From the 7 Churches of Asia Minor to St. Francis of Assisi NYC
Our Journey to Baptism: an RCIA Witness

– by Arnie Lee (May 06, 2023)

6 years ago, I was on one of those dates that wasn’t a date, but turned into one anyway. It was a late Saturday night in New York, and we ended up in a speakeasy cocktail bar, after being on the waitlist for almost an hour. There, I noticed a tattoo written in cursive on the right shoulder of my date, next to her collar bone. She was probably wearing an off- shoulder top, but with the dark bar lighting, I couldn’t make out what it said. I also didn’t want to stoop closer like a creep, so I asked her nonchalantly, “What does your tattoo say?”

“God Bless Me,” she replied, as she drew closer to show me. I was expecting something badass and didn’t know how to respond to such a cliche goody two-shoes tattoo. “Some people say — “Oh you mean like when you sneeze?” — and I want to punch them,” she added. As I laughed, she went, “Actually, I’m a Christian.”

I was ready to run for the hills. As a matter of fact, I not only actively avoided dating Christians all my life, I strongly advised my friends to do the same. I was basically Saul before Damascus of dating Christians. “Oh yeah? What kind?,” I asked, masking my inner thoughts and feigning interest.

“Well, my country is 99% Muslim, and I wanted to get this tattoo because when I told people I’m a Christian, people around me didn’t take me seriously and brushed it off as a phase of a rebellious teen. Even my government issued Turkish ID says “Religion: Islam” from birth. I wanted to change it, but everybody said I would not be able get a decent job if I did,” she replied.

And suddenly, she seemed like the most badass date ever. (I’ve had my fair share of them.)

She also said she wanted to be baptized for a long time, but no church helped her through the process. ‘That can’t be right,’ I thought. I said I’ll contact every big Protestant church I’ve been to in NYC, including The Brooklyn Tabernacle, Redeemer Church, Time Square Church etc. “We are not like Catholics. I bet you’d be baptized in no time. I was baptized twice as a presbyterian. You’ll see”, I said.

Much to my chagrin, nobody got back to me. Goes without saying I never heard the end of “I told you,” from her, who wasn’t surprised at all.

We got married that same year (not a shotgun wedding), and fast forward a couple of years from the honeymoon, the Pandemic came along. Naturally, the whole journey to baptism had to be put on the back-burner — with even Mass being online.

15 months after the lockdown, we went on an epic 40-night road trip in Turkey. We could finally go to Mass at her Basilica in Istanbul, The Church of St. Anthony of Padua, which sort of felt like a full circle from our first date.

During my first time in that part of the world, I learned some truly fascinating Christian history in former Constantinople: the capital of Roman and the Byzantine Empire. Not only was modern day Turkey the birthplace of St. Paul, but it was also where St. John took Mother Mary to spend her last days after Christ ascended. It was also where Saint Polycarp and Saint Nicholas (AKA Santa Claus) were Bishops, not to mention it is where the Nicene Creed was adopted. As if that’s not enough, all seven Churches of Asia Minor from the Book of Revelation are also in Turkey.

About 2 weeks into the trip, we were near Troy, (Yes, that Troy of the Trojan Horse, Helen of Troy, Brad Pitt Troy) by the Strait of Gallipoli: where the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Marmara connect. It was getting close to midnight, and there was a 10pm curfew due to the health and safety protocol. The curfew came with a hefty fine for violators, and it was strictly enforced. Regardless, a few people were still out by the marina, secretly enjoying the summer night air, albeit quietly.

I had way too much Raki —the 100 proof Turkish Liquor similar to the Greek Ouzo, Italian Sambuca or the Swiss/French Absinthe— to drink with seafood all evening. Apparently, I jumped onto a ship that was docked by the pier. When a barge ship passed by it sent the marina a strong wave and the ship I was on was rocked. Consequently, I fell into the night sea, scraping one side of my body against the pier rocks, drowning headfirst — completely inebriated.

Miraculously, 8 men who somehow saw me fall ran to the rescue. While some of them pushed the docked ship —to prevent closing the gap between the pier and the side of the boat, others grabbed my wrist and pulled me up.

I don’t remember any of this, until when I was getting pulled up to land and immediately got slapped in the face by my wife who was screaming profanities regarding my utter stupidity. The good Samaritans were calming her down. In order not to be fined because of the commotion, the men that saved me had to disperse before we could even thank them.

My wife took me to a government hospital ER to get a CT scan for a possible concussion. On our way back, she said she would straight up divorce me if I ever drank again. I didn’t want that evidently, so we have not drank at all for 2 years — other than the sip of communion wine during the Easter Vigil.

We had originally planned a Greek Islands boat tour that involved more drinking with seafood by the sea, but that had to be scrapped due to the severe trauma my drowning had caused my wife. So instead, we decided to visit the 7 Churches from the book of Revelation: starting with Pergamum and going counterclockwise to Smyrna, Ephesus, Laodicea, Philadelphia, Sardis and Thyatira.

It was the first Sunday after the incident while we were in Smyrna (Modern day Izmir), and we were both desperate for a church to go to to find some emotional comfort. Any church. We first went to the Church of St. Polycarp, which remained closed due to the quarantine. We then called or visited all the other churches in Izmir, including Roman Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox Churches, but they were all closed as well.

There was one Franciscan church left in the city according to Google maps; however, when we arrived, the gate of its wall- fenced premise was fully closed. At this point, we had effectively given up for the day. As we were about to leave, I tried pushing the closed hefty metal gate — with no Hail Mary intent.

The turquoise/green gate somehow opened, and there stood a man in a soccer jersey and flip flops in the garden. As much as we were surprised that the door opened, he seemed surprised that tourists were trespassing.

“Can I help you?”

“Hi. Sorry. Is the church open?”

“No. We have been closed since COVID.”

“We went to 4-5 different churches in the whole city today, and they were all closed. This is our last one. We just need somewhere to pray.” He pondered a while, then said, “I’ll open the church for you guys. Wait here.”

We lit candles and started praying in the empty chapel. The Church of Santa Maria in Bornova was a beautiful and intimate church built by Franciscans during the Ottoman Empire, and we both must have felt an immense amount of comfort after what had happened just a few days ago.

In particular for me, the image and vague memory of the hands pulling me up to the shore overlapped with Christ’s hands on the cross in the sanctuary.

When we were done praying and resting, we thanked the man who let us in profusely. As we were about to leave, he said “Would you like to have some coffee?”

We didn’t want to overstay our welcome, but we were also tired from all the running around looking for open churches, so we said yes.

With Fr. Apollinaire Bahinde in the Church of Santa Maria in Bornorva – June 2021

As we talked over cups of espresso, I came to realize one surprising fact after another. I couldn’t tell what was more surprising: that the man in the soccer jersey and flip flops turned out to be a priest – Fr. Apollinaire Bahinde, or that he had a Korean rice cooker in his kitchen. “You have a Korean rice cooker, Father.” I pointed it out shamelessly upon observation, probably slowly dying inside for some Korean food at this point of the road trip.

He said “Yes, my friend Domenico gave it to me.” Now his friend “Domenico” was apparently a Korean Franciscan priest who built a prayer house in Ephesus, near the holy site of the House of Virgin Mary.

“You should visit him if you go to Ephesus,” he said. He even sent him a message, saying that two people from New York will visit him soon. He gave us Fr. Domenico’s phone number and prayed for our safe journey.

When we got to Ephesus, we did call Fr. Domenico, but the call couldn’t be connected — probably because of my shoddy AT&T roaming service.

I was ecstatic to find a Korean restaurant in Ephesus. Unfortunately, due to the Korean COVID19 travel bans stopping large Korean tour groups coming on pilgrimage, the 300-seat restaurant was closed. My heart sank. As we were leaving, my wife saw a lady in the fields nearby doing gardening work, and said “Look, there’s a Korean lady. An Nyeong Ha Se Yo!”

The lady was surprised to hear Korean and turned around. She ended up opening the restaurant and cooked just for us the next 3 days. On the final day, we asked her if she knew a Catholic priest named Domenico. She knew him, saying the new prayer house he built is very peaceful and nice, and called him on his cell. He answered her and said he has been waiting for us.

He welcomed us warmly. As he was giving us the tour of the prayer house, he said “It took me 4 years to build everything from scratch, but not many people have really visited here yet, COVID and all.”

At the baptismal fountain in the ruins of Basilica of St. John in Ephesus

With Fr. Domenico Ko, OFM, at Church of Santa Maria Draperis in Beyoglu, Istanbul

One notable exception was a sister nun from Poland, who was on a pilgrimage walking all the way from Krakow to Jerusalem and got to be there just like us — through a referral by another priest in another part of Turkey. She stayed for 3 days, resting and praying, and regained her energy to keep walking to Jerusalem, a 2,000 mile each-way journey. ’That sounds like a movie I’d like to watch,’ I thought.

When we shared our story, he was very happy for my wife, especially given the difficulty Turkish Christians face. He prayed for us and said “If later you get baptized, I want you to take the baptismal name of Maria, since here is overlooking Mother Mary’s House.”

He told us that he says mass once a month in Istanbul. We met him there 3 weeks later at the Church of Santa Maria Draperis, another beautiful Franciscan church built in 1584 during the Ottoman Empire in its heyday. It was 3 days before we were coming back to New York, and when he heard that after almost 40 days in Turkey we have not been to Hagia Sophia, he urged us strongly to go.

Hagia Sophia is where most people who come to Istanbul would visit on their first or second day. It’s a Byzantine cathedral from the 6th century that was also a Catholic cathedral in the 11th century, that turned into a grand mosque of the Ottoman Empire; later became a UNESCO World Heritage museum, and recently became a mosque again.

Somehow, we had yet to pay a visit.

In Hagia Sophia with Merve’s cousin Yusuf – July 2021

On our very last night, we were having dinner with my wife’s cousin Yusuf, and talked about not having been to Hagia Sophia. Coincidentally, he had not been there either despite living there all his life and said, “Let’s go.” “I suppose it’s like a New Yorker never going to the Statue of Liberty,” my wife said. It was already close to 9pm, so I didn’t think it was possible to visit. On Google maps, it showed closed at 6pm.

However, Yusuf said “It must be open because it’s not a museum anymore, it’s a mosque.” He got us all in a cab and went there anyway. There were indeed many people praying. It was magnificent. And it was even more beautiful because we went there with Yusuf who is a Muslim. As we marveled at the architecture, we talked about how the name Yusuf is equivalent to Joseph in Christianity.

This time, it truly felt like a full circle. 1,500 years of history was ripe in that overwhelming cathedral-mosque, and I could feel it in the air and inside my bones.

We sent our pictures from Hagia Sophia to Fr. Domenico. He liked them and said that his former seminary classmate from the same Franciscan order is in New York, and that we should go to his parish. ‘Geez, these Franciscans are everywhere,’ I thought. “His name is Fr. Carolo Kim” he said, and gave us the address: 135W 31st Street, New York, NY, USA.

And THAT is how we ended up in the Church of St. Francis of Assisi in New York. Of course, Mass was still online when we came back, so it took another 7 months after that to make it here in person. In February of 2022, we started attending the 9:15am Korean Mass led by Fr. Carolo. Another 7 months later, we were introduced to Joseph Nuzzi by Annabelle Acaling and joined the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) class every Tuesday evening, and the rest is history.

My wife was baptized as “Maria” during the Easter Vigil last month, while I received confirmation. That same week, she even changed her religion on her Turkish civil registry.

This church has been God’s answer to a lot of the issues I’ve had with Christian churches in general. I practically left Christianity on the whole for 20 years — after I felt that it serves more as a bulwark of moral superiority and judgement: an irrelevant and unwelcoming establishment of exclusion; doing nothing for the neighbors outside its door.

Merve “Maria” getting baptized during the Easter Vigil 2023

With my Confirmation sponsors Carlos and Mia during the Easter Vigil 2023

However, this journey of the RCIA led by Joe Nuzzi; being a part of the Migrants Center with Fr. Julian; my first confession with Fr. Michael; sharing communion with the congregation, Fr. Tom and of course my wife, have not only been different, but also the closest embodiment of ‘If you love me, feed my sheep’ I’ve felt — perhaps since I was first baptized some 40 years ago.

Lastly, we’d like thank everyone who shared this journey with us: our sponsors Jenn, Carlos, and Mia; the amazing RCIA team Keith, Mary, Maria, Mary Lou, Leenie, Tamara, Monika, and Janice; our fellow catechumens Ruth, Mitch & Mitch, Olivia, Claire and Victoria. Above all, we are grateful to God for letting us meet Fr. Apollinaire and Fr. Domenico who led us to St. Francis of Assisi — our new home.

St. Francis of Assisi NYC RCIA class of 2022-2023 moments before the Easter Vigil, April 2023