Recently, the Facebook page for my Wisconsin hometown’s history has exploded with photos. There are 19th century photos of the town, including charming photos of tree-lined streets and horse-drawn carriages, and also the town’s darker history, including an “Indian School,” where Native American children were taken to assimilate to white culture after being removed from their families. There are photos of the library, and the Main Street, and school board meetings. There are fierce debates about a potato cheese soup recipe that my dad brought into the town’s restaurant community. The debate, believe it or not, centers around whether the soup included Cheez Whiz or Velveeta. This is in the Dairy State, mind you, where real cheese is plentiful. In case you’re wondering, the answer is Velveeta.

There are also more recent photos, where my own face has popped up, and my childhood appears in a bizarre slideshow with captions like, “Who remembers this? Looks like a VonHaden kid.” I have fallen into the rabbit hole of memories, and I have to admit, it’s been fun. I find other people’s genealogy criminally boring, but sifting through photos of my own past is richly fascinating. This might be the most egomaniacal thing I have ever admitted, but it’s true.

My home church, a small Episcopal church founded by the missionary bishop Jackson Kemper in the 19th century, appears in a few of the photos. St. Mary’s Episcopal Church is as much a part of my heritage as anything. My mom is extremely devout and my dad is a clergy person, and so my faith was formed at home, too (and in the car with some truly awful praise and worship music), but the little church on McLean Avenue in Tomah, Wisconsin, is where I learned of God’s sacrificial love for us. (Side note: “McLean” might have also been an ill-conceived low-fat McDonald’s hamburger. No relation.)

That little church is where I first heard the stations of the cross, and sang from the 1982 hymnal, and saw Bible stories played out on felt boards in Sunday School. That was the place that I learned that acolyting got me out of going to Sunday School, and playing the organ got me out of acolyting. (They bought a new organ during my tenure there, mostly because the old one was dying, but also maybe to make my sorry playing sound better. That might have been like putting lipstick on a pig. Oh well. They totally needed a new one anyway.) I was baptized and confirmed there, and it is where my parents took me when I had very difficult questions, and where I learned that maybe there weren’t answers for my very difficult questions, but there was always someone there who would sit patiently with me while I asked them. It was home.

There were literally bats in the belfry of that little church. The floor squeaks in spots, and the smell of incense is permanently in the air. I took my first piano lessons there, from a sweet lady who used to be a nun. I sang there on Christmas Eve when I was in high school, with a boy whose voice was the stuff dreams are made of. That boy died a few years ago, and his lovely voice still echoes in my mind when I hear Michael Card’s Joseph’s Song. (“How could it be?”)

When my dad was the Rector of St. Mary’s, he performed the burial rites for the victim of a suicide when the deceased man’s home church refused to take on the service. St. Mary’s loved that family when they needed to be loved the most.

As a child in church, I often felt like the victim of bad lip-reading, like something featured on the popular YouTube channel. I was an early reader, but there was so much of the liturgy that wasn’t written in the Book of Common Prayer. For example, when the priest lifted the monetary offering for the week, he quoted from 1 Corinthians, “All things come of thee, O Lord,” and the congregation responded with, “And of thine own have we given thee.” Except, to a small child, all of those words ran together. All I heard were the men’s voices saying those words, overpowering the women’s softer voices. And all I saw was my mom writing the check, and not my dad, so I conflated that into the idea that the women wrote the checks for their weekly contributions to the church from the family budget. So, I thought the men were saying, “Of thy known have we given thee.” Or in other words, “As far as you know, we gave something,” with a shrug of their shoulders. Nature and apparently my imagination abhor a vacuum, so I had to come up with some explanation for those words that I was mishearing.

My Aunt Caroline died in the church parking lot at St. Mary’s, after volunteering there one day, about a month before I was born. I was named after her — Carrie is the diminutive form of Caroline. Her husband, my mom’s brother Ronnie, died when I was a young child, after a long series of smoking-related illnesses. He lived with us for a time when he was dying, after having had one leg amputated, and then the other. I remember his cigarette ashes in ashtrays on our living room coffee table. After he died, we gathered in the churchyard to bury his remains next to his beloved Caroline’s. As we were saying the prayers, I asked my older sisters, “What are we doing?” They whispered back, “We’re burying Uncle Ronnie’s ashes.” Of course, I thought they were burying the cigarette ashes, because who is going to explain cremation to a five-year-old in a cold churchyard during a funeral service? Not my teenage sisters, that’s who.

Those early memories remind me of how confusing it was to be a child, and how puzzling church could be. That’s not even touching the mysteries of the resurrection, and the dogmatic puzzle of the Eucharist. I can’t even begin to tell you about the agonizing conversations I led my poor mother through (always at bedtime) about creation and original sin and the problem of pain in the world. But even through all of that confusion and questioning, I was taught One Thing without hesitation: that I was loved. I may not have had the words for grace and mercy and redemption when I was a child, but I knew for certain that God loved me. That love was reflected on the face of Jesus, from the large wooden crucifix which hung behind the altar. That love was shown to me by the Sunday School teachers who taught lessons with felt boards and popsicle sticks. (Who could forget the makeshift “building” used to demonstrate the story of the friends who lowered the injured man through the roof of a building, seeking God’s healing? Those friends loved the injured man, just as those Sunday School teachers loved their students.) The words I was hearing may have felt like bad lip-reading, but my heart knew that they were words describing God’s love for God’s children.

That little church launched me into a larger world of church camp, and then the larger Episcopal world of diocesan, and then provincial, and then national youth events. I babysat for every child at St. Mary’s, and those kids got me ready for my own future children. That church let me go and loved me through my college years, even when I attended the ELCA Lutheran Campus Center instead of the Episcopal Campus Center at my college (scandalous!). That church prayed for me as I entered the strange world of an East Coast law school, and welcomed me home when I needed sanctuary from that world.

I brought my now-husband home to that church, where they still sang the same hymns from the 1982 hymnal to the strains of the “new” organ, and where the congregation still responds with “And of thine own have we given thee.”