You could say God was calling Randy Sanders to the Catholic faith long before he realized it.
The 58-year-old Racine resident grew up in the Lutheran faith, even planning to become a Lutheran minister at one time, but was so impressed by the way Catholic family members and friends treated him after the death of his first wife, Barb, in 1997, that he instantly felt like part of the family.
“When she died, the Catholic mothers’ group that Barb’s mom, Evelyn Jorgenson, was a member of at St. Rita Parish in Racine, all came to the funeral at Emmaus Lutheran Church, as well as (Augustinian) Fr. Joseph Stobba, who was the pastor at the time,” said Randy. “It meant a lot to me that they all came and showed such support.”
The couple had two children, Josh and Katie, now 32 and 28 respectively. Both are married and Randy has two granddaughters.
A couple of years later, Randy met Laura Raymond, also a member of St. Rita Church. The two of them became friends when Sanders coached Katie and Laura’s daughter Becky on a volleyball team.
Easy friendship forms
“It was a nice, comfortable and an easy friendship – everything that a friendship should be,” he said. “She watched from the bleachers; we talked a lot and got along well.”
The two lost touch for a couple of years until Randy was looking to purchase a new home that ended up being about a half mile near his daughter’s home. One afternoon, he took his dog for a walk, and he ran into Laura, who he thought had relocated to Texas. Both were surprised to learn that they now lived in the same neighborhood. The two walked for two and a half hours, catching up and reminiscing.
A few long walks later, the couple knew they were meant to be together, and were married in January 2009. One of the first times Randy met his future mother-in-law, Marie, he was startled by what she said to him.
“She said, ‘Do you remember me? I was active in the Catholic mothers’ group and I came to Barb’s funeral,’” he said. “I had no idea that both of my mothers-in-law knew each other until that day. It was another clue that God’s finger was guiding us along.”
For a while, Randy alternated between Emmaus and St. Rita. He had served as a two-term president of his congregation, and when his time was up, he decided to step away from his church and attend regularly with Laura, who was very involved as a member of the parish council at St. Rita Parish.
“I was going to St. Rita more and more and was appreciating the traditions, the faith experiences and the welcoming atmosphere,” he said. “But I think the thing that made it easiest for me was talking to (Augustinian) Fr. Kevin (Mullins) and seeing all of the people and my relatives who went there, reconnecting and getting re-energized for the faith.”
RCIA a difficult commitment
Randy decided to enter the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) program, a difficult commitment considering his schedule as a full-time personal trainer and swim instructor at the YMCA, as well as coaching volleyball on the weekends.
“The transition (to Catholicism) was not difficult for me because much of it was similar to what Laura and I had learned through the pre-Cana classes, and even Fr. Joseph had told me then that I was quite Catholic,” he said. “There were no lightening bolts that led me to want to join the Catholic Church, but it was an evolution – a really nice evolution.”
While Laura, Randy’s sponsor, was thrilled at his decision to become fully integrated into the Catholic faith, she cautioned him not to do it because of her, that it should be his decision alone.
“Maybe it was natural for him, but for me, I thought he was making a big decision, so I guess I was a little surprised that he wanted to do this,” she said. “If he never wanted to make the change, I would be totally happy and comfortable with that. But he thought about it and made the choice, so it was totally his decision.”
Shared values drew couple together
Their shared beliefs initially attracted Laura to him.
“He has always been a spiritual man, and the faith we share has helped us grow together as a couple,” she said. “Now, seeing him make this commitment to the Catholic faith has deepened my faith and ours together as a couple. He has always been someone incredibly special and important to me. I think this is an exciting time in his life and I am glad it gives us a new way to practice our faith more closely together.”
For Marie Raymond, a long-time member of St. Rita, having her son-in-law join the church is another extension of his strong faith.
“I am happy to have him as a member of my family, and think it’s wonderful that he is becoming a member of our faith family,” she said.
When Fr. Mullins began getting to know Randy, he witnessed his internal struggle as he remained in the pew, while Laura and the other parishioners went to receive Communion.
“He has been part of this community with the association of his first wife being the daughter of a longstanding member of the parish community and then, marrying Laura, who also has a long-standing connection to the faith,” he explained. “When he could not fully participate in the Mass, it was difficult for him, yet it was also difficult for him to walk away from the Lutheran tradition.”
Faiths are similar
From the beginning, Randy noticed the many similarities between the Lutheran beliefs and those of Roman Catholics, but Fr. Mullins was quick to remind him of an important fact.
“I always told him, that despite the similarities, we were there first,” he said, laughing. “I think though, that Randy found the journey much easier than some who are just beginning to learn about faith and that is a good thing in that regard.”
The two often bantered, joking about the number of sacraments in the Lutheran faith as opposed to Catholicism, and the similarities between the two liturgies. The camaraderie between the two seemed to incite a strong desire to learn more about the church, sacraments, traditions and Stations of the Cross.
“I met Greg Petral, who is going through the deacon program, and asked him to explain to me from a lay person’s view a few things and one of them was learning about the Stations of the Cross,” he said. “He took me through the Stations and I just learned how beautiful it is. Things like that are so welcoming and warm and I love the tradition.”
While it was difficult for Randy to be part of the church for so many years, and yet, still set apart from the family, Fr. Mullins believes that Randy’s life will be much richer when he can fully participate and receive the Eucharist.
“He has really gone full circle and we are looking forward to him being a full member of the family,” he said.
Randy said he is looking forward to the Easter Vigil when he can fully participate in the sacraments with his wife for the first time.
“I am very excited as I won’t have to sit in the pews during Communion,” he said. “And I really want to be involved in the parish – this is something I wasn’t able to do before. It is all very beautiful and I am very happy to be entering the church during the Easter season.”