Yessica Cortez—Finding a Home (and Herself) at College

Yessica Cortez showed up to church in her Sunday best, only to find a nightclub full of people in t-shirts and jeans and a pastor who wasn’t afraid to rock a leather jacket. 

“It made me feel out of place for a brief moment,” Cortez remembers, “but once we started to get into the worship songs I realized I wasn’t there for anyone else. Ultimately, I was just there to hear the Word and praise.”

Cortez is accustomed to feeling out of place and then falling back into it again. Halfway through middle school, she experienced the culture shock of moving from the ethnically homogeneous Marlborough, Massachusetts, to the much more diverse city of Worcester, Massachusetts. Now a junior at Boston University’s School of Hospitality Administration, Cortez found herself standing face to face with another daunting change when she moved to college.

The chaos of transition practically commands that something small will go missing. Most people lose a trinket or maybe a sock or two when they move. Cortez, on the other hand, arrived at BU to find that she had lost something much bigger—the work ethic and determination that she felt defined her.

* * *

While many middle schoolers were spending their days roaming around the mall with friends, Cortez faced a more challenging reality. Her older brother is autistic, and as her mother took him to doctors and her father went to work, Cortez often found herself watching over her two other siblings. 

“I took on a lot of responsibility at a young age,” says Cortez. “Since I had to take care of them, I really didn’t have free time to go out and do things.” 

Despite feeling like she missed out on the typical teenage experience in her early years, Cortez’s sense of responsibility has been apparent since she was young. “I used to love doing homework,” she says. “I was always hungry for knowledge.” As a first-generation college student, she was especially proud of herself for being accepted to BU. 

Source: Yessica Cortez

However, in her sophomore year of college, she found herself slipping. The focus and determination that used to drive her to excel in school was suddenly gone.

“I just wanted to give up all the time,” Cortez says. “It felt out of character for me.” She had lost the will to do anything, to the point where her friends would have to drag her out of her room to get her to the library. 

“This school is too expensive for you to just be slacking off,” they’d tell her. Their encouragement was helpful, but it was one co-worker's suggestion that finally got her out of that slump for good.

* * *

The April air was beginning to thaw, and the sky was uncharacteristically sunny as Cortez found her way to Hillsong Boston for the first time. At this point in the spring semester of her sophomore year, she felt as though she had entirely lost herself. Her friend and co-worker, Sam, had finally convinced her to meet up with him for the Sunday morning services at his church, hoping that she would be able to find what she was looking for. 

“Religion played a big part in my life when I was younger,” Cortez says, “but when I moved from Marlborough to Worcester I kind of lost touch with it.” 

Cortez ventured out to Hillsong on her own. She could have missed the unassuming entrance of the church—nestled between a convenience store and a Marriott hotel in Boston’s theater district—if it hadn’t been for the large banner on the sidewalk that read “Welcome Home.” 

The awning above the door, on the other hand, displayed a name that Boston nightlife regulars are sure to recognize: “Royale.”

“It’s still a church,” Cortez says. “Our location just happens to be a nightclub.” Hillsong Boston is not your grandmother’s congregation. The church delivers traditional Christian messages with a shockingly modern presentation. It’s altogether a very curious juxtaposition of past and present. Cortez was understandably taken aback when she first visited. 

“That turn from a Saturday night, when people are out there partying, to a Sunday morning, when people are there worshipping… it was weird,” she says.

Source: @joshua_pessoa on Instagram

As the congregation began to sing, lifting their arms to the heavens, Cortez mouthed along with the words shyly. She gave herself a moment to take in the view from her seat on the balcony: the darkness of the room, the spotlights shining on the stage, the large screen, and the overwhelmingly casual attire of the congregation.

They Skyped in for the sermon, a lesson on friendship that seemed especially fitting. After all, she wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for Sam. Despite the unorthodox service, or maybe because of it, Cortez found herself craving more the moment she left. 

“It felt good because it felt like home,” she says. “It felt like something I had been missing for years.” After her first visit on that unusually beautiful April day, Cortez began to feel like herself again, little by little. 

“Going back to church cleared up my mind to the point where I was able to dive back into my academics and just strive to do better,” she says, “Better for me, and better for everyone.” 

Now when the church rises to sing hymns, Cortez raises her hands and sings out loud right alongside the rest of the congregation, many of whom are now her friends. Hillsong Boston’s unusual format may have been jarring at first, but now she’s glad that they were there to welcome her home. 

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