By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published March 27, 2008
Sisters Marissa and Reese Hall, ages 8 and 5, stepped forward together to the threshold of St. Joseph Church’s baptismal pool and were baptized during the Easter Vigil Mass.
Surrounded by friends, godparents and their families, as well as the whole team that guided their initiation process, the two girls, along with their parents, Denise and Rich Hall, entered the Catholic Church.
“It takes a village,” Denise Hall said with a laugh on Easter Monday following the eventful Mass.
The Halls traveled to China twice to adopt their daughters. Their second journey was the focus of a 2004 National Geographic program.
Their recent spiritual odyssey was also one the entire family took, and it was prompted by their older daughter, a second-grader at “St. Joe’s” School.
“I know most of the time it’s usually parents who make the spiritual decisions for the family,” said Denise. Not so for the Halls, as it was Marissa who wished to receive first Communion along with her second-grade classmates.
Denise and Rich, both raised Methodist, “did not want the family to be divided,” and so they began the Order of Christian Initiation for Adults.
In addition to the Easter Vigil, they had a profound moment on Holy Thursday when Father Paul Berny, pastor, washed Marissa’s feet.
“A lot of my friends said how blessed they felt to see that,” Denise Hall said. “To think of how she’s come such a long way, from an orphanage in China, to this experience. She has such a simple, sweet love of the church.”
Among the four of them, the Halls experienced four of the seven sacraments in one evening—baptism, first Eucharist, confirmation and the renewal of marriage vows. Denise Hall expressed some concern that Reese would be too scared to enter the baptismal pool, but to her relief “there was not a whimper” from her when the time came.
She spoke highly of the whole staff involved with their preparation.
“OCIA exceeded our expectations in every way,” she said.
When they decided to begin the process Denise Hall said that her Protestant friends and even some cradle Catholics asked why.
But seeing the faith of the St. Joseph community, exemplified in such ways as their “passion for the Eucharist,” has been “inspiring and amazing.”
“It was also wonderful that my husband and I experienced (OCIA) together. It was a journey for both of us, something we were able to share,” she said.
The Easter Vigil was “the culmination of all the hard work.”
She felt “invested in the process,” which was heightened through the experience of Lent, an ongoing job search and a women’s Bible study. “It all culminated into a neat spiritual journey, a spiritual time.”
“With OCIA I felt cocooned, that I was in a safe place. I could ask questions—I had a lot and was allowed to ask them—and explore my beliefs,” she said.
There are many “myths out there” about the Catholic faith, she added. “I certainly encountered that.”
At times she came across a teaching she needed to spend time understanding, such as the church’s view of purgatory, which “was something different for me.”
“I had to really think through some of my conflicts with it. When I did, it really sat well with me,” she said.
It has been “an evolving process.” Having the OCIA experience, coupled with the Bible study, gave her an understanding of purgatory so that now “I can explain it and defend it.”
The Protestant belief of being saved by grace alone was another challenge posed to her by a well-intentioned Protestant friend who described Catholicism as “one of those works-based religions.”
“Catholicism is not all about works,” Denise Hall said. “I really think it’s both. Works display faith. It’s grace and works together.”
She is “thrilled” that her husband is taking this teaching to heart as this week he begins his first night volunteering at Must Ministries, a faith-based organization in Marietta serving families and individuals facing crises. “I’ve really seen a change in his attitude,” she said.
Eight-year-old Marissa was confirmed and received her first Communion, as well as being baptized. The long evening, she admitted, “made me tired.”
Marissa seemed a little disappointed at not being “dunked” by Father Berny, but enjoyed receiving cards from her classmates reminding her that “God loves you” and wishing her a “happy baptism.”
For Marissa, the reward of the long evening was a sizeable breakfast at Waffle House afterwards.
The girls were almost too sleepy to eat at the diner, Denise Hall recalled. “We were certainly the only ones there dressed for Easter.”
She noted Marissa’s confirmation name of St. Catherine of Siena, whose manner was direct and bold even toward the church hierarchy.
“I may be wrong on this, but I think she will be some kind of spiritual leader,” Denise Hall said of her daughter. “Whether it’s in China, Marietta—I don’t know where—I see it in her. It’s her gift.”
Now the family journeys on together united in faith.
“This is just the beginning. We’ve been accepted into the family. Now the hard work begins,” Denise Hall said.