It’s not uncommon for children and their parents to review classwork together, especially with virtual learning during the pandemic.

But Autiyonna Johnson, who is 28 and lives in the Washington, D.C., area, and her mother Natoyia Johnson, who lives in the St. Paul, Minnesota area, have been reviewing classwork together in recent months, following their virtual Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes, as they’ve been preparing to become Catholic at the Easter Vigil in their cities.

In recent months, Autiyonna Johnson, shown above outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, shared a journey of faith with her mother, Natoyia Johnson, who lives in the St. Paul, Minnesota area. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

“I think it’s so cool we get to share what we are both learning in our own RCIA sessions,” said Autiyonna, who noted that she and her mother would call each other and discuss what they were learning about the Catholic faith.

Her mother Natoyia agreed, saying, “It’s been an awesome journey. I’ve learned a lot… It opens up more conversations for us.” And she added, “I think it’s awesome we’re doing this together.”

At the Easter Vigil on April 3, Autiyonna Johnson received her First Communion and Confirmation as a new Catholic at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, and her mom became Catholic and received those sacraments at St. Odilia Church in Shoreview, Minnesota.

Natoyia Johnson, who lives in Minnesota, said it’s been an “awesome journey” to become Catholic at the same time as her daughter, Autiyonna Johnson, who lives in the Washington, D.C., area. (Family photo)

Their joint journey in the faith began when Autiyonna – who works in health-related research projects and serves in the National Guard in the Washington area – came home to her native St. Paul and invited her mom to join her for Christmas Mass at a Catholic church there.

“I invited her, and she came,” Autiyonna said, noting that her mother joined her with no hesitation, attending her first Catholic Mass. “After my short visit, she continued to attend.”

Autiyonna, who is her mother’s only child and has two half-sisters, said, “I’ve always admired my mom’s grace and willingness to keep an open mind… As a child growing up, she allowed me space to ask questions and have my own journey.”

The National Guard member’s newfound faith had been fostered by prayers and encouragement from Sister Jane Duke, an Immaculate Heart of Mary Sister and the religious education coordinator for Catholics at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, where Johnson was serving after being stationed in the Washington area two years ago.

Autiyonna Johnson – who had been baptized at the age of 16 in a nondenominational church – had begun attending Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington.

Tracing her journey of faith, she said, “I would say that my journey started long before I attended my first Mass, which a close friend invited me to years ago. However, attending a Mass for the first time was a turning point as I began to seek a better understanding of the basic teachings of the Church. Years later when I moved to Washington, I found myself yet again drawn to the beauty and traditions of the Church. I recall deciding to attend St. Matthew’s for the first time on a whim, and it just felt as if I found the peace I had long been looking for.”

Autiyonna Johnson receives the sacrament of Confirmation from Cardinal Wilton Gregory during the Easter Vigil on April 3, 2021 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

After she decided to become Catholic, Autiyonna was worried that because of her work schedule, she wouldn’t be able to attend traditional RCIA classes.

Sister Jane Duke met and prayed with her at lunchtime at Joint Base Andrews, and left voicemails for her encouraging her to be patient and adding that she was praying for her. That support from the woman religious serving with the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, was pivotal, she said.

“I think I learned a basic lesson in patience, (about) faith in general, being patient with God. I prayed it would be able to work out,” and it did, Autiyonna said, adding that the St. Matthew’s RCIA team with their virtual program “went out of their way to create community” among the 16 people preparing to become full members of the Catholic Church there.

For her mother, Natoyia Johnson, attending her first Catholic Mass that Christmas with her daughter proved to be “so different from what I’m used to.”

“You have no choice but to be connected, to be focused, to have that connection with Jesus,” she said.

Natoyia Johnson, who had earlier attended an African Methodist Episcopal Church, works with medical insurance. As Autiyonna was growing up, her mother said she tried to teach her to know God and have God at the forefront of her life.

“Your life is so chaotic. You learn to have that peace,” she said.

Over the years, Natoyia said she had become disenchanted with the directions that Protestant churches were taking, because she felt they were changing to follow societal trends.

“I never questioned God,” she  said, adding that after attending that first Mass with her daughter and learning more about the Catholic faith, she grew to love its traditions.

“It’s amazing, the questions I’ve always had that no one could ever answer, when I came to the Catholic Church, all those questions were answered. It connected the dots of all the things I was unsure about,” Natoyia Johnson said.

During the pandemic, Autiyonna Johnson like her fellow members of the National Guard mobilized to serve the country. Her professional and academic background is in healthcare management. As National Guard units responded to missions tasked to them by state governors during the pandemic such as assisting with COVID-19 testing, Autiyonna Johnson supported them with medical logistics. In Maryland, National Guard members also assisted with food distribution for people impacted by the pandemic’s health effects and the resulting economic downturn.

“It’s why I’m in the Guard,” said Autiyonna Johnson, who joined at the age of 19 and continues serving on a part-time basis nine years later with the National Guard’s Air Force Medical Service, now commissioned as a lieutenant. She noted, “National Guardsmen are citizen soldiers and airmen, so they typically serve in communities they live in and grow up in.”

She added that for her, it “meant everything” to support the National Guard’s COVID-19 relief efforts. 

Autiyonna Johnson   (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Autiyonna Johnson said as her faith journey was underway during the pandemic, she found herself “prioritizing prayer and community. I have certainly sought community more within the last year as we all look for new ways to stay connected with one another. The RCIA team at St. Matthew’s has fostered that space, even in a virtual environment. I am so grateful.”

She added, “Catholic devotions such as novenas and the rosary have made a profound impact on my prayer life, especially during the pandemic.”

Her great-grandmother Marguerite Zimmerman was raised Catholic in St. Louis, and Autiyonna remembered her as a spirited, prayerful woman.

“Aside from my mom, no one had a greater impact on my life,” she said, adding that her great-grandmother “just had a general attitude that life is beautiful… I think my adventurous attitude, that part of me, is definitely a mirror of who she was… She had a natural curiosity for life.”

Walking in downtown Washington one day, Autiyonna saw St. Matthew’s Cathedral, and decided on the spur of that moment to go inside, a key step  on her path to becoming Catholic, that happened out of the curiosity that was one of her great-grandmother’s trademarks.

Interviewed by phone a few days before the Easter Vigil in Washington, Autiyonna Johnson said she felt hopeful and “a sense of peace and excitement and joy in being welcomed in this community.”

Natoyia Johnson (family photo)

Her mother Natoyia Johnson in a separate telephone interview from Minnesota echoed that feeling, saying, “I’m excited and looking forward to it. Just to have Communion, it’s such a huge step to take, and I’m glad we’re finally here.”

And reflecting on the shared journey of faith she has taken with her adult daughter, in two different cities across the United States, that would culminate in them both becoming Catholic at the Easter Vigil, she said, “We’re already close. That will draw us even closer.”