My father’s pastoral assignment in Cedar Falls, Iowa, lasted about two years. I was nearing my ninth birthday, and it was the time in childhood when memories become really powerful life-shapers and faith-makers.
Like the sweltering summer day when my best friend and I sat on the sidewalk in front of the parsonage (a Wesleyan version of the rectory) where my family lived from 1972-1974. After trial and error, we found a rock that worked like sidewalk chalk, and we practiced drawing stars with a new method. Two inverted triangles rather than the star formed by an unbroken string of five lines. A lady came up the sidewalk and smiled at our work. She was older than my mother, a member of that indefinable period of womanhood that exists somewhere between the age of moms and grandmas. “Are you Jewish?” She asked the two of us. We stared at her blankly. “That’s the Star of David,” she explained. “The Star of my faith.”
My friend wasn’t Wesleyan (a denominational line that came by way of the Methodist denomination, by way of Anglicanism, by way of the Church of England, by way of the Catholic Church), but she didn’t know any more about Jewish faith than I did. So we sat there in silence. The lady shrugged her shoulders and kept walking.
Onna and I returned our attention to sidewalk drawing. My friend Onna was at my house more than she was at her own. We rode a bike together, just two of us on one bike. I sat on the front end of the banana seat and pedaled like crazy while Onna sat behind me and steered the handlebars from the back. We never crashed, a sure sign that there are guardian angels in this world.
My friend also came with me to Good News Club. One afternoon a week, the elementary students in the neighborhood met in our church basement. We sang songs about Jesus and his disciples, and we earned little trinkets for memorizing verses like John 3:16.
After the flannel graph story – where we heard about talking donkeys and the walls of Jericho – we were encouraged to ask Jesus to come into our hearts as our personal Lord and Savior. Mom explained that everybody has sinned, and sin is what separates us from God. And the only way to get to heaven is to have Jesus take away the sin.
I don’t remember very much about the day I was “born again”, but I do remember feeling very sinful. I had a secret that Mom didn’t even know. A secret that I had carried with me from the previous pastorate.
I must have been about five when it happened. At five, you don’t know much about good and evil. You don’t know that there are predators – even ones as young as thirteen – ready to compromise your innocence. You assume that the children of your parents’ dearest friends can be trusted. And you don’t know that it’s not your fault when they lure you into darkened Sunday school rooms and make you take off your clothes. Even when they slip a pocket knife into the palm of their hands and wave it in front of you, making threats about what they will do if you tell – even then – you don’t know that the threats are big talk or that it isn’t at all your fault.
When my mother gave the invitation for repentance a year or two later, I knew I wanted to be forgiven. Today, I wonder what it would have been like to have the confessional, where a priest could have led me to Jesus and extended forgiveness to me, but also given me the spiritual guidance that would lead me out of the murky waters of undeserved guilt. But that was not the childhood I knew. We didn’t have priests or confessionals. We sorted out those hidden corners of the soul on our own. Even so, there was grace there, and I do remember feeling the power of the Holy Spirit and the peace of forgiveness.
While we didn't have confessionals or the sacraments, as Wesleyans, we were deeply spiritual. Wesleyans love to have people give testimonies in church, and I found myself listening to the stories with great interest. (It is important to note that Wesleyans also do not talk about visions or certain gifts of the Holy Spirit. It simply wasn’t part of my spiritual schema.)
One afternoon when I was nearing my ninth birthday, I was playing in our back yard and just started thinking about how great it would be to have a testimony that would inspire others to live for Jesus. This line of thought made me sad suddenly, because I realized that I would never have a personal testimony – at least not a very interesting one. I believed that I was already saved. I was the daughter of a preacher, and already spiritually on the right track. I realized sadly that my life wouldn’t go so wrong as to be a “good story.” On the contrary, my testimony would be brief and boring.
She was born into a preacher’s family and saved at the age of eight. The end.
Suddenly, everything grew quiet inside of me and I saw a vision. In my mind, I saw myself as a middle-aged woman. And I knew in my spirit that this moment had already been called into being. It would happen, because it was already marked out to happen. The old woman was in a room, and I was the woman. As I looked out into the room, there were many people, and they had come because they had heard pieces of my conversion story, and they wanted to hear the whole testimony. In the instant that I had the very disappointing thought that I would never have a story to tell, a voice said, wait, oh but you will – look. And there was the room filled with people. The gentle narrator’s voice was inside me and outside me and everywhere. While the voice was not audible, it was strong and real and not my own.
I didn’t run into the house screaming. I just remember being very quiet.
These things happened thirty-five years ago. The truth of the matter is, I’m rapidly approaching the age of the woman in that vision. In the fall of 2007, my youngest daughter’s soccer team played an away game against a local parish. At the end of the game, I walked up the back hill to restrooms as my husband took our daughter to the concession stand. Suddenly, I smelled something that reminded me of that house, that backyard, that entire period of life. I looked down and the ground was covered with walnuts, the green outer husks turning a fecund black, exposing the nut inside. And the memories came in a great rush. Walnut Street!
In 2005, I converted to the Catholic Church, and I started writing about how grace showed up in my father’s suffering and death, to lead me to St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, and how those two Saints took me by the hands and led me all the way Home. Since then, my daughter and husband have entered the Church.
In 2005, on a whim, I took a little piece of my journal, and sent it to a diocesan paper. The editor ran it on the commentary page. To date, I have shared numerous aspects of my conversion with twenty-five diocesan papers, reaching a combined circulation of more than 800,000. Some editors ran just one article. Some ran the column every month.
I have been blessed to have a testimony of God’s grace in my life and to have a burning desire to share that testimony with anyone who will listen. I am blessed to have become Catholic by Grace.