My niece had posted an article on Facebook about a priest who had helped her in years past. She had found an old newsletter, which resurrected tenderness and thanksgiving. My husband and I read with interest, because this priest had married us, and we had tried unsuccessfully to find him. The article included a phone number; we called, and to our surprise, Fr. D answered.
We learned that he had left California shortly after our wedding, and had settled deep in the heart of the beautiful Ozark Mountains, in the tiny town of Center Ridge, Arkansas. We decided to visit the next day.
With a population of less than 400 people, it’s easy to miss Center Ridge as you drive down Hwy 9. Had we not had our GPS, we would have been one of the many who do just that. There are no billboards or common conveniences; in fact, the only facility is a non-descript little restaurant called the Bucket List Café, which is not obvious from the road. Most folks stumble upon it accidently, as did we.
Down a graveled road, around one turn and then another, is the small church at which Fr. D served. Nestled among tall trees, an American flag flies high along with an Italian flag. We soon learned that the church was founded by a group of Italian immigrants, who settled there more than a hundred years ago.
We arrived in time to join the community for Mass and were introduced fondly as friends from California. And then the announcement: Fr. D explained that he was leaving within days for his new assignment in the Northeast. His words seemed to silence time itself, for other than the tears that welled, no one moved, no one spoke.
After Mass, members of the parish told us of the tornado that took homes and trees, of family struggles and lost dreams, and as we listened to one and then another, we realized that we were accepted as part of the community – because of Fr. D.
Saying our goodbyes and driving back to Missouri carried sadness we had not expected, but as we crossed the Buffalo River, and traveled through breathtaking mountains vistas, our hearts were lifted. We had not expected to make this trip, but it was meant to be.
Often I am reminded of Wayne Dyer's claim, “In a universe that's an intelligent system with a divine creative force supporting it, there simply can be no accidents.”