When I first got to campus last year, I was very overwhelmed. This was something…
Samuel A. Acuña graduated from UW-Madison in May 2019 with a Ph.D in Mechanical Engineering. You can also listen to his reflection here.
Back in the year 2012, I made the decision to go to graduate school. I was ready for a change in life, and so I figured I would move out to a fun city for one year, grab a master’s degree, and then head back to Seattle and work as an engineer. So in the summer of 2013, I showed up in Madison sight-unseen with as much stuff as I could fit into the two suitcases I was permitted on the airplane. I didn’t know anything about Madison, didn’t know anybody even near the Midwest, and had no clue what to expect in graduate school (PhD!). I had found some other graduate students on Craiglist and decided to live in their spare bedroom, and one of these kind strangers even offered to pick me up from the airport and drive me to our little house. I vividly remember this first drive through this new city, getting a glimpse of places that would eventually bring new memories and new adventures. Madison was a chance for me to start fresh, and I was reinventing myself.
I had recently gone through a very significant and very traumatic change in which I ended up leaving the religion I was raised in. My once-beautiful world had collapsed. Everything I thought I knew about life and the world had been erased. My core philosophy, my fundamental interpretation of the universe, had been shattered. I was left jaded, broken, and cynical of most religion. In the aftermath, I was determined to rebuild myself brick by brick. I escaped the toxic situation I was in, moved far away, and started a process of self-discovery. For the first time in my life, I was deliberately choosing who I wanted to be, what I believed, and what I valued. Most importantly, I chose to be aggressively honest with myself about these decisions, and how I came to know truth. In time, this process would lead me to become the more secure and determined man I am today, and compared to 10 years ago, I have completely changed 180˚ in just about every belief and opinion out there.
But at the time of my arrival in Madison, I was still searching and very naïve to much about the real world. I did not know who I was, but I had a firm understanding of what I was not. When it came to religion, I was justifiably angry and felt betrayed by God, but in my heart I was desperate to find some connection to the divine, whatever that means. I needed to understand and know the Truth. I was a rabid reader of any book I could find on spirituality, and in conversations I would push-back and ask hard questions about faith to make people really confront their beliefs past a superficial level. I was doing some real soul-searching into the divine. I didn’t identify with any religion, certainly not Christianity, and ultimately realized a position of agnostic atheism. I was an open book, but a very tough sell.
So as we drove into Madison that first day off the plane, and after feeling so elated by the potential this new city was offering me, you can imagine my absolute horror when we pulled into the little house and I discovered that across the street was the church building for the very religion I was running away from. In fact, one of the reasons I chose to move to Wisconsin was because I knew this religion did not have a strong presence here. I exclaimed out loud: “are you kidding me!?” I thought it must be some cosmic joke, an ultimate irony that I was experiencing. God giving me insult to injury. My journey in Madison was not starting off on the right foot.
However, I was still determined to reinvent myself. I started attending all the various churches I could bike to, attended forums and seminars, participated in Bible studies, joined the campus atheist club, and got into several heated conversations about faith. Studying faith was my biggest, and all-consuming hobby. But my experience in these other churches always ended after I heard something I just could not agree with, or I felt they were too unreasonable or not accepting of my doubts.
Eventually, I found my way to Pres House. I approached it with the same skepticism I had towards everyone else, but time and time again, Pres House kept surprising me. One of those first few Sundays back in 2013, I remember telling our pastor, Mark, “Listen, I’m just here to check out what you are all about. I don’t believe in God, and don’t try to convert me.” And Mark was like, “sure, okay. Do you want to stay for dinner?” Next thing I knew, I had been participating in Pres House activities for over a year. Pres House was just so darn accepting and had no issues at all with my doubts and struggles. In fact, Mark and Erica encouraged my honest exploration, and gave me a safe environment to ask tough questions. There was even a point where on Wednesdays I was helping lead a small-group discussion at Pres House, and on Thursdays I was helping lead a small-group discussion for the university’s atheist club. People would ask “so what are you? Are you atheist or a Christian?” I would try to dodge the question, because those identities have so much connotation, and neither was correct. I was doing my own thing. When pressed, I would say “Sure, I go to Pres House regularly, but in no way am I member of that congregation.” In fact, for several years, I retained this distance in my heart, and considered myself only a bystander here at Pres House, because I did not believe or understand what God is.
And then one day, something just clicked. I stopped obsessing over knowing Truth with a capital T, and I just embraced a life worth living. Which, in the end, is what I think it is all about. I didn’t have a movie-worthy “come to Jesus” moment. But in many ways, I have to come to know and love the message of Jesus through my interaction with all of you in this beautiful community. I have much to learn, but I have experienced more of a connection with the divine through my time at Pres House than anything else on my spiritual journey. As a result, I feel closer to the person I want to be—the person I have been searching for for many years. And for that I am incredibly grateful for Pres House.
Identity is an important concept that is embraced by Pres House. In many ways, I still identify as an agnostic atheist, but these days I am proud to say that I definitely identify as a member of Pres House and this community. There’s an argument to be made that I am a Presbyterian now, too. Today, If you ask me, “what do you believe?” I’m still not exactly sure, but I think the question is rather missing the point. Pres House has helped me experience God, and that is cultivated through my individual experiences with this community, with our music, with our passion for social change, and with our play. I’m confident that if there is a God, I am living a more authentic life that is more aligned with God. I no longer feel this constant hunger to find the divine—I think I found some of it. As it says in Galatians, the “fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, and goodness”.
Soon, I will be leaving to start a new adventure in a new city. But this time, when I arrive I will be much more secure and confident in my faith journey. I’ll be okay, and I’m happy. Hopefully I can help foster more divine experiences with people down there. I will miss you all terribly. Thank you for your help on my journey, and for letting me play guitar for you. For those that will be sticking around at Pres house, especially those who may feel uncertain or insecure about their faith and beliefs, I hope you keep at it, embrace feelings of joy and peace, and experience God for yourself. It is worth it.