e-mail us


Even in Los Angeles, this drive’s worth it

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

St. Monica’s Parish has a San Fernando Valley Faith Group. If you know Los Angeles, you know how weird that sounds -- a parish in trendy Santa Monica with a faith group more than 20 miles away, separated by what is widely regarded as the worst of L.A.’s eternally congested freeways.

Yet the group meets every Thursday evening at 7:30. Like most faith groups, these 10 people look forward to the opportunity to connect, to deepen their faith and discuss how they contributed to various parish ministries. Even more remarkable, they represent just a few of the hundreds who drive long distances to go to church.

I’m part of this group. Living over 20 miles away, an average trip to Mass takes me at least a half-hour -- assuming accidents, construction or road rage don’t prolong the drive, and they almost always do. While most Angelenos think nothing of driving such distances for a ball game, dinner or a night at the theater, most would find it faintly ridiculous to go that far for Mass.

So what is it about this parish that has attracted so many? Why are we willing to drive so far simply to be part of it?

St. Monica’s was that church on the West Side of L.A. that I had always heard about. Even though it had a wonderful reputation, I never bothered to brave the distance on my own initiative. My introduction was in response to a personal invitation -- an acquaintance suggested that I come and check it out.

Finding the church was no problem. Surrounded by scaffolding, the building was undergoing rebuilding after being destroyed in the Northridge earthquake of January 1994. Each of the Masses, including the famed 5:30 -- the one that attracted throngs of young seekers -- was celebrated in the high school gymnasium.

Actually, the gym was the perfect venue. The gathering felt in some ways more like a spirited theatrical performance than the dry-as-dust fare of so many parishes. I was immediately attracted to the sense of community. The music was spirit-filled -- vibrant and professional. Everyone was singing, not just the chosen few in the choir. With seating on both sides and a makeshift altar on the floor, the overflowing congregation somehow made a connection.

When construction was completed, the warmth of the gym experience moved into the church along with the congregation. The music continued to be the highlight, and practically everyone continued to sing. There was a feeling of welcome from the moment Mass began.

I was struck by the enthusiasm of the predominantly young adult crowd. The cantor asked visitors to stand and be recognized. The congregation applauded, and those sitting next to the visitors helped to put newcomers at ease. The entire congregation then introduced themselves. Even after an hour-and-a-half liturgy, most remained until the last note of the recessional and, before leaving the church, they rewarded the choir with a thunderous round of applause.

I initially expected the standard exodus that streams toward the parking lot at the end of Mass. This parish was different. The end of Mass seemed to mark the beginning, rather than the end, of communion. A welcome table was the official vehicle, but the hundreds of conversations that occurred on the patio seemed to be where the real welcome was taking place.

After attending a few of these liturgies, my curiosity got the better of me. I decided to jump into parish ministry with both feet -- a baptism by full immersion. Ministry at St. Monica’s is unique. The few ministries that are highlighted here serve only to illuminate my personal preferences.

One of the basics at St. Monica’s is the YMA (Young Ministering Adults). For many, this is the cement that helps to bind the members to the church. For me, it was a connection that provides a glimpse into why I travel so far.

When I first joined St. Monica’s, I decided to get involved in just about everything that the YMA was doing. I organized coffee houses, planned speaker forums and worked the annual fundraiser known as Octoberfaire. At each event, I met more and more people. Those who gathered after the 5:30 Mass were no longer a sea of unfamiliar faces. Rather, these were people with whom I had worked. Now I was not only going to church, I was going to see a large number of new friends.

Before long, I became a member of the core team leading both Peace and Justice and Special Events ministries. The Peace and Justice committee had one activity each month. The highlights included running a Thanksgiving clothing drive, assisting at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen and organizing trips to El Hogar, an orphanage in Mexico. Each of these activities appealed to different people and enjoyed tremendous popularity.

The special events ministry also sponsored a major event each month. Dances, coffee houses and even a concert for the entire parish provided community that extended beyond the Mass. These activities were just plain fun.

YMA activities worked because the organizational structure was already in place. The leadership listened to and understood the people who were involved in the life of the parish. Many attempts were made to accommodate the needs of young adults. Meetings were held in the evenings. Refreshments were always provided. Outreach efforts included new member dinners, game nights and newsletter stuffing parties.

The YMA complemented the Mass and continued to meet the spiritual needs of parish young adults. During the traditional school year, Vespers occurred every Tuesday evening. Retreats occurred twice a year. Prayer journals were distributed during Lent.

Led by parishioners for parishioners, these highly developed programs offered the opportunity for people to share and to deepen their faith. Ultimately, these experiences bonded me to the church and helped me to carry Sunday Mass into the week.

Today, a casual walk around the parish reveals a church that is full of life. The parking lot is scarcely ever empty, and room constraints provide a constant challenge for those who manage the facility. During the rush of the year, it is sometimes difficult to comprehend the volume of work that these ministries perform.

There is perhaps no better display of the level of involvement than at the Volunteer Appreciation Dinner. To the hundreds of volunteers at St. Monica’s, this dinner is a much anticipated annual event. The auditorium is packed as people from all walks of life fill the room with exciting chatter. It is, in real and important ways, family time.

Ministry at St. Monica’s offered a chance to serve both the parish and the surrounding community. The relationships I formed simply made the Mass more relevant.

Both made the drive worthwhile.

Tim Johnston writes from Van Nuys, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998