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Celebrating Lent: Why non-religious millennials are choosing to sacrifice

DJ Dave Powers has left the Catholic Church of his childhood, but still observes Lent as a way to reconnect with his inner spirituality.
Dave Powers
DJ Dave Powers has left the Catholic Church of his childhood, but still observes Lent as a way to reconnect with his inner spirituality.

David Powers used to be Catholic.

“I went to church every Sunday, was an altar boy, went to religious education classes once a week (CCD), played in the church band, received the sacraments of the church, and I even attended World Youth Day with Pope John Paul II in Rome in 2000,” he says.

The 29-year-old DJ — whose music trio “Holistix” claims to “approach making music with the intent to nourish mind, body and soul" — has not participated in his family-fueled faith since his senior year of high school.

“I can't remember the last time I gave up something for Lent,” he says now at the end of the Catholic fasting period. “In fact, I didn't actually set out to give anything up for Lent this year either.”

This year, however, Powers did give up something. For 40 days, he has planned to go without pot.

Powers is not alone. Many non-Catholic and non-religious milliennials are now observing Lent — the traditional season of sacrifice in many Christian denominations, leading up to Easter — as a way to give up something inhibiting their greater good. In this, the young people may be trying to reconnect with their inner spirituality outside of the confines of traditional religion.

RELATED: Religion, politics and culture: Stories from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

Powers, who is from Los Angeles, works by day in a medical marijuana dispensary in the San Fernando Valley. “Needless to say, I am constantly surrounded by an endless supply of high quality cannabis that I am encouraged to smoke every day I work,” he says. “After all, what use is a budtender if they can't give you an honest assessment of the product?”

As a card carrying legal MMJ patient, he says he started smoking in high school. He has only ever taken two breaks from the substance since then and has otherwise smoked nearly every day.

Powers says he has successfully reached his goals: He achieved “exceptional” grades in college, has not been fired from a job, is independent and has been in “healthy long-term romantic relationships.”

Still, he felt that something was missing and that his reliance on marijuana could be the cause. “I am concerned that by walking around in a haze all the time, I am not fully experiencing all that life has to offer me,” he says. So, when Lent rolled around, he decided to borrow the tradition from his past.

Other non-religious millennials have similarly embraced the spirit of sacrifice.

Kelly Shedd, 26, from El Segundo gave up chocolate this year, even though she considers herself nondenominational.

“It sounds silly, but practicing Lent puts things in perspective for me,” she says. “For 40 days I am constantly encountering that ‘want,’ and it reminds me of just how blessed I am that that is what I struggle with rather than needing food, water and shelter.”

Giving up Dr. Pepper

Brooke Wied, 28, who lives in Santa Monica, gave up Dr. Pepper and says she uses Lent as an excuse to live healthier. Though she hasn’t attended church regularly since college, she says she still sees herself as a religious person. “I grew up believing that religion, spirituality and love are one in the same,” she explains.

Kevin Patra, 28, who lives in Hollywood, was raised Catholic but is no longer practicing. “I haven't been to any church in more than five years and have no plans to return anytime in the near future,” he says.

Yet Patra gave up coffee this year during Lent for personal discipline. “Giving something up for 40 or so days is a personal decision that has nothing really to do with my religious beliefs,” he says. “The fact that that practice falls during Lent in merely an extension of being raised Catholic.”

Richard Flory, director of research at the center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California and co-author of "Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation," says this might be a way young adults are acting on their spirituality even as they stray from religion.

“There is something about trying to create a space for yourself to pursue some sort of broadly construed spirituality that helps keep you grounded,” he says. “A lot of what we hear from post-baby-boomers is about authenticity and about being who you are. This is a way to link back into parts of their identity without buying into the larger institution.”

Delis Alejandro, the Pastoral Associate and Director of outreach at St. Monica’s church in Santa Monica, is hopeful that Lenten sacrifice may be the first step young adults take toward rejoining the church.

“Those are people you have an opportunity with. You have a chance,” she says. “They want some higher power. So the Church would be happy that they have that dimension.”

Bringing young people back to the church

Alejandro has been the Director of Young Adult Ministries at St. Monica’s for the past 25 years. After watching the increasing numbers of parishioners fall away from the church as they approached adulthood, she dedicated her career to creating an active Catholic community for young adults in Santa Monica.

She proudly says that her efforts have been successful. The Young Adult Ministries program at St. Monica’s offers an array of options to 20-somethings searching for spirituality or just looking to socialize. She casts blame on those who have not intentionally fostered a community that meets the needs of young people within the church.

“It is a generation that is not in the pews of many churches,” she says. “Young people are disappointed with religion. They are not engaged, not connected. They do not feel part of the community. So those are the people who end up part of that group, being very spiritual people but not necessarily in the pew.”

She says she hopes that those who practice Lent receive the benefits from it, and that that could lead them closer to their original faith tradition.

Powers, the DJ, is already seeing the benefits of giving up smoking marijuana. “I feel great,” he says enthusiastically. “Lent has been a great excuse for me to finally take a much-needed break from pot, and I have learned that I really don't need it to get by. And in some way, there is a spiritual element to all of this. I just feel more connected to everything.”

Still, he says he does not plan on embracing Catholicism again anytime soon, even though he admits that he misses the sense of community. He has however, regained his belief in Lent.

“I think that the idea of giving up something that you love, especially something that isn't especially good for you, once a year is a really good idea that everyone could benefit from,” he says. “I plan on ‘celebrating’ it every year from now on.” 

This story is one in an occasional series of reports by students taking part in a class of the USC Annenberg Knight Program on Media and Religion, headed by Diane Winston. Thanks to a grant from the Luce Foundation, Annenberg students have covered global religion, culture and politics for the past four years. This year's journalism class is headed to Ireland and Northern Ireland for 10 days in March and, in preparation, its students are covering Los Angeles' Catholic communities. The nine students are a mix of undergraduates, second year grad students and mid-career professionals.