“Little John” (me)

It seems that some people don’t think twice about religion. I have never been that kind of person. Like the Psalmist, I have always been inclined to say,

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.”

(Psalm 19:1-2, ESV)

Anchored in this understanding of God and his easy willingness to reveal Himself, my own religious path took me into and out of Roman Catholicism a couple of times, eventually to leave it for good. Investigating the truth claims of both sides of the Protestant/Catholic divide has been the defining intellectual struggle of my life.

I grew up in West Mifflin, a small borough in western Pennsylvania near Pittsburgh. Thanks to the popularity of the Steelers football team, Pittsburgh is widely known as the Steel City, and its reputation for being a world-class center for steel production is well-deserved.

In turn, Pittsburgh has been dependent on the small towns and communities along its rivers. In the late 19th and earliest 20th centuries, the rivers provided a means of transportation for bringing coal and iron ore in, and shipping steel out.

People from the region made steel in a dozen or more communities south of the city that ran along the Mononghahela River, including the small towns of Elizabeth, Clairton, Glassport, McKeesport, Duquesne, Braddock, Homestead, and others.

This topography was totally foreign to Bethany, a west-coast girl, when she landed here.

Image 5: West Mifflin and surrounding local areas

On a map, the Monongahela (or “Mon”) River bends in a backward “S” shape, with the lower portion of the backward “S” protruding westward on the map, opposite Glassport and McKeesport, which nestled inside of the river to the east. Then further north, the river curved back east to encircle Duquesne, West Mifflin, and Homestead. West Mifflin sits almost in the form of a sideways “figure 8” on the west side of that upper curve in the river.

So as the steel mill communities grew after World War II, and outgrew their own municipal boundaries, lots of people who worked in the steel mills along the river, moved up over the hills into West Mifflin. It was a bit farther away from the economic activity and less densely populated than the little steel towns, but the homes were newer. The people who lived there came from various communities, and it was a real melting pot of people and nationalities from the region.

Image 6:West Mifflin, near the Allegheny County Airport, where I grew up.

The borough was incorporated in 1947. It had been mostly unincorporated farmland before that, not part of any municipality. It was also home to one of the first commercial airports in the country — the Allegheny County Airport, in 1931, and it had ample business and shopping areas nearby.

The main east-west road through the area, Lebanon Church Road, was named after the Lebanon Presbyterian Church, which had been a landmark since its establishment 1776. It was a hilly terrain, and the road had ample twists and turns.

As a cross-street to Lebanon Church Road, Camp Hollow Road extends straight south from the Airport driveway and curves down the hill and winds through the hollows down to the Monongahela river and to the city of Clairton.

My father, born in 1928, grew up on a farm in rural western Pennsylvania during the depression, where his family were coal miners from Slovakia. He was the youngest of three brothers, with seven sisters. He was number nine of the 10 kids in the family. Though he was too young for military service during World War II, an older brother of his was a genuine war hero who had parachuted behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe for the OSS, a precursor of the CIA.

Eventually my dad found a job as a “wiring diagram designer” for the Union Switch and Signal company, which designed railroad crossings for many of the major railroads in the area. He served in Korea, where he was wounded.

He was a natural artist. As a young man, he could draw Woody Woodpecker almost perfectly by hand, from memory, and his job at “the Switch” was simply creating the blueprints out of drawings produced by the engineers.

His job was stressful for him, not because of kind of work that he did, but because of the people around him, and the tense work situations brought about by union rules. In my father’s case, he had started at “the Switch” about a month before another guy – we’ll call him Fisher. For some thirty years, Fisher followed my father “up the ladder” at that place, always a month behind, and he harassed my father all the way up.

For years, he worked a 40-hour job, and dinner was on the table precisely at 5:30 every day. Except for when he worked overtime. Then dinner was on the table at 6:30. And Fisher nagged my father every step of the way.

So on Fridays, my father would bring home a case of beer, stash it away in his downstairs refrigerator, and he would sit and brood, drunk, until Monday mornings.

I only learned when I was 27, just before I met Bethany, that he had been married in the early 1950s (“in the Church”) and then quickly divorced, before he met my mom. Knowing how Roman Catholicism viewed marriage in those days, it certainly would have caused him a lot of difficulties.

My mom, born in 1940, grew up in the Hazelwood area of Pittsburgh, in the public housing projects up the hill from the steel mills in Homestead. At the time I was born, she was a recent high school graduate of what was then Cathedral High School, an all-girls Catholic school, located next to St. Paul’s Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh.

My dad’s younger sister Sue was married in the early 1950s. She and her husband lived in the same housing project where my mom lived, and my dad moved in with them after his divorce. Some time in 1959, he was helping one of his nephews move into the projects up there, and that’s where he met my mom.

My mom and dad were married in August 1959. I was born in January 1960. Let’s just say that a 30-year-old divorced man getting a 19-year-old Catholic girl pregnant out of wedlock caused a bit of a scandal in those days.

By the time I was a year and a half old, my parents had moved to West Mifflin, to a small house not far from the County Airport, just off of Camp Hollow Road. That’s where I grew up and where my mom still lives (as I write this).

Years later, I found out that my parents had secretly gone through the “annulment” process for my father’s first marriage and had gotten married “in the Church”.

As a small child, under the age of two, I was hospitalized several times for bouts of pneumonia. It seemed to run in the family — I had a close aunt and uncle both who seemed to have gone through the same thing.

My earliest memories involve being in that hospital. I remember being in a grey metal crib, which seemed like a cage, and I was inside a clear plastic oxygen tent. Essentially I was inside a box inside of a cage. Maybe this accounts for the sense I have that I don’t want to be bound in any way.

My grandmother brought me a large toy metal car, which had metal parts and some gears that made some real engine sounds. I remember the nurses taking it away from me because it possibly could have created sparks, not a good thing in an oxygen tent.

The crib was in a large open ward, with a couple of cribs at my end, and maybe about 10 or 12 beds in the large open room. My mother tells me that she slept on the floor while I was in the hospital, and that seems to have been a possibility, given the austere nature of that ward.

I got over the pneumonia, and because of my birth date in January, I was able to start Kindergarten at age four. By age seven, I received the appropriate second-grade sacraments — “first confession” and “first holy communion”.

Image 7: The author, at age seven.

During those years, I had a great grandmother who was an immigrant from Slovakia, whom I saw regularly. She barely spoke English, but the one thing she repeatedly told me was, “you good boy Jahnny”. And that went along with and reinforced my religious training as a young Catholic. You have to be good to get into heaven.

My father was something of weekend alcoholic. He was socially awkward, and he was hard on me at times. While I was very young, I frequently wet the bed at night.

Back then, I had recurring dreams, and maybe they reflected my hospital experiences? Women dressed in white would enter and exit from the room. They would just show up and take care of different things around me, and then they would disappear. Were they nurses? Angels?

I also have memories from the third grade on, maybe, of having had a crush on different girls over the years. I have been in love with many different names at many different times. Some of these crushes lasted for years. I never knew most of these girls. They were very pretty, and I was too shy ever to talk with any of them. They were all crushes from afar.

Only one of these, Donna, coincided with an actual friendship. My younger sister was a Brownie, and my mom would help chaperone the Girl Scouts on roller skating trips. I would go skating with them, and Donna and I would hold hands as we skated around the rink. I believe I ruined that friendship with the help of a rascally neighbor of hers (from our class) and also my own thoughtlessness, joking around.

In my middle school years, I was an odd but relatively normal kid. I won a math contest in sixth grade. I acted in plays, and I was a manager for the basketball team in eighth grade, which meant I swept floors in the locker room and collected up the basketballs and put them away after practice.

I played chess in high school, and our chess team won a state championship.

During my high school years, there were some girls who were “Born Again Christians”. The phrase was popularized during the presidential campaign of 1976, when Jimmy Carter identified himself as “Born Again”. I had no idea what that meant. But it seemed like a good thing, and if there were another level, so to speak, to which we could aspire on the road to God, I wanted to know about it.

On days when we had substitute teachers, a group of us with religious interests of different kinds would all talk about it. Lisa, one of the Born Again girls whose last name started with “B” always sat near me in classes. She and I would talk about religion, and others would join in the discussion.

A close Baptist friend of mine, a very smart Methodist, and an atheist who was also a student of Nazi Germany, all joined these discussions from time to time. I represented the Roman Catholic side in those talks, and of course, I had the big ammo:

“Thou art Peter, and on This Rock I will build my Catholic Church” (Matthew 16:18).

There’s nothing like being boastful while quoting wrong information. I literally thought Jesus had said “I will build my Catholic Church”, but of course the word “Catholic” in there was an interpolation by my mom, who, as a pre-Vatican II Catholic High School graduate, often repeated it that way.

I was one of 12 students in my graduating class who made it through all 12 years of CCD – the Catholic version of Sunday School for public school students.

Often, during high school, Lisa, the Born Again girl would give me different religious tracts, which I read and considered.

One thing that was very clarifying for me was a chart showing the gap between God and man, and the way that the cross of Christ bridged that gap. This was the Biblical Gospel message, pure and simple. God created man. Man sinned and broke fellowship. Christ’s death and resurrection restored that fellowship. And we were free to avail ourselves of that fellowship. We just had to ask for it.

Another tract featured a part of a sermon by John Wesley, in which he preached, “Ye must be born again”. It was based on the passage from the Gospel of John:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’” (John 3:3-7).

By the time I was graduated from high school in 1977, I was fully engaged in a personal religious quest. Two things, which seem connected, were in play. “What is it to be ‘Born Again’?” and “Where does the Roman Catholic Church fit into this?”

After all, if the Roman Catholic Church were actually what it says it is (and it says it is the channel of all grace in the world), then how could it miss something as fundamental as a blessing that goes with “being Born Again”? 

A parish priest of mine later said that “you were ‘born again’ at baptism”. But that logic doesn’t quite follow, as I learned.

I didn’t know it at the time, but my questions were at the heart of the contentions at the time of the Reformation.

While most of my peers were growing up in a world of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll”, as they would say in the late 70s, I was looking for the meaning of life. The quest to find it would be my form of teenage rebellion.

# # #