A Lost Vet Finds the Church
By: Dan Petrella
(Originally published in The St. Anthony Messenger, April 2011)
The most important lesson I learned from doing the story was not to give up too soon. I originally started interviewing a different subject. He was a younger student who ended up pulling out because he was concerned about the time commitment. I was about to move on to a different topic altogether when the folks at the Newman Center put me in touch with Marcus Slavenas. His life experiences ended up making the story so much richer than I ever could have imagined.
– Dan Petrella
ON SUNDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2003, Marcus Slavenas got the phone call that changed everything. He had just finished work and saw that he had a voice mail from his dad: “Please call me back, Marcus.”
From the sound of his father’s voice, he knew someone in the family was dead.
When Marcus called back, his dad gave him the bad news: His younger brother, Brian, had been piloting a CH-47 Chinook helicopter that was shot down near Fallujah, Iraq. Brian was dead, along with 15 others.
Marcus went home and threw a fit, throwing chairs, making so much noise that his downstairs neighbors called the landlord.
His Own Iraq
Rewind a few years, to Marcus’s own time in Iraq. Lance Corporal Marcus Slavenas was a 20-year-old Marine in a special ops unit during the Gulf War. He hadn’t prayed much since he stopped going to a Methodist church in seventh grade.
In late January 1991, his team was positioned at an observation post just south of the Kuwaiti border, near the city of al-Khafji. When mortar explosions started, he crawled under a nearby Humvee and prayed, over and over, “Please, God, get me out of here.”
During the rest of his time in the war, Marcus continued praying, often repeating one plea: “God, get me through this war, and I’ll go to church every week for the rest of my life.”
Angry at God
He got through the war, but it would be nearly two decades before Marcus would keep his promise. He grew angry at God, blaming him for all the injustice and suffering in the world. He began to wear, under his shirt, a silver inverted pentagram pendant as a satanic sign of his hatred toward God.
When his younger brother was killed in Iraq, though, Marcus started going to Mass. He was hesitant at first. But, over time, he says, he was drawn in by the Church’s moral clarity, its capacity for forgiveness, and the love and acceptance he felt there. After years of procrastination, the reluctant Methodist-turned-“true Satanist” began to keep his promise. Now, at age 40, he snapped the Satanist pendant in half with his bare hands.
A Family in Strife
Rewind again. Marcus’s parents had divorced when Marcus was in junior high school, and their youngest son’s death cast a very public spotlight on the divisions in the family. Ronald and his oldest son, Eric, wanted full military honors for Brian, but their mother, Rosemarie, refused.
The dispute was covered widely in Chicago and in media nationwide. Calvin Trillin, well-known nationally for his books and magazine contributions, was moved to tears upon hearing a report about Brian’s death on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition. He wrote a reflection on the family’s differences of opinion for The New Yorker magazine in March 2005.
In the end, no American flag draped Brian’s casket during his funeral at Faith United Methodist. After the casket was lowered into the ground in the cemetery next to the church, Rosemarie told reporters she blamed President George W. Bush for Brian’s death. “He was not a soldier,” she said. “He was my son. George Bush murdered my son.”
After the funeral, Ronald and Eric held a separate ceremony at the nearby Genoa Veterans Home. The service featured many of the military honors that Rosemarie banned from the funeral, including a 21-gun salute and a helicopter flyover.
Although Marcus was also critical of the war his brother had died fighting, he attended the military ceremony. But it was the night of Brian’s wake that stands out most in Marcus’s memory.
“Right from the very beginning, I had feelings of his spirit,” recalls Marcus. When family members and friends were coming to town for the visitation, there was a huge windstorm, with gusts up to 50 mph. “It was just like he was flying out that day. He was a helicopter pilot, and he came, he flew through, and then he was gone.”
Darkness and Light
Now, all these years later, in the wake of his brother’s death, Marcus reflects on his own life for St. Anthony Messenger. “I did nothing good on my own,” says Marcus, who still wears his hair in the high-and-tight style of the Marine Corps. “I don’t know why, but he doesn’t just reveal himself to us like this,” he says, snapping his fingers. “God has revealed himself to me, and I have no choice but to accept what is…true.”
But that choice didn’t come easily. Marcus had never wanted to go to church during childhood. His father, Ronald, only went occasionally “for show,” Marcus says.
During high school, Marcus started drinking and partying, a lifestyle that continued through much of his adult life. After graduation he joined the Marines. He was looking for adventure and wanted to follow in the military footsteps of his dad and his older brother.
After his Marine enlistment ended in 1992, Marcus spent two years each at Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois, studying applied mathematics and physics.
Then he went to study in Berlin, Germany, where his anger at God came to a head. Walking down the street in Berlin one day, he pondered all the sickness and suffering and death in the world.
Where is Jesus? he asked himself. I don’t see him walking around, helping people. I don’t feel his presence anywhere. All I see is people just struggling to hang on with whatever they can come up with to make it through what’s really a horrifying situation: life.
When he looked at the world around him, he thought, Why doesn’t anyone point the finger right at the Creator of it all and blame him? These thoughts didn’t lead Marcus to doubt God’s existence. He believed God had created a world that was “an engineering marvel but a moral catastrophe.” He started abusing drugs and alcohol. And he started praying to the devil to overthrow God.
After a year back at home from Germany, though, Marcus explains, he had steady work and his life was straightening out. But Brian’s death sent Marcus into a tailspin. For the first month or so, he awoke each morning to the reality of his loss. “You’re asleep and you’re somewhere else, and then you wake up, and you’re like, Oh, no, back to this horrible nightmare.”
Soon, Brian’s death pervaded his dreams as well. In one particularly vivid dream, Brian appeared with a sunken face and said good-bye before leading a medieval army, outfitted with swords and shields, into a battle from which he’d never return. In other dreams, Brian was a young child.
“We’d be doing something together, and then he’d go off and there’s no finding him.”
Marcus went back to drinking. Sometimes he got too drunk to go to work. He quit his job.
“I basically spent that year driving around from family member to family member to friend and,” he admits, “usually drinking beer or something along the way.”
Marcus hated God. Yet after moving back to DeKalb in early 2005, he decided to go to Mass. He went to the chapel on the Northern Illinois University campus, looking for a truer understanding of his anger at God. He wanted to confront God headon.
What he found surprised him—no finger-wagging priests preaching fire and brimstone. As a former Methodist, he didn’t know all the parts of the Mass, but he experienced a warm, loving
presence in that chapel.
Slowly, his anger at God began to fade. As he continued going to Mass over the next year, he often felt as though the priests were speaking directly to him.
For the first time in many years, he started praying to God again. And, much to his surprise, it seemed as though his prayers often were answered.
Before he went to an awards night at nearby University of Illinois in the spring of 2006 to give out a scholarship created in his brother’s honor, Marcus prayed that something good would happen for him that night. “I was really kind of down-and-out right then,” he recalls.
Something good did happen. At the dinner, held in the ballroom on the second floor of the student union, he sat next to Martin Ostoja-Starzewski, a mechanical engineering professor who uses MRIs to study the effects of mild trauma on the human brain. The two hit it off and, two weeks later, Marcus joined his research team.
Late in 2009, Marcus decided to enter the Catholic Church officially. He started attending weekly classes at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) to prepare him to receive Holy Eucharist.
A Deepening Faith
At a Friday afternoon Mass around that time, when the lector read a prayer for the dead, Marcus, standing in the ornate chapel with its marble columns and towering stained-glass windows, felt suddenly struck by his brother’s presence. “It was a physical experience, knowing—experiencing, I guess—that my brother was there, that I can pray to him and he can pray back for me,” he says. “It just took the worries away, kind of about life in general.”
From his experiences at church, he came to understand more deeply. “The point is, have faith,” he tells St. Anthony Messenger. “You don’t have to build up your whole life exactly and know what’s coming because there is a greater purpose to this. That’s really what it’s all about.” That’s the conversion from a “God-hater to a Godlover,” he says.
As Lent started last year, Marcus decided it was time to go to Confession. Sitting on a couch in the lobby of the Newman Center before going into the confessional, he was terrified. I’m 39 years old, he thought. My sin pile reaches to the sky! When he stepped into the confessional at the back of the chapel for the first time, he sat down face-to-face with Msgr. Albert Hallin.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Marcus said. “This is my first Confession.”
“And you’re scared to death, aren’t you?” the monsignor asked reassuringly.
“Yes, I am.”
Marcus told him about all the sins in his pile, how much he had hated God. Msgr. Hallin, a former Navy corpsman with gray, thinning hair, was unfazed.
“Your sins are forgiven,” he said. “Go in peace.”
Stepping back into the chapel, Marcus felt an emotional high. But it was later that night, lying in bed, that the true weight of the experience hit him.
There was no more need to ask for forgiveness for what he’d done before, no need to question his past. “That sin is gone,” he affirms. “God took it and it is gone. All I have to do right now is look to my future.”
By now he was a catechumen, preparing for his reception into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, high point of the Church’s year.
A Vigil of Welcome
At St. John’s, Mass began in the brick courtyard. With bluish twilight settling in, the congregation gathered around a bonfire as Msgr. Gregory Ketcham, the Newman Center chaplain, blessed the four-foot-tall Easter candle.
After the blessing, the congregants walked in procession into the darkened chapel in silence. Inside, light radiated from the small candles the people held in their hands. They took turns reading Bible passages, recounting the Christian story from creation to the Resurrection.
Because he was baptized and confirmed in the Methodist Church as a child, Marcus watched from his pew while some of the other new members were christened, each leaning over the font as Msgr. Ketcham poured water over their heads, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Marcus and the others already Christian would become Catholics later in Mass, just after they
proclaimed their faith, renewing the promises of their Baptisms.
“Do you reject Satan?” Msgr. Ketcham asked.
“I do,” answered Marcus.
“And all his works?”
“And all his empty promises?”
“Do you believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?”
“Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died and was buried, rose from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?”
“Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?”
The chapel was filled with the smoky, sweet smell of incense and the solemn melody of the choir and pipe organ. The monsignor dipped his thumb in holy oil, rested his outstretched fingers on Marcus’s head and administered conditionally the Sacrament of Confirmation, making a cross on his forehead and saying, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace be with you.”
Marcus, who had come so far, who was lost but now was found, softly affirmed: “Amen.”