He Saw St. Bernadette, Dead, In His Living Room
BY Noah Lett
July 20-26, 2003 Issue | Posted 7/20/03 at 1:00 PM
Noah Lett a Lutheran pastor turned Catholic, works as a theologian with the Eternal Word Television Network.
Last year, Lett co-hosted the 13-part EWTN television series Black and Roman Catholicwith Dr. Dolores Grier. He has also been a guest on EWTn's “The Journey Home.”
Lett spoke from his home in Leeds, Ala., with Register features correspondent Tim Drake.
Tell me about your childhood.
I was born in April 1956 and grew up in Marion, Ind. I have one younger sister.
My father worked at and retired from General Motors. My mother worked in the cafeteria at the local high school.
There was no attempt in our home to pass on the Christian faith; I don't even know if my parents had the faith to pass on or if they were ever baptized. They rarely attended church and they didn't make my sister or me attend. On the rare occasion when they attended church they went to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination founded during the Civil War.
The result of all of this is that my religious education at home consisted of the moral conduct of my mother and father and the dinner prayer, “Jesus wept. Amen.”
You were ordained as a Lutheran pastor?
I graduated from Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio, and was ordained in 1986 in the American Lutheran Church, just prior to its merger with the Lutheran Church of America, which created the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. My first assignment as pastor was in Queens, N.Y.
What led you to the Church?
It was the culmination of a process that had begun when I was 6 or 7. At that age, I had heard the story of Solomon's dream from an older relative. I thought it was wonderful. And so I would ask my friends what they would do if they could have one wish like Solomon. One of them told me they would wish for a tricycle. I responded, “Oh, no. You want to be smart so you could fix it and have it forever.”
Then one day, about a week later, a voice said to me, “Why don't you ask the God of Solomon to bless you like he blessed Solomon?” and so I looked up and hollered out, not knowing how to pray, “God of Solomon, bless me like you blessed Solomon.” At that moment I felt my natural curiosity swell in agitation like a hungry fire wanting to consume all knowledge. Two questions created this agitation, this hunger, and this is exactly how they came to me at the time — what makes existence worthwhile and why don't you know right now, because it makes all the difference in the world.
For the next 11 to 12 years, I tried to answer the questions. I would come upon things I thought were the answer but find them unsatisfactory through a process that was more like tasting rather than analyzing. Eventually, at the age of 17 in 1973, I heard the Gospel for the first time, found a certain measure of peace and moved on with my new Christian life.
I had been a Lutheran pastor for about 10 months when one day, in 1988, I went home to fix myself lunch.
I walked through the hallway and the dining room into the kitchen, when suddenly, I found myself standing in front of the incorruptible body of St. Bernadette in Navarre, France. I had never been to Navarre, but I was not afraid at that moment. Rather there was a feeling that this is as it should be.
A voice rang out in the chapel asking, “Noah, what do you see?” I looked upon the lovely body of St. Bernadette and said, “I see a woman who loves you dearly.” After a pause the question was repeated.
From where I stood I looked more closely at Bernadette's uncorrupted body and replied, “I see that you have the power to prevent the corruption of death.” A third time the voice asked, “What do you see?”
Her uncorrupted body lay there in front of me, but in my mind I could clearly see the many moments, with all her subtle nuances of movement, when she had received our Lord at Mass. So I thoughtfully answered, “I see that the Roman Catholic sacraments give what they promise.”
At that moment I felt as if I had crossed a vast frontier. And just as suddenly as it began it was over. I found myself back in Queens, N.Y., standing in the doorway to the kitchen. I was also aware that I had become Roman Catholic and that I needed to lay down my Lutheran ministry, since it could not provide the Eucharist of the Catholic Church.
So I resigned that week but stayed on for several months, at the congregation's request, until a new pastor could be found.
What did you do next?
My family and I returned to Columbus, Ohio. I went to the nearest Catholic church, which happened to be Holy Name Catholic Church, and introduced myself to the pastor, Father William Reichert, with these words, “Hello my name is Noah Lett. I no longer want to be a Lutheran pastor, I want to become a Catholic.” Father Reichert contacted the bishop and eventually the date was set for my daughter and me to be received into the Church in 1989.
What have you found to be the most difficult hurdle as a black Catholic?
One of the things that concerns me now — this is something that I had given very little thought to until recently — is the widespread ignorance most African-Americans have of the Church and her teachings. How sad that so many are unaware of this healing treasure so near to them.
Of the 32 million African-Americans in the United States, about 4 million are Catholic. Yet they have, for a variety of reasons, very little influence in the African-American community. The Black Muslim movement in the United States is less than 70 years old and numbers less than 4 million members and yet their influence is much greater.
I would like to be instrumental in helping African-American Catholics pass on the faith to their children and in helping them develop new tools with which to evangelize their neighbors, who presently know nothing about the Church but who could at any given moment be incited to become genuinely curious.
What are the most common misconceptions about black Catholics?
The most common misconception held by white Catholics, especially many in leadership, is that black Catholics are, as a group, interested in having Baptist-like actions of worship mixed in with the Mass. Any parish with African-Americans that does not allow or encourage this is assumed to be yet another obstacle on the road to progress. Most African-American Catholics want what Pope John Paul II wants — a Mass celebrated according to the rubrics in the Roman Missal. This is what our Catholic parents passed on to us and what we desperately want to pass on to our children.
Non-Catholic African-Americans have a unique misunderstanding. They look upon black Catholics as an oddity, so they treat us, with all sincerity of heart, as if we are members of just one more denomination. In my family, for instance, they make this assumption. Fortunately, from time to time they become curious, and I try to answer their questions about how being Catholic is different than being a member of a denomination.
Tell me about your television program. I understand it is still running in reruns on EWTN, correct?
Yes. It began airing last September. The genesis of the program was Mother Angelica's wish that her friend, Dr. Dolores Grier, host a series for the network. Eventually, I was asked to assist Dr. Grier. Early in the development of the series, we agreed that our personal love for the Church and our individual practices of traditional devotions should be evident in every program, no matter what the topic. This was to show that we were not dissidents or experimentalists, complaining about the Church because of some political or other kind of agenda. But like the ordinary Catholic, we love the Church and attentively listen to the magisterium. The series was well received and continues to air.
How has Catholicism shaped your view of race?
I was never ashamed of being black; however, I was inattentive to it — I was just a man. The Catholic Church is teaching me that yes, I am a man, but also a black man, and this is a gift of God given to me for my salvation, the good of others and the glory of God.
I never had an interest in evangelizing a particular place or people, but now because of the grace of the sacraments, I find myself wishing like St. Stephen that I could go and share the riches of the Church with the race of my birth. How wonderful it is to be Catholic and discover, by our sacraments and teaching, that every one of us should be attentive to our race, because it is a gift meant to enrich the whole world.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
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