I grew up in Puerto Rico. Born and raised within an evangelical church, I learned early on in life about lifting my hands during worship, and responding to altar calls. Throughout my teenage years, I sang at church, played keyboards, helped with the kids, went on mission trips, and had my entire schedule revolve around church activities. The Evangelical sector in PR grew dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, and a lot of people that ‘converted’ to Evangelicalism in PR had Catholic backgrounds. Because of this, it is still not uncommon to hear entire Sunday School classes on the subject of Catholicism, often seen as a false religion separate from our “true Christianity”. At church, I learned about the ‘idolatry’ behind Catholic devotion to saints and the Virgin Mary. I learned that God ‘did not move’ in such programmed liturgies. I think that for a lot of Puerto Ricans within that generation, the Catholic church did not respond to their needs as a time, so their Evangelical faith was always defensive towards that subject.
Fast forward a few years, my parents decided to enroll me in a Catholic High School. It was affordable and one of the best in our town. As one of the few non-Catholics in my class, I was always particularly defensive and zelous about my faith. I distinctively remember my first Ash Wednesday. As part of the day’s activities, a group of students shared a reflection, and then asked all the students in our classroom to bow our heads. I obeyed, but saw out of the corner of my eye, the teacher passing by and putting the ash on the student’s foreheads. I panicked, and prayed to God for courage to ‘stand up’ for my beliefs and defend ‘true Christianity’. When my turn came, I lifted my head and bravely told the teacher, “I’m not a Catholic!” She shrugged her shoulders and moved to the next person, but to me, it was a victory. I had stood up for my faith! I remember sharing this testimony with my youth group at church in the coming week.
Nowadays, after some rocky years, I find myself in a new city and a new church. This church practices a more traditional liturgy, and celebrates Ash Wednesday. Two weeks ago was my first time at a formal Ash Wednesday service. From the moment I came in, I couldn’t hold back the tears. I’m the typical emotional Latina, so this didn’t come as a shock to me. What did surprise me was how close I felt to God throughout that service. Memories of my charismatic teenage years came to mind. My 15-year-old self would be scandalized that I had grown far from God, and even more that I was now reconnecting with God in one of the ‘cold’ churches, where there were symbols and traditions.
As I received the ashes on my forehead for the first time in my life, it was as if a part of me was finally breaking loose of old misconceptions. "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Such a beautiful and powerful and life-changing statement. How could I miss this all these years?
For a long time, I felt embarrassed about the faith I professed throughout those teen years. How many people did I offend? I can’t believe I was so close-minded! However, there is something that I know for a fact, even amidst all the ups and downs of my spiritual life.
I know that God was as present then as he is now. His company is the most constant relationship in my life.
And for that I am grateful. I continue to learn, to expand my horizons, to ask God for His guidance. I ask that my mind be stretched, but that my heart be kept simple and searching for Truth, whatever that might be.
Anyway, that’s all I have to say about this for now.