Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Now I see through a Catholic lens. I see the world differently,” said Jalen Alford, a college junior who entered the Catholic Church this Easter. “Just like, as a chemistry student, I can see the world on a molecular level — through a molecular lens — now I see the world through a Catholic lens, and it’s changed how I see things, how I approach life.”

Alford has faced many challenges in the course of his 24 years. He credits his new faith with helping him to persevere despite a childhood marked by a series of difficulties that began when he was 5 years old, when his father was sent to prison.

“It was hard growing up,” he said. “Some of the things my dad did — they hurt me. I didn’t realize it at the time because it just seemed normal.”

“My mom tried to do all she could, but she had to work a lot,” he said, explaining that he was often left at home with relatives who struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. “They were supposed to be watching me, but really I was having to watch them. I had to grow up fast.”

The uncertainties he experienced growing up, he said, left him feeling adrift, unsure as to which direction he wanted his life to take.

Then, two years ago, he embarked on a radically new path, making changes in every aspect of his life —personal, academic and spiritual. He is a student at Norfolk State University, majoring in chemistry/pre-med. This Easter, he received the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and Eucharist at Immaculate Conception Church, Hampton.

“I realize that God was with me all along: I just had to turn around to see him. I have so many regrets about the first 22 years of my life; they feel now like they were just pre-trial, so unnecessary. And yet they were necessary, too. Without them I would not be on the journey I am on now.”

Years of challenge

Alford’s first experience with Catholicism came during high school, when he began attending Mass at St. Bede, Williamsburg, with his girlfriend and her family.

“I would come to Mass, but I didn’t understand everything. I mean, I knew I couldn’t accept the Eucharist, and things like that. But I just didn’t see it all clearly,” he said. “It was like someone snapping, snapping their fingers outside your head — you hear the noise out there somewhere, but it doesn’t quite mean anything to you yet.”

After graduating in 2012 from Bruton High School, Williamsburg, he attended Alderson Broaddus University in West Virginia on a football scholarship. After his first year of college, however, he found he was unhappy with the direction his life was taking and came home to Hampton Roads.

“I returned to Virginia really trying to find myself. At that point, I was doing a lot of things I shouldn’t be doing. It’s possible to be in an environment like I was in and not let it affect you, but it was affecting me,” he said. “When I looked in the mirror, I just didn’t see me; I felt like my soul was beat up.”

He enrolled at Norfolk State University, where he majored in kinetic therapy. But the change in geography didn’t change his sense something was missing in his life.

That’s when a series of events began to alter the course of Alford’s journey. He embarked on a more rigorous program of study — changing his major to chemistry/ pre-med, leaving him feeling more challenged than ever before. He and his high school girlfriend broke up, having drifted apart during months spent away from one another. Later that summer, he found out that one of his younger brothers was sentenced to prison.

“I was just so sad and depressed when I heard about my little brother,” he said. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it. It was difficult to try to understand what he was doing. But then it was like God said, ‘Now that I have you in a space where you have nothing, let’s get to work.’”

Looking for advice, he called his former girlfriend’s father, who suggested that he speak with his brother-in-law, Todd Ellis, a St. Bede parishioner who joined the Catholic Church five years ago.

“He called me and said he was interested in exploring the Catholic Church,” Ellis said. “I’d known him for years, so I was happy to meet with him. We started meeting for lunch every week, discussing our faith, our prayer lives. It’s been very encouraging to me, talking with him. It’s been a great journey.”

Ellis also introduced Alford to Father Sean Prince, pastor at Immaculate Conception. “Jalen very quietly came in and we met and we chatted for a while and soon after he started coming to Mass at Immaculate Conception,” the priest said. “And since then, he’s really immersed himself in the community.”

Beginning a new journey

“Once I started letting God in, I started letting things out — all the negative things, all the things I didn’t need in my life,” Alford said.

Adjusting to the demands of his new field of study, he said, also helped to propel and strengthen his spiritual life.

“The more I challenged myself in my new major, the more I needed to focus, the more I needed God. The more I turned to God, and put God first — when you do that, that’s when the magic happens,” he said.

In 2016, Alford entered the RCIA program mid-year at Immaculate Conception; in fall 2017 he began the full-year program. “He was very quiet when he first came in,” said Cass Hooker, director of evangelization at Immaculate Conception. “He said he was interested in exploring the Church; he wasn’t making an immediate commitment. But I was struck by how he kept sticking with it — he was always there at Mass. It’s clear he has a real sense that the Holy Spirit has been guiding him, placing people in his life who have helped him along. And he makes it so easy for them to do that, because he meets them more than half way.”

“He’s a remarkable young man,” said Tom Skubic, Alford’s RCIA sponsor. “He was able to discover that thing that was missing in his life. He had a yearning for God that developed over time, and he knew where he needed to go.”

Becoming Catholic, Alford said, has changed the way he views the world.

“Before, my focus was always just on me, me, me. But now I know it’s not about me, it’s about sharing, helping out, pulling people up, being there for my brothers and sisters, and younger cousins — to be there for everyone I meet and even for those who I haven’t met yet,” Alford said.

He particularly wants to do his best to support his younger brother who is in prison.

“Being 18 years old in prison; it’s hard. I try to be there for him however I can,” Alford said. “I pray for him every day. And I work every day to be the best version of me I can be, so I can be there to help him when he gets out.”

Alford also appreciates the new sense of community he has found in his new faith.

“I’m grateful for all the support I’ve received,” he said. “When you are all alone — that’s when you’re vulnerable. One thing I love about the Church is that it’s so structured: you can be anywhere in the world and you can find a church and they’ll have the same readings, the same message.”

Today, Alford volunteers at Tidewater Elementary School, a Norfolk public school near the NSU campus, occasionally having lunch with the students and acting as a chaperone during events and basketball games.

“I want the kids to see an example of an African-American man who is doing something, other than being an athlete, other than being an entertainer,” he said.

After graduation, Alford hopes to attend medical school. People often ask, he said, if he has a “Plan B.”

“I tell people I really don’t. Once you have a Plan B, it means you’ve let in a seed of doubt; it means you aren’t giving 120 percent to Plan A. So, for now, my plan is to give 120 percent to what I’m doing now,” he said, adding, “And I plan to keep moving forward in my faith. Moving forward in my faith means moving forward in my life, because now my faith leads my life.”