An Unexpected Visitor: A Conversion Story

Friday, August 5, 2016

We chose to purchase a home in the little town we live in because of its history, its charm and that “small town feel”.  We have farmers markets, an annual city celebration with a parade led by the high school marching band, summer concerts in the park and a main street with a barber shop where the men sit outside and smoke tobacco pipes.

On a warm summer afternoon we walked back to our car after our city celebration on Main Street. I smugly commented on the boring nature of our town and how grateful I was that it’s so safe. 

The next morning we were in full Holmes Family fashion, late as usual to mass.  We struggled to find a parking spot and then raced across the street.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed two police cars parked in the middle of the road.  They were parked side by side, each facing opposite directions as if both officers had simply stopped to chat with one another….you know, right in the middle of the street, because it’s Sunday in our town, and nothing interesting ever happens here. 

I shook my head and smiled and ran into the church.  I plopped down and went through the motions of mass. 

This is where I’m going to stop for a moment to explain.  Yes, I just said, “went through the motions”.  A few years earlier my husband and I stopped going to mass for a period of time.  We had been struggling with our faith and little by little, a few small choices eventually led to not going to church all together. 

It was a tumultuous time in all aspects of our life and we just couldn’t seem to find our way.  Job loss, job change, moving to a new place with no real connections and watching the life we had so carefully planned crumble.  It was the perfect storm for a spiritual crisis. We weren't angry at God and never stopped believing in Him but we strayed into complacency.  The foundation we built our lives upon was not built upon God as much we pretended it was.  

Finally, when we had enough of wandering in our proverbial desert, we knew it was time to return.  And I can’t speak for my husband, but I can say that I arrived with some baggage.  I carried with me hesitation and doubt and a good dose of egotism but somehow I returned week after week.  

A few years later God blessed us with a son.  The difficult pregnancy and delivery showed us without a doubt that we were never in control.  And in all of the trials I knew God was with me.

And yet my heart, as I sat there in that pew, was still hardened. 

I never understood what St. Paul meant when he said, “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts.”   I always thought if God called you, you would naturally come running.  But that’s not the way it is sometimes.  

God speaks truth and truth is light to the dark corners of our life, the ones we sometimes aren't willing to examine.   

We turn away because “we know better than the teachings of the church,”, or we think “I'm really a good person so why do I have to do those things?” or “those teachings are archaic and don’t apply today.”  The litany of my excuses went on and on.  Going to mass felt like an activity I needed to check off my list, yet I was longing for more but didn’t know how to find it.

And that’s what I carried in my heart that summer day.
After mass I overheard some old ladies behind me saying things like, “He was carrying a back pack.  Who knows what was in there?”  And the other woman piped up, “Did you see how he was dressed?  His face was covered.  That was really strange.”

I thought two things: first, they must have been talking about something that happened in the news and second, they sounded so prejudiced.  

Just because someone is dressed differently, don’t automatically assume there’s something wrong with them Church Lady. 

And so I smugly walked away. 

Chatting with our friends after mass I discovered just moments before our family rushed into church and sat down, a man covered from head to toe with only his eyes showing, carrying a rather large black backpack walked into our church.  He entered through the side door closest to the altar, marched down the center aisle and planted himself in a pew.  Everything about him, from all accounts, was menacing to say the least.  In the time since then, I’ve learned just how welcoming, unassuming and decent the people at our parish are.  They’re the kind of people who take to heart the idea that Jesus shows up in the faces of the poor and outcast. 

However, it was very clear that this man was not here to worship.  He was eventually asked by an usher to leave. I’m not sure how long this took or how this went down exactly but it was enough to warrant calling the police. This man was sitting in the church when we, in our blissful ignorance, sat down in our pew.

Our friends who arrived just minutes after we did were not allowed into the church and had to wait outside until the man was removed from the building.  

Persecution of Christians reached historic levels that year (2014) and it continues to escalate today. At the back of my mind were recent events of Christians all around the world dying because of their religious practices and beliefs. 

What was this man’s intent?  Was he just drunk and belligerent or did he choose to enter a Catholic Church for a sinister reason?  I couldn’t help but wonder if I were in the shoes of any of the Christian martyrs dying around the world if I would be willing to die for my beliefs.  Was my faith strong enough? Did I really know what I believed in?  And would I be ready to stand judgment for the life I’ve led? 

The answer was sadly, no.

I realized that I needed to make a choice. I could no longer sit on the fence with my faith…I needed to take it seriously or not at all. 

I could hear God asking

What do you really believe, Maria? Are you ready to follow me or do you want to continue sitting on the sidelines?

I will never know why that man chose to walk into our church that Sunday.  But I do know that the day a possibly drunk man, with poor fashion choice and a bad attitude walked into our church was the day everything in my spiritual life changed.  That might sound silly but God works through the oddest situations to break open the hardest of hearts.  He shows us what we need to see when we need to see it.   

In what unexpected ways has God spoken to you? Have you ever felt like you've been sitting "on the bench" with your faith? Are you still struggling with this now?  If you've made the choice to get off the bench and "get in the game" how did you do it?  

I'd love to hear from you. 

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  1. Wow, powerful story! I wonder if I wasn't there at the time. That sounds nerve-wracking. And I'm glad that you're out of the spiritual deserts! It was great to get to spend some one-on-one time with you the other day. Great post!

    1. Thanks Jenny! This was difficult to write about for a billion reasons, but I felt that it was a story that needed to be told. It was so great to see you too!!


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