I found the safety that I was looking for in that parish ...
That’s how Leticia Ochoa Adams describes her life 11 years ago, a life she might still be living today if not for two things: 1) responding to the promptings of God in her life, and 2) the mercy-over-judgment approach of the priests and parishioners at the local church that now serves as her spiritual home. And while her faith helped guide her out of the dead end path she was following, it became even more important in 2017 when Leticia endured every parent’s worst nightmare.
During an interview with me on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below), Leticia revealed that her troubled young adulthood stemmed from her troubled childhood. She never knew her father, so she suffered “a wound of abandonment.” She was also sexually abused from age five to nine and had never dealt with the trauma. “What I’ve come to understand,” she said, “is that all of the things I was doing [were done] in search of love. That’s all I wanted my whole life: to be loved.”
That quest led her to drinking too much and sleeping around, hanging with a dangerous crowd, and even several stints in jail. And while she believed in God, “I doubted that I was worth Him loving. I doubted my own self-worth, and I still do quite a bit. But it’s easier now.”
In 2007, Leticia’s best friend Homer was killed in a car accident. His funeral Mass was held in a Catholic church, and she instinctively knew when to kneel and sit and so on. The reason? Her babysitter, from the time she was born until age three, had taken her to Mass every day.
Though Leticia didn’t remember much about this, her knowledge of the rituals was instinctive, like muscle memory. “I was so restless in my life, in my emotional being, in my spiritual being…Mass felt like home to me. I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t know why. It kind of turned me towards the direction of Catholicism, but I wasn’t anywhere near saying, ‘I want to be Catholic now.'”
When Leticia’s childhood boyfriend, Stacey, came back into her life in 2008, they moved in together and moved to the suburbs. This was a big change for Leticia who had grown up “dirt poor in at-risk neighborhoods,” so her new situation gave her a taste of “the American dream.”
The couple started attending Mass for Christmas and Easter because Stacey was Catholic. And when Leticia brought up the topic of marriage, he insisted it would have to happen in a Catholic church. She didn’t look too fondly on the topic of conversion because she tried to do it when her son was born in 1994 and it didn’t work out. But she admitted she was stubborn, so, “I went to RCIA with no intention of changing my life, encountering God, or becoming really Catholic. I just wanted my sacraments, get married, move on with my life.”
Things didn’t work out the way Leticia had planned.
She said, “Noe Rocha is the RCIA Director at Saint William Parish in the suburb of Austin, and his very first class was about God’s love. He looked right at me when he said the words, ‘God loves you more than you think He does. No matter how far you’ve gone, no matter what you’ve done, He loves you exactly how you are.’ It hit a place in my heart that I had not opened up to anyone in so long. By this point, I had closed myself off from anything that resembled real and true love. Even being with Stacey was not about love. It was about safety.”
“From that point on,” continued Leticia, “I struggled, and I wrestled, and I stalked the priest, and I stalked Noe. I argued, and argued, and I was very angry. So they did love me exactly where I was. They loved me in my anger, when I would say, ‘This is stupid,’ or, ‘This is bad.’ I cussed a lot and I had no sense to not be cussing when talking to a priest in his office inside a parish. And Father never took me out. He never said, ‘Watch your mouth and if you can’t…’ He answered my questions patiently. He loved me where I was. And I found the safety that I was looking for in that parish.”
Leticia admits that if she had been met with judgment instead of mercy, she wouldn’t have followed through on her inclinations to join the church. And she offers her own life as a lesson for those involved with evangelization: “When we’re evangelizing people, we have to understand that the reason those people are asking questions – or why they’re showing up to Mass when you can’t really figure out why because they don’t do anything else Catholic – the reason is God. That’s God’s voice calling them to Him. And we have a choice. We can either cooperate with the voice of God that’s calling those people to Him, or we can cooperate with the Evil One who’s telling them they don’t belong here. That really is our choice as Catholics, every single day, in little things and big things, in little interactions and big interactions.”
Leticia did get married and finally found the love and acceptance she had been yearning for all her life. But as John Mellencamp pointed out in a song years ago, we live life “between a laugh and a tear.” And the tears for Leticia in 2017 were heartbreaking.
Her son Anthony, from a previous relationship, committed suicide in the family garage. He left behind a fiance, two children, and a grief-stricken family.
“The minute that I saw my child dead in my garage,” recalled Leticia, “something that never happened to me before happened: I doubted, to the core of my being, that God existed. The one thing that probably saved my faith at that point was hearing this voice that I know didn’t come from God. It said, ‘If you would just shut up, I will leave you alone. But if you don’t, I’m taking the rest of your kids.’ And I know that’s not God. So it’s weird to me that at the same time that I had this absolute convincing feeling that God didn’t exist, it was the voice of the Evil One threatening the rest of my children that snapped me out of it.”
“I’ve had moments of severe doubt,” continued Leticia, “but at the end of it, my faith is the only thing that makes sense. Catholicism, specifically, is the only place where I am safe to suffer, where I am safe to grieve, and where I am safe to hope in my son’s salvation. Not presume it, but to hope in it…Looking back at the most horrible year of my entire life, I will say that Catholics showed up. The Church showed up. God showed up. Grace showed up. And that’s why I can even talk to you, or to anyone else about it.”
That doesn’t mean that Leticia’s pain is now gone. But she’s come to see that “grief is just another phase of love.”
She also finds hope in the Christopher ideal of lighting candles in the darkness, relating it to the Easter Vigil. Leticia concludes, “We start off in the dark, and then we light candles one by one. And then boom, all the lights are on and Jesus has defeated death. I feel like my life is a representation of that, and the little candles are my children and my grandchildren. Seeing them be happy, seeing them slowly walking back toward the Church and God, makes me happy and that’s why I do it. And also, Anthony. If there’s a chance that I can see Anthony again, it’s going to be through holiness. So for me, it’s keeping my eyes on Christ all the time because my end goal is to see Anthony again. So whatever I have to do, I will do to get there.”
(To listen to my full interview with Leticia Ochoa Adams, click on the podcast link):