Chapter 6: Coming to Faith

It is one of many Sunday mornings growing up. Most of the family is in the car, which is idling in the driveway. I say most because we were always waiting on one pokey sibling.

    BEEEP! Dad lays on the car horn.

    “Where is he?” Dad would mutter angrily.

    “I don’t know, but I’m tired of always being late,” Mom said with an exasperated sigh, “I almost don’t even want to go if we cannot get there on time.”

    That would have been fine with us kids. We almost always went to the 11:00 mass, also referred to as the drunkard’s mass because it was the latest mass offered. But even 11:00 seemed early when we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast–Mom often made her family-famous, fluffy waffles on Sunday morning–and we would have loved to stay in lazy mode. But alas, my parents felt it was their duty to raise us Catholic, and so they drove us to Saint Dominic’s church, figuratively kicking, and literally screaming at each other about whose fault it was that we were late again, or why someone had to take a cold shower because one sibling or another used up the hot water.

    Once we arrived at church, the atmosphere, from the aroma of incense to the organ playing calmed us down so that by the time we took our seats, no one would have known we had been fighting just minutes earlier. But my siblings and I loved it when sometimes, the usher would tell us there were no seats left in the main sanctuary and direct us to some pews in the hallway. Mass was piped out to the hallway so we could still participate, but since it was the hallway, my siblings and I felt less guilty about horsing around.

    During the week, my siblings went to Saint Dominic’s school, but because of my special needs, I had to go to public school. All of my siblings switched to public school for high school, but the closest sibling in age to me was my brother Brice who was four years older than me, so he graduated high school as I graduated eighth grade. As a child, this sometimes made me sad. I would see friends meet up with their siblings to ride home together on the bus, or say hi to a sibling in the hallway and I would wonder what it would be like to have a sibling in the same school, to be in the same world as them. As it was, I sometimes felt isolated. Saint Dominic’s let out an hour earlier than Burleigh Elementary, so my siblings were always home and well immersed in after school snacks and a television show by the time I got home, and occasionally, they would have off when I had school. I always felt especially left out at weekend sports tournaments or social events. There was a tight-knit group of parents talking about Saint Dominic’s life, while my older siblings and the other kids played together. And then there was me, not part of the club, and thus not sure how to fit in.

    While my siblings received their Catholic education in Religion class during their regular school day, public school students like me attended CFC (Catholic Formation Class) for an hour and a half one evening a week. Saint Dominic’s was not able to provide the workbooks for CFC in Braille, and family life was too hectic to deal with figuring out how to get them in Braille on our own, but I would listen along as other students were called on to read out loud from these books, and each year during elementary school, either my sister or another older kid would be appointed to assist me with visual activities, and to take me to the restroom as my medicine often wore off around CFC time. By middle school, I was able to just partner with another classmate for visual activities, and in middle school, CFC met on Sunday mornings when my medicine was more reliable.

    If you had known me as a child, you never would have guessed that one day, I would be taking seminary courses. I was the typical kid who found church tedious, from the Catholic rituals of standing and kneeling, to the sermons that when you are little, you actually believe could last forever, and you could become the age of Grandma sitting there in the pew, and the priest would still be droning. I remember one Sunday when I was six or seven years old, I was in a particularly bad mood and as we were walking out of church, I said nice and loud “I hate church!” Unbeknownst to me, right as I said that, the priest was walking by. My mom was a registered nurse and at the time worked at a rehab facility, which sometimes required her to work weekends. This was one of those weekends she had to work, and my sister couldn’t wait to rat me out to Mom when she got home that evening.

    To keep myself from going crazy when I was really young, I would sometimes pass the time by taking a hymn book from the pew rack in front of me and counting the pages. These books were made of those thin, onion skin pages that would stick together, so separating the pages kept my little fingers occupied even longer. My parents never took the book away or reprimanded me for this. I guess they figured hey, she’s being quiet. I think it served the same purpose for me as the fidget spinner for kids today. As I got older, I followed in the footsteps of my older siblings and just daydreamed. Occasionally, Dad would light-heartedly quiz us about the sermon, and our covers would be blown when we couldn’t think fast enough. But my parents generally didn’t make a big deal of our inattentiveness in church, especially since Mom would often catch Dad dozing off in church and have to elbow him to wake up. They took us to church out of a sense of duty, but they viewed the daily example of Christian values at home as more important than that one hour a week anyway.

    I wasn’t all that fond of CFC either. The workbooks were boring, and we had homework, which infuriated me because I thought I got enough homework during the regular school day. As another example of how irreverent I used to be, each week in CFC, someone was assigned to bring a treat to share halfway through class. Every teacher would have us say a brief prayer of thanks to God before we ate, which normally I didn’t mind. Our family said grace before dinner each night too, so I was used to that. But one year, we had a teacher who wanted us to recite the Nicene Creed before snack time. I remember finding this incredibly annoying because this is such a long prayer when you are eight or nine years old and hungry. But externally, I was a good girl so I kept my mouth shut. But one week, a mischievous boy in the class echoed my sentiments out loud, and I remember smiling at his audacity.

   Although I did not take church or CFC seriously as a child, looking back I realize that all along, God was working on my heart, nudging me toward a personal faith commitment. Starting in about third grade, Dad started going to Indiana once a month to help his parents with yard work. After selling their motel business in 1986, Grandma and Grandpa built a big house on a five-acre lot, not anticipating the difficulty maintaining this property as they aged. Sometimes my siblings also came along, but since they were teenagers by that point, Dad allowed them to stay home most of the time. But I loved these monthly trips. I loved the one-on-one time with Dad, driving through Chicago singing along to oldies on the radio as we drove down on Saturday mornings, and then listening to 60 Minutes on a news station as we drove home Sunday evenings. When we got there, Grandma doted on me, letting me eat whatever unhealthy treats I wanted for lunch, and taking me for rides around their property, with me sitting next to her on a motorized scooter. During this time, Grandma also taught me to pray the rosary, and praying the rosary together became a part of every monthly visit. 

    In one sense, I hated praying the rosary, especially the tedium of having to pray the Hail Mary fifty times. But I never protested when Grandma wanted to pray the rosary because I think on some level, I actually enjoyed it, as the repetition of these prayers quieted my mind, gave me a sense of peace which I now recognize as God’s presence. I also think something in my heart was stirred by witnessing my Grandma’s dedication to her faith, the sincerity with which she prayed even though I did not feel drawn to God yet myself.

    Then one Wednesday night during my freshman year of high school, I was sitting at the kitchen table working on homework, listening to Dateline which my parents were watching in the living room. That night, the show featured the authors of the Left Behind Series, and the longer I listened to their interview, I had this strange urge to get ahold of these books as soon as possible. So that Friday after school, Mom took me to the library where I checked out the first book of the series which was available on tape. Just a couple chapters into the book, I had decided I wanted my life to count for Christ, and my passion only grew over the following year as I obtained and listened to all the books in the series. Skeptics might say I was “scared straight” by these books, and maybe I was a little. But more than that, I think that until reading these books, I just never gave any thought to that line in the Nicene Creed which says, “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” It wasn’t until reading these books that something clicked in my mind and I realized the story of Christianity wasn’t a story that ended long ago which we merely drew moral lessons from on Sunday mornings. Jesus was coming again. The story was still unfolding, and I was a part of it, and this was thrilling to me.

    I found myself taking mass much more seriously, and as a “baby Christian”, I had a couple thrilling situations where I said a prayer during a difficult circumstance, and I felt a “peace that passes understanding” and could hear God’s voice in my conscience guiding me through the situation. My favorite character in the Left Behind series was Buck Williams, a journalist who was “left behind” but repented, left his position at a prestigious newspaper, and started an underground publication exposing the truth about the anti-Christ. Although I didn’t mention this on my college application, nor on my application for a mentorship program my junior year of high school where I had the opportunity to intern with the Waukesha Freeman, a local newspaper, Buck Williams was largely behind my decision to study journalism. I enjoyed writing, had won a couple essay contests, and was told by family and teachers that I was a talented writer. Maybe I too could expose the truth, and in that way make my life count for God!

    My freshman year of high school also marked a wonderful turning point in accessible technology when I received my first BrailleNote, and the following year, I learned about, and subsequently subscribed to, a website where people who are blind or dyslexic can download thousands of digital books to listen to or read in braille. My subscription to Bookshare meant that for the first time, I could download the Bible in braille and read it for myself. I could have ordered a braille Bible as a child, but given that it takes up six feet of shelf space, I would not have been able to bring it to CFC to look up Bible verses, and probably would never have cracked it open at home either given that I hadn’t made a personal faith decision. As an enthusiastic baby Christian, I had noble intentions of reading the entire Bible cover to cover. I remember telling my mom how the Bible feels like that movie you have seen bits and pieces of at different times, but you have never managed to sit down and see the whole movie so it never fully makes sense. After school, and even during free moments during school, I would open up my Bible, and in the first week or so of having my own Bible, had gotten through Genesis and Exodus. I have since learned that this noble intention is shared by many baby Christians, as is the reality of ultimately falling off the wagon as without guidance, the Bible quickly becomes overwhelming as it is comprised of several different genres, and is not actually arranged in perfect chronological order. But I still cherished just having it on my BrailleNote, and knew someday I would get back to it.

    Shortly after I started reading the Left Behind Series, Mom started reading it herself, and it inspired her to re-dedicate herself to faith as well. When I started middle school, she signed onto a weekend program where she worked twelve hour days at the hospital every Saturday and Sunday, and then could be off all week. This schedule worked wonderfully with school schedules, but it meant she was rarely able to go to church. But she and Mrs. Lillie heard about a dynamic Women’s Bible study program that met at Elmbrook Church, a large nondenominational church on Tuesday mornings. I couldn’t wait to get home from school on Tuesdays to hear all about Mom’s Bible study that morning, and in this way became more aware of the Protestant world. It seemed like there was a zeal for faith that was lacking in the Catholic tradition, and began to question Catholic practices like confessing sins to a priest rather than directly to Jesus, or reciting scripted prayers rather than just praying from the heart. It also bothered me that all too often during mass, I would hear a reading that I found confusing or challenging, and yearned for a sermon that addressed it. But instead the priest would go off on a tangent that had nothing to do with the readings. This was not unique to Saint Dominic’s. I noticed this when I occasionally visited other Catholic churches or watched Catholic masses on television. The age at which young people receive the sacrament of Confirmation and are subsequently recognized as full adult members of the church, is determined by each individual diocese. In the Milwaukee diocese where I grew up, the sacrament took place junior year of high school. As my junior year approached, I felt a little disingenuous going through with the final year of preparation for Confirmation, but while my parents said they would respect boundaries and allow us to make our own faith decisions as adults, they wanted us all to go through with Confirmation. I decided to take the sacrament seriously, framing it in my mind as a commitment to follow Christ, even if I eventually chose a Protestant church. I even asked Grandma to be my Confirmation sponsor. She was honored and delighted, but in retrospect, given how upset she was when I did eventually switch to a Protestant church, maybe I should have chosen someone else. But at that age, I didn’t fully appreciate how much it meant to Grandma that the family was not just Christian, but Catholic. We are still on speaking terms, and I know she loves me. Every time I see her, she gives me a big hug and says “God bless you sweetie.” But we no longer say the rosary together, and we have an unspoken agreement between us to just not talk about religion.

    On Sunday August 31, 2008, during the one week I lasted in the college dorm, an older student who had been showing me the ropes of college invited me to Elmbrook Church with her, and I jumped at the chance. I loved everything from the livelier modern music, to the unscripted prayers, and even the sermon. Although it was longer than the Catholic homily, it didn’t seem long because it was so inspiring. Instead of a random tangent, it was a teaching directly related to the Bible. I couldn’t wait to go back, but it was awhile before I was able to return. Although returning home was the best decision overall, I kicked myself internally every Sunday morning, wondering if I could have persevered and stuck things out in the dorm because moving back home meant I no longer had a ride to Elmbrook Church. Mom still worked weekends at that time, and Dad was not comfortable leaving the Catholic church. We didn’t know of anyone in our neighborhood who went to Elmbrook Church, and cab fare would have cost a fortune. So I resigned myself to the reality that for the time being, I would have to go to Saint Dominic’s if I wanted to go to church. In 2011, Mom got a new job that no longer required her to work weekends, so she was able to go to church again. For the sake of family unity, Mom was not comfortable completely leaving the Catholic church, but Mom and I would attend Elmbrook Church periodically, and every time we left feeling inspired and sensing God’s presence. After every visit to Elmbrook, the contrast between that experience, and the Catholic tradition became more pronounced to the point that shortly after college graduation when I expressed to my mom how I was seriously considering trying to live on my own again in an apartment closer to Elmbrook Church, Mom confided that she really wanted to switch to Elmbrook Church permanently herself. So in March 2013, we took the membership class and officially switched to Elmbrook Church.

    In 2012, I graduated from Carroll University with a Bachelors degree in Communication with a journalism emphasis. But during my college years, the economy, and the journalism landscape changed and I could not find a job. But that summer, I also suffered debilitating migraines and fatigue, and tests revealed I had a severe case of Celiac disease. Mom pointed out that perhaps it was by God’s grace that I hadn’t found a job because I would have had to miss a lot of work with all the migraines and doctor visits I had that summer, and I would have started out with a bad work reputation. During the thick of my illness, I agreed with her, but when my symptoms resolved with a strict gluten free diet and I still couldn’t find a job, the sense of isolation, having no job or school to give my life routine and a sense of purpose, drove me crazy. I think I prayed a few times, but when I didn’t get the instantaneous response from God I had as a “baby Christian” in high school, depression started to set in and I found myself questioning whether God really had a purpose for me. Was all my hard work all these years for nothing?

In the summer of 2013, the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development helped me land an internship with Audio & Braille Literacy Enhancement, a local charity that provides braille and audio books and classroom materials to blind people in the community, and during this internship, I met a blind woman who suggested I look into paralegal courses because while she didn’t pursue a paralegal career, she took some classes, enjoyed them and said it seemed like an accessible field for blind people. After reading a paper I wrote my freshman year of college in which I argued that U.S. soldiers in Vietnam should have refused to carry out the Mi Lai massacre because conscience takes precedence over orders from a superior, my parents thought I would make a great lawyer. While my parents may have been right, I wasn’t passionate enough about law to commit to the expense and academic rigor of law school. But a paralegal certificate from the local technical college was a lot more financially reasonable, and could be completed in one year. Maybe I could still put some of my writing skills to use assisting a lawyer. So in 2014, I earned a paralegal certificate, and in April 2015, I was glowing with joy as I landed a job at the Social Security disability law firm where I would work until March 2020. But this joy was short-lived. A few months into the job, I realized the software the company used wasn’t as accessible as I thought it would be, and I often made mistakes that drew angry calls from clients, and even caused hardship for the attorneys on a few occasions. Again, I was gripped by intense depression and anxiety. Pride kept me from being fully honest with the manager about how much I was struggling, and while I applied and even interviewed for other jobs with no success, something kept me from quitting. Just when I felt like I had reached the end of my patience, a sermon or a conversation with a friend would give me encouragement to get through one more day. God rewarded my patience in December 2016 when my manager gave me a simpler position that was far more accessible, and in February 2017, the manager allowed me to switch to a part-time schedule.

Published by Allison Nastoff

As I write this in 2020, I am 30 years old. I am blind, and Gilbert was my first guide dog. He passed away on December 2, 2020, but I decided to keep the title for my blog as a tribute to him because he will always hold a special place in my heart. In 2012, I earned a Bachelor of Science in Communication with a journalism emphasis, and went back to school for a Paralegal certificate in 2014. I worked for five years at a Social Security disability firm. When the pandemic hit, I did some reflecting and decided to resign from this job and take seminary courses. My dream is a career as a teacher or writer where I can be a blessing to others.

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