I was born to two very young parents (dad, 17 and mom, 19). My mother was raised Catholic, my dad, protestant. I was baptized in St. Mark Catholic Church in Warren, MI, but that was the last time I was in a Catholic church for twenty-five years. My parents took me to Sunday school at St. Paul United Church of Christ until around the age of ten or eleven. It was then that I protested going to church on Sunday did not leave enough time for me to play baseball on the weekend. My parents rolled over like trained dogs. I think they took me to church because it was what you were supposed to do, but it wasn’t very difficult to get them to quit.
Fast-forward another ten years to the age of twenty-one. I was now a U.S. Marine and in the span of about a year and a half, I had three separate brushes with death. After the third incident, I suddenly had a feeling sweep over me that I was in a very crowded train station. I heard someone call my name: “Joe!”. Surely the voice was calling someone else, not me. A second call, this time louder: “Joe!!”. Again, surely the voice is calling some other Joe. “JOE!!!”. “Oh…you meant me Lord?”.
Shortly thereafter I was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps and as fate would have it, soon moved into an apartment literally across the street from St. Paul United Church of Christ. At the age of twenty-three I resumed attending St, Paul, this time of my own volition.
I became a member of the church council. I was making great friendships, some of whom had left the Catholic Church. I generally felt “good” about my involvement with the church. I cannot say, however, that I had a very strong faith in God.
Somewhere during this stretch of my life, I met an intelligent and pretty young woman named Ramona. We met. We dated. Then within a matter of a few months there was just this shared knowledge of “but of course we’re going to marry”. And so we did, a mere ten months after meeting.
The road to the altar proved to be a journey in more ways than one. I had rather presumptuously assumed that we’d be married in “my” church, St. Paul – United Church of Christ. I knew nothing about the United Church of Christ. In my mind, “the church” was the actual church building and the people in it. While discussing our wedding plans, I mentioned getting married at St. Paul. Ramona responded “well, we can do that, but you should know that if we do, my dad would not attend.” “What??? Why??!!” “Because it is not a Catholic church” she replied. I could hardly believe my ears. Up until this moment, the Catholic Church, so far as I knew, was “just another denomination of Christianity”. It was becoming clear it was anything but.
This was the first time that I had ever dug in and learned the differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations. The more I learned, the more I worked myself into a frenzy. The Catholics I read seemed so arrogant! I just didn’t see a way through this. One day I was sitting in my car, parked at a store near my house, brooding over the situation. Suddenly a calm washed over me and I just said “Alright. Alright, you win. I’ll do it your way.” I was not referring to Ramona.
Over the course of the next several months we attended Engaged Encounter and were married while I was in the middle of completing RCIA. When I completed RCIA and was accepted into the Church at the Easter Vigil, I experienced something quite out of the ordinary. After returning to the pew and kneeling after receiving the Eucharist for the first time, I closed my eyes and it was if I were an passenger jet at 35,000 feet – only without the jet. All I could see was blue sky and a some puffy white clouds all around me. I seemed to be moving because I went in and out of the clouds, unable to see anything but white when I was in them. I felt wind blowing on my face and heard the sound of wind rushing by my ears. When I opened my eyes, it was all gone of course. I wondered if I had a strange look on my face.
I supposed that for a while after that, I felt that “I believed” with some level of conviction, but I wasn’t what you’d call “on fire with the faith”.
Three years into our marriage, one of the worst things that can happen to anyone happened to us: we lost a child. More accurately, our first child was stillborn at full term. Shortly after our son’s stillbirth, I experienced the first of two strange occurrences. It went like this:
In the summer of 1992, I was taking an economics course at Macomb Community College. It was one of those summertime cram-down type courses that are only six weeks long when the regular courses were many more weeks in length. I think this course met twice a week, four hours at a shot for six weeks.
At the time of taking this course, my wife was very pregnant, expecting our first child, a boy, we had already named Joshua Grant. And then… the unthinkable happened. Joshua was stillborn at full term. The “review” session for our final exam fell on the same day as Joshua’s funeral, and I was in no shape to attend class that night. I missed the review. Two days later, I arrived to take the final exam. I was in shambles. I could barely focus and I had missed the review. To make matters worse, as we sat down to start the final, I noticed everybody placing calculators on their desk. We NEVER used a calculator in this class, as the math was very basic. I had never brought a calculator with me to this class.
I asked the person sitting next to me “why does everybody have a calculator? We’ve never used them before.” My classmate whispered back – “he said last Tuesday that on the final, we’ll need a calculator”. So now, on top of being a wreck over the loss of our child, I was panic-stricken that I was going to fail this exam.
I bent over to my book bag to get a pencil and some blank sheets of paper. And there, in my bag…..was my calculator. I never brought that calculator to class, ever… and I know I did not put it in the book bag… and yet there it was. I felt my eyes well up with tears, by now convinced I must REALLY look like I was out of my mind.
I took the final and amazingly.. I’ll never know how, I got an A on the final and an A for the course. And I owe it all to my little Josh who made sure his daddy had a calculator.
As strange as that may seem, what happened following the birth of our oldest daughter more startling:
In 1996, we were finally blessed with a baby, our daughter Monica. My wife had undergone a cesarean delivery and so for the first several weeks, I was the one who got up at night with Monica.
One night, she awoke crying and I went to feed her. She was crying quite intensely but she didn’t seem to be hungry. I checked her diaper… dry. I rocked her, sang to her and walked around with her, to no avail. After a while I was really getting concerned because she was inconsolable.
My mind began to wander into that “what if something’s REALLY wrong with her” territory. You know, the one where a trip to the emergency room enters one’s thoughts.
By now, I was really starting to panic. I didn’t know what to do. And then….. as plain as day, I heard a male voice say “her throat”. I looked down and realized that Monica’s pajamas were snapped right to the very top and appeared to be snug around her neck. I unfastened the top snap and she instantly stopped crying. Considering her brother, Josh, was stillborn due to the umbilical cord being wrapped too tightly around his neck, it sent shivers up and down my spine. I realized that our son Joshua truly was looking after his baby sister.