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Silicon Valley faith: The tech capital’s surprising life of the spirit

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John Burger - published on 11/06/18

It’s not all a relentless pursuit of wealth and technological innovations.

Yea, though I work in the Silicon Valley of tech, I shall fear no godless pursuit of riches or digital engineering of society … 

Apologies to the Psalmist, but the paraphrase reflects a continuing suspicion of the corporate behemoths whose digital revolution has radically transformed the way we live.

Silicon Valley has gone from being a geographical location to representing a concept, much as Hollywood and Madison Avenue have in the past.

In spite of Google’s famous mantra, “Do No Evil,” the company that turned the internet search into an empire, for example, is routinely criticized for everything from bowing to communist China’s demands for censorship to its handling of sexual abuse in its upper echelons. But the broader suspicion of Silicon Valley can be gleaned from a quick review of recent press articles:

  • A columnist referred to the “Luciferian magnates of Silicon Valley” who “want to know us better than we know ourselves in every respect.”
  • A  theology professor who had just moved to a San Francisco Catholic seminary expressed great delight at the strong faith she found there and was quoted as saying, “Granted, I might have unwittingly stumbled upon a particularly Catholic pocket of the country, but that is rather unlikely for I am in the heart of Silicon Valley, which is not … famous for its devotion to Catholic doctrine.”
  • The New York Times ran a critical article with the alarming headline “A Dark Consensus About Screens and Kids Begins to Emerge in Silicon Valley.”

“I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children,” the article quoted a former executive assistant at Facebook.

But some take a view that is not so dark, and there are plenty of people of faith and resources for the practice of a godly life for those who live and work in Silicon Valley.

“I can’t help but see the extraordinary spiritual power of a place like this, which is connecting so much of the world,” Bishop Robert Barron told a group of employees as he began a much-celebrated talk at Facebook headquarters last year. “I suppose you can read that in a purely secular way. But I choose not to. I think that’s a spiritual thing, that you’re bringing people together.”

Earlier in the year, Bishop Barron, the founder of Word on Fire Ministries, gave a similar at Google headquarters, a talk that has had almost 135,000 views on YouTube.

Indeed, for evangelists like Bishop Barron, the internet and social media can be very much a friend—he also hosted an AMA, or “Ask Me Anything,” session on Reddit this past September. But it might surprise some readers that the talks he gave at Google and Facebook were initiated by Catholic organizations that exist within those companies.

“At Google, a few employees just started meeting for lunch every once in a while, and then something came along, and someone got a speaker. … It just kind of grew from that and became a little bit more organized,” said Tony Weber, who has worked as a software engineer at Google Earth for five years. “It’s very informal. There’s no kind of, like, structure behind it.”

His fellow employee, Melissa Kuo, who was instrumental in arranging Bishop Barron’s talk, calls the group Catholic Googlers. She said it has a membership of about 300.

Bill Fusz, who has been with Facebook for four years and is head of Global Developer Operations, explained that his group, Catholics@Facebbook, is one of “a constellation of what we call Facebook resource groups.”

“One of our internal values is really being able to bring your authentic self to work, to try to integrate your work and your life by not having to sort of hide or leave parts of you behind when you cross the threshold of the office,” Fusz said. “So we have a lot of different groups that allow you to do that and support you in doing that and help you build community in doing that. We’re all about building community globally, so we’re about building community inside the company as well.”

In many ways, tech companies dominate life throughout Silicon Valley. Fusz and his family attend St. Joseph of Cupertino Church in Cupertino, which shares a parking lot with Apple buildings. “You’re surrounded by Apple in Cupertino,” he said. “It’s just funny to have the church and the company bumping up against each other.”

But in one notable case, it’s a church with a 32-foot-high statue of Mary that dominates the landscape in the midst of Silicon Valley icons. For many drivers tooling along Route 101, Our Lady of Peace, with her arms open in welcome, draws in the curious and the broken-hearted. Many sit in the park-like area surrounding the statue, and some proceed into the church, also named Our Lady of Peace.

”The first time we came up here to visit a friend, we got off the freeway. It was night, and we saw this huge statue lit up, and it was pretty surprising,” said Chris McGlone, who works in medical supplies sales and whose family now belongs to the parish. “So after Mass we went out to a restaurant and found our way back to the church. Father had adoration going on. It was nine or ten o’clock at night. It was pretty remarkable.”

“Everyone who comes here—I hear this all the time—they say ‘I feel peace when I come here,’” said Fr. Brian Dinkel, pastor of the church, which is a 10-minute walk from the new 49ers stadium. “Non-Catholics will come and sit and look at Mary, out there in the shrine area. … Before Silicon Valley started to grow, she was the biggest thing you could see around. Everyone knows us as the church with the big statue of Mary.”

Fr. Dinkel believes she draws people to her Son. He cites examples of people who sit by the statue and notice others going into the church.

“More than anything, we have a lot of fallen away Catholics who come back,” Fr. Dinkel said in an interview. “There are four priests here, and one of the major apostolates we do is confession. Almost every sitting we have one or two people who have been away for many years who will come in. We can only attribute it to 1) the intercession of Our Lady and 2) the prayers of our people.”

There is perpetual adoration of the Eucharist in the church—people praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament 24/7—and Fr. Dinkel likens such devotion to the internet itself.

“I think of it as the soul or the heart that is beating silently within Silicon Valley,” he said. “As the internet is constantly processing information and always in movement, we are there constantly adoring our Lord and being a silent place of prayer.”

McGlone testified that “you could pop in in the middle of the night and see 12-15 people praying in church.”

But while that suggests an image of an inward-looking church, there are also efforts to help Catholics in Silicon Valley be heralds of the Gospel in their world of work. While Bishop Barron gave a high-profile talk at Google, another priest also spoke there, at Tony Weber’s invitation. Fr. Robert Badillo, a professor of philosophy at St. John’s University in New York, spoke about seeing work in the light of Catholic teaching.

“It’s a way in which we are sort of assisting the completion of creation,” Fr. Badillo said in an interview. “This requires a daily observance so they can see everything they do from the perspective of their own growth in union with God, or sanctity, such that this requires a proactive prayer life.”

From an interior communion with God, which includes regular reception of the sacraments of Confession and Eucharist, will flow an exterior life of charity, Fr. Badillo said, an essential element in the highly competitive workplace.

“In other words, trying to be points or reference of Christlike patience, Christlike goodness. Love is goodness, love is kind, love is not rude,” he said, paraphrasing  St. Paul. “We try to bring Christ to all the persons in that environment, including the ones we may have more difficulty with.”

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