By Claire Garcia –

I HAD BEEN UNCHURCHED since my confirmation day in 1969. I’d drifted away from church (but not from faith), leaving Minnesota at age 20. I went into the Navy, and became a hospital corpsman stationed in Memphis, Tennessee.

After my discharge from the Navy, I worked with veterans in the Memphis area for a couple of years. One day, I learned about an open position with a new program serving Vietnam veterans. Things moved very quickly, and four days later I was snowed in on a mountain in Utah, where I’d gone to train for my new role in Memphis. My new boss, who had served as a Roman Catholic chaplain in Vietnam, supported my efforts to get my bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Our team became one of the earliest teams to establish and open a vet center.

By the spring of 1984, I found myself wanting to reconnect to a faith community. Since everyone in my family was Lutheran, including my Norwegian grandmother and her siblings, I decided to look for a Lutheran church close to where I lived in Memphis. At that time, before cell phones with GPS, searching for a church home meant using a paper phonebook and driving around to locate it and see when worship started.

After a few weeks, I was ready: I got dressed, drove to the building and walked up to those heavy, wooden doors with cross-shaped windows. That day, the doors were wide open, revealing warm, yellow walls and several spectacular stained-glass windows. But the sanctuary was completely empty. I took a seat anyway. Maybe I could just breathe in the experience of being there. Somehow the space still felt welcoming. But why was no one there?

Then I heard footsteps. People were gathering at the entrance, holding palm fronds. I had been away from church for so long, I’d forgotten the church season: It was Palm Sunday, and the worshipers had been missing because they were processing around the neighborhood.

As the people of Peace Lutheran Church greeted me, offering nods and warm smiles, tears rolled down my face. I was a wreck. While not a large congregation, Peace was ethnically diverse. In a city where Sunday mornings were not so diverse, this congregation was diverse, friendly and welcoming.

When we shared the peace, the whole congregation moved throughout the sanctuary. They made sure I knew that I was welcome. And after the service, they encouraged me to return. That’s how Peace Lutheran became my church home for 15 years.

When I moved back to Minnesota for family reasons, I didn’t stay away from church anymore. I started going to worship and Bible studies at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Cloud. Once again, I was blessed with a wonderful church home and long-time friends.

Two of my friends from Peace came to visit me a little more than a year ago. Like me, the “Two Ethels” (both mother and daughter share the same name) have lived most of their lives near the Mississippi River. So we visited the river’s headwaters at Itasca State Park. It was a long day trip, but I was so glad to go with my dear friends from the church home that renewed my faith and brought me peace.

CLAIRE GARCIA is a member of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, St. Cloud, Minnesota, a Navy veteran and a retired clinical social worker.

This article appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.