Leap of Faith: Finding a Place of Worship Abroad

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More than 5,000 miles from her home in Colorado, Jessica Saffold walked around a nondescript glass office building in the business district of Santiago, Chile. She was looking for The Life Church, a house of worship recommended to her by a new friend she met at university orientation. Not knowing what to expect, Jessica stepped inside.

“When I first walked through the door, I was greeted probably by 10 people who were so excited to see me,” Saffold said. “I felt like I was being given a huge hug, and it was the first time I was there, which was crazy.”

Saffold is a third year student at Northwestern University studying abroad with the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago. Having been raised by two ministers, religion was an essential part of Saffold’s childhood. Coming abroad, she was looking to maintain her faith, and felt anxious about the search that lay ahead.

“I think my biggest worry was feeling disconnected, like going abroad would somehow affect my relationship with Christ in that it would diminish a lot,” Saffold said, “like I wouldn’t feel supported and I wouldn’t feel like I was growing at all.”

Luckily, Saffold had talked to a previous program student who recommended a church, which she used as a starting point on her search before she found The Life Church. Her search worked out, and she now has a home abroad where she feels welcome and can continue practicing her faith comfortably.

Confronting Intimidation

For students of faith looking to study abroad, the idea of finding a new place to worship can be intimidating. With such a personal matter, the search can seem difficult and overwhelming, not to mention having to balance it with all the other stresses that come with moving to a new country.

Adam Wagner, a third year student at Georgetown University studying abroad with the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago, also felt the strains of finding a new place of worship abroad, comparing them to his transition to college life in the U.S.

“I mean it’s just kind of hard to find a church in general,” Wagner said. “I remember going to college [was] a tough experience because you can only go once a week and so it can just take a long time.”

Along with his search for a good fit with his religious beliefs, Wagner was also looking for an opportunity to work on his language skills.

“Trying to find a good church in Spanish that I like both from a religious perspective but then also from a ‘oh I’m learning Spanish’ kind of perspective can be hard,” Wagner said. “So I’ve gone each week to different churches, and then I’ve gone to this one church twice in a row.”

The church he referenced is The Life Church, which he learned about through Saffold. Wagner says he too felt welcomed at the house of worship, and enjoyed the music and service in general.

Communication is Key

Both Wagner and Saffold wanted to keep their faith alive during their time abroad, and made efforts to find a good fit for them. Whether the search is for a church, mosque, synagogue or any other place of worship, communication is key. Many students of faith already have in mind what they are looking for, they just need help finding it. Communicating with other students helped Wagner and Saffold find what they were looking for, and at their new place of worship, being open to communication is continuing to help.

“That’s like the biggest thing of visiting a new church is meeting so many new people, and just kind of letting go of that fear and allowing yourself to take that risk, keep the faith, stay strong,” Saffold said. “It’ll all be okay.”

Stay Open

Along with communication, one of the most important pieces of advice is to be open to try out new places. The possibilities can be overwhelming, and of course there’s no place like home, but looking around and trying out different houses of worship can help ensure that the one you choose is right for you. Additionally, IFSA-Butler provides resources to aid in the search – a list of places of worship is available in the student handbook received during program orientation, and program staff are always available to help.

Above all, the most important thing to remember is not to stress. Practicing faith abroad can be a daunting task, but the results of the search make it worth the time and effort.

“You will find somewhere,” Saffold said. “There’s a place for everyone.”

David Gleisner is a Journalism and International Studies major at Northwestern University and studied abroad with the IFSA-Butler Chilean Universities Program, Santiago in fall 2017. He served as an International Correspondent with IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.

Article by David Gleisner