A change he didn’t see coming

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Sept. 16, 2009, was the day Darren Bryant's old life ended and his new life began. It was a day flooded with an ocean of grace and peace. He received the sacrament of reconciliation for the first time in "forever years," from Father James R. Searby at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Lake Ridge. "I was given the gift of 100 times the peace that you would ever imagine possible. It changed my life," Bryant said. The sacrament was the beginning of his spiritual journey and personal relationship with Jesus Christ and a welcome home in the church.

Last November, Bryant was named assistant WorkCamp coordinator in the diocesan Office of Youth Ministry, leaving a successful 16-year career as a senior project manager with Lockheed Martin to answer a call to serve others.

As an engineer with a bachelor's degree from the University of California, Davis, and a master's from Penn State, Bryant loved his previous job that brought him to Northern Virginia from Texas. He was called out of something he really enjoyed to follow God's will. Three months into his new position, he feels "a lot of peace and joy that confirms the decision.

"There is the same dedication to the mission, except the mission is bringing teens closer to Christ," Bryant said.

Raised in central California, Bryant was baptized Catholic and made his first Communion, but his family fell away from practicing the faith. In college, he would occasionally attend Mass with a Catholic roommate, appreciating the quiet respite it offered. After becoming engaged to a Catholic, he was confirmed in preparation for marriage. The marriage lasted 13 years and gave Bryant the precious gift of his son.

Bryant's marriage ended in 2006 and he took the first step toward the healing process of annulment and the welcoming arms of Christ.

"The ending of my marriage was the impetus for my beginning to pay attention to the teachings of the church," he said.

Glancing at his daily journal, there is a clear separation of the old and the new man. Reconciliation allowed Bryant to experience God's love like never before. He freely shares his story of hope in an effort to help others find their way to Christ and His healing and love waiting for them.

His message to divorced Catholics is that they don't have to be alienated, that they do "fit in" in the church. He wishes to share the healing process of annulment for those considering it. For those discerning marriage, he stresses the importance of understanding and accepting all of the church's teachings, rather than entering into a nonsacramental marriage that does not have Christ as its foundation. He wishes to share that it is possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, the immense peace and joy that come from following God's will, and the power of the sacrament of reconciliation.

"No matter how long it has been, God meets us where we are," Bryant said. At the right time, through prayer, God calls us closer.

"From a spiritual perspective at that time, I still considered God 'out there'- in the ether someplace. I didn't understand His desire to have a personal relationship with me," Bryant said.

The next turning point in his life was making a silent retreat in 2010 at the Dominican Retreat House in McLean. He left for the retreat immediately after signing the final divorce papers.

Through prayer while on retreat, he discerned that he should seek a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"It took me years to figure out what does it mean and how do you do that," Bryant said.

After an arduous search for God, Bryant found Jesus through Ignatian spirituality, which is rooted in the conviction that God is active, personal and present in our world and our lives. It is a pathway to deeper prayer, good decisions guided by discernment, and an active life of service to others.

He was put in touch with Jesuit Father Joe McCloskey at Gonzaga High School in Washington. As spiritual director, he helped Bryant with his "restless heart, captured so well by St. Augustine."

Father McCloskey introduced him to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Through the exercises, he began to build a personal relationship with Jesus. The 19th annotation of the spiritual exercises involves meeting weekly with a spiritual director for 30-some weeks.

"In doing those exercises I began to see Our Lord as more than a Savior, but as a friend," he said. "That was a big step."

Along the way there were a lot of other changes: eucharistic adoration, praying the rosary and attending daily Mass. Bryant noticed a change. "I was going through the healing process of the end of marriage," he said. "The annulment process was really helpful to understand the teachings of the church on marriage. Along the way, I transitioned from trying to find the will of God 'out there,' to just listening to God inside and following the nudges in my heart wherever God is leading me."

One strong nudge was an ad he saw in the St. Lawrence Church bulletin asking for WorkCamp volunteers. Bryant felt he was perfect for the job and was drawn to sign up. He jokes about the specific skills sought: "Male volunteers needed."

"I didn't really understand it, because the last time I had spoken to a teen was when I was one," he said.

Bryant served as a WorkCamp volunteer last June. It was toward the end of the Ignatian spiritual exercises, when he was preparing for Christ to send him out into the world in service.

Bryant had a great group of teens and he quickly saw how his experience in leadership and project management applied to teens and coaching them and to the WorkCamp experience as a whole.

On Tuesday night during WorkCamp, there was adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with more than 1,000 teens and adults.

"I started to feel this immense ocean of God's love and grace pour out," Bryant said. "I felt the desire to share this peace with others and I knew I was supposed to get more involved in this WorkCamp thing, to go beyond being an adult leader."

Bryant heard Kevin Bohli, director of the Office of Youth Ministry, speak about his personal faith journey. There were a lot of parallels in their two careers. Both had engineering degrees, worked for the Navy, went to WorkCamp, and had this "I'm going to go do this" experience.

They met for lunch, talked about the mechanics of WorkCamp, and what kinds of experiences and needs fit into its mission.

"It seemed like there was a great fit with WorkCamp," Bryant said. At the end of the discussion, he asked, "How can I get more involved?" Bohli told him there was going to be an opening coming up.

"Five years ago, if somebody said to me you can be friends with God, I would have said that doesn't make any sense," Bryant said. "Jesus is a person, a flesh and blood person - that is the whole key. By going to reconciliation, my whole life changed and I did not see that coming."

Socarras is a freelance writer from Annandale.

Find out more

For more information about WorkCamp 2014, to be held June 21 to 27, go to arlingtondiocese.org/youth/workcamp2013.aspx.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014