Cover Story - The journey home

By Jean Parietti

The doors to St. Rose de Viterbo Church swung open and Karla Garcia stepped with her family into the sanctuary. The 12-year-old’s eyes were immediately drawn to the large crucifix hanging above the altar.

Karla Garcia

“It seemed like the world had stopped. I don’t know how long I stood there,” Karla said. Although her family prayed a lot and her mother had taught her about Jesus, Karla hadn’t been inside many churches. Seeing that big crucifix for the first time, “I really understood what the whole process 
of resurrection meant.”

It was a life-changing moment for a girl who was holding a dark secret she thought no one in her family knew. “It was a powerful experience. It felt like all the weight I had carried was gone.”

As Father Scott Connolly, the pastor, prepared the gifts for Communion, Karla took everything in. “I couldn’t stop staring at that crucifix. I just remember it was like the first time in a very long time, I was home.”

Karla grew up in Jacona, Michoacan, Mexico, where she and her siblings — an older sister and younger brother — lived with their grandparents. Karla’s parents were in and out of their children’s lives, working in the U.S. and making preparations to bring their children with them one day.

When she was 5, Karla’s life changed in two major ways — she moved to southern California with her parents, and her father started sexually abusing her.

Then, as a 9-year-old, she learned a startling truth: Her biological father had died when she was 4, and the man abusing her was actually her stepfather.

“It was a relief, but I had a lot of anger” about being lied to, she recalled. “I never knew I had a biological father. There were a lot of secrets in the family.”

Holding on to God
Karla had been baptized and confirmed as an infant, according to the tradition in Mexico. When her family moved to the Longview area in 1998, she made her first Communion at St. Rose and became an altar server, assisting Father Connolly at Masses, weddings and funerals. “I felt like I had a purpose,” she said.

When she found out her mother was pregnant with a girl, 14-year-old Karla decided she had to speak up.

She wrote a long letter to Father Connolly, telling him everything going on in her life. She slipped him the letter during the festivities for the December feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and asked him not to tell her parents.

Later, they met at one of her basketball practices and talked for two hours. “I was a safe adult that she could turn to in a difficult time in her life,” Father Connolly said. A couple of days later, he showed up at Karla’s school, and then the police and state child workers arrived. Karla was placed into foster care.

Father Connolly left shortly after that for a planned two-week trip to Mexico. “When he left, it just felt like I was completely alone,” she said. “All I had left was God. I did hold on to God, otherwise I never would have made it.”

Life in foster care had its difficulties. Living with a white couple, Karla missed her Hispanic culture as well as her family (who eventually moved back to Mexico). She suffered from depression and ran away. Her foster parents did the best they could, she said, but punished her by refusing to take her to church — her only refuge.

“It was the place where I could go where nobody questioned me or I didn’t feel different,” Karla recalls. She got more actively in-volved with the parish, doing just about anything needed. “Father Scott pretty much took me under his wing. He became like family. He’s been my rock through everything.”

Karla wanted to learn more about Catholicism, especially how “it fit into my life in terms of spirituality and faith,” and what the church teaches about social justice.

Karla Garcia
After receiving her master's degree, Karla became a social worker. Photo: Stephen Brashear

 

Despite all the difficulties in her life, “I guess I’ve never questioned whether God was really there” — although sometimes she wanted to because she was angry at what was happening in her life.

“There were so many things out of my control,” Karla said. “There needed to be something that would take away that pain, and that just happens to be prayer. There were many times I went into church and I yelled and I cried and I punched the floor. You just know at that point he’s not going anywhere.”

‘They took a risk on me’

After a bad breakup with her foster parents while in college, people at St. Rose, and later at Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Woodinville, stepped in and became like Karla’s family. They took the teenager into their homes, paid her tuition and helped her get a car.

In 2004, Father Connolly was assigned as pastor for the new Blessed Teresa Parish. Karla was going to community college in Mount Vernon but drove down and helped out at the parish every weekend. “I think she found the church was her family, and being involved in ministry and being involved in the church was part of her nature,” Father Connolly said.

But Karla also was working three jobs and struggling to pay her tuition and living expenses. When she told Father Connolly she was considering joining her biological family in Oklahoma, he turned to the parish for help.

Brian and Michelle Moore felt called to respond. “It was just God’s way of telling us that’s what we were supposed to do,” Michelle Moore said. “We kind of sponsored her, just helping someone who has overcome great obstacles in their life.” She quickly became like a daughter to them, and a big sister to their young son.

Sue Campbell, who knew Karla through the parish liturgy commission, welcomed the young woman into her home rent-free. An-other couple in the parish hired Karla as a nanny.

“These people are amazing,” Karla said. “They took a risk on me and I took a risk on them.”

Karla serves as an example of love, forgiveness and “what happens if you let God direct your life,” Brian Moore said. “It’s not go-ing to be easy, but anything’s possible.”

Now 27, Karla remains close to her mother, who has encouraged her from far away over the years and never made her feel guilty. “She is my hero, and just as hard as it was on me, it was even harder on her.”

After seriously exploring the possibility of a religious vocation, Karla recently earned her master’s degree in social work and got engaged. She would like to work with victims and survivors of abuse. One day, she hopes to make a difference in a Third World country by educating people about women’s rights.

Wherever she goes, Karla will carry that feeling of home she felt when she first stepped into St. Rose.

“When I was thinking about moving to Oklahoma, I told Father Scott, ‘I need to go back home.’ He said, ‘That’s not your home. Home is where your heart is.’

“My heart is with all the people that I’ve met,” Karla said. “So my home is every single person that I’ve met.”

September 20, 2013