I was just in Washington DC for meetings and had a couple of unforgettable experiences that deeply nourished me as a woman of faith, as a writer and as a leader — experiences which will be the subject of my next two blogs.
As I grew up, one of the writers I really enjoyed was Catherine Marshall. Her novel, Christy, was a favorite when I was a teenager, and when I became an adult I enjoyed her devotional books for women, like The Helper. Her honesty about her spiritual journeys truly encouraged me. Also, she was the wife and ministry partner of the fine Scottish pastor and writer, the Rev. Peter Marshall, who once was Chaplain of the U.S. Senate.
When I was pregnant with our second daughter six years ago and had to take it easy, I watched over and over the 1955, Oscar-nominated, biographical film, A Man Called Peter, based on Catherine’s bestselling biography of her husband, who sadly died very young in 1949 from a heart attack.
I loved the actor Richard Todd as Peter Marshall, and the beautiful (and underrated) Jean Peters, playing Catherine Marshall, in her last film role before Howard Hughes married her and whisked her away from films for good.
The film — a rare mainstream film about faith — was an inspiration to me as a woman, believer, leader and film/theater writer. It was so well done — including Alfred Newman’s memorable score — and has one of the loveliest opening lines of a film ever: “This is the story of a man, and his close friendship with God…” It truly does show Peter’s remarkable faith, and his heart for God, for people and for service.
But it turns out to show — through a few amazing scenes and speeches — Catherine’s own struggles and embracing of her faith as well, amid illness and other challenges. Watching it just confirmed all the encouragement I received from Catherine’s writings about the same issues. And it’s even more poignant to watch, in light of the later difficulties (young widow with a child) as well as triumphs (becoming a successful writer) which Catherine experiences.
Back to this past weekend. As I checked into our hotel in the heart of Washington, with so much to see and do and take care of, I noticed a tall, old church down H Street as we drove by in the taxi. It looked familiar. Then I saw the sign: New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.
My heart skipped as I remembered that New York Avenue Presbyterian was the home church of Peter & Catherine Marshall, in the 1930s-1940s, where he served before his death. The church of Abraham Lincoln and many other presidents.
How crazy is it that this church was two blocks from my hotel? Although my schedule of meetings was going to be full, I knew I had to make time to see it during my short visit.
I had taken a redeye and then entered into a full day and evening of meetings, so I was tired. But after a full night’s sleep, before the afternoon sessions the next day, I got up the next morning and walked to New York Avenue Presbyterian, with Alfred Newman’s score swirling in my head.
I went into the church and got emotional right away. Though recently renovated — white paint instead of brown, with a new organ on the first level instead of the second upstairs — I saw (from the film) the familiar-looking altar, columns and even a few remnants that still remain from the old days.
I probably looked like a transient fool, a San Diego girl overdressing in multiple coats, scarves, gloves, and a hat because of the cold weather, unable to even get out a tissue and wiping up with my scarf instead.
Nonetheless an usher kindly greeted me and welcomed me. I told him how I was in town for meetings and saw the church and had to come in because I was a big fan of Peter and Catherine Marshall and their work.
“Well, Catherine’s stepdaughter is actually sitting over there.”
My heart skipped again. On a lovely vintage red velvet couch on the side of the church, beneath a stained glass window, was an older woman in a pastoral vestment, speaking with a friend. As the usher explained, she was the daughter of Catherine’s second husband, Leonard LaSourd, founder of Guideposts Magazine. And she was a pastor? (I later learned that she, Rev. Linda LaSourd Lader, was a tremendous minister and leader in her own right).
The blessed orchestration of details and events, the resonance of it all, was a bit much for me, so I sat down in a pew — near the pew I remember Catherine sitting in the film. When I got enough gumption, I went up to Rev. Linda and introduced myself and how much I admired the work of her stepmother. She thanked me graciously and we chatted. Was this really happening?
Then she pointed to the couch she had just been sitting on and said that she wanted me to sit there, because it had belonged to her stepmother, used to be in her parents house, then in the church, then languished here and there until they had it restored and placed it under the stained glass window and plaque in honor of Catherine. We said a kind goodbye as she went to prepare to begin the church service, and I sat down in the sofa, thinking of what conversations might have gone on there, between Catherine and her parents, or with her husband, who knows.
These are the kind of experiences that make my heart sing — as a woman, believer, writer, leader. When the different strands of my little life explorations are woven together in ways I could never imagine. And I wouldn’t have even had this experience if I hadn’t been in DC to serve in the organization I had committed to for these meetings. When we serve, and explore our passions, and put ourselves out there, we are blessed, in more ways than we can ever imagine.
It was truly a capital experience — and would not be the last.