Dear family that sat behind us in church yesterday,
We are new to your parish. I do not yet know any of your names, but I already know your faces. In fact, I remember you from the very first time we attended your parish and, truth be told, you are part of the reason we came back. There are a lot of options when it comes to Catholic Churches in this area, but we're strongly considering becoming parishioners at your church for many reasons - and I'd by lying if I said that our prayerful decision had nothing to do with you.
The first time we attended Mass at your church we sat where we normally do. We were somewhere in the middle section towards the front and, having arrived early enough, there were still plenty of empty pews. Suddenly, you all sat down on our left. You could have chosen plenty of other seats, but you didn't. You plainly saw that we had an infant in our lap, but that didn't scare you away. Instead, you (with your two older, elementary-school-aged children) sat next to us - and I was surprised at how surprised this made me feel. I hadn't realized until that moment how rarely people chose to sit next to us and our baby when they could just as easily sit somewhere else. In that moment I felt saddened by how many times I had apparently felt isolated - not fully realizing any of it until that day. In that moment, however, I also felt overjoyed and grateful for people like you; in a way you made me realize our loneliness as we searched for a parish in our new home - but it was only because you had made me feel so very welcome for the first time in too long.
Yes, there have been many times at various churches that people have done their best to make us feel welcome (sometimes coming up to us after church to tell us how they appreciated seeing our son there) and I'm also incredibly grateful for those individuals. But those kind words were usually offered by people who sat far away - after they had already seen how quiet our boy had been. I don't mean to trivialize their affirmations (for I desperately needed to hear their words, too), but I still marvel at how welcome you managed to make us feel with such a subtle, unspoken gesture. You chose to sit beside us before knowing anything about our son's behavior - which spoke volumes to me.
Yesterday we saw you again when you chose to sit behind us. I didn't actually see you enter or realize it was you - until our baby began fussing and you all made him smile. I could hear your children's whispers of, "he's so cute," and I could sense your smiles. When I caught my first glimpse of who had been happily keeping our son from fussing, I recognized you right away and thanked God that it was you.
Meanwhile, the only parishioner who was sharing a pew with us grew irritated by Gabriel's noises. We always do our best to remove him and calm him down if/when his whining or crying becomes loud and lasts more than a few seconds, but yesterday there many times he whined for only a second - so we opted to stay put. I didn't think his whining sounds were even loud, but the woman sitting beside us tried to convince us otherwise with her huffs and puffs and clearly annoyed body language.
Your family's attitude was entirely different.
You made it clear to us that you were happy our son was there and you were happy to help us. When he reached over the back of the pew and tried to grab your hymnals I pulled him away as quickly as I could - but you didn't seem to mind. Whenever he looked at you, you met his curious eyes with smiles and (from what I could tell) interesting and/or funny faces that made him giggle. During the sign of peace you included him and (for the first time ever) he reached out to shake hands. When we were all kneeling and Gabriel only wanted to stand on our pew - putting him immediately in your space bubble - you did not shrink away. Rather, you reached out and humored him as he tried to touch you and/or hand you his possessions. Your little girl even willingly held onto the tube of teething gel that Gabriel handed off to her; she held onto it until I realized Gabriel had not reached to take it back after more than a minute or two. I thanked her, but she didn't seem annoyed in the least. Whenever Gabriel did something that caused me to mouth that I was sorry, you all flashed wider, genuine grins and insisted that it was not a problem.
|Somewhat related photo of Gabriel standing in a pew, playing with his great uncle before my cousin's wedding|
After Mass you eagerly spoke with us and encouraged us, which means more to me than you could possibly know. When you told us we were doing the right thing for our family by sitting up front so Gabriel could see better and would have to learn to behave well (instead of automatically sitting in the "cry room" where he wouldn't be forced to behave in the same way) I really appreciated that you understood where we were coming from. Then, when you told us that it took a lot of courage to do it I instantly felt tears welling up in the corners of my eyes.
We spoke to you all for only a minute, but your words stayed with us far longer. In that short amount of time you briefly shared about your experiences, related to ours, recognized - without having to say it - the struggle that is (sadly) sometimes met with glaring eyes or irritated huffs and puffs, and you encouraged us. With your words and, even more so, your actions through the entire Mass you joyfully walked beside us on our journey. Thank you.
When I think about how much your presence, your attitude, and your generosity of spirit has impacted us at church (and for hours and even days afterward), saying thank you barely seems sufficient...but I don't know what else to say. So thank you. You may never have any idea how greatly we appreciate you, but if you ever read this I would want you to know that you have helped us, supported us, encouraged us, and you are part of what made us want to come back. I'm sure you have no clue that we are not yet registered as parishioners and have also been attending other Catholic Churches near us, but you helped us finalize our decision. If our only experiences of your parish's community had been like the woman sitting beside us yesterday, we probably would have left weeks ago. Instead, you sat beside us that very first week and it has made all the difference.
I hope that as we become involved at the parish our paths cross many times and we all come to know one another by name. Thank you again and may God bless you.
Your sister in Christ, Stephanie K.