We were one of the Protestant families on our street in the 1950s in Wilmington, DE, just miles from Joe Biden’s Claymont. The baby boom had led to the middle class building upsurge north of the city, and the nine, neat, split-level houses on our dead-end spoke to the dreams of white families in the suburbs. Each house was brick with cedar shingles of various colors, and each had modest landscaping of small shrubs, perennials, and bright annuals in its tidy yard. Children from babies to high schoolers lived in each split-level, so, depending on the weather, some of us younger ones might be riding our bikes, making snow forts, or chasing each other through the backyards. Nevertheless, our ability to play together belied a deep divide: we were Protestants of one of many different varieties or Roman Catholics, and we knew that distinction separated us culturally—and eternally. Once we kids began religious education, we learned not all of us were going to make it to heaven, and this led to the emergence of a steely cold beneath the apparent warmth in our Barbie world or outdoor play time.
My parents had settled on attending the small Episcopal Church several miles from the house instead of one in my mother’s Lutheran tradition. My father had attended the Episcopal seminary in Boston before deciding being a minister wasn’t for him and finding work as a teacher in Wilmington. Nonetheless, raising us with faith was important to them, and each Sunday we dressed in tights and frilly Sunday dresses (my older sister and I) or in nice pants and shirt with a bow tie (my younger brother). My father’s family had been Methodist, largely because they were musicians who sang or played the organ, until the Episcopal Church lured my aunt away to play the organ with them. Each Protestant church had its own traditions and my parents, both biology teachers, liked the “intellectual rigor” of the Episcopal Church, and the mingling with the up-and-coming, too, I suspect. My father’s rising career and their academic successes (my mother was often the valedictorian or the award winner in her school) made them feel like they were among friends. They certainly weren’t going to fall for this prohibitions on heaven narrative circulating on the road. My mother’s voice would tighten any time such things were mentioned.
But all this changed when my parents divorced and my mother fell ill with deep, difficult-to-treat depression. Not only were we Protestants, but we now had a divorce going against us. Any hand-waving or “Upset the Fruit Basket” game on the road suddenly stopped; our neighbors’ doors were closed to us and my mother was too overwhelmed to work out an armistice. She was not pleased with the religious injustice, anyway. We moved to Ohio after she remarried and before I started high school. My dearest friend on the road walked over to say goodbye when we had finished packing the car. We had not talked for years.
Nearly a decade later, after I graduated from college and began graduate school in the South, I longed for the sweet spirituality of my childhood faith, but was still adrift. No Protestant denomination satisfied my roaming spirit. I married and spent years in one fellowship after another, usually until some sign of problems, a political split, a self-serving minister (or so I thought), or problematical theology (again, or so I thought) convinced me to find higher ground. And herein the irony, after years of endless exploring, I ended up in the pew of a Catholic Church.
My oldest child, followed by her siblings– married someone raised in the Catholic faith. I sat shivering through my first Roman Catholic mass, convinced I was going to be called out as a heretic and asked to leave. When people in my pew headed toward the Eucharist, the chalice and host at the front of the church, I decided to go with them. When it was my turn, I crossed my arms in front of me and whispered to the priest that I wasn’t Catholic and expected at best a blessing of some kind, but more likely, a scolding. Instead he looked at me with warmth and told me if I were “a believer,” I was welcome to take part in the feast. I literally thought I felt generations in my family turned in their Protestant graves at that moment. But I stayed that day and for nearly ten years now, becoming part of ministry teams to prisoners and the sick, both ministries that drew on my childhood experiences in the tough Wilmington years.
Am I comfortable with the political stance, the sometimes self-serving clergy or (parish members), or the problematical theology in the church? No. Sometimes I am in direct opposition to what is being said or practiced, but I’ve learned to share my troubled mind and heart with someone on staff. And I am willing to leave if I feel any of my guard rails coming off or if I feel the God of my understanding is telling me it’s time to leave. I believe my family, deeply attached to their Protestant faith and its practices, forgot what they were protesting against or fighting for and became unwilling to mend fences, and I believe the Catholic Church did, too. In spending time in the house of my former family “enemy,” I have learned through experience that love is what we were all searching for, and that this love is ultimately mine first to find and mine first to give.