It all started on Oct. 26 in Terminal B18 at the Sacramento International Airport while waiting for Southwest flight 1597. I saw an older man sitting by himself in the terminal. I had no idea who he was, other than he was clearly ordained. He was talking to someone on the phone, so I thought that I’d wait until his call was over so I could stop over and give him a respectful greeting. My mother taught me to show respect to our women religious and the ordained, regardless of what church they belonged to. So, if I didn’t stop to say hello to him, and if Mom found out, there would be hell to pay. Trust me – you don’t want to mess with my Mom.
But, before I start with my Bishop Vann story, I have to tell you something – I am not the best of Catholics. In fact, I’ve been a wayward one at best. Mind you, it’s no one’s fault, but only my own. My mother is the one person in my life who always followed her faith. She’s had the most difficult of lives, but she always kept her faith. You would think that I’d follow her steps, right? But, I never did.
Mom would tell me that in order to find God, I truly had to search for Him. And on that one day the light bulb (in my head) would turn on. I spent a good part of my life scurrying about and wondering about things. I wondered about life. I wondered about the world. And as selfish as it may seem, I worried about myself. I wondered about who I was and where my place was in the world. When I heard the testimonies of others, I heard nothing but beautiful stories of people who found God, literally on top of the mountain. They’d tell me these wonderful stories about God or how His angels would come to them and touch them in some way. And with that, their lives would change.
Well, I didn’t get anything of that. Then, finally, when I was in my 40s, the light bulb turned on, and it was at that moment when I found God. I didn’t find Him on top of the mountain. I found Him in a deep valley. He’d been patiently sitting right next to me, all along, waiting for me to realize that I could not live life without Him. Mom was right all along. The light bulb turned on.
I started to live a life for others, because I realized that life’s greatest rewards were reserved for those who bring joy to other people’s lives. I regularly attended church and began teaching the faith to teenagers. I visited the sick on the weekends and brought them Communion. I also spent most weekends bringing donated items to our local homeless population and poor working families. I became a voracious reader of the Bible and other books about God. I fellow shipped with all creeds, knowing that beautiful people worshiped in all the churches, temples and mosques. I gained everything I ever wanted and I finally became what I wanted to be – a real, human being.
Then, after some personal mishaps, my connection to God grew distant again. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; just my own. I stopped praying. I stopped attending church. And I stopped doing the things that kept me close to God. For years, I told my church students to get closer to God when things went bad. But I didn’t listen to my own advice. Instead, I walked away. I also told my students that there were no coincidences in life. It was just God working anonymously.
And this is where I met Bishop Vann. After the Bishop finished his phone call, I stopped over to say hello. He kindly asked what my name was, so I told him. I then asked him what parish he was assigned to. Again, I had no idea who he was. In a very quiet way, he then told me that he was not assigned to a specific church, but he was the Bishop from the Diocese of Orange County — he was Bishop Kevin Vann.
Of course, I didn’t really believe him, so I Googled him and there he was – Bishop Kevin Vann. I must admit — I was blown away.
Out of respect, I put his hand on my forehead and called him Your Excellency. I don’t think he wanted to hear any of that. Instead, he just wanted me to sit next him and talk. Now, if you knew me, you’d know that I never get tongue-tied. In fact, most people have to tell me to shut up. But here I was, sitting next to the Bishop. I almost started to babble because I was in his presence. But, since I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment, I began to ask him several theological questions. Why did Jesus call John and James the “Sons of Thunder”? What happened to Saint Joseph? What was the thorn on Paul’s side? Did God forgive Judas? I went on and on.
Now, you would think that the Bishop would tell me to quiet down, but he never did. Bishop Vann patiently answered all of my questions. I could see the Bishop was tired from the long day, but he sat there and gave all of his attention to me. It was surreal to say the least. The plane then boarded. The Bishop was one of the first to board. As I walked down the aisle to board my seat, the Bishop asked me to sit next to him. I am embarrassed to say this, but I didn’t know what to do. The Bishop wants ME to sit next to him? ME? So, I did.
I wanted to tell him so much about me and my teachers and the good things we had done in the past. I wanted to talk about the community work we do in Pomona Valley and how we’re always in need of adult clothing to clothe the homeless. There was so much to say, but again, I was a bit tongue-tied. So, instead, I just listened. In our conversations, the Bishop spoke of his siblings, his father and his beautiful mother. He spoke of his education, the positions he held and his past. This beautiful man spent his time talking to me as if I mattered to him. And, guess what? I did.
This is the kind of man the Bishop is. He sees value in all human beings. He exuded a peace and tranquility that was just great to be around. You could just feel a great presence around him. He also lovingly spoke of the diocese and of the Church and of its wonderful parishioners. It was great to hear him speak.
During the flight, I gave him my business card, which he put in his pocket. I didn’t think anything of it. The Bishop then began to ask me some honest questions – one of which was if I was regularly attending church. I was honest in all my answers, but none of them were good. The Bishop gave no judgment whatsoever. All he gave me was concern for my spiritual health. After we landed, Bishop Vann asked for me to accompany him off the plane. I thought it was to maybe help him with his suitcase or something like that. But, that wasn’t it – he instead wanted to pray and bless me. Wow.
We got off the plane and moved into the terminal. We found a quiet place among the crowd. He prayed, blessed and gave me absolution. He then told me to read Psalm 23 and then go to be of service to others. That was the last I saw of him.
After a couple of hours, I got home from my trip and unpacked. I checked my work phone and saw a message someone left for me at work. It was Bishop Vann. He wanted to make sure I got home and that my family was okay. He even gave me his cell number and asked me to call him. I couldn’t believe it. He gave ME his cell number and asked me to call him. I’m not going to lie – it brought a tear to my eye. I didn’t call him so guess what happened? He called me again and left a second message. Now, was this a chance meeting? Of course not. It’s all God.
If this story means anything, it means God is always there and always working in our lives to bring us closer to Him, even when we are not doing our best. He’ll use anything and anyone to get our attention. God also sometimes works the most when we feel or see it the least. Rest assured, I’ll be back to church one day to make things happen again.
And the answer to your question is yes, I finally did call him back. I do ask for everyone to pray for me. I hope to make it back to where I once was. May God’s blessings be upon all of you.
Editor’s Note: Bishop Vann, on the same flight, was introduced to two other individuals, both of whom wanted to return to the Church. He met with a woman whom he prayed with and blessed, as well as a man who lives within the Diocese of Orange. He suggested the man visit San Francisco Solano and introduce himself to Fr. Duy, which he did. So often we think of the role of a bishop in a much broader context. Here, we see, it is also often very personal.