Thursday, April 21, 2011

“I Just Can’t Make It Alone!” Tom Leopold’s Conversion Story

My name is Tom Leopold and I’m a comedy writer (Seinfeld, Cheers, Will and Grace...). I am a Jewish comedy writer, although I always felt saying that was kind of redundant. So much of my humor — practically all of it I suppose— comes from who my people are, what they’ve been through and how they were able to turn it all on its head and find the funny side, even and especially if there was none to find.

I know it sounds odd, but I always liked Jesus. I was never “deep” enough to wrestle with the concept of his being the son of God. For me he had this James Dean-Bob Dylan-daring rebel-hero “thing” about him. Once in a while, I did wonder, had I been nearby when Jesus walked among us, would I have had seen him for who he said he was? And, if so, would I have had the courage to say “Hey, everybody says we’re waiting on the Messiah. Well, the ‘wait’ is over!” Fast forward two thousand years later and I’d follow Jesus anywhere if he’d have me.

Come Easter I’ll still be a comedy writer, but a Catholic one. I consider my upcoming baptism a blessing. One that ranks right up there with the day I met my wife or the birth of our two daughters, to say nothing of having the good fortune to have made a living in a business that I love.

So here is a flashback of how I became Catholic.

We’re a couple of years into my youngest daughter’s life-threatening eating disorder. It also happens to be Christmas Eve and our girl is under doctors’ care at still another rehab center. This one is in the Arizona desert. By the time we had come to this point our ravaged little fourteen-year-old had been too ill to attend any but three weeks of her 9th grade school year, she had spent days locked in a psych ward, and both she and I were nearly run over by a cab as I tried to catch up to her after she’d bolted from a doctor’s office.

So, we’re in the desert, it’s Christmas Eve and my wife, our oldest girl (17) and I are decorating our hotel room with Christmas stuff from the only store still open in the little desert town, the Dollar Store. We are all Jewish, but for some reason we’ve always celebrated Christmas too. There was something kind of sacred about the silly little tree we bought...It reminded me of the tree Charlie Brown dragged back to his gang.

The doctors would only let us have our daughter for Christmas Day, so the three of us went to bed early, each trying not to let the others know how sad we were that one of us was missing. Lying there in the dark that night was the closest I have ever come to breaking — not breaking down, breaking! It’s a whole lot easier to hold your heart together when it’s you who does the suffering, but when it’s your child and nobody can fix her...Well, it would take more than a comedy writer to say it how it feels.

I was praying before the thought dawned on me that I was praying. Maybe begging is the better word... “Please God, give me even the smallest sign you’re up there, I just can’t make it alone!”

The next morning we’d arranged for our girls to go horseback riding, and my wife and I took a walk in the desert. Out of nowhere this cool old guy drives up in a motorcycle he made himself...It had antlers for handlebars and the guy looked like the old Marine that he turned out to be. He skidded up next to us, practically popping a wheelie, and started talking. I’m a New Yorker, so I just figured he was just one more weirdo...But the guy had this great intensity and a mysterious charisma.

He started a long monologue about how he was once married to a woman named “Shepard” and how his present wife brought him to Christ at the age of 33, and all the while he keeps nodding his head towards me and saying to my wife “This one knows what I’m talking about!”

Here we were, on Christmas morning in the desert, and this odd old character is throwing the word “Shepard” around along with the number 33. “Wasn’t Jesus a ‘Shepard’ to his flock and wasn’t he 33 when he was crucified and isn’t this day, his birthday?!” As I’m thinking of this, the old guy keeps telling my wife that I know what he means! And the weird thing is I do, kind of, know what he means! Not what he’s saying but what he means...

My cell phone rings. It’s our kids. They’re through with their ride. Without even knowing who’s on the other end of the phone our desert prophet says “Hang up, they’re fine!” I hung up. After the exhaustion of all we’d been through, it felt nice to be, well, led!

He finally stops talking, guns his engine and peels off only to stop a few yards away, turn back to me and say in a voice somewhere below a whisper and above mental telepathy that “God is watching you!” It wasn’t a threat, it was a reassurance.

There were more things like that. Coincidences? I no longer think so. But the biggest and most rewarding was the day I ran into Father Jonathan Morris.

Thirty-eight years ago I went to a psychic down in Nolita (North Of Little Italy) who pretty much predicted my entire career path...I wasn’t even a writer at the time. Out of the blue I had this idea to reconnect with him and, to my amazement, he remembered me right away. Our daughter had gotten a little better after her last treatment but was falling back again even though she was now strong enough to attend school. I thought I’d go visit Frank (my old psychic) just to check in and tell him how right he had been about all that’s happened to me and to ask if he saw a recovery for our daughter. Frank told me to bring her to him. A few days later we did. Walking up the steps to Frank’s townhouse, a car pulls up right in front of us and out steps Father Jonathan Morris. I recognized him from a picture in his book, “The Promise.” The book dealt with grief and I was getting a great deal of comfort from it. Suddenly the very same, kind, face was right before me.

“Are you Father Morris?”
He nodded.
“Your book is on my bed stand.”
He had already started towards me. He had his hand out.
Why I said what I said next I will never know.
“ Father, do you think you might have a few minutes to talk to me sometime?”

I had seen and admired Father Morris many times on television but thought he lived in Rome. He smiled, holding on to my hand and said: “You can find me right here.” He turned and pointed to Old Saint Patrick’s Church. It was as if I hadn’t even seen the church until he pointed to it. He had just started as parochial vicar there...True to his word he found time for me and room for my family in his prayers. He even met with our daughter.

I don’t think there’s room now to describe all I found “right here” at Old Saint Pat’s. The minute Father Morris took my hand I knew I’d be a follower of Christ. Does my daughter still suffer? She does, we all still do, but now I feel the Lord’s grace. We are not alone.

Happy Easter!

-Tom Leopold
Tom Leopold is one of the elect in the Archdiocese of New York. He has participated in the RCIA program there and will be baptized during the Easter Vigil. Special thanks to Kate Monaghan.


Pam Kaiser said...

What a beautiful post. Welcome to you!!! May you have a very blessed Easter season!

Anonymous said...

This touched my heart and tugged at my emotions, the Holy Spirit has been with you for sure! Welcome home!

Cindy Sharp said...

What a beautiful story. My daughter almost died from an eating disorder, too. My Catholic faith has deepened and sustained us throughout. She is thriving and I can only credit the miracle of prayer.
You and your family will be in my prayers today at my hour of Adoration. God Bless you all.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Truly inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing this with us. It's the perfect story for Holy Week!

marie said...

Thank you for the Twitter lead to this awesome story. My messengers are just as real, although very different.

Unknown said...

Tom & Family,
No matter where in the universe you may find yourself, you are never alone when your heart is open to God. May you and your wife find the strength through Jesus to lead your daughter to health to the fullest degree humanly possible.

I'm unclear what the significance of the woman named Shepard is for you, or the biker. Honor thy mother and they father is equality. I can honor both, but worship neither, because that is reserved for my God. I don't understand why people get confused about that concept.

georgia peach said...

Ah,messengers.What a great story.And the messenger can be a book that comes to hand right after crying out to God.I love this post Thank you.And God bless.

crazylikeknoxes said...

Mazel tov!

Unknown said...

Greetings from Manila, Tom.

It's Holy Saturday here now and I would
like to let you know your story touched me
deeply. Makes tomorrow's Easter celebration
even more meaningful. He is truly risen!

(I'm a Filipino Jesuit priest rejoicing with you!)

DYAMES said...

Thanks for your story and welcome to the Church who has the weakest head who can only promise to be with us no matter what, Emmanuel.

dadwithnoisykids said...

God bless you and welcome home!

Jack said...

God bless you all, Tom! Your family will be in our family's prayers!

Jack said...

God bless you all, Tom! Your family will be in our family's prayers!

Amy said...

Thank you for sharing your story. I'll add my prayer for your baptism and reception into the church to be especially meaningful for you and your family.

I think it's awesome that you're Jewish AND Catholic!!!

Unknown said...

Welcome Mr. Leopold! How amazing God works. Your openness makes crossing the river possible. Happy Easter!

caite said...

fantastic, in so many ways. Welcome!

geardoid said...

Welcome to the flock, Tom. Be assured you won't lose your Jewish khutspe' or meshugas by fulfilling your call to follow Jesus. It's a gift from Him, as he hinted: to Niccodemus - "here's a fine thing: you a teacher in Israel and you don't know born from above". To awed Nathaniel, "you'll see greater things than that!". To weeping women on his via crucis: "if this is done when the wood is young, what'll they do when it's dry?" Walk with him Tom, and rejoice inwardly. Shalom.

Anonymous said...

Welcome Tom!
WOW - there truly are no coincidences. A cradle Catholic I had faith but not a relationship is how I choose to put it. Fr. Jonathan Morris' book was a HUGE part of my conversion experience within my Catholic faith after my husband's death.

I stumbled, no rather was led, to this article today. Coincidence - I think not.

A Blessed Easter!

weirdjtt said...

conversion shouldn't be forced; the will of God is like a soft breeze whispering at you to follow

Anglican Rosaries said...

Thank you - please keep on writing about your experiences. You really touched my heart.

Unknown said...

As your fellow student in the RCIA class and someone whose experience , as a Jewish person , whose cries of personal anguish were also answered by Jesus in a most supernatural way..I thank you for sharing your story , and I congratulate you. We have truly been blessed by the amazing power of the Holy Spirit!Yesterday's experience was something words cannot describe!Old St Pat's and everyone there made this new beginning all the more beautiful!God Bless you and your family! Happy Easter! Pamela

A. Dalmau said...

Wow. Well come to the familiy.

Warm regards from Spain.

Marcy K. said...

Tell us more!! Please! We would love to hear the rest of the story.

Unknown said...

Mazeltov! Welcome to the family. Will be praying for your family on retreat this weekend.

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your story . I will keep you and your family in my prayers. We will rejoice together when your daughter is healed. Our God is an Amazing God.

Marianne said...

The mercy of God reaches another heart! Welcome to our family Tom. We are a bunch of sinners for sure but that does not mean we cannot be saints in the making!
God bless
love and prayers to you and your family
Will pray especially for your daughter
Marianne (Sri Lanka)

A Judean said...

No offense but as a Jew I find this not only offensive but sad. You say that you are all Jewish in your family but yet you buy a Christmas Tree and decorate it? Where are your Chanukah lights and not just the external one? Where it your pintella yid that reminds you that there is but one G-d, the g-d of Israel?
Did you ever turn to a rabbi of any denomination Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox when your daughter was in crisis? Did you ever go to temple more than 3 times a year, or keep kosher, or light sabbath candles? Do you know what it is to be Jewish? Do you even know what your Hebrew name was?
It appears to me that you were a Jew by name and not by action or deed. At the first sign of stress you run towards another religion? No less one which assisted in the destruction of your people! I congratulate you on giving up 5771 years of heritage for less than half that many.

You seem to have treated your Jewish faith like an old book sitting on the shelf in your house gathering dust. You know it is there but you don't recognize it or take care of it. So it sits and waits and gets dusty and the pages fall out waiting for you. But you don’t open it or glance at it on the bookshelf as if you are ashamed.

Like so many people I have lost relatives to the concentration camps and I know many others that have suffered greater losses and have stories that will make you lie awake at night. Yet you run to embrace this religion. Why don't you read John Cornwell's book? You may learn something about your new "faith".

It is the responsibility of every Jew to be a light to the world and to do G-d's work in fixing things. It appears that you have openly abandoned yours without giving it a chance for something that you think is "hip" and "cool". There are 6 million reasons why you are dead wrong.

I hope you can live with your decision and I hope that you realize that you have thrown away far more than you can possibly gain in this world and the world to come.
“ G-d is good to those that trust in Him; to the soul that seeks Him” Lamentations 3:25

Denden said...

Wow! This is an inspiring conversion story! I am grateful to God for giving you the grace of conversion. God is Alive and nothing is impossible with Him.

sandy said...

Having looked at the whole waiting for a messiah thing and, coming to the same conclusion , I congratulate you. I was baptized Easter week 2001. Reading our mystery man's comment "God is watching you" truly gave me pause and gratitude.