “Why do you want to join another marginalized group?’”

Despite her newfound identity, it took a near-death experience for Smith to begin the conversion process to Judaism. “Because of my type 1 diabetes, I had a situation where I took too much insulin to correct my eating. My roommates found me, and I woke up to the paramedics. That is the point where I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I should call a rabbi!’ When you come [close to] death, you really start living. I decided from that day on that I was going to live my true self and that was that.”

“How does one begin conversion?’” I ask.

“Do you think I knew what to do?” she retorts with a loud laugh and an exaggerated shrug. “I was like, ‘Let me get on Google!’ I didn’t know. I was hesitant at first. It’s such a process to become [a Jew]. And there are only three rabbis in Utah. That’s it. There is an orthodox, a conservative/reformed, and then there is a reformed. I contacted all of them.” It turned out that the process entailed studying under a rabbi for an entire calendar year and observing all the Jewish holidays. Smith found a rabbi and began her study in Utah. She spent most of the year studying under him until his wife had a baby and he went on maternity leave.

That’s when she moved to San Diego. “I wanted to be close to the ocean. I wanted to be closer to a larger Jewish community. I also wanted to be close to Black people, my ethnic group. In Utah, those two sets of communities do not exist. I got to San Diego on a Monday and went to synagogue on Friday. Now, all my friends are Jewish.” She finished her conversion classes under a rabbi at Beth Israel, San Diego’s largest and oldest Jewish congregation.

“When you convert into Judaism, they want to know that you are ready to join the community. You go to Beit Din. That is where you sit in front of three rabbis. They determine whether you are ready based on what you have studied. They want to know why you want to join the community. They ask you questions. You tell them your story and how you got there.”

Smith was nervous when her time came. If the Rabbis did not approve her, she would need to spend an additional year studying. But she knew that this was where she belonged. “I knew for a long time I was [a Jew} I was just like, ‘Finally, guys! I am here!” After passing her Beit Din, Smith’s female Rabbi performed a Mikveh, which is a fully nude freshwater bath. Her Mikveh took place at sunrise at the Bay on Coronado Island. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life.

The Mormon

Growing up in Cody, Nebraska, Jariah Cogdill was unchurched. By the time she was 15 years old, she had been placed in seven different foster homes, due to neglect stemming from her parents' drug addiction. Three of those foster families belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “My first foster home, when I was about 10 or 11, was in an LDS house. I did not really like it. I did not like the idea of church. It was not my cup of tea. My second home was [LDS]. And then my last one, my seventh home, were LDS members. That was at a time when my life was at its worst. I did not believe there was a God. I did not believe really anything. I was just mad at the world.” Cogdill, now 19, explains all this with a heavy sigh.

We are sitting at a booth near the back entrance at a Panera in East County. She was easy to spot. She was with a companion, as missionaries normally are, and the pair of them looked like stereotypical Mormons: Cogdill wears a long overall-style dress with a short-sleeved striped t-shirt underneath. Her companion, Rachel Huillet, wears a baby blue shirt with a calf length floral skirt. Each has a name tag pinned to her chest. The language below the name is not English. Cogdill explains, “[We were] called last week to be Arabic speaking sisters. We just started learning. When you are called on mission trip, you are called as English speaking, Spanish speaking, or whatever language you are called to speak. Both of us were called to speak English here in San Diego. But we volunteered to learn Arabic to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is so important to us.”

Jariah Cogdill began inviting the LDS missionaries to come to her house to teach lessons. Mom was not thrilled. “She was fine with me meeting with the missionaries, but when the idea of baptism came up, she was very, very, upset.”

Cogdill’s road from an unbeliever to spreading the message of the LDS church was a long one. With many of her foster parents being part of the Mormon church, Cogdill was exposed to the religion early. “In my first two [LDS] member homes, they said, ‘You have to come to church with us because you live with us,’ I did not see the need for it at all. My last foster home gave us the option of attending, but we had to have somewhere to be while they were at church. I did not have very many options, so I just went with them.” She was not a fan of attending these services. She went along with it mostly to show respect to her foster family.

“I was still weary when I first started going [to church].” The oldest sibling in her dysfunctional family, Cogdill acted as a mother to her younger sister. She took this role on in pre-adolescence and still feels responsible for her now-15-year-old sister. “I was like, ‘How do I justify everything that has happened [in my life] and say that was part of God’s plan?’ I didn’t feel like it was. I could not get behind that. I had my own feeling of, ‘Okay, I came from a pretty dark place and now I am coming into gaining my own understanding of things.’ It took a few months for me to even start thinking that God really did have a plan for me. I was like, ‘No, he left me for nothing, to do my own thing.’ I was so alone for so long. But I do think there is a lot of understanding to be gained when we learn more about God and that we need to go through trails to gain our faith and to gain a testimony of these things.”

Cogdill began to take a more active role in the LDS church. She was forming friendships and becoming part of the community. She felt like she had finally found a space where she fit. “I started to really, really, love it. I loved the unity of it, and the fellowship. Through that, I was able to strengthen my testimony on who I am. We believe that we are children of God — that God is our loving heavenly father. For the longest time, I did not believe that. But, as I started learning more about not just the Mormon church, but about who God is and who Jesus Christ is, I really felt like a child of God. I felt like I was loved. There were so many earthly connections that I wasn’t having, like with my parents, but I felt it with my heavenly father, which was a big relief.” Cogdill explains it all so matter-of-factly that I get the sense she has told this story countless times.

When Cogdill and her sister moved back in with their mom from foster care, she found was not ready to let go of the LDS church. She began inviting the LDS missionaries to come to her house to teach lessons. Mom was not thrilled. “She was fine with me meeting with the missionaries, but when the idea of baptism came up, she was very, very, upset. She just didn’t like the church. She said it was fake and blah, blah, blah.” Cogdill explains, her tone akin to that of any exasperated teenager.

“Everyone has their opinions, but I knew the church was true. I knew this was something I wanted. I felt like I had never asked for anything in my life. This was the one thing I felt passionate about. It was the one thing I wanted.” In the end, Cogdill and her little sister were both baptized in the LDS church. Her mom was not happy, but she accepted it. (Her little sister is no longer active.) As a missionary, she has taken on one of the most pious roles an LDS member can hold. Her mission in San Diego is 18 months long. She is 9 months in.

“My extended family on my mom’s side believes [LDS] is a false church. When they found I was going on mission, they were pretty much like, ‘That is wasting your time. You could be getting an education. You could have a job and be earning money.’ That has been pretty hard to take. Even when I decided to go to BYU, I kind of got backlash from that. ‘Oh, you are going to go there? That is kind of weird!’ But I really felt like I should go there, and then later I really felt like I should go on a mission. School can wait. As a convert, I have a really unique prospective. I want to give others the same opportunity I had — to know who they are and why they are here. I find a lot of joy being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have met so many amazing people! I know God has placed me in certain situations that have brought me so much joy. I want to show that to others!”

I can picture Cogdill knocking on an unsuspecting San Diegan’s door, echoing a similar sentiment. I can imagine doors getting slammed in her face, a lot. The idea breaks my heart a little, not because of her message or how wholeheartedly she believes it, but simply because she has overcome so much.

What Drew them In

Unlike Jariah Cogdill, Courtney Smith is not a fan of proselytizing. Smith explains, “What you believe is very personal. It is very individual. I would not want to convince someone that they believe incorrectly or to believe like me. One of the beauties of the [Jewish] culture, or the religion, whatever you want to call it, is that whatever you believe is for you. And what I believe is for me. If you call yourself a Jew, you are part of the community. There is no proselytizing! Not only is there no proselytizing, but I can question everything, and nobody bats and eye.

"It is encouraged to wrestle with Torah. That is what “Israel” means: the one that wrestles with God. You are encouraged to ask questions and challenge the text. I appreciate that tradition.” Another big part of her decision to convert to Judaism was for her future children. “I did it more for them than for me. My plan is to raise Jewish children that are welcomed into this community and are proud to be both Back and Jewish. It’s very cool to be Jewish. It’s a very beautiful thing to be. I think the 14-year-old me would be proud of me that I finally did it!” Smith says this with an air of complete and utter confidence.

As for Cameron Williams, he lists off the main factors that drew him to Catholicism in numerical order. “I would say I choose Catholicism for three different reasons. Firstly, I listened to a lot of debates and read a lot about the justification for the Catholic church. I found it more convincing than anything else. I found those arguments the most compelling. That was my logical reason for the choice. The second reason I would say is community. Right now, community is really undervalued. Everything is all about the individual. It is like the only thing that matters is you, and your happiness. That doesn’t seem quite right. When all I cared about was me, I was miserable. I want to be in a group of people that care about other people, people who are actively trying to make other people’s lives better. Who doesn’t want to be in a group of people like that? I want to make myself better and my community better and not just like the church community, but my general area better. That is a huge draw for me.

"The third reason I chose Catholicism was its aspect of mysticism. I think it is incredibly important to romanticize your life. If I just look at my life as inertia, I can’t live my life in a way that is meaningful. If I can look at my life as an adventure, where I am tasked with learning and overcoming, that is something that gets me excited to wake up in the morning. The Catholic Church has that sense of mysticism that I did not find anywhere else. I felt a calling to be something greater than I am there. It is all about the acceptance and love, but it is also this idea that you are not perfect, and you will never be perfect but there is an ideal to strive for. Starting to strive for an ideal is so exciting. The fact that I have accepted that I am never going to reach that ideal is almost comforting in a way. I know I am not going to get there, but I can get as close as possible. If I can be kind and loving and charitable and virtuous to the best of my capability, I mean, that is incredible!”

Jariah Cogdill breaks down her faith in the simplest of terms: “One of my first memories of going to church was with my first foster family. I had a sour attitude that day. I did not want to be there. I was wearing a blouse and skirt that my foster mom made for me. She was kind of a saint. I absolutely hated it! It was so ugly! I was sitting there thinking, ‘I hate my outfit! This church is so annoying!’ They were singing this song that had actions that go with it. The only part of the song I remember is the part that says, ‘Lead me. Guide me. Walk beside me. Help me find my way.’ Fast forward to years later, going to church again with my last foster family. I hear that song again and it hits me that the main message is, ‘I am a child of God. He has sent me here and has given me an earthy home.’

"That is the foundational message we teach. We are children of God. He sent us here to learn and grow. Some of it is good and some bad, but you can find the good in a lot of it.” As she is explaining this, her eyes meet mine. She stares at me and for a second. It feels like my pupils are windows into which she is peering. I stare back blankly and wonder, Is she trying to convert me?

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During his sophomore year of college, Cameron Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations.
During his sophomore year of college, Cameron Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations.

According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z — people born after 1997 and before 2012 — is the least religious generation since people began paying attention to such things. Nearly one third of Gen Zers are unchurched, and 18 percent identify as agnostic or atheist. This news is not shocking. Research consistently finds that each new generation of American adults is less religious than its predecessors. (That same Pew study found 29% of Millennials, 25% of Gen Xers, and 18% of Baby Boomers to be unchurched.)

However, something interesting happened during the pandemic. More people began Googling religious terms, things like “prayer,” “Jesus,” and “God.” Another Pew study in the summer of 2020 discovered that many Americans credited the pandemic with strengthening both their personal religious faith and the faith of those in their communities. Nearly three in ten Americans reported a stronger connection to faith due to the pandemic. Despite getting their doors shut during the lockdown, San Diego’s churches found themselves with new converts, many of them Gen Zs. Here are the stories of three of them.

The Catholic

Cameron Williams found Jesus during the pandemic. “Not because of the pandemic but during,” Williams clarifies over coffee while sitting at a small round table outside of Public Square in La Mesa. He reminds me of a 1950s sitcom character, so much so that when I picture Williams in my mind, he appears in black and white. At 21, he is the oldest of old souls. Here among the trendy coffee house crowd in its Doc Martens and wide-leg jeans, his wholesomeness lends him a unique aura of unworried hipness. Williams rattles on excitedly about his latest adventure: the quest to find the perfect barber shop. “I am trying out a handful of local barbers. It’s been really fun so far,” he explains, his hazel green eyes twinkling below his freshly cut dirty blond hair.

His choice of faith tradition was similarly researched. I imagine some sort of PowerPoint pro and con list was created, sometime after the seed of Christianity began to root in Williams’ mind after his freshmen year of college at Boise State University. Now, two years later, despite having zero prior affiliation with Catholicism, Williams is undergoing the lengthy process of conversion. He explains, “In the movies, you see that college is about getting hammered and all that. That was what my freshmen year was — a lot of empty, meaningless activities, pursuing drinking, girls, that kind of stuff. It did not make me feel good about myself. I was like, ‘Shit; if this is life, I am not a fan! I am not into this!’”

Williams shakes his head, and a look of disgust clouds his normally serene expression. “I would say that [I was at] a low point after my freshmen year of college. And things continued to get worse from there. Overall, I just felt like I did not see a lot of meaning in the world. I was totally self-involved. I was kind of consumed by own misery. Everything felt so fleeting. I was chasing dopamine and empty pleasures. That experience of living a meaningless life for a year started making me think about things more.”

The search for meaning in religion was not exactly a matter of returning to roots: Williams was not raised in a churchgoing home. Religion was not discussed. “My mom was raised Lutheran. I think my dad leans more towards agnostic. Growing up, religion was always kind of in the background. But I had a lot of religious friends, and I went to a preschool at a church. I went to vacation bible school as a kid, but just because one of my buddies went to it and I wanted to hang out with him over the summer. I went to a few youth groups as a senior in high school. I was curious. I just wanted to figure out what it was all about. That [exposure] kind of planted the seed in my head,” he reflects.

Then, during his sophomore year of college, Williams found himself with a Catholic roommate. The two would sometimes stay up late into the night carrying on philosophical conversations. It was evident that Williams was struggling, so his roommate asked him, “Have you ever considered that maybe there is more to life than just what you have been doing? Maybe there is something greater out in the beyond.” Here, Williams pauses, ruminating. “That kind of hit me in a weird way,” he says. In that moment, Williams felt a strong call to faith. And eventually, he attended Mass with his roommate. The service had a profound effect on him. Still, Williams is not the type to jump into things.

He explains, “I have always felt like there has to be something more to life than just a bunch of atoms and matter bumping around with each other, and that we are just the byproduct of that. Going to Mass and hearing the service really struck a chord. I was like, ‘Okay, this is something I need to start actively pursuing.’ It took me some time, though. If I am going to do something, I am going to do it right. I was not ready to say, ‘I am a Christian.’

"I was not ready to hold myself to those moral standards. It took some time for me to change that. It took me hitting another low point, where I was not doing well academically. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t succeeding. I was actively damaging the lives of those around me, because I looked at myself as though I was hopeless, as though I was doomed. It was a sad thing.”

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Williams recalls a life-changing moment after a particularly rough day. “It was like 3 am, and I was just so tired of everything. I had not prayed before that, but I thought, ‘I am exhausted! I don’t want to feel like this anymore! I just want to see what the right path is.’ I wanted all my doubts to be resolved. I prayed. I just wanted to be able to commit to [Catholicism], but I still had all these reservations. I woke up the next morning and I felt good about it. I didn’t have answers necessarily to all my questions, but I didn’t have doubts anymore. That moment gave me the confidence to really jump headlong into it. It’s been great.”

When it came time to find a particular church, he again wanted to check off all his boxes. But then he realized, “I should go to the one that is most closely tied to my community. The religious aspect of my life can’t be separate from the rest of my life. If I have to drive 30 minutes to go to church, I feel like that would be easy to place in a separate corner.” Cameron pauses before adding, “So far, It’s going well. I have an RCIA meeting tonight.” RCIA stands for Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. All adult converts to Catholicism must go through RCIA. The course begins in late summer and runs until after Easter. Converts learn basic Bible studies from a Catholic point of view and Catholic theology and practices.

The Jew

Meanwhile In Salt Lake City, Utah, Courtney Smith also found herself questioning life and matters of faith while away at college. When I meet her at a small coffee shop on Silverado Street in La Jolla, I spot her easily, thanks to the star of David earrings she wears. “I wear these every day,” the 24-year-old Smith says proudly, pushing a wayward natural curl behind her ear. “I worked really hard to be able to wear them. It is my way of letting other Jewish people know, ‘Hey, I am part of the crew.’”

When Courtney Smith was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes she began to feel the heavy weight of her mortality. She turned to religion, and found she was particularly drawn to Judaism.

At the age of 14, her father — who is now deceased — was diagnosed with congestive heart failure, and she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Smith began to feel the heavy weight of her mortality. She turned to religion, and began methodically researching different churches. She found she was particularly drawn to Judaism. However, her family was vaguely Christian. She decided that Mormonism was the next best option, believing that it might be a more digestible option for her family to swallow, and that many of its traditions and ideals were similar to those of Judaism. She joined the LDS church and eventually enrolled at BYU.

Six months into her freshmen year at Brigham Young, Smith realized she had made a poor choice. “In order to attend BYU, you need to take religious classes. After a while, I [knew] I didn’t believe what they believed. I have nothing against the [Mormon] church, we just don’t agree. I spent six months actively studying [the Mormon religion], and I would always turn to the Old Testament. Ultimately, I started reading the translation from Jewish sources, like Haggadah. I would sit in my bedroom, reading scripture and trying to make sense of where I was in life. I found myself turning to the Torah, not the Book of Mormon.”

That was Smith’s ah-ha moment, but she worried that there were real Mormons who could take her spot at BYU. So she pretended. Courtney became an undercover Jew. “Since I applied to school as a member of the church, I had to go to church at least 80 percent of the time,” she says. “Any time the bishop would ask my roommates where I was, they would say, ‘Oh, she goes to another ward,’ even though I was just at home. They were really great friends.”

When I point out that practicing Judaism is an interesting form of rebellion, Smith demurs. “I was being what I thought my mother expected me to be. I wasn’t happy, and I wasn’t being my true self.” Even so, she kept up the ruse until just before her senior year, when she told her mother she would not be going back to BYU. “Oh, and by the way, I am Jewish.”

Recalls Smith, “I just couldn’t do it anymore. I did it for four years! It was exhausting! When I told [my mom], of course she was supportive. She was like, ‘You are my child. This is your life. Do what makes you happy.’” Courtney smiles at the memory, exhales, and, for the first time since we sat down, relaxes her body. She goes on to say that her family took her conversion in stride — mostly. “My sister was not happy. She is a weirdo! I think she was more worried about it being dangerous for me, because I am Black. As a Black person, a woman, and now as a Jewish person, she was like, “Why do you want to join another marginalized group?’”

Despite her newfound identity, it took a near-death experience for Smith to begin the conversion process to Judaism. “Because of my type 1 diabetes, I had a situation where I took too much insulin to correct my eating. My roommates found me, and I woke up to the paramedics. That is the point where I was like, ‘Okay, maybe I should call a rabbi!’ When you come [close to] death, you really start living. I decided from that day on that I was going to live my true self and that was that.”

“How does one begin conversion?’” I ask.

“Do you think I knew what to do?” she retorts with a loud laugh and an exaggerated shrug. “I was like, ‘Let me get on Google!’ I didn’t know. I was hesitant at first. It’s such a process to become [a Jew]. And there are only three rabbis in Utah. That’s it. There is an orthodox, a conservative/reformed, and then there is a reformed. I contacted all of them.” It turned out that the process entailed studying under a rabbi for an entire calendar year and observing all the Jewish holidays. Smith found a rabbi and began her study in Utah. She spent most of the year studying under him until his wife had a baby and he went on maternity leave.

That’s when she moved to San Diego. “I wanted to be close to the ocean. I wanted to be closer to a larger Jewish community. I also wanted to be close to Black people, my ethnic group. In Utah, those two sets of communities do not exist. I got to San Diego on a Monday and went to synagogue on Friday. Now, all my friends are Jewish.” She finished her conversion classes under a rabbi at Beth Israel, San Diego’s largest and oldest Jewish congregation.

“When you convert into Judaism, they want to know that you are ready to join the community. You go to Beit Din. That is where you sit in front of three rabbis. They determine whether you are ready based on what you have studied. They want to know why you want to join the community. They ask you questions. You tell them your story and how you got there.”

Smith was nervous when her time came. If the Rabbis did not approve her, she would need to spend an additional year studying. But she knew that this was where she belonged. “I knew for a long time I was [a Jew} I was just like, ‘Finally, guys! I am here!” After passing her Beit Din, Smith’s female Rabbi performed a Mikveh, which is a fully nude freshwater bath. Her Mikveh took place at sunrise at the Bay on Coronado Island. It was one of the most exhilarating moments of her life.

The Mormon

Growing up in Cody, Nebraska, Jariah Cogdill was unchurched. By the time she was 15 years old, she had been placed in seven different foster homes, due to neglect stemming from her parents' drug addiction. Three of those foster families belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. “My first foster home, when I was about 10 or 11, was in an LDS house. I did not really like it. I did not like the idea of church. It was not my cup of tea. My second home was [LDS]. And then my last one, my seventh home, were LDS members. That was at a time when my life was at its worst. I did not believe there was a God. I did not believe really anything. I was just mad at the world.” Cogdill, now 19, explains all this with a heavy sigh.

We are sitting at a booth near the back entrance at a Panera in East County. She was easy to spot. She was with a companion, as missionaries normally are, and the pair of them looked like stereotypical Mormons: Cogdill wears a long overall-style dress with a short-sleeved striped t-shirt underneath. Her companion, Rachel Huillet, wears a baby blue shirt with a calf length floral skirt. Each has a name tag pinned to her chest. The language below the name is not English. Cogdill explains, “[We were] called last week to be Arabic speaking sisters. We just started learning. When you are called on mission trip, you are called as English speaking, Spanish speaking, or whatever language you are called to speak. Both of us were called to speak English here in San Diego. But we volunteered to learn Arabic to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it is so important to us.”

Jariah Cogdill began inviting the LDS missionaries to come to her house to teach lessons. Mom was not thrilled. “She was fine with me meeting with the missionaries, but when the idea of baptism came up, she was very, very, upset.”

Cogdill’s road from an unbeliever to spreading the message of the LDS church was a long one. With many of her foster parents being part of the Mormon church, Cogdill was exposed to the religion early. “In my first two [LDS] member homes, they said, ‘You have to come to church with us because you live with us,’ I did not see the need for it at all. My last foster home gave us the option of attending, but we had to have somewhere to be while they were at church. I did not have very many options, so I just went with them.” She was not a fan of attending these services. She went along with it mostly to show respect to her foster family.

“I was still weary when I first started going [to church].” The oldest sibling in her dysfunctional family, Cogdill acted as a mother to her younger sister. She took this role on in pre-adolescence and still feels responsible for her now-15-year-old sister. “I was like, ‘How do I justify everything that has happened [in my life] and say that was part of God’s plan?’ I didn’t feel like it was. I could not get behind that. I had my own feeling of, ‘Okay, I came from a pretty dark place and now I am coming into gaining my own understanding of things.’ It took a few months for me to even start thinking that God really did have a plan for me. I was like, ‘No, he left me for nothing, to do my own thing.’ I was so alone for so long. But I do think there is a lot of understanding to be gained when we learn more about God and that we need to go through trails to gain our faith and to gain a testimony of these things.”

Cogdill began to take a more active role in the LDS church. She was forming friendships and becoming part of the community. She felt like she had finally found a space where she fit. “I started to really, really, love it. I loved the unity of it, and the fellowship. Through that, I was able to strengthen my testimony on who I am. We believe that we are children of God — that God is our loving heavenly father. For the longest time, I did not believe that. But, as I started learning more about not just the Mormon church, but about who God is and who Jesus Christ is, I really felt like a child of God. I felt like I was loved. There were so many earthly connections that I wasn’t having, like with my parents, but I felt it with my heavenly father, which was a big relief.” Cogdill explains it all so matter-of-factly that I get the sense she has told this story countless times.

When Cogdill and her sister moved back in with their mom from foster care, she found was not ready to let go of the LDS church. She began inviting the LDS missionaries to come to her house to teach lessons. Mom was not thrilled. “She was fine with me meeting with the missionaries, but when the idea of baptism came up, she was very, very, upset. She just didn’t like the church. She said it was fake and blah, blah, blah.” Cogdill explains, her tone akin to that of any exasperated teenager.

“Everyone has their opinions, but I knew the church was true. I knew this was something I wanted. I felt like I had never asked for anything in my life. This was the one thing I felt passionate about. It was the one thing I wanted.” In the end, Cogdill and her little sister were both baptized in the LDS church. Her mom was not happy, but she accepted it. (Her little sister is no longer active.) As a missionary, she has taken on one of the most pious roles an LDS member can hold. Her mission in San Diego is 18 months long. She is 9 months in.

“My extended family on my mom’s side believes [LDS] is a false church. When they found I was going on mission, they were pretty much like, ‘That is wasting your time. You could be getting an education. You could have a job and be earning money.’ That has been pretty hard to take. Even when I decided to go to BYU, I kind of got backlash from that. ‘Oh, you are going to go there? That is kind of weird!’ But I really felt like I should go there, and then later I really felt like I should go on a mission. School can wait. As a convert, I have a really unique prospective. I want to give others the same opportunity I had — to know who they are and why they are here. I find a lot of joy being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. I have met so many amazing people! I know God has placed me in certain situations that have brought me so much joy. I want to show that to others!”

I can picture Cogdill knocking on an unsuspecting San Diegan’s door, echoing a similar sentiment. I can imagine doors getting slammed in her face, a lot. The idea breaks my heart a little, not because of her message or how wholeheartedly she believes it, but simply because she has overcome so much.

What Drew them In

Unlike Jariah Cogdill, Courtney Smith is not a fan of proselytizing. Smith explains, “What you believe is very personal. It is very individual. I would not want to convince someone that they believe incorrectly or to believe like me. One of the beauties of the [Jewish] culture, or the religion, whatever you want to call it, is that whatever you believe is for you. And what I believe is for me. If you call yourself a Jew, you are part of the community. There is no proselytizing! Not only is there no proselytizing, but I can question everything, and nobody bats and eye.

"It is encouraged to wrestle with Torah. That is what “Israel” means: the one that wrestles with God. You are encouraged to ask questions and challenge the text. I appreciate that tradition.” Another big part of her decision to convert to Judaism was for her future children. “I did it more for them than for me. My plan is to raise Jewish children that are welcomed into this community and are proud to be both Back and Jewish. It’s very cool to be Jewish. It’s a very beautiful thing to be. I think the 14-year-old me would be proud of me that I finally did it!” Smith says this with an air of complete and utter confidence.

As for Cameron Williams, he lists off the main factors that drew him to Catholicism in numerical order. “I would say I choose Catholicism for three different reasons. Firstly, I listened to a lot of debates and read a lot about the justification for the Catholic church. I found it more convincing than anything else. I found those arguments the most compelling. That was my logical reason for the choice. The second reason I would say is community. Right now, community is really undervalued. Everything is all about the individual. It is like the only thing that matters is you, and your happiness. That doesn’t seem quite right. When all I cared about was me, I was miserable. I want to be in a group of people that care about other people, people who are actively trying to make other people’s lives better. Who doesn’t want to be in a group of people like that? I want to make myself better and my community better and not just like the church community, but my general area better. That is a huge draw for me.

"The third reason I chose Catholicism was its aspect of mysticism. I think it is incredibly important to romanticize your life. If I just look at my life as inertia, I can’t live my life in a way that is meaningful. If I can look at my life as an adventure, where I am tasked with learning and overcoming, that is something that gets me excited to wake up in the morning. The Catholic Church has that sense of mysticism that I did not find anywhere else. I felt a calling to be something greater than I am there. It is all about the acceptance and love, but it is also this idea that you are not perfect, and you will never be perfect but there is an ideal to strive for. Starting to strive for an ideal is so exciting. The fact that I have accepted that I am never going to reach that ideal is almost comforting in a way. I know I am not going to get there, but I can get as close as possible. If I can be kind and loving and charitable and virtuous to the best of my capability, I mean, that is incredible!”

Jariah Cogdill breaks down her faith in the simplest of terms: “One of my first memories of going to church was with my first foster family. I had a sour attitude that day. I did not want to be there. I was wearing a blouse and skirt that my foster mom made for me. She was kind of a saint. I absolutely hated it! It was so ugly! I was sitting there thinking, ‘I hate my outfit! This church is so annoying!’ They were singing this song that had actions that go with it. The only part of the song I remember is the part that says, ‘Lead me. Guide me. Walk beside me. Help me find my way.’ Fast forward to years later, going to church again with my last foster family. I hear that song again and it hits me that the main message is, ‘I am a child of God. He has sent me here and has given me an earthy home.’

"That is the foundational message we teach. We are children of God. He sent us here to learn and grow. Some of it is good and some bad, but you can find the good in a lot of it.” As she is explaining this, her eyes meet mine. She stares at me and for a second. It feels like my pupils are windows into which she is peering. I stare back blankly and wonder, Is she trying to convert me?

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