“Church?” I asked myself. I dressed quickly as I contemplated what that meant. “Would Mom and Dad approve of me going?” “I don’t have church clothes to wear!” More importantly, “I’ve never been to church! Don’t I have to be registered or something?” I was in a bit of a panic and I quickly joined the ranks of purposeful walkers as I went in search of David’s mother. “Surely, we can negotiate this,” I thought. I found her in the kitchen. “Mrs. DeJohn, can I call my mother so that she can come and pick me up?” David’s mother replied “There’s no need. If we’re going to be on time for church we had better be leaving in a few minutes.” I responded with several pleas to get out of going. “I can wait in your driveway until she gets here!” “I can walk home!” “I don’t have church clothes!” And, finally, “I’ve never been to church before!” Her demeanor suddenly changed. “You haven’t? Well, dear, there’s nothing to fear. I’ll make sure that no harm comes to you,” she chuckled.
We sat near the front of St. John’s Catholic Church. It was beautiful inside and my eyes took it all in: wood pews, stained glass windows, marvelously-crafted statues, a loft at the back of the church, and a giant cross at the front. Was that Jesus on the cross? I saw friends from school start to arrive with their families. I saw our next-door neighbors file in one by one. “So, this is where they go every Sunday!” I thought to myself. Organ music started playing and everyone stood up. Singing followed and I looked up to the loft to see a small choir sing the first of many assigned hymns. A procession that started in the back made its way to the front and David’s mom opened the “missalette,” a booklet that she grabbed from a nook in front of us. She had me stand beside her and she meant to explain the mass from start to finish. She used words to explain the flow of what we were participating in. When talking was not appropriate she pointed to the paperback so that I could read what was happening or what prayer was being recited. It was a lot to take in but I was eager to learn more. There was a lot of standing, sitting, and kneeling and it was almost like an exercise class, I thought. Near the end, we all stood in line for “The Eucharist,” which led me to ask more questions. Mrs. DeJohn explained that I couldn’t take communion that day but I still felt like a part of the whole. It was my first religious experience.
I was a paperboy in the small town that I was raised in. I delivered the “The Times Union,” a newspaper out of Rochester and it took me just over an hour each evening to deliver the daily paper to thirty or so customers on the south side of town. It was Friday and I was knocking on doors to make my weekly collection. It was wintertime and there was too much snow and ice to ride my bike, so I walked the route in snow boots and many layers of clothing. The subscription price for six days of the Times Union was ninety cents in 1974 and I kept dimes in the pocket of my jeans because most people came to the door with a dollar bill and most wanted change, especially the older customers. Getting a ten cent tip from one of the widows on my route was rare, unless it was Christmas week. A week’s income for me at twelve years of age was somewhere between $5.50 and $7.00 but I could make over $20 on Christmas week if I tied the paper with red ribbon on collection day. I learned that “hanging out” with some of the older people to hear a story or two could mean an extra dime in my pocket. Friday evenings could be long.
I knocked on the door of Mrs. Julia Cordon, an older woman on Meadow Street. I didn’t know a lot about her but she would usually make some pleasant small talk on Fridays. She always expected to get a dime back from me. “Is it Friday already? Come on in, young man!” she exclaimed. It was the first time she had asked me inside. “It is so cold out there! You must be freezing!” she went on. “I’m used to it,” I replied. She went to another room to retrieve her purse and I took the time to look at the contents of her living room. Like most houses in Clyde, New York hers was an older home but it was well-furnished, clean, and tidy. She quickly returned to where I stood with my boots and melting snow on her front rug. “I saw you in church on Sunday! Who were you there with?” she asked. I told her about my stay-over at David’s house the prior weekend and then I asked her where she had been sitting. “I play the organ at St. John’s. I was in the loft with the choir.” Just then, I noticed an organ in the corner of her living room. “Yes, that’s where I practice most of the time,” she said. “What is your name?” she asked. “You have delivered my paper for several months and we haven’t had a chance to get to know each other.” Mrs. Cordon and I talked for several minutes and I left after giving her change. Many conversations followed in the months ahead and I learned that she was a widow who lived alone and her life was playing the organ and enjoying her grandchildren. As I yearned for more knowledge I would sometimes walk to mass on my own and I remember Mrs. Cordon picking me up in her Dodge sedan a couple of times when I was walking. She would often share the weekly bulletin with me and, after I had moved away, would mail the weekly bulletin to me so that I could stay up-to-date with the parishioners and events of St. John’s. Many years later, Julia and I continued to mail Christmas cards to each other. Other than my mother and grandmother, she was the first woman I remember who took an active interest in my future and how I lived it. She was an angel.
My family moved to south Texas in the late seventies and it was a confusing time for me. I was fifteen, we were in a different state, a different climate, a different culture, and my parents were divorcing. Everything I knew was changing and I had a need to belong to something bigger than myself. I remember being in Tenth grade English class one day and a debate ensued between two classmates of mine: George McGuire and Tommy Meaders. It was a friendly debate between two friends and it had to do with the story of creation. I remember that the debate sparked an interest in me and I let George and Tommy know it. Friendships followed and I attended the First Baptist Church of Freeport on a couple of occasions. It was their church and I was invited to youth bible studies a couple of times. I found the Baptists to be different from the Catholics. Baptists seemed to be more vocal as a group, and as individuals. Catholics were more reverent in their space, and their faith seemed closer to the vest. Regardless, the belief was basically the same and I continued to soak it in.
After high school I attended junior college and Tommy and I would often see each other in the snack bar in the mornings. His field of study was engineering and mine was journalism and although we didn’t have classes together, we would often touch base over a cup of coffee. It was Tommy who got me to join the Baptist Student Union. We had weekly bible studies and I remember the day that the group gave me my own study bible. It was the King James Version, wrapped in burgundy-colored pleather, and it had my name stenciled on the cover in gold-colored font. I still have it somewhere and there are post-it notes on various pages throughout the text, a testament to the many hours of studying and attempts to learn all that I read. At this point, Christianity was in my head and not yet in my heart. I found it hard to relate to the many things that I read and I wasn’t yet ready to accept everything that people told me. I felt like many of the people I talked to felt the same way but weren’t willing to bring their feelings forward. After a time, I quit attending bible studies. I remained friends with Tommy but we didn’t talk a lot about religion anymore. He was my best man when I married a couple of years later. I met a couple of other people at college who had an influence on me. There was Michael, a pastor of a local “Assembly of God” church. He once invited me to one of his services. It was the first and last time that I witnessed “talking in tongues.” It was a little weird for me but I liked the message that Michael continued to give me in our random lunchtime conversations. There was also Barbara, the wife of a Texas Department of Corrections factory superintendent. She was Baptist and I often played the Devil’s advocate in our talks. I once asked her “What if you’re wrong about life after death?” Her answer stuck with me. She said “If I’m wrong, at least I’ll go to my death knowing that I lived my life with purpose and with a belief that I stayed true to.” I knew that I wanted what she had.
I looked up faith in the dictionary. It reads “A strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.” Up to this point in my life, I had something pulling me in the Christian faith. The people I have written about are some of the people who were a part of that magnetic attraction, however, it was still only in my head and I was looking for scientific proof of a God that existed and I wasn’t finding it. Another definition of faith is “Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.” Looking back, I guess the reason that I couldn’t summon up faith for the first definition is because I had never experienced the faith of the second definition. The only faith I had was what I had in myself. I knew that I could depend on my own morals, my own loyalty, in self-truths. I didn’t have faith in anyone else. Not really. It would be a long time before I came to understand.
Angie told me when we became engaged that we would have to marry in the Catholic Church. There was no other way, and we would have to get married at St. Henry’s, the family church in Freeport. We made an appointment to see the priest who was from Central America. He spoke several languages, including English. We met in his office and he asked us several questions as he dragged on a cigarette at his desk. He explained that he could marry us in the church but only if we promised to raise our children as Catholics. We agreed and we had a Catholic wedding the following year. I remember it being a low-budget event and Father didn’t turn the air conditioning on until about thirty minutes before it started. He led the Mass in Latin and Spanish and I took my cues from Angie at the critical moments. I laugh about it now but at the time I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. I did learn that the Catholic faith was a big part of the family’s traditions and Hispanic culture. We were sure to get both of our daughters baptized.
We were a little slow at getting our girls involved in church. In fact, both of our girls attended communion classes at the same time and they’re five years apart from each other. Poor Stefanie . . . she was the oldest (and tallest) kid in the communion class picture and she teases us about it to this day. I remember the day that they both received their first communion. They were both dressed in white and Lori walked up to me afterwards and said “Guess what, Daddy? I received first communion today!” I told her “I know, baby! We’re so proud of you!” Then she asked “Daddy, when are you going to receive first communion?” Suddenly, I felt like she had a better understanding of faith than I did! It was a call to action for me.
My brother-in-law, Charlie Minter was eleven years younger than me. Angie and I would take him to do things when we were teenagers and even when we were newly married. Charlie was always curious and independent and he grew into an adult who often questioned the norm. He accepted Christ as his personal savior at a young age and he had strong convictions about his faith. We would often debate about religion and what made our respectful arguments memorable for me was the way he would find proof to back up his arguments. Sometimes he would find many resources on the internet to prove a point and other times he would simply point to a verse or chapter in the bible. He was very compelling. He once showed me a video that proved some events as they were told in the Old Testament and also disproved truths that many atheists and agnostics have stated for years. It is not my intent to make any of these arguments known in this writing. I just want to underline the fact that Charlie was the first one to prove to me that Jesus Christ was here as the Son of God. I’ll never forget that.
Like most families, we had things happen in ours that took their toll on my patience, my small amount of wisdom, and my spirituality. I was at a point that I needed guidance from a higher power. Angie and I were going through the mail one day and we found a newsletter from our local church that announced the “Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults” or RCIA. It was a meeting at the church for anyone interested in joining the faith, joining the church, or simply “catching up” with getting their sacraments. I told Angie that I wanted to go and we went as a couple for one night a week for about a month. It was a time to learn about the Catholic faith and, in older times, a time for the church to scrutinize those wanting to convert to Catholicism. There was much to learn and many questions to ask. I learned the answers to why Catholics stand, sit, and kneel so much and to so many other questions. After several months, I was still a sponge, soaking up more and more information. But, it was still just in my head and not in my heart, until “Holy Week,” the week leading up to Easter Sunday in 2002. On the Easter vigil I was to be baptized, along with two other adults. Then, there would be several of us who would receive first communion and be confirmed in the faith. It was what our group was leading up to after all of these months but I wasn’t 100% convinced. There was something missing and I couldn’t put my finger on it. On Holy Thursday, we learned about “the washing of the feet” and how Jesus humbled himself by washing the feet of his disciples. I left church that evening with closeness to Him that I hadn’t felt before. It was as if I knew Jesus personally and he seemed to have left a mark on me. On Good Friday, the church had a service at 3:00 pm, the same time as his death on the cross all those years ago. The service is called “Veneration of the Cross,” and parishioners come to the alter to pay homage to the cross and Jesus’ sacrifice. Some people kiss the cross. Some simply touch it. Others stand or kneel before it and genuflect. I kissed the cross when it was my turn and then I sat down in my pew. It was then that the Holy Spirit wrapped itself around me. I cried uncontrollably for several minutes. My faith was born and I realized that proof of God no longer mattered. He was now in my heart and there was nothing that could take Him away. I was baptized at the vigil the following night and it was an experience that I’ll take with me for the rest of my life. I would like to thank some of the people that had a hand in my conversion: Fr. Vince Dulock, Cheryl Scott, Chip Stone, and Marianne Vrazel, and of course, Angela Lopez Shoemaker, my wife. I remember Fr. Vince saying “We use oil during baptism because oil will even penetrate rock.” I guess that he was talking to me.
I am still on a spiritual journey and I will be learning and experiencing new things for the rest of my life. For me, faith and spirituality is rooted in the Catholic Church for that is where I truly found God. I have friends and family that believe in teachings other than what Catholic Christians believe in. I respect that and believe that religion should not be thrust upon others. I don’t consider myself an evangelist but if the way I live can affect what others believe in I am there to serve and help in the conversion of anyone who seeks life as a Christian. If the way I live does not affect people in that way then may they find peace and spirituality in their own way and in their own time. To me, peace is about co-existing with all people and believing in the greater good. It’s also about respecting the beliefs of others, even if it’s not what you believe in yourself.
In August of 2010 I attended the thirty-year reunion of the graduating class of Clyde-Savannah Central High School in Clyde, New York. I went with my cousin, Becky, who still lived in the town that we grew up in. Although neither one of us actually graduated from the school we both have life-long friends that we met there and it was a great time for both of us. I woke up on the morning after the reunion and attended mass at St. John’s. It had been approximately 36 years since I had first attended mass there and it was a humbling experience. I sat at the end of a pew in the back and watched all of those people come and go as I did in my youth. Though I recognized only a few people it felt like going home in a way. I received communion and said a prayer and glanced up into the loft before I left. Julia had long since passed away but I felt as if I saw her up there, playing the organ. In my mind’s eye, she smiled at me and I smiled back.