Pounding the Door in Morocco, My Continuing Camino

As the dreaded 17th of May, our darkest day, draws near, I’ve been asked multiple times where this year will take me. My friends and clients just seem to know that the middle of May will find me on a sabbatical, of sorts.  In 2013 I hiked west from St. John Pied de Port, France to Santiago, Spain, the infamous Camino de Santiago.  This pilgrimage was depicted in the Martin Sheen movie called The Way, which my son Cullen and I watched the day before he would leave us forever.

2014 again found me at St. John Pied de Port, but last year I walked east to Lourdes.  This famous shrine, where the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette proved most fitting.  Who could know my grief more than the mother of Jesus after having lost her own son?

These are pretty clearly aligned with my journey and my faith, but why on Earth would I travel to one of the least Christian countries on the planet?  How could this piece possibly fit into the puzzle called my life?  Why would Fez be relevant to Cullen, my family, or my faith, on this journey that I often refer to as my “Camino?”

The year before he went to China, Cullen participated in another international study semester in order to garner the credit hours necessary for a “minor” degree in Arabic.  This would accompany his minor in French, and dual majors, in Spanish and Chinese.  Bear in mind, this was at age 19. William Cullen Klein would graduate from Florida State University in two years with four degrees, after finishing high school in two years, concurrently completing his AA through dual enrollment.

Although FSU did not have an official class placed in Morocco that Summer semester, Cullen fearlessly agreed to go it alone.  He was driven to get the credit hours only this trip would provide, so he would graduate with his four degrees, on the rushed schedule he had so carefully crafted.  But why was he in such a hurry? It was as if he knew his own timeline.

Cullen Climbing Stairs     Cullen leaving

Sorry, but when I start talking about my son, I just seem to go on and on and on.  And so, since I never tire of doing that, let’s do it some more.  This is an excerpt from my CRHP weekend retreat witness:

I loved my daughters more than life itself, but a man wants a son… On my own 34th birthday, William Cullen Klein was born.

(originally about 30 more minutes of my bragging about him here, and then:)

Adolescence was upon us and so was fear, confusion, and anger. This, of course, was manifest as rebellion. Good times and kind words were a distant memory.  The ball games, camp-outs, and fishing trips, dozens of concerts together, tossing the ball in the back yard, and even getting our Tae Kwan Do black-belts together – these were all a lifetime ago.  He hated me, my values, my Church, my house.

His unfortunate every other weekend with us served up dinners together with my new wife and two additional siblings, a midnight curfew, breath check, and of course, mandatory Sunday church. 

I realized that much of his behavior and emotions were from confusion and anxiety over those issues I’ve written about previously.

For years, I would kneel and beg God to remove his heavy burden. I prayed constantly, and made all sorts of offers, if Jesus would just show some of that compassion that I had heard so much about and make my son “normal.”

But I tried so hard for him to realize I didn’t reject him. I loved him so very much and I wanted him to know that it was truly unconditional. And I was so scared for him. 

So, about the time Cullen turned 17, I stopped begging for God to make him “normal,” and being angry at Him for being so cruel.  I began to recognize that I have a big God. A huge God that I could never begin to comprehend. A magnificent, omnipotent God who had made no mistakes, and is in control.

And so I started to simply pray for Cullen. That Jesus would meet him where he was. He had made Cullen the way he was for a reason, and that he was an incredible person, so smart and so beautiful, inside and out. And so I prayed that the creator of the universe would reach out and embrace my son

He loves him. He understands him. Through Christ, He IS the personification of love. And so, I prayed simply that they find each other. That God’s will be done.

Cullen spent the summer after his sophomore year studying on an exchange program in Morocco. I warned him about “you know what” before he left, and in that culture, well… I emphasized how much I loved him and wanted him back alive. He rolled his eyes, but knew both of those things were true. I prayed for him daily at Mass.

I was shocked at how God answered my prayers as soon as I changed the context of my prayers. I was amazed at the son that returned from Morocco.  Had his orientation changed?  Of course not, but it no longer mattered.  They had met.

“Dad, I looked out from the airplane in Barcelona, and you’ll never believe how glad I was to see a cross at the top of a church. He said every person, every day tried to convince him that Islam was the only way to God.  And so he kneeled with them in prayer several times each day. (They just didn’t know he was praying silently those prayers that he once found boring and pointless.)

My new Cullen wanted to go to Mass with us; he even had us pick him when he spent weekends at his mother’s. He went to adoration of the Eucharist, and truly knelt in prayer for hours. Not only had “they met,” Cullen had has a relationship with the creator of the Universe that I will forever be in awe of.  We’d stay up late discussing God, and Scripture, and theology. I reminded him that the word disciple means “learner,” not blind follower. Dig deep and learn about the real, historic Jesus, his teachings and how and why He loves us.”

So now, my dear friends, you see why Morocco is calling to me.

Cullen had a persona that was magnetic, and so even though he had no Florida classmates on the Fez University campus, he was adopted by new friends from Chicago.  I had no knowledge of this until Katie approached me after Cullen’s accident.  She and Victoria, and so many other kind loving beautiful kids from DePaul University reached out to my son and made him part of their own group.

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen at DePaul table

Cullen had told me that he made friends with some classmates, and how funny it was, because he enjoyed talking with that upper-midwest, Chicago, almost Sarah Palin accent.  When he talked that way he had us laughing so hard we cried at the dinner table.  We still do, and although we’re not laughing so hard, they’re still very fond memories.

Morocco is the most religious country in the world.  99% of the country claims to be Sunni Muslim, the small remainder are Sufi Muslim, with about 360,000 Catholics, 50,000 Protestants, and 8,000 Jews.  Morocco is, in fact, the most Western of the African Muslim nations, both geographically and politically.  Religious diversity is allowed and encouraged, although it is still a capital crime for a citizen to convert away from Islam.

Katie and Victoria have planned quite an itinerary for me.  They’ve prepared a few phrases to learn (which I have on flashcards in my pocket), a history of the culture and relevant current events, and contacted a host family for me to stay with.  They’ve even arranged a guide for me to translate and take me to the University in Fez and places where they went with Cullen.

Unfortunately he was so fluent in Arabic and French that he was the only student placed in a family that spoke no English, so I’ll not be staying with them.  However, stopping to break bread with that family will undoubtedly be one of the first stops my “guided tour.”

We don’t really appreciate what we have and hold dearest until we feel a life without.  And so perhaps that’s why my son rediscovered his Christian faith in one of the world’s least Christian places.  I have no doubt that’s a device our Lord used as he relentlessly knocked on the door of his heart.  I imagine the intensity turning to a fist pounding on that door when the muezzin chanted the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, five times each day, until he opened it.

Morocco door

“Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. (Luke 12:36)

 

And this will be consolation I hold dearest, deep in my own heart.    I have so much to be thankful for.

I leave on May 5th, and return May 19th.

Please keep me in your prayers –

Much Love.

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Coach Mike

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My daughter Emily called me from college, crying because she heard about Mike Snelgrove’s passing – apparently from a heart condition. We spoke for a while about what a real impact he had made on her life. Not just that he had been a strong influence for her to pursue a cheer scholarship to HPU, but what a good person he was. She was feeling the horrible guilt we all do when someone we care about leaves our world. We don’t stay in touch, tell them that we care about them, or even thank them. So the next day I found the funeral home online-obituary and posted my thoughts, hoping so much that Mike’s little girl would someday know how her daddy had positively impacted those he touched.

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By now, I’m thinking he’s well aware of my feelings:

Mike Snelgrove was a coach at Extreme All Star Cheerleading in Melbourne, Florida for years.  I hope he knows how many little people he touched, and what a positive influence he was at such a vulnerable age.  These adolescent years are probably the most important formative times of our lives. (Don’t we all remember them vividly, even decades later?) These are children, and they never feel good enough, never quite feel that they measure up to goals at home, at school, and especially with their peers.  Mike was the rock that God calls us all to be.  My Emily and later Cullen spent several hours a day, and often 5 days a week at the gym.  He was a constant source of affirmation.  Positive energy that was so authentic.  Mike was the genuine thing.  He loved these kids and they loved him.  He told them how talented they were, even when they really weren’t.  How he could tell how hard they had been working, and just how hard they were trying. “Good job!” “I’m so proud of you!” They formed their little fraternity, their club that only their squad could understand … the stress, excitement, sweat, blood, pain, failure, success, failure again, practice, keep trying, practice, competition, keep working, you’re awesome, I’m so proud, you can do this, wow that was awesome, wow I’m so proud of you.  None of their school friends got it – they didn’t need to.  They had their cheer friends who did “get it.”  They knew, so what others thought at school mattered a lot less.  They knew they were awesome. Cause Coach Mike said so.

Mike was a man’s man, a real guy, as I’m sure his military buddies know.  But he didn’t judge, he didn’t need to.  Not only did he keep little girls from feeling inadequate and weak and failures like we all do in adolescence; he was also an inspiration to the boys.  Constant “attaboys” and high fives and hugs.  They were working so hard, and Coach Mike appreciated it.  And some of these boys had a different kind of a struggle than any of us can even imagine.  As concerning as having a gay son is to many parents, we can’t imagine the inner angst and confusion, and lack of worth they often feel.  Coach Mike looked past this, and made them feel OK with who they were.  Their sexuality may or may not be a struggle, may or may not be real, may be painful, may be a source of torment and fear.  But Coach Mike made it irrelevant, because these were also great kids, hard workers that needed a hug and to be told it was gonna be OK.

I don’t think he really got it, how important he was to them, what a wonderful role model, how loved he has been by hundreds of little people over the years.

I explained to my crying daughter Emily not to be sad; she must be so thrilled that such a positive influence had come into her life at such a hard time for her.  Many of her friends were headed the wrong direction, and cheerleading had been a stress valve, the positive channel for her energy and daily frustrations.  She worked so very hard and is a much better person for it.  I reminded her to make a positive thing out of her friendship with Coach Mike.  Remember the ripple effect.  She wasn’t even in his inner circle of family and close friends, and yet he had still made such an impact almost ten years later: to remember how we influence every person we’re with every day of our lives, and to pay him forward with each and every person we lift with our words and deeds.  He lives in his legacy, that cup of loving enthusiasm that over flowed onto everyone he touched.  And I know my kids lives were made better for having known him.

I read the online comments – how his buddies in Iraq trusted him, what a great guy they found him to be.  I honestly don’t know about how his close friends and family feel, I don’t know them.  Surely some who knew him better are well aware of his human faults. I praise our God for being compassionate and forgiving.  I pray for Mike and that those who love him to know that his short life was not wasted because it was cut short.  Instead, that his life was a wonderful fulfilment of all that we’re sent here for.  My family is blessed for having known Mike Snelgrove.

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That was the backdrop of my acquaintance with Mike.  We were not friends, per se, but certainly friendly.  He would always shake my hand and smile, and tell me how much he thought of Emily, and later, of Cullen.  I was one of the always-present “cheer-parents” that he actually seemed to seek out to high five and hug when my kids had competed well, when Emily finally “stuck” her first “full,” or when Cullen did it on his first try!

Which segues into Cullen and Mike.  And Cheer.  Since Mike was always so friendly to me, I have to assume that Cullen never told him what a jerk of a father he had.  I realize how disingenuous “self-deprecating” sounds after you write it, but Dear God, how I wish I could have a “do-over.”  Inside I squirm when someone remarks about what a great father I am.  I’ve made more mistakes than anyone I know.

OK, unless you’re totally new to my blogs and never knew our dear Cullen it’s no secret at this point he had a gay orientation.  You also probably are aware that like many (most?) parents, I was not very happy about this kind of reality.  This is addressed at length in prior posts.  Suffice it to say, looking back, my attitude towards Cullen’s participation in cheer makes me hang my head even lower.

I remember his excitement when he told me that when Emily was on stage competing, it looked so fun.  He felt exhilarated just watching them; it seemed so exciting, and he really wanted to start.  Without hesitation, I replied that there was absolutely no way I could afford it.

Admittedly, cheer is an extremely expensive activity for kids.  His mother and I had just divorced, the finances were drained, and we just wouldn’t be able to afford it.  That was all true.

True, maybe, but we all know how it looks now.  The only boys that cheered were gay, and I couldn’t allow him to do something that was so gay, because maybe this was, you know, “just a phase.”  Right, just a phase, and all we needed to do was to go camping, and to more ball games, and spend more time teaching him to throw the ball, and maybe carelessly leave the Victoria’s Secret catalog in his bathroom.  Yeah, that should do the trick.

How much harm did all my efforts do to my dear Cullen?  Maybe it made me feel better; I was doing “everything I could,” so this problem certainly wasn’t my fault.”  But no, despite my attempts, Cullen HATED going to ball games, and he most definitely could not throw a baseball or a football worth a crap.  I couldn’t either, but at least I didn’t “throw like a girl.”  Wow, I really wish I could take those words back.  How must that have hurt to hear from your father, when you were doing your best to be “good enough” in his eyes, to make him proud.

And why would I care how about how he would wave his hand, or put it on his hip?  (Maybe if he stops doing that, nobody else will know, and I wouldn’t be so embarrassed and ashamed).

So, there it is.  So much to be proud of, and I chose that hill to fight on.  Claiming poverty, I did not pay for my son to do the sport that he wanted to participate in.  I had paid three years for Emily, and a for a decade of dance for their older sister.  But the rules were different now that his mother and I split up.  I’m sure it didn’t help any that there was money for his new step siblings to be in swim club.  Admittedly, those were funds that had long ago been set aside for them, but for 13 year old Cullen I’m quite sure it just didn’t feel fair..  He never said a mean word, or resented his new siblings; and was quick to correct any of his friends who might refer to them as his “step”- brother or sister, they were real siblings.  I know he saw right through me; Cullen saw it better than I did.  Sure, the monthly budget was a convenient excuse, but the bottom line was, I could have found the money, but I didn’t.  I did not support my son in the one sport where he could excel.  It will become apparent later why I’m sharing such ugly and painful admissions.

If you didn’t know Cullen, here’s a glimpse.  Did he get depressed and mope around and complain how unfair life was and hate me for how much I sucked?  Not a chance.  In a few days Cullen had gotten a job washing dishes at Rosati’s, the only restaurant within bicycle distance, so he could pay for cheer himself, and had arranged a carpool system to get to class.  Remember also that Cullen was dually enrolled in college classes, and despite the work and practice regime, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and tutored several of his classmates.

This enthusiasm and resourcefulness might have been news to his father, but not to Mike Snelgrove.  No, as I said above, Mike was nothing but affirming and supportive.  Quick with a compliment, constructive with the criticism, he fed Cullen’s talent and self esteem so that, within 6 months of joining the club, he was on the elite squad, the very best of the competitors.  Mike stayed late after practice, and gave Cullen lots of private lessons.  Mike was a young adult, with lots of his own bills to pay, but only charged for a fraction of the lessons for Cullen, knowing he was paying for the classes and privates himself.  Cullen knew this and really looked up to Mike for being such a “stand-up” and affirming person.  About the time Cullen left to attend Florida State University, Mike joined the army.  In 2010, he was home on leave, and died in his sleep of a “heart condition.”  Indeed.

We roll our eyes and laugh when a news story reports where someone says “God told me to do this,” or simply that God “spoke to me.” Maybe the way such stories are presented by the media is a reflection of our culture itself – that folks who hear what God is saying, and even religious folks in general are weak for needing some mythical god to lean on, or are uneducated morons, buffoons.

I don’t really care what people like Bill Maher say about anything.  I’m a reasonably intelligent person, and I know what I’ve seen and heard, what I’ve experienced.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, on May 4th, 2013, Mike Snelgrove walked past me on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  What you now know is that this was three years after he had left this world.

I had longed to see an apparition, or even a dream in which I got to see Cullen.  Other people were having them.  Lots of them.  (The subject of a later blog post).  But why not me?

My Map-My-Hike app showed that I was hiking at 4.2 miles per hour, a reasonably brisk trekking speed through the Spanish forest when I was passed by this person, who whispered something to me.  The log then shows me stopped there in my steps for over 10 minutes.  I honestly don’t remember this at all.  I do remember I was dumbfounded when it hit me who I thought I had just seen, and what it could possibly mean.

This was pretty big stuff.  Even if I just imagined the entire thing, why?  Why not something, or someone else?  I had lost touch of Mike when Cullen left Extreme Gym, and had no idea he had joined the army.  Why would I see someone that reminded me so much of him, with an army rucksack, on this particular day?

Was this the message I had so been pleading for God to give me?  Had God indeed spoken to me – in the earthquake, the fire, the wind, and now the whisper of a passing “stranger?”  And what did it all mean?

And what does it mean, going forward?

Anyone who knows me, know that the gears are always turning in my head.  I’m usually not paying attention because I’m so engrossed with hidden meanings, the metaphors and lessons presented by life.  I suppose I overthink everything, so this whole thing just kind-of makes me numb.  Clearly this was some kind of message.  Was I to take comfort that Mike was involved, and that somehow he had found Cullen and that they were safe?  Or was this something about where I was supposed to go.  As you can imagine, its a bit of a struggle charting a new course after such a loss.

I think it is all of those things, and probably lots more.

We had founded the William Cullen Klein Memorial Scholarship at FSU to help a student each year realize the dream that made our Cullen so very happy, studying in China.  I raised almost half of the money necessary to have the Scholarship endowed (permanently funded) from sponsorships of my walking the Camino last year.  A memorial scholarship certainly seemed (and still seems) appropriate, but where is the real “legacy?”  To me, a legacy would be something going forward, making a difference; doing perhaps what Cullen would have wanted done, a difference in the world, because he had been here.

The answer came to me in the airport in Chicago, on the layover.  I read a book called, “Love is My Orientation,” by Andrew Marin.  This set the backdrop for going forward, and for the first time in a long time, I sensed a smile looking down on me.  I’ll continue to share, and expound, as I do go forward.  Please share your comments.

Much Love.

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