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As a kid, I went to church for the donuts.
Yes, that’s right, parents. If you want to raise your children into adults who treasure their faith above all else in this increasingly secular world, for heaven’s sake do not let the churches stop serving donuts. Like the spoonful of honey traditionally given to children with their first Hebrew lesson, it certainly doesn’t hurt to pair sugar with something else you want your child to love by association. However, before this starts sounding like product placement for breakfast pastries and Mary Poppins, let me add that although I happily went to church, attended religious education, and got baptized as a child, I didn’t really “get” the Gospel until the age of eighteen. Not only that, I spent the five years previous to my eventual heartfelt conversion (that is to say, most of my teenage years) avoiding church and loudly saying that Christianity was the stupidest religion ever. By that point, my parents didn’t really care whether I went to church or not, but if they had, no doubt it would have been an even more painful five-year period in our home.
So I would advocate both a) donuts and b) at least five years worth of patience up your sleeve. These things happen on God’s time.
I was in second grade when my mother experienced a spontaneous conversion to Catholicism. Before that time, our family had never really talked about God, and I’m pretty sure I had never seen the inside of a church building before. We as a family were into camping, yoga, takeout pizza, cat ownership. Certainly not Jesus. It was all a little out of the blue for me, and specifically I was not happy to learn that church happened on Sunday mornings. I am not and have never been what you would call a “morning person” (I entered this world at 5:55 a.m. and have rarely seen that time of day since) and I was dismayed that in addition to having to get up in time for school five days a week, I was going to lose another precious opportunity for sleeping in to this church thing, whatever it was about. I remember kvetching about this to my second grade best friend, Barbi, just days before my very first Mass. But as for my mom, no argument could move her. I was going. We were all going.
Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church was at the end of a long dirt road, surrounded by lots of Arizona desert and not a lot of neighbors, much like our own house at the time. My sister and I sported our Sunday best (heretofore referred to as “party dresses”) although most of the other congregants wore humble blue jeans. It was a folksy, friendly place where, we were to find, people shared enough in common to feel unity but didn’t feel compelled to contort themselves into total uniformity (thank you for that, Vatican II). The main feature of the church, besides the life-size crucifix of course, was a floor-to-ceiling window behind the altar that showed a breathtaking view of purple mountain foothills. Hence the name. Apparently “Welcome!” is written above the door now, although I don’t remember if it was back then, and anyway I was probably too short to notice. I don’t really remember feeling particularly welcome, that first day. I remember feeling like I’d suddenly been dropped onto an alien planet, but this was not an unfamiliar feeling to child me, so I rolled with it.
I found, quickly, that I liked this place. As an anxious kid who craved structure being raised by two generally laissez faire parents, liturgy was a balm to my soul. I liked knowing exactly what to expect from the service: a little singing, a little reading, a little Father Bob talking about the reading, a little eating (or, before I completed my sacraments, getting a little blessing). For the next few years I tasted it all and called it good: youth groups, monasteries, soup potlucks, labyrinths, rosary circles, practically living at the church on Holy Week. I don’t remember a lot of people talking politics, from the pulpit or otherwise. Nor do I remember a lot of people talking about radical discipleship. It was a cozy, sheltered time.
My enjoyment of glazed donuts quickly became symbolic of a deeper hunger I wanted my childhood church to fill. Oh no, it wasn’t the hunger for communion with God. I wouldn’t wise up to my need for that until age eighteen, as I mentioned. No, it was connection with people I craved most at that age. Church was something my family did together, often going for breakfast afterward, like we were all pals. Already my little nuclear family was tragically mutating under the strain of addiction, mental illness, and my parents’ turbulent relationship, and in contrast, church felt so comforting and normal. It also placed my family in the context of a larger community, blessing us by association, erasing all our stigmas for a few hours once a week. I came to love casually mentioning to my elementary school classmates that my family went to church together. See? Even though we live in the middle of nowhere, I have constantly unbrushed hair and a college-level vocabulary, and my mom keeps getting sent to a special hospital for reasons I’m not allowed to discuss, we’re just like you after all.
Yep, as an elementary school churchgoer I was neurotic, bewildered, and thoroughly shallow, hoping church could be neatly stuffed into the gaping holes in my life without demanding much of me in return. (No wonder I decided as an embittered teen that the Christian religion was nothing more than a crutch.) But looking back, it wasn’t a total loss. There were moments, small ones, where God actually managed to catch my attention. I can still recall exactly where I was sitting in those rows of vinyl-upholstered chairs when I heard bits of the Gospel that shocked me out of my daydreams. Things like “If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself and take up his Cross and follow me.” Whoa. What? What does that mean?
Or “When you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” A difficult concept for me to grasp even now: doing good things with no immediate reward whatsoever? Not even looking good to others?!
Or how about “If my brother comes to me and asks for forgiveness seven times in a day, should I give it to him?” “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven times.” Wow, that’s a lot of times, I thought to myself, having just learned the multiplication table without ever expecting it would be used in such a strange and provocative way.
And I do remember one thing from the very first service. I remember the first time I sang the Gloria and felt swept up in this huge current of joy, singing gloria in excelsis deo and on one level not knowing what the heck I was saying but on another level understanding with all my heart that this was what I wanted to do for eternity.
Still, mostly, in those days, it was about the donuts.