I was stopped by a woman while in line at the grocery store who questioned why I had bags of candy in my basket.
It was 1998 and I had just moved to the area. I had found my 12 Step fellowship and I had found the local parish but I was still getting to know the place where I had landed after many years (with few interruptions) of living in my childhood home. I hadn't moved far - maybe 80 miles east of where I had been born and raised - but I was already feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
The landscape was different. It was really, really flat. I had come from a semi-coastal area of rolling hills and suddenly I had been thrust into a wide and flat area that had very little (I thought) to offer in terms of scenery. It was words of wisdom from an oldtimer in my 12 step fellowship that gave me a different perspective (some people call that wide open spaces, Leslie) and allowed me to take in the subtle beauty of my surroundings. In other words, on my own I saw only the down side - it took the help of another for me to get out of my own fear and see how pretty the world is even when it is different.
But what I was unprepared for was the strange Christian fundamentalism that is the foundation of the place I now called home. Having grown up with a true mixed bag of people, I was pretty comfortable with all types of faith, all types of religions. Being sober, at the time, for six years I was also becoming used to the 'I'm not religious, I'm spiritual' crowd that fills the meeting rooms of the 12 Step programs today. I had never been discriminated against because I am a Catholic. That was something I had read about, something my parents had experienced in the 1950's in Connecticut when my Dad reported signs in windows that read "Irish need not apply" or "Catholics Not Served Here".
Of course I knew about the saints and martyrs; every Catholic school kid knows about them. However, I had never met anyone who thought ill of me simply because I was a Catholic.
All that was about to change when that lady asked me why I had all the candy in my shopping cart.
"Well, " I answered, "Saturday is Halloween, and I expect a big turn out. We are in a new neighborhood and there are lots of kids around me".
I thought the questions odd, but not enough not to smile politely and answer the woman. Maybe she was from another country or something, though the accent I detected sounded more like Deep Southern Alabama than Eastern European. Her eyes narrowed and she poked a finger towards my face.
"Don't you know Halloween is Satan's BIRTHDAY!", she exclaimed. "Why would you celebrate Satan's BIRTHDAY?"
I seriously had no idea what the heck she was talking about...Satan's Birthday? Where had she come up with that one? Well she told me. Apparently, according to grocery store line lady, it is all laid out in the Bible. Why didn't I know this?
"I understood it is the Americanized version of the Feast of All Hallows Eve." We were moving closer to the cash register and I began to unload my cart. "In fact, the day after Halloween is usually a Holy Day of Obligation for me, but since this year falls on a Sunday I supposed the Bishop will just have us all go to Mass as usual".
You would have thought I had just reached over and slapped her face. She was stunned....speechless and staring at me in astonishment. "You..You..." she sputtered, "You are CATHOLIC?".
"Why yes", I answered. I could see she was flipped out but I had no idea why. I seriously had no idea that I had just said the equivalent of "I would like you to hand me your puppy so I can slit its throat and drink its blood" to this woman by identifying myself as a member of the Church Jesus had founded.
Gathering herself up into what I now recognize as the 'Battle Mode - Time to Save the Heathen' stance, she looked at me and said, "You belong to the Whore of Babylon. The Pope is the anti-Christ. You must repent. You must be saved. Tell me, woman (yes she really said that), do you even know Jesus? Do you have a personal relationship with Him?".
Being 1/2 Irish often comes in handy. My smart mouth took over and I answered without really thinking, "Well, I eat the guy once a week at Mass so I would say you can't get much more personal than THAT".
The cashier, who later identified himself as a member of my parish, burst into laughter. She was so upset, she left her grocery cart and ran out of the store. I paid for my candy and drove to my new home, thinking about how I had just had my first run in with a Catholic Hater and it had not been in the deep south; rather it had taken place 80 something miles from where I had grown up as a child.
80 miles and a world away.
Today I know that those who think like that lady are the ones who need our love and prayers the most. They have been warped by generations of ugliness. That kind of thinking is hard to change...but I believe it can change if I am willing to be me, without shame and without rancor and without being aggressive.
If I want to meet the enemy I must do so with love...and maybe the occasional smart remark.