Category Archives: Ministry Calling

Seminary Girl: Chapter One

3girls)It was cold inside the church. It was always cold. The brick exterior, scraped and mortared together on countless boring weekends by my dad his siblings, I was told, had even thicker plaster interior walls. None of the large windows faced the sun. Hand-built pews were hard and slanted so that small feet couldn’t reach the floor and I was constantly fighting not to slip backwards. Squirming. Aching. Knees gripping the edge of the pew.

Hymns wafted over my head with marching regularity each week. Mrs. Abatello, daughter of Marialena, pounded the piano keys creating odd harmonies with the voices. My father’s voice the loudest.

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,

To the cross where thou hast died …

Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lor-r-r-r-d,

To thy precious, bleeding side.

The words were written in 1875 by a woman, Fanny Crosby, who penned more than 8,000 hymns and another 1,000 popular songs. She was born in 1820 and became blind as a two month-old babe. Her first poem was written at the age of eight. By the age of 23 she was addressing presidents and her songs were used in mass evangelistic crusades and published in hymnals that sold over 100 million copies.

Crosby was avidly anti-slavery and later lived cordially, but separately from her husband. The Methodist Church created a commemorative “Fanny Crosby Day” in their liturgical calendar.  She was contracted to write three hymns a week for her publisher but often doubled that number.  Some you may have heard sung in churches still:

Blessed Assurance

Rescue the Perishing

Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior

To God Be the Glory

Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross

Fanny Crosby was paid one, sometimes, two dollars per hymn.

Of course, I had no idea then where the soaring notes and the religiously intimate words originated.  All I knew was that my back hurt, my knees were getting numb and the Song Service lasted too long. Far too long for a five year-old on a hard bench.  A cold five year-old who didn’t want to get anywhere near a dying man on a wooden cross with a bleeding side.

After the Song Service came the blessed relief of Sunday School, taught by my aunties, while Grandpa preached a sermon. In Sunday School  the messages of the songs was more concrete than spiritual. “Onward Christian Soldiers,”  “Watch Your Hands, Watch Your Hands, What They Do,” or “Only a Boy Named ‘David’:

…One little stone went into the sling and the sling went ‘round and ‘round,

And one little stone went into the sling and the sling went ‘round and ‘round,

And ‘round and ‘round, and ‘round and ‘round, and ‘round and ‘round and ‘round,

And one little stone went into the air and the giant came tumbling down.

Hardly a passionate plea and not a drop of blood involved. The song completely skipped the giant’s head being lopped off by the young shepherd.

The marching monotony of the Sundays at The Italian Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, standing like a fortress in the middle of Los Angeles’ Little Italy – the Italian Service attended by aging immigrants long after the neighborhood transitioned into Chinatown, followed by the English Service of an offering collection, a Song Service, kneeling prayers and an honest-to-God Communion service that warned of harm if taken unworthily—continued Sunday after Sunday with unerring repetition.

Until.

One Sunday a group of men in suits like my Grandpa, with grey hair and wrinkled fingers stood inside the double-door entrance of the cold church. They huddled together speaking Italian as my father, mother, oldest sister, middle sister and I filed through the heavy doors. Swiftly, one of the men squatted down until he was eye-level with me. He reached his hand to my check and grasped it with his thumb and bent forefinger and swung my head back and forth until it brought tears to my eyes. His own eyes sparkled inches from my face.

“You are a special, beautiful child,” he said. “God thinks that you are very special and He has something important for you to do for him.  You are blessed. God will use you for his Kingdom.”

He loosened his grip and gently patted my red cheek, then stood up and returned to his conversation. I was astonished. God thinks I’m special?  I have a purpose from God?

But more importantly than being stunned, I believed him.  I always have.

I still do.

 

 

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Seminary Girl

Author note: I’m starting a new book about being “called” to ministry and have been mulling it over for about three years. Here’s the very rough beginning two pages. Tell me what you think. 

Church has been important in my life for as long as I can remember. Faded family photographs show three little girls, a tall, slender one with a straight brown bob; a medium-sized one with poufy skirts and a blonde head of curls and me. I was the sturdy one. No waistline. Instead, a solid round body wearing unflattering ruffles, a heart-shaped face, black, black hair and serious eyes. The third girl-child in an Italian family in post-WWII America. Didn’t have a pitching arm. Couldn’t make a basket, spike a volley or ride a bicycle. I cried at Dodge ball.  I liked dress up and Barbie dolls and baking. And I liked to read. One of my first books was a Bible.

Grandpa was a minister.  I heard all the family lore about Grandpa and Grandma coming to America for religious freedom from Palermo, Sicily, where the priests dispensed civil punishment along with religious discipline. God was fearful, watching carefully to catch you in sin. And the wages of sin were determined by the church fathers or ruler-wielding sisters.

Frank Salvatore Bua, my grandfather, left all of that and traveled to New York City, carefully noted in the Ellis Island records and later joined by his teen-aged bride, Anna India. Not long after, brothers, aunts, cousins and more cousins followed in the wake of immigrant steamers and settled in Jersey. A few years later, Grandpa was lured to the land of promise, Los Angeles, the City of Angels.

Frank bought a corner store, with an attached abode in back.  Down the street he purchased a falling down brick building and there, in the middle of Little Italy, the family cleaned the bricks on the weekends and built a rectangular edifice with a sweeping façade that proudly bore the name, The Italian Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Plucked down in the middle of a sea of Catholics, Grandpa preached a gospel of no sainthood, no priests, no nuns and few miracles. It was a hard and simple faith. All have sinned, all are called to be saved by the death of Jesus on the cross. Only believe.

The job of men was to work, preach and save soul. My two great uncles, Tony and Charlie, did this weekly in Pershing Square downtown, where homeless drug addicts, alcoholics and thieves huddled, covered in newspapers, in the freezing shadows of tall business buildings.  The uncles worked as barbers and remained bachelors until they met Jesus at the gates of heaven. Their message was direct. Repent.

Women saved the souls of children through songs and Bible stories. Their message was reassuring. God will rescue you.

Christian women fed those in need, always making a little extra for the neighbors, held Bible clubs after school, and prayed for those more unfortunate from work injuries or still-births. They crocheted bonnets, knitted blankets, and eked out gardens of tomatoes and onions, garlic, oregano, eggplants and figs.

Grandma made meatballs out of sausage and bread crumbs and pasta “sugu” out of the jars of tomato preserves that lined the cement foundation wall in her cool, dug-out cellar. After church every Sunday, we cousins ran in our white Sunday shoes down to the corner to Grandma and Grandpa’s house where we could put one hand into a large crock and pull out a “patty” before dinner made from leftover meat, grease, breadcrumbs and garlic while the table was being set and the deep pot of handmade pasta boiled to perfection. We understood rescue.

Cousin Paul was the oldest and the first to have a religious “calling.”  He was a big guy, a football hero in high school. He went to UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) and was interested in acting, with a strong sense of the dramatic and a booming voice. Somewhere along the way, he found that those skills were also requisite for preaching. He went to Princeton Theological Seminary, interned at a Presbyterian Church, married the pastor’s daughter and became a successful preacher of high intellect – no doubt he would have confounded Grandpa and his uncles in his long black robes with his sermons on eschatology and church hierarchy. His doctoral thesis was on the disciple Andrew. Thousands flocked to hear his sermons and loved his tell-it-like-it-is style.

Next to attend seminary was cousin Leighton, who had gone to Biola College and its associated school, Talbot Seminary to prepare for a ministry in counseling. Leighton is a loving and gentle man with a sweet wife and two sons. He knows the Bible like the back of his hand. His mode of preaching is service and I’m sure that he has provided spiritual sanity to thousands of lost souls.

After Leighton, cousin Wesley entered into “fulltime Christian ministry” through a para-church organization called, Campus Crusade for Christ in the late ‘60s. Campus Crusade held Bible studies and evangelistic crusades on college campuses and was a massive movement right before the Jesus Freaks countered with a more “feeling” spiritual way. Campus Crusade celebrated the football stars and homecoming queens, the clear-skinned youth “leaders” who had straight teeth, shiny hair and moral certainty.

My view of femininity was transitioning by then

to Indian printed ankle skirts, long frizzy hair, no bra and sweet worship songs.

Wes rose past the ranks of campus leaders to become an organizational executive attached to a popular speaker and writer, Josh McDowell. Wes was his “advance man” who traveled from city to city to secure details of accommodations, schedule, meals, travel arrangements and music. In Campus Crusade, men were exalted and women were viewed as handmaidens to the ministerial goals of men. Campus Crusade had control over its members in deciding where they would live and how they would serve. Individuals were not allowed to decide what they wanted to do, the organization decided their “calling.”

My mother, knowing that I, too, had an interest in ministry, wanted me to join Campus Crusade because they had beauty classes and expected women to have manicured nails and curled hair. My view of femininity was transitioning by then to Indian printed ankle skirts, long wavy hair, no bra and sweet worship songs. The Jesus Movement was my leaning.

The generation gap widened. Mother loved Nancy Reagan because she wore pretty hats to Hollywood Presbyterian Church where they both attended services during the War – a far cry from the rustic, hand built protestant church in a poor Italian enclave where the hymns were sung loudly, with crude harmony and in a foreign language.  I didn’t feel at home with either expression of God’s love for a sinful world.

…to be continued

 

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