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 | By Jenny Cromie

Returning Home

An Encounter in a 520-Acre Midland Woods Leads Blessed Sacrament Parishioner Back to In-Person Mass

Before the pandemic, Larry Butcher and his wife Shanna regularly attended Mass at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Midland. He was a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, active in the funeral ministry and a frequent presider at evening prayer. Larry also volunteered regularly at Midland’s Open Door soup kitchen and at the Toni and Trish House for Care of the Terminally Ill in Auburn.

“But the pandemic changed everything,” he said.

March 7, 2020 was the last day the retired Delta College art professor attended Mass for two years and seven months. And had it not been for Father Rob Howe of Blessed Sacrament one day in spring 2022, Larry might not have returned at all.

As was the case for so many, Larry stopped volunteering and participating in all his ministries during the height of COVID-19. It also was at that last Mass in early March when Larry extended his hand during the sign of peace and a woman told him, “I don’t know if you’ve been to China or not, but I’m not going to shake your hand.”

Shortly after attending that Mass, the 78-year-old cancer survivor got “sick as a dog.” Larry shook so badly at night that his wife Shanna had to hold him down, and his symptoms continued for about 10 days. Well before testing was available, Larry’s doctor concluded he most likely had contracted COVID

Meanwhile, COVID cases continued to rise, and everything began shutting down— including churches. Considering guidance from the healthcare community, Bishop Robert Gruss issued a statement on March 16, 2020, saying he was temporarily suspending in-person Mass beginning the next day. As it turned out, public Masses would not resume until May 30, 2020. The bishop also issued a dispensation from attending public Mass that would last from March 13 to Oct. 1, 2020. It allowed people to decide whether to attend in-person Mass based on personal circumstances without concern of committing a mortal sin.

Suddenly, Larry and Shanna found themselves—like the rest of the faithful throughout the diocese—in a stark Lenten season without promise of a public celebration Mass on Easter Sunday. Mass continued at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption that year, but the pews were eerily empty. Bishop Gruss—together with a liturgical minister and five Sisters of Mercy—live-streamed Easter Mass on April 12, 2020, from the Cathedral in Saginaw.

Even though they were not attending Mass or active in their usual ministries, Larry and Shanna continued their personal faith walk. Larry continued his daily meditative walks in the woods. Larry and Shanna prayed and meditated together. They read books penned by Franciscan priest Father Richard Rohr.

“It wasn’t like our spiritual life ended,” Larry said, adding that he also continued creating in the comfortable solitude of his art studio. “I went on with my life.”

Despite that fact, COVID delivered more losses—a neighbor and some friends lost their lives to the virus.

In short, Larry and Shanna hunkered down in their faith to weather it all, anchored by their favorite Bible passages. Larry, who read the Bible cover to cover during his RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, now Order of Christian Initiation of Adults) work in 2011–12, focused on Psalm 46:10 (“Be still and know that I am God…”), and Matthew 25:35-40 (“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”). Shanna, a lay minister who has a bachelor’s degree in comparative religion, continued to focus on guidance from the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12).

For his part, Larry also found solace in his artwork. In particular, he focused on a piece he started before the pandemic called “Drawing Parallels.” It was intended to be part of a 30-piece exhibit, planned for two years, at the Midland Center for the Arts. Little did Larry know that the black-and-white pencil drawing—depicting the lashed back of Jesus, the Trinity and the Empty Tomb—would come to symbolize the actual and spiritual landscape he found himself in during Lent of that year.

Twice, COVID delayed the exhibit, originally scheduled for Fall 2020. By the time of the exhibit (June 24–Aug. 28, 2021), the “Drawing Parallels” piece had more than earned the name for the exhibit itself. Edited by circumstances beyond Larry’s control, “Drawing Parallels” instead became a 19-piece exhibit.

In fact, “Drawing Parallels” was the last drawing Larry worked on before floodwaters began filling his basement on May 19, 2020, when the Edenville Dam broke. Larry and Shanna were among the 10,000 people who had to evacuate their homes.

Before leaving for safety, Larry felt guided to put “Drawing Parallels” on the second floor of his house. When they returned, “Drawing Parallels” was one of the few pieces of artwork that remained. The 4 ½ feet of water that filled their basement destroyed most of the rest of his 65-plus years of artwork, including some that hung from the walls of his art studio.

“Most of it had to be thrown out.” Thankfully, he  said, no one lost their lives. The flood left Larry with some basement damage and they had to rebuild. But despite the devastating floodwaters, the experience left him with a valuable reminder: “It’s just stuff.”

As it turned out, there was a period of reconstruction ahead in Larry’s faith walk. There was the flood, there was the “plague” (COVID), and doubts began to surface in Larry’s mind about whether he wanted to return to the Church at all.

“The longer I stayed away from Church the easier it was to stay away,” he recalled. “I wasn’t thinking much about it because no one else was going to church either.”

And despite all the time Larry had spent in his various ministries at his parish and despite participating in nearly 100 funerals for parishioners and their families, no one impacted by those ministries reached out.

“Those are the kinds of things that make you question …," Larry said.

“My own spiritual journey had included many other religions and ways of living in balance with a Higher Power,” he said. “After staying away from Church for two years and seven months, I still felt connected to God, but less connected to the Catholic Church.”

It was on one of his hourlong walks in the Midland City Forest one spring day in 2022 that Larry saw a familiar figure approaching him. It was Father Rob and his dog, Bentley. Larry walks in the 520-acre City Forest nearly every day, but he had never encountered Father Rob before that day.

The providential conversation was simple and short, but it was what Larry needed to return to the Church. The message was: You’re missed.

“[Father Rob] was the face of Jesus in this,” Larry says. “He said, ‘come on back.’ … For me, Father Rob's invitation was a pivotal moment in my return. … His open invitation to return to Church and that we were missed touched my heart.”

Larry and Shanna returned to Mass in October 2022. They missed the Church community. But before they returned, Larry told Shanna he would not return to his various ministries—that is, unless someone personally invited him to get involved again.

Then one day after Mass, Father Rob invited Larry to approach the altar. Father Rob had a simple ask: Would Larry return to his ministries? Larry clearly heard the call, so he volunteered to once again serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion.

“It was a joy to be back,” Larry says. “It felt like coming home.”