Welcome Home

Welcome Home

A Blessed Hearts Story
for Amy, Cecilia, and Susan, my cousins
by Andrea DiMaggio


But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives,
much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard
Galatians 5:22 The Message

Living Faith Community Church, meeting at the Borough of Oakland Firehouse, Oakland, New Jersey...Sunday morning...

Pat Albanese looked at his notes briefly before continuing his message.

"It can be so easy to boil down what God wants from us into rules and regulations; I’ve done it myself. Listen…It’s bad enough if you do that to yourself, but you put that on someone else, it’s like God just gets up and walks out of the conversation."

He looked over and spotted his sister sitting next her sister-in-law, Pat's wife Regina, along with Marie, the couple's six year old daughter, in the front row. She looked up at him and she was as nervous as he had ever remembered her being. He grabbed the bottle of water on the shelf of the lectern and excused himself and took a big gulp before continuing.

"The whole idea of being obedient doesn’t set laws and rules aside, but it doesn’t mean hitting people over the head with them…and it doesn’t mean looking at everyone or yourself as if you’re always wrong. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that we all sin as well. So what to do? We do what we can with what we have and what we know to be as fruitful as possible in our lives with God and others. Let me read this, okay…"

But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard–things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

"I need to do a bit of personal business here with you folks. It’s been a rough few weeks at church here, and I’ve probably had a big part of it, and for that I apologize. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not sorry for how things have turned out, but I am truly sorry if I have been hurtful in any way."

Several of the congregation murmured and Mrs. Posednik actually shouted,

“You didn’t do anything wrong, Pastor”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Donna, but I was abrupt with more than several folks, and I am so sorry.” Pat took another gulp of water and continued.

“I wanted to thank you folks for hanging in there. You, more than any group or individual I know or have ever met embody the passage I just read.”

He smiled and looked out into the congregation. It really wouldn’t have much more embarrassing for his sister, since every eye was on her from the beginning of the service. But unlike so many embarrassing situations in church, this one was actually nice….

A few weeks earlier...Saturday morning...the Albanese home...Wycoff, New Jersey

“I just don’t know, Pat. It’s an awful lot for everyone to take in. I should just find another church; you don’t need the hassle.” The woman stared at her coffee cup like some do with a tea cup, almost seeking a message of some sort.

“Nonsense, Carm…this is your home…we’re your family.” Regina smiled and grabbed her sister-in-laws hand and held it up, where it was grasped briefly by Pat as he sat down at the table.

“You’re anticipating rejection, and after what you’ve been through, it’s understandable, but you’re home, Carm, okay.”

“What do you think Mommy and Daddy would say?” Just the mention of her parents brought her to tears. She was sure…at least she thought she was…about what her parents might say, but she needed her big brother to remind her.

“Mommy always said you were different, and you know she meant that in a good way, right?” Pat smiled and Carmen nodded but she turned away.

“God, I wish they were still alive…Daddy always knew what to say to make me feel…. Oh, gosh, Pat…I’m so sorry.” She put her hand to her face and bowed her head.

“Carm…there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wish he were here. It’s okay…and it’s going to be okay.”

“Say,” Regina interjected,” Why don’t you just slip in after church next week at the covered dish lunch. It actually might be easier to fit into a crowd rather than some meeting. Honey…it’s going to be okay…trust me?”

The following Sunday as planned, the woman stepped up to the long line of tables and grabbed a paper plate and some plastic ware. She was nervous enough that her hands shook, and she dropped the fork and knife.

“Oh, darn, I’m sorry,” she said to no one in particular. A smallish elderly woman behind her in line handed her another fork and knife.

“Don’t worry, child. They’ve got plenty and they’re just plastic.” Carmen turned to face the woman.
“Thank you.”

“You look awfully familiar, young lady. I’d recognize that lovely smile anywhere.” The woman put her hand on Carmen’s arm softly.

“I made the canolis…shhhh…don’t tell anybody…it’s a Sicilian recipe…sheep’s milk…you should try one.” The woman smiled as Carmen picked up one from the large platter and placed it next to the lasagna.

“You’d be surprised, Mrs. Perillo,” Carmen thought as she went to leave the line. The woman grabbed her arm one last time. She pulled Carmen close and motioned for her to lean closer. Carmen bent near the older woman, who touched her face softly with her hand and whispered gently,

“I’m so glad you’ve come home, Carmen. I love you so much.” She pinched Carmen’s cheek and patted it playfully before walking off.


The next Sunday, Carmen braved attending the service. It was less crowded, being Thanksgiving l Day weekend, with some church members out of town for family functions. Carmen stepped out of the aisle and sat down. The woman next to her was very animated in her worship. She noticed that Carmen was still sitting during the music and without warning, she leaned over and grabbed Carmen’s hand and lifted her to her feet.

“Come on, dear…” she said before returning to singing. After a few songs, Carmen was clapping her hands and managing to carry the tune to a new song the worship leader was teaching the congregation.

“He will rejoice over you with exceeding joy!” The girl sang. She paused and said almost as an aside even as she continued to strum her guitar,

“Imagine that you are so precious that God rejoices over YOU! That’s what this song is saying…how much God love us…loves you.”

At the end of the service, the woman turned to Carmen and smiled.

“I just love the way Lisa leads worship, don’t you? Well, it was fun, wasn’t it, but I’ve got to get Susan back to the home for lunch.” She turned to the woman sitting next to her; a woman of about forty or so; her eyes sparkled through the thick lenses of her glasses as she smiled. he

"Ohhhhkay...Siiihseee." Her words were slightly slurred but her joy was evident.

Carmen turned to leave but the woman grabbed her arm and stepped closer.

“Do you know what exuberant means?” The woman was practically giddy. Carmen smile and thought to herself,

“If anyone was exuberant in her faith, Cecelia Pietrowski, it would be you.”

“Like the song goes…he rejoices over you with exceeding joy….Carmen…Welcome home.” Her sister Amy came over and joined the group, coming along side Susan and Carmen.

"Yes, Carmen...welcome home."


A few days later...at the Albanese home...

“I’m so frightened, GeeGee, I don’t know what to do…I start the new job on Monday. Should I let them know? Do they even have a right?” Carmen shook her head as Regina poured them both another cup of coffee each.

“One thing I know for sure, honey…you’ve got to trust that everything is going to turn out okay…it says he’ll keep you in perfect peace if you keep your mind stayed on him, right?” Carmen nodded almost reluctantly.

“I’m not saying everything will be perfect…just that you’ll be in perfect peace in the midst of whatever is going on, okay?

The following Monday, Property Concepts Architectural Firm, Wanaque, New Jersey...

“I know we discussed a lot of stuff regarding the company, but I want to assure you that this is a place where you can feel at home, okay, Miss Albanese?” The man across the desk from her had taught her how to throw a curve and hit the other way when she was little. Bart Monahan; big and burly…a man’s man, she supposed. She had sat next to him the day before in church, and he didn’t even know. She sighed as the man reached back and pulled a packet off the credenza behind him.

“Perfect peace….perfect peace…” she thought to herself, almost as a mantra.

“Here’s our policy on discrimination, so you are aware. It’s almost a waste of paper.” She cringed, wondering where the conversation was going.

“We all care about each other here. The place is small and intimate and everyone gets along.” He said.

“So long as you fit in,” she thought to herself until he added,

“I’m really not supposed to say this, because it’s sort of discriminatory…but we all know each other
and pray for each other…small place with folks who care, I suppose, so you’re welcome to join in…lunch time..Off the clock. We don’t expect anything from anyone, but we also want to be a welcoming place as well.”

It seemed as if the orientation was over and she went to get up. Bart smiled and spoke.

“Miss Albanese? Carmen?” He used her first name, which was odd.

“We respect everyone’s privacy here, so you’ll find this is a very peaceful place to work.” She nodded in agreement, wondering where he was going.

“Just one question before I let you go; I’ve ordered pizza for the office….I hope you didn’t bring lunch.” She had, but she smiled as if she hadn’t. He spoke one last time as she stood up.”

“How’s that curve working for you, Carm?” He laughed softly as she shook her head slightly wondering if she’d heard right.

“Welcome back, Carm.”


One by one, things seemed to come to Carmen throughout the week. Vince Jessups took extra time explaining the new design software even though he had a deadline to make for an important project.


“What’s wrong, honey?” Bart’s secretary said softly as Carmen sat in her office.

“Oh…hi, Monica…oh…nothing.” It wasn’t nothing; Carmen had just been overwhelmed with the newness of everything; sometimes even good change can be depressing.

“Let me get you some tea, okay?” The woman’s tone seemed to ask permission to be nice. She was off quickly, and when she returned she had a tray from the kitchen with two mugs of tea and some Danish. She placed the tray on Carmen’s desk and smiled warmly. She popped up once again and closed the office door and sat down again before saying,

“Okay, honey…what’s really wrong. You seem a bit sad, and I know this isn’t the easiest time for you…maybe a lot like when you were in middle school and you had a crush on Jimmy Carlucci. Yes…I remember, Carm…it’s okay.” She reached across the desk and touched Carmen’s hand softly.


A few days later...Joe's American Bar and Grill, Paramus, New Jersey

Carmen and Vince and Charlie Davidson were out for a late lunch; the three had worked on a joint project for the city and it was finished. They sat at a booth at the restaurant and were waiting for their drinks when the conversation at the next boot got loud; loud enough to hear.

“Did you see the look at that…well I don’t know what to call it, but it isn’t a girl.”

“Yeah…why do they do that…I mean…what the fuck…”

Carmen put her head down and covered her face. Vince started to get up, but Charlie waved him off. He stood up and touched Carmen softly on the shoulder before walking around to the other booth.
His six foot frame wasn’t all that big, but his presence seemed to loom over the table at the young men.

“I think it would be very helpful if you changed the subject, gentlemen. It’s not right to speak like this in public, and you’re disturbing the folks here. I think they’d like a bit more calm and relaxing during their lunch, don’t you.” He leaned on the table and turned his glance one at a time at each of them.

“Listen, you morons. You can’t even come close to being as good a person as my friend there, and it would be pointless to try unless you change your narrow minds."

They seemed to listen, but their expressions were anything but agreeable. He leaned even closer and spoke one last time in a soft but firm whisper.

“Your words are hurtful and cruel and ignorant, and you’ve just hurt someone now. One more word out of you dumb fucks and I will personally be happy to escort you to your transportation. Do I make myself clear?” Their expressions turned to conciliatory fear.

He nodded at their silence and returned to the table.

“I’m sorry you had to witness that, but some things demand an immediate response. Oh…and by the way…lunch is on me.” He smiled once and took a sip of coffee.


Early that evening at the Albanese home...

Carmen entered the house only to find the house quiet. She walked quietly into the living room and found Regina sitting on the couch, Bible in her lap. Her eyes were closed, and she was lost almost in prayer.

“God, protect my sister Carmen as she makes this transition…the path upon which you set her feet…protect her and keep her and comfort her….” Regina’s voice trailed off as she began to weep for her sister-in-law, unaware of her presence. Carmen sat down on the couch next to Regina and hugged her. She marveled at the dedication this woman had for her, and she began to cry softly in gratitude.


A while later....

Carmen had gotten lost in prayer. She noticed Regina had gotten up and heard her cleaning the evening dishes. A small voice interrupted her thoughts.

“Aunt Carmen?” Carmen looked up to see her niece standing in front of her. The little girl tugged at Carmen’s sleeve.

“Yes, honey?” Carmen looked at her niece, trying to hold back the tears. The past week had been rough and good at the same time. She was overwhelmed with the doubts and fears that often plague us all, but with her change so apparent to all and the overwhelming acceptance she’d received, it was almost like she couldn’t handle one more extension of grace. The little girl looked up into her eyes and said softly,

“You look kinda sad…wanna hold my dolly?” She held up the baby doll like an offering unto God. It was the last blessed straw, and Carmen reached over and picked up the little girl. She pulled Marie into herself and cried. Regina came out of the kitchen a while later and found both of them asleep; the little girl peaceful and serene. Her expression was matched by the big girl who held her; an expression that had been missing for some time, but like the girl herself, was a welcomed return.


Elders' Meeting...at the Property Concepts conference room...Thursday evening...

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dave Gibb shook his head at Pat before continuing. “That’s your brother?”

“She’s my sister.” Pat was growing weary; the conversation had been going on for nearly ten minutes, and it kept coming back to Carmen’s former life. It would have been easy enough to walk out of the meeting; he certainly needed a break, and he was growing angrier by the moment. Dave wouldn’t’ budge. Martina Gianfredo interrupted the exchange.

“Can we ratchet this back a bit, fellas? I’m quite sure God can handle whatever change this girl has undergone. Dave…what’s the big issue here for you?”

“I don’t know…it just doesn’t seem right?” Dave shook his head and stared over at the door, as if someone was waiting on the other side with the answer to his moral dilemma, which really wasn’t a dilemma at all.

“It sounds like you don’t really have a problem with her, per se…you just don’t understand how it all fits?”

“How it all fits,” Pat nearly jumped out of his chair. “It is a she and she’s my sister! What part of that is so hard to understand?”

“Listen…Pat…Dave…shhhh….shhhhh.” Martina's voice was almost soothing; like your mom’s voice when she sang a lullaby and tucked you in when you were little.

“Pat…I know she’s your sister. Pete and Janice her already have acknowledged that they are thrilled that Carmen’s back home.

“I know…it’s just that she tried attending a church back in Colorado, and it went to hell real quick. She’s hurt and she came home expecting at least to not be pushed away.” Pat rarely got this upset and certainly didn’t expect to cry, but he put his head down on the conference table and began to cry.

A moment later he felt a hand at his back, kneading his shoulders.

“I’m sorry, Pat…I should have thought…I’m so stubborn sometimes…a Thomas, I guess…wanting proof, when the proof is right here in front of me.” Dave patted his friend and pastor on the back.

“I guess I was more afraid than anything else. Carman was my best man when April and I got married; he was my best friend, and it hurt me that in all this time he never said….that …she never told me how things were. I was hurt, way more hurt than angry because we shared so much growing up. And I’m sorry, but Carmen may be your sister, but I miss who she used to be…what we meant to each other. It’s different now and it will never ever be what it was, and that hurts.”

“You can still be friends,” Janice said softly.

“Oh…I know…but you understand? Anyway…it there’s anything wrong here, it’s with me and not with Carmen, okay.” He put his hand on Pat’s shoulder and Pat grabbed it, squeezing Dave’s hand firmly.

“I’m sorry, Pat, please forgive me?”

“I’m sorry, too, Dave. I guess we both need forgiveness.”

“Pete? Janice? Would you mind closing the meeting in prayer?”


The present...continuing the service....

“Let me read that passage again before I continue, okay?” Pat looked down and smiled as he scanned the words.

But what happens when we live God's way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard–things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

“I want to thank all of you for bearing with me and my family as we’ve sorted out this whole issue. I would do all of you a disservice to just smile at the success and let it fade away. But church is about people and the problems we grapple with are people problems. Sorry if that upsets anyone’s theology, but it’s either we have a problem and we are people or we have a problem because we are people or we have a problem with people.”

“My sister is new to the church even as so many of you know her from when she lived her before…when she was my brother. Her return has been a problem for some here; me included. I’ve been a bit cranky and over-protective, and in doing so I’ve upset some here. You’ve been very kind to give me leeway as your pastor and friend. And in dealing with this we’ve sort of figured out that some of us here, and I include myself in that mix, have some ideas about how folks should be and live and conduct their lives.”

“We don’t have all the answers. Thank God for that.”

“Amen,” a voice came from the back of the church.

“Thank you, Bill!” Pat laughed. The congregation joined briefly in laughter.

“But what we do know can be summed up in the scripture I just read. In my few years of ministry I have never seen such a bounty of fruit….like the picture of the cornucopia…the horn pouring out a blessing…as I have with you all. Love…Joy…Peace…Patience…Kindness…Goodness…Faithfulness…Gentleness…Self-control…You people are amazing and I want to give you and God credit for making what could have been a bad situation into a great example of grace.”

“Now…without further ado, my family and I would like to make an introduction of sorts. It’s embarrassing, I know, but my daughter insisted on it, and there is nothing to be done when confronted with, ‘oh, Daddy…Please?’” He smiled at Marie and then nodded at his sister, who sheepishly rose in the middle of the row.

“Church…Please joining me in welcoming my sister, Carmen Marie Albanese. Welcome home, sis.”

Another Blessed Hearts story soon...

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