Thursday, July 28, 2016

Step Inside This House

David after his St. John's talk
If you get a chance, I highly recommend a visit to Casa de Katalina. It’s off Oso Parkway, in one of those neighborhoods that’s in Coto but not exactly in Coto. You’ll notice comfortable furniture, tons of family pictures, rooms full of light, and the calming vibe of the great American southwest.

You are definitely going to hear some Texas music. The proprietor enjoys hard-bitten, desert-baked artists like Billy Joe Shaver, Joe Ely, and Nanci Griffith. Don’t be surprised if Springsteen or OC’s own Social Distortion makes the playlist, too. This dude feels just as at home with the punk rockers at the Doll Hut as with the cowboys at the Coach House and Swallows Inn.

After soaking up the ambience, you’ll want to move on to the main event: A couple of hours of illuminating, Jesus-drenched conversation with your host, David Stevens. I call it the Stevens Salon. He’ll invite you to get something cold to drink from the fridge while he positions his wheelchair in the family room or, if it’s not too hot, under an umbrella out on the patio. Be prepared to cover a lot of ground – U.S. politics (if you really insist) and then on to the Anabaptists, the Baptists (who raised David up in his home town of Tulare), the Catholics, Dispensationalism, the Episcopalians (we’ve got him now, and he can help us grow and thrive), and right on through the entire disputatious ecclesiastical alphabet.

Despite all the conflict and schism and hue and cry that usually go along with political and religious discussions, your host won’t ever speak an unkind word. You won’t want to, either. That’s also in keeping with the spirit of Casa de Katalina, named for David’s wife, Kathy Van Cott. They married in 2002. Their three great kids and all the good lessons they learned from their prior marriages -- and a love between them that seemed to verge on the transcendent -- made for a strong blended family and a joyous home.

Kathy and David in 2002
In 2009, Kathy was diagnosed with a rare uterine tumor. Doctors thought she had just a year to live. Then lightning struck again. On a sunny morning in July 2010, while Kathy’s sister took her to chemo, David, an executive at the gas company, decided to ride his motorcycle to work. When a car pulled in front of him, he was thrown 55 feet, suffering a C4 spinal cord injury that would confine him, for the time being, to a wheelchair.

In that awful moment, he remembers praying the Eastern Orthodox prayer of the heart, sometimes called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

He spent weeks paralyzed and in incomprehensible agony at the UCI Medical Center. There was talk about letting him go until Kathy noticed that he was communicating by blinking. David said he wanted to stay. He needed to. His wife was sick, and he had to take care of her. To take care of David, Kathy added two and a half years of grace to the one year she had been promised by the hard reality of science.

David’s recovery was agonizingly slow, and he had moments of profound discouragement. Telling the story in mid-July at St. John’s Church at an event co-sponsored by our men’s and women’s groups, he proved to be the rare speaker who can get a laugh while describing being placed on suicide watch at the hospital. It turns out he wasn’t much of a risk, because he was completely unable to move.

I first met David in 2011, at our midnight mass on Christmas Eve. My first visit to his and Kathy’s home a week or two later completed my theological education. He was a quadriplegic. Less than a year from death, she was in constant pain. And yet I have never visited a happier home. They knew what they were up against. But he was putting her first, she was putting him first, and they both put first whomever else was there. Just to be clear, there you have the gospel. Their personal spiritual journeys are David’s story to tell. Suffice it to say that it was a meeting in the sacred middle, the sweet spot of the soul, the true heart of love, hospitality, trust, and sacrifice.

The world desperately needs more homes like Casa de Katalina. So if you get a chance, drop by one day. Be patient if no one answers the door. David might have wandered off with his therapist and walker, smiling as he thinks about the well-meaning souls who said he’d never get out of bed or make it out of the chair. When it gets a little tough, he might say the Jesus Prayer or hum a Billy Joe Shaver song. If you manage to get him back to the patio, and you ask him if he’s ever doubted, he’ll probably say yes. But as he told us in July at St. John’s, “I have seen, been touched, and been healed by Kathy. I believe in Kathy. So I believe in God.”

This post originally appeared in the Vaya Con Dios, the newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church

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