By Charlie Johnston
On Thursday morning, June 18, I had breakfast at the aptly-named restaurant, Holy Chow, with Fr. Dan and Janet in Nashville. After that, I went back to my hotel and packed. Shortly after I was done my friend Bill Dieal, from Georgia, arrived to pick me up and drive me on down to Atlanta. Bill has some far-flung business interests, so he had arranged to make some visits in Nashville on Wednesday, then drive me back to Atlanta on Thursday. Bill and his wife, Joy, had been out to Boulder, Colorado on business last year and came to the Shrine of Mother Cabrini in Golden, where I frequently attend Daily Mass. He had become a regular reader of the website and we chatted for a good while.
He drove me to the hotel they had set up for me and gave me some time to change and prepare for dinner with the host committee. A few hours later Tom Kuipers, the coordinator of the Atlanta visit – and also the creator of the private forum many of you use here, picked me up to take me to an Italian Restaurant to have dinner with the host committee.
I love good veal dishes, but I have only had a decent one outside Chicago once, so I am very leery about ordering it anywhere but there. But, this was a really nice, authentic Italian place, so I figured I’d risk it and have the Veal Saltimbocca. It was very good – not supreme like some in the best Chicago area places, but I was very glad I ordered it. What a lively and engaged committee we had! Besides Tom and Bill, there were a young couple, Mary and Greg and a couple, Martha and Chip, who were a little older than me. We also had four other people, Carol, Deborah, Robin and Dick who had actively worked to put the visit together. Most of them centered around St. Brigid, a big Parish with an impressively imposing Church in the John’s Creek section of Atlanta. Much of the dinner conversation centered around where many of the people are originally from. Atlanta is one of those cities which has been transformed by
an influx of immigrants in the past few generations. Strikingly few people who live in Atlanta these days actually have their origins in Atlanta. I chuckled and said some southerners from surrounding areas occasionally wonder how this Yankee City managed to spring up where Atlanta used to be.
On Friday morning Tom picked me up for Daily Mass at St. Brigid’s, then we grabbed a quick bite at a bagel shop before I was turned over to Robin, a lovely woman who drove me down to Conyers, where we had lunch at the home of a woman named Jacquie, who played a key role in the founding of a new sort of community of Catholics. We went to the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit. At its heart is a huge, Cathedral-style Chapel that the monks use. It is very sparse inside, all eyes drawn to the magnificent sanctuary where the Eucharist is always kept. It actually reminded of what St. Peter’s Cathedral in Belleville, Illinois (where I played trumpet for several years) would look like were it stripped bare. Interestingly, Atlanta’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory was my Bishop when I lived in Belleville.
The community Jacquie and her husband played such a role in is located near the Chapel and people there take advantage of the Religious Facilities the monks use. There are nearly 200 families,
Each does their own thing and all are completely free, but their social and everyday lives are centered around the church. It much reminded me of a medieval European town in modern terms. People do their ordinary work, live their ordinary recreation, and are all perfectly free to participate more or less as it suits them in communal activities. There are no striking religious requirements involved. But the Church and the faith are at the heart of their everyday lives. It is a community that is very much in the world, but not of the world. It makes for a very counter-cultural way of formation and living. With the toxic nature of what modern culture has become, counter-cultural is a very good thing, indeed. It is one of the many important ways that I think Christians might re-form – the Benedict Option writ large, as it were – as the culture collapses around us.
Robin and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the state of the faith in the larger Church, in America and in their Archdiocese as drove me to Conyers and back. It is hard to stand your ground with both charity and fidelity in these strange times, but it helps when you have a community of believers around you who will pull in the same direction.
I took a quick nap before heading over to the Hilton to give my talk. The good cheer of the dinner the night before and events of the day had enervated me and put me in an expansive mood, so I gave a fairly lively presentation, which is linked to in the Visit Videos above.
The host committee had provided a table of soft drinks and coffee for all those who came out. Tom told me later he had to tell a couple of people to put their wallets away, that there would be no collection. He said I saved him some explanations when I announced early on that there was no charge for any of the materials and that there would be no collections. I rely on volunteer sponsors for the $300. In Atlanta, they went above and beyond. Carol provided my $300 stipend, but others on the committee popped for the room. I was absurdly pleased to find the room and refreshments were more costly than I am. Tom told me afterward a few people asked him if this was actually Catholic – not because of what I said, but because we Catholics are much more accustomed to there being a third collection than there being none. Hee hee…maybe I will start calling my visits “Catholicism without the Cover Charge.”
I was glad that the video turned out well. The sound is a little muffled, but I look forward to putting videos up of wherever I have been that takes and provides them. I will confess I don’t actually watch the videos myself. In the first place, I was there…I have already been through it once. In the second, I have always hated listening to myself on tape. I don’t know why, but I do. When I was in radio, I only listened to tapes of myself during routine AirChecks with the Program Director (that is when the Program Director reviews tapes with you for content, delivery, and presentation…anything that affects the quality of your show) – and on holidays. On holidays, the station would run a “Best of” tape while my kids and I would go to some state park or other adventure. The kids absolutely loved listening to me on the radio while I was right there in the car with them, so I indulged them. But the tapes are important for a couple of other reasons, too. First, I say nothing that has to be hidden away; I say it publicly. I will undoubtedly say something stupid sometime – if I haven’t already, but when I do I will say it right there in front of God and everybody. I will apologize for it later if it is dumb enough, but nothing will be hidden or furtive. Second, I speak of unusual things but I am a very straight-forward guy. As people are considering hosting a visit, these tapes will make it easy for others to see what it is about and that it is pretty solid stuff despite the unusual nature of some of the things I speak of.
Saturday morning, Tom picked me up as I checked out of the hotel to take me up to his family’s summer home in the hills of northern Georgia. The family was already there. It was gorgeous, hidden away in some piney Georgia woods with several creeks running nearby. Best of all, it had a little kind of loft bedroom up above the garage. I called it my hobbit hole. The kids were arranged by category in an amusing way…two gracious and lovely teenage girls – Sarah, the oldest, and Lindsay.
There was a gap, then Tom and his wife Jessica apparently decided to open up a new file drawer for boys. Danny is the lively First Grader and Drew, the toddler. I took to Drew right off as he reminds me of another pugnacious toddler boy I know – and like – back home in Denver.
We spent much of the afternoon visiting and chatting. Jessica brought out her family specialty – chocolate chip cheesecake – which was as good as any I ever had in a Chicago Jewish Deli. I love cheesecake, but can only manage a slice at a time before I get hiccups. (I think it is God’s own way of regulating my system so I don’t get diabetes, despite my sweet tooth). They had a graduation party to go to with nearby friends that evening. Though they invited me to come along, I was a little tired from the week and decided to stay and nap. They left the house open so I could grab a bite if I wanted. Fortunately, the two dogs had already decided they liked me. One is always a bit on edge when walking into a place with dogs when the owner is away, but even aggressive dogs, once they have decided I am okay, seem to stick to that opinion whether their owner is there or not. These two might have licked and played me to death, but otherwise I was okay. So the family came back to find a little less cheesecake in the fridge than when they left.
Sunday morning we went to St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Dohlonega, Georgia, a quaint, tourist small Southern town. It was amusing that both the first Mass reading and the Gospel were about storms.
We stopped at a little place for a quick lunch. I had fried chicken. (I LOVE fried chicken – my black ex son-in-law once told me that he was letting everyone know that my grandkids’ love of fried chicken came from me – the Southern Fried Yankee – not him. I chuckled and asked who would take responsibility for the watermelon. He laughed and said he would own that one). Then we headed home and changed to go out to a river trail and fish a bit. Well…a few of them fished a little, but we mainly waded and played.
Originally, Tom was going to take me to catch a bus that evening in Gainesville to head on down to Ft. Lauderdale. But my son called. He was driving down through the area after a short trip. He got Tom and Jessica’s home address in Atlanta and picked me up. It was great, giving some bonus time with my son and allowing him to sleep a little on the way. He is a policeman who had to go on shift early the next morning. The Kuipers were heading out west for their family vacation Tuesday (I told them they HAD to spend more than a single day at Yosemite. I look forward to hearing what they thought of it after they are back). So we all prepared to head on our different ways.
There is a lively, committed crew of orthodox Catholics in the Atlanta area – and I am right glad that they got to know each other a little better on my visit.