Finding a Safe Place: Cate Young Caley
Updated: Nov 7
Dear Reader, this is the first of a several posts with excerpts from my book Lost Faith and Wandering Souls. The post below is the first section of the chapter on the story of Cate Young Caley, one of the most compelling stories I discuss in my book. Her story is in her book, The House Where the Hardest Things Happened, which I highly recommend. Thanks for reading.
COMING BACK HOME despite having forever lost that home is the paradoxical theme that pervades so much of the narrative regarding returning to faith and religion. It is a loss experienced in discrete, temporary moments and yet extends throughout the eternities of a lifetime, a journey of pining that may neither be abandoned nor completed. In the case of Kate Young Caley, we find a quest for a safe place, a search for freedom from the threat of external betrayal and the internal, nagging feeling of not belonging. Where Caley accomplishes such goals, she will find freedom for the rebirth of her religious imagination.
In her memoir The House Where the Hardest Things Happen: A Memoir about Belonging, Caley describes her childhood years growing up during the mid-1960s in the rural town of Moultonborough, New Hampshire. There she lived in a close-knit community and attended the First Church of God. The church service involved enthusiastic preaching from the Bible, hymn singing, and dressing nicely. Sunday school was a matter of attendance records, Bible stories, and memorizing the names of the books of the Bible. Church was also a place of intense togetherness, where she had the confidence that she was loved by all and that “everything was all right.” The preciousness of that time for her is summed up in what she calls her favorite part of church, the altar call:
The preacher would invite us all to bow our heads and close our eyes. He would say that he knew there were those out there who did not have Jesus in their hearts and who wanted to start a new life that very morning. He knew Jesus was reaching out to us even as he spoke. The piano player seemed to know too, and would begin the soft and loving chords of the invitational at just the right moment each week. We would join in and softly sing, “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me, and that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”
I was so moved by it all—by the preacher’s ability to see into our hearts, the lull of the chords, and the promise that we get to come just as we were—that I would ask Jesus into my heart every single week, just to be sure it took.
Beginning at the age of five, Caley was ensconced in a zealous religious community. The idea that she lived with deprivation, without Jesus in her heart, had been driven in powerfully, so much so that she felt the need to affirm her triumph over this deprivation each week during the altar call. Most likely she was not alone in this. In fact, it would be fair to assume that this internal repeating dialogue was one many congregants experienced; for indeed, how many of the attendees of this small rural church at any one service had not already given their hearts and pledged their loyalty to Jesus? To have the idea of such personal deprivation, a conviction of such depth of one’s sinful nature, at the age of five is a commitment to the First Church of God that Caley, as is evident in her memoir, finds difficult to surrender. It left a permanent mark, especially after that same community banned her mother, and subsequently her family, from attending the church.
In 1965, while Caley was still five, her father, Dick Young, left home and traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to report for active duty in the army. The big problem, however, was that her father was retired from the army, and was somehow convinced that it was 1954. This delusional episode resulted in hospitalization for a brief period. Yet before he was able to return home, Dick was diagnosed with cancer, which required further hospitalization. With her father away for what had turned into months, Caley’s mother, June, had to find work to support herself and three young children. She found a job waitressing, work that required her to serve alcohol. For the members of the First Church of God, this meant June was breaking their sacred covenant, rules the church members had agreed to abide by, which were written in black stenciled letters on muslin that hung behind the pulpit. A meeting was called around the time Dick was released from the hospital and a vote taken that excommunicated June from the church. Although both Dick and June likewise stopped attending in solidarity, June continued to drop the children off at the church for Sunday school, waiting in a car outside. Then one day Caley’s Sunday school teacher made June the object of a lesson about hypocrites, telling the class that Caley’s mother was a bad woman. After that, all the Young children stopped attending.
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