Leticia is a wife, mother, stepmother and grandmother, who credits her faith with helping her overcome the wounds of abuse that she experienced during her childhood and teenage years. Her rocky path into the Catholic Church is a reminder that God’s love doesn’t come with fine print, that his mercy is for all, and that his grace is real. She spoke with The Coming Home Network about her journey from abuse, anger and addiction to the fulness of truth.
How would you describe the home you grew up in?
It was chaotic. I was raised by a single mother, and I never knew my father. My mom and I shared a house with a man we were renting from; he lived in the back part of the house, and we lived in the front. He abused me sexually when I was little. It probably started when I was about five years old. I’m not really sure how long it lasted, but we lived with him until I was 15, so I eventually came to understand what it was that he was doing to me all that time. There had always been chaos and conflict and lots of fighting in that house, as far back as I can remember, but once I understood what that man was doing, it got much worse.
Was your mom, or any other family member, taking you to any kind of church during this time?
I grew up in a culturally Catholic family, so there were pictures of Our Lady everywhere. My uncle, who was like a dad to me, and his wife were churchgoing Catholics. Faith was there for me, but it was more of a cultural thing until I was about eight years old, when I started going to a Baptist church. My mom ran a daycare center out of our home, and one of the parents of the kids she took care of invited me to Vacation Bible School at the First Baptist Church. I loved it, and from that point on, I took myself to church. I learned about God and Jesus, but I also learned that Catholics weren’t really Christians and worshipped Mary, which caused even more conflict in my family. Since none of my elders was prepared to talk about Jesus and no one claimed to have any personal relationship with him, I ended up believing what the people at the Baptist church told me about Catholics, because it seemed to line up with what I saw in my family.
So you’re just a kid, walking to church by yourself without your family. Did anyone from that congregation reach out to you, maybe suspecting that there were some serious problems at home?
Not that I remember. At the time I started going to the Baptist church, I didn’t really understand what was being done to me. I eventually figured it out once I started liking boys, because I had a boyfriend who lived behind the church. He was 14, so of course, he wanted to be physical with me, and that’s when my childhood experience started coming back to me. At that point, I became very confused. I didn’t understand why sex outside of marriage was wrong, I was confused about what the things that had happened to me as a child meant, and I was confused about the feelings I had toward my first boyfriend.
I remember going to my pastor. Imagine this poor Baptist pastor, having to talk to a 13 year-old girl who’s asking questions about sex, and who has been going to this church for years without a parent around. I’m pretty sure it was as awkward for him as it was for me. I never really got the answers I wanted when I talked to him about being molested, because I didn’t really have words for it. I never came out and said, “I’m a minor who’s being sexually abused in my home by a legal adult” because I didn’t have the vocabulary for it.
So if you didn’t feel understood at church, and you didn’t feel understood at home, what did you do to try to achieve some sense of human connectedness?
I started running away. I became promiscuous, because for that little bit of time when I felt wanted by a boy, I felt comfortable. It’s kind of like how drug addicts describe getting high — that’s how I felt. It was a temporary relief from not fitting in. And then when one boy was done with me, the next one would chase after me. I had acquired a reputation as “the girl who sleeps around,” so it didn’t take long for them to start lining up. After a short time they would discard me, and I would move on to the next guy.
I think it started with my first boyfriend — he knew I wasn’t ready for sex, but he told me it was okay, and he wouldn’t force me to do something I didn’t want to do. But then he broke up with me and started doing those same things with my best friend. At that point, I told myself, “I’m not going to be a baby any more. From now on, whatever a guy asks me to do, I’ll go through with it.”
That’s also when I decided that God was going His way, and I was going my way. The Christianity thing wasn’t for me. I was going to do what I felt I had to do.
So what was the fallout from that?
There was a lot of fallout. There was one time in particular when I had been gone for three days, and I had just broken up with the person I had run away with. On my way home, I saw a man working on his car and asked to use his phone. He ended up raping me and throwing me out of his house.
I ended up walking home, and my uncle, who had always been there for me, found me in that state. I had suffered a lot of bad things in my life, but that was probably my lowest point. I just wanted to be invisible
I was too worn down to hide it anymore, so I just told my uncle what had happened. He immediately took me to his house and left me with my aunt. Then went to my home and got my things. I started living with them, and that’s when I finally began to feel protected. There was finally some peace in my life.
After a year, my mom took me away from them, and I immediately started running away and sleeping around again. And that’s when I got pregnant with my oldest child. I was 16.
Plenty of people offered to help me abort my baby. I’d love to say that I knew abortion was wrong, that it was murder, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I was so stubborn that when everyone told me there was no way I could raise this child on my own, I said, “Watch me!” — and I did it.
A lot of people find themselves crying out to God when they feel like they’ve gotten as low as they can possibly get. Did you?
No, because I had come to the conclusion that God was not going to help me. I didn’t have a father, I was abused as a kid, I had lost my first boyfriend, who was the love of my life. I basically thought I was cursed. I felt that way for a really long time. I got married at the age of 19 after knowing the guy for two weeks. I was completely lost, thirsting for love, looking for it anywhere I could find it. We had three kids — I don’t regret having my children — but he was a drug addict. I didn’t know that when I married him, because it’s impossible to know much about someone when you marry him two weeks after you meet him.
Life just seemed hard for a really long time. I was in and out of jail, drinking a lot, barely able to take care of my kids. It seemed like God didn’t care about me at all. And then in 2007, my best friend died in a car wreck. I had just been through a divorce, and I think it was at that point that I finally said, “Look, if You’re up there, I need your help. Either let me die, or help me.
Was part of the reason you had avoided church during this time because you thought church was for people who had it together, and your life was in total chaos?
Definitely. Every Christian that I met in those days told me that I had to change first. They all wanted to make demands or give me some “to-do” list before I could go back to church. You don’t give a homeless person a course on how to write a résumé until after you feed him, you know? None of them reminded me that God loved me; there were always stipulations, a “to-do” list. And I was not in a position to hear any of it.
So how does someone go from that kind of situation to getting married in the Church a couple of years later?
God is hilarious, that’s how. When I moved to Austin, I reconnected with my first boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen in 17 years. We ended up living together, but he insisted that if we ever got married, it would be in the Catholic Church. So when he left for Afghanistan a year later, I knew I had two choices: either I was going to go back to drinking and partying and leaving my kids alone, or I was going to take those stupid classes I needed to take in order to become Catholic so that I could make him marry me. My only intention in going to RCIA was to make my live-in boyfriend marry me. So I started the classes.
The first night of RCIA, the director got up and started talking about God’s love. He said that no matter what you’ve done, or how far you’ve gone, God loves you more than you think he does. I felt like he was looking right at me.
I’d heard that all the time in my Baptist church, but I’d never heard a Catholic say it. When class was over, I got in my car and cried for about twenty minutes. I remember thinking, “I don’t know if this man knows it, but he’s a Baptist — he’s not Catholic! He talks about Jesus like He’s alive, he talks about having a personal relationship with Him… this man is a Baptist!” The next day I pulled him aside and talked to him. I told him I wanted to put my kids in classes so they could get their sacraments too, because I figured that this was a safe place.
Still, I felt like I had nothing in common with these “church people.” They were from the suburbs, I was from the ghetto. I’m a poor Mexican who’s always been on food stamps. These were good, decent people, and I didn’t feel like I belonged in the same room with them.
Then two or three weeks into RCIA, the director gets up and gets ready to start the class. He starts by talking about his relationship with Christ, and then he tells us that he used to be a heroin addict.
That’s when I realized that this man was the real deal. I was used to church people saying things like, “I smoked a few cigarettes in high school — I was a real sinner!” That’s when my ears opened; that’s when my heart opened, and I started listening and paying attention.
I also started arguing. I feel like I argued my entire way through RCIA! But they listened to me, and they were patient with me — the director and Fr. Jonathan. Fr. Jonathan had only been a priest for about six months. I don’t know what he’d done up to that point, but God gave him me, and it probably took a ton of his time off in Purgatory! My very first Confession, I went in to Fr. Jonathan’s office, I crossed my arms, and I said, “I can’t be Catholic, because I refuse to hate gay people.” And he was like, “Well, there’s this thing called the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and if you can read through that and show me where it says that Catholics have to hate gay people, then you don’t have to become Catholic.”
He never kicked me out of his office, and back then, I cussed — a lot! He never even flinched. He taught me how to read papal documents, he taught me how to read the Catechism, and he taught me how to look things up. He introduced me to Peter Kreeft, to John Paul II, to Theology of the Body. He taught me all these things I had never even considered. I’d never considered that abortion was the ending of a human life. I had carried five children in my womb, miscarried one, and I never even considered that I could have buried my child when I miscarried.
It was mind-blowing to me. It was so fast, and my encounter with Christ was so radical — I was on fire! It was like someone had set a match to me. I actually ended up apologizing to some people because I was so intense after I converted. But it was so beautiful, and there was so much truth, I just couldn’t hold it all in.
If you could go back to that time when you felt lost and alone and afraid, and tell that person one thing to get her through the darkness and give her some hope, what would it be?
I would say exactly what my RCIA director and my priest said to me: “God loves you more than you think he does.” Learn for yourself what Catholics truly believe — not the Catholics you see on Law and Order: SVU episodes, or in Congress, or in the public square, but faithful Catholics as they have existed since the beginning of the Church. You can know what they were thinking and saying, because there are books, and we’ve preserved what we’ve always believed historically and philosophically.
Everything goes back to knowing the truth. It’s findable, it’s knowable. Not only that, but wherever you are, the truth will find you. God will find you wherever you are. Jesus found me in the middle of a club on Christmas Eve with porn playing on the TV’s around me, and it hit me that I was sitting on the lap of some drunk man playing Santa Claus instead of sitting in a pew at church. And it wasn’t because I’d been thinking about church up to that point; that was a moment of grace. I truly felt like Christ found me in my brokenness and said, “This is enough.” And here I am.