While unpacking boxes the other week, I was trying to place a box on the shelf above the fridge. Upon first attempt of placing the box, it got stuck on something. I determined in my head that there must be a sticky spot on the shelf, or a brace or something preventing the box from being properly placed. So logically, I tried again and just tried harder. With no further success and the fear or damaging the box I determined that logically there must, in fact, be something on the shelf. A quick jump up to look revealed a small, white binder left on the shelf by a previous occupant of my apartment.
Upon retrieval of the binder, I took one look at it, and an entire flash of memories danced before me. It was a St. Margaret Mary’s Church Cookbook from 1992. St. Margaret Mary’s was my childhood church. I was baptized there, had my first communion there, was confirmed there, and spent a rather significant portion of my childhood crawling in and amongst the pews, pulpits and halls.
It was there, in that church, when I was 19 that I sat in a pew and I cried to God to take my pain away. I begged Him, pleaded with Him, please, please don’t make me go through this. Please, don’t make me decide. Please, God. Please, don’t make me have to choose between You and what I know in my heart is true.
It was then, there, in that moment, that I decided to look away from the faith that had guided me from infancy to young adulthood – the faith that I had spent countless hours, days, weeks, years absorbing and trying to understanding and trying to fit into. The same faith that called me, relentlessly, to serve it selflessly, wholly and with my entire heart. The same faith, that once the truth was spoken, turned its back on me suddenly, deliberately and with finality. I had chosen a path “incompatible” with their teachings and for that, I was no longer welcome at their table.
A simple book brought all this back. In one moment I was awash with anger, resentment, pain, suffering, sadness. Strangely, though, a moment later I was filled with joy.
Flipping through the pages of the cookbook, looking at the names, I began to remember the love. I remembered the hours that my brothers and I would spend making up things to do while Dad decorated the church for Christmas. I remember the countless trips to church prior to advent helping Dad build the nativity scene. It took hours and hours to complete – it was enormous – it filled an entire room which normally held the offertory candles. I remember how it was seemingly magical it was that Dad could transform this room into a snapshot of Christ’s birth. I remember the moment when everything was done, the labor was finished and the very last thing to do was to put baby Jesus into his cradle – which meant that Christmas was really, truly here.
I remember the late night services for Christmas and Easter. They were my favorite. In the evening, the church had such a glow about it, it was serene, it was peaceful, it was loving. It was as if I were being surrounded by the rich, warm glow of God’s love. I remember the Easter fire coming to life in a blaze of glory and majesty, enlivening the church in an even richer and warmer glow of light.
I remember the retreats, the trips, the dinners, the meetings. Countless meetings – organ meetings, board meetings, budget meetings, entertaining countless new priests, bishops and clergy.
Mostly I remember the people. They all seemed so full of love. These people all affected me – molded me – helped me become who I am today. Even in moments of frustration and anger, I could still feel their love. At times now I still feel like the little kid who was small enough to walk amongst their feet, looking up at them in admiration, asking for their guidance.
In all of this, in nearly every moment, I remember the ever-presence of my Dad. The church was his home, the church was his sanctuary, his sacrifice, his love and suffering, his offering to God. He had keys to nearly every room, knew every person on a first-name basis and could be counted upon for anything and everything. Everybody knew Norm. Everybody loved Norm. What would they ever do with without Norm?
I flipped through the pages of the cookbook with vigor. Surely, the Melichar name would be in there someplace. 1992 was the height of service. Mom and Dad were teaching Sunday School. My brothers and I were altar boys. We were there every Sunday and often days in between to decorate this or fix that or attend to whatever needed attended. By this point in our lives we had stopped asking why, arguing or coercing our way out of the trips. We actually went on our own accord and even helped.
Page after page of the cookbook I looke for our name… but it was nowhere to be found. No Hoska recipe, no Kolache recipe, no meatloaf or honey cookie recipe. The pages are eerily blank of the Melichar name and instead full of names that still after nearly 20 years I can remember with ease. Did Dad miss the deadline? Did he simply decide not to offer anything that year? Was he too busy putting up banners or arranging flowers or preparing lesson plans for Sunday School? I may never know.
Last Sunday I became a full-and-actual member of my church. It’s a much different church than what I grew up in. It’s not as beautiful and ornate. There is no stone floor, there are no offertory candles, there are no chiseled-stone communion rails. There is no incense, no statues of various saints. The organ, while mighty, is mostly hidden. It is more plain. In some respects, I miss the grandeur of it all. I miss the magic and the mysticism that surrounded my childhood and made church seem so much bigger than all of us, than any of us, bigger than even we could comprehend as human beings. I think much of that disappears as we grow older. We learn that it isn’t all roses. We grow to see the flaws and the cracks in the marble and the crumbling statues and peeling murals. We learn that with the love can come the hurt and the humility. But even still in all it’s plain and simple surroundings, it holds more grandeur and magic than Margaret Mary’s. The difference is in the people. They are are the most loving, most respectful, most genuine people I have ever had the privilege to meet.
My church now is home to me. I walk into the doors and feel welcome. I get hugs and acknowledgment and love and concern and care. Most of all, I get to be me. I get to be the person that I know in my heart. I get to be real and genuine and exactly as I am and I am always loved regardless – with and without my flaws.
I wonder if this is the feeling Mom and Dad felt when they first visited Margaret Mary’s. I wonder if they felt this welcomed. I image they did – for the next 30+ years of their lives would be with that congregation. They got married there, raised their children there, and gave the sacrifice of their time and their talents to help the place grow.
In some respects I am scared to be a member of First Central. It signifies that I am no longer a child, bouncing around beneath the adults who know better. It means I can’t sit and watch and wait to be told anymore. It means that I can no longer rely on others to show me my faith and my place.
Looking back at everything my dad did for our church, for our faith, for our family, I am humbled and in awe of the contribution he made on the hearts of all those people. Countless people passed through that church and were affected by the things he did. He did so much for so little back then.
I don’t know what the next year, or 5 years, or 30 years means to me or my new church. I just know that I have found a home for my spiritual soul, and that I will continue to nourish it, to learn, and to grow. Hopefully I will someday be able to make as much of an impact on my church as my father made on his. He continues to be an inspiration to me in his sacrifice and his love.
Thanks, Dad. I love you. And yes, all this came from a cookbook.