On the Importance of Intergenerational Friendships by Kate Oczypok

It took me almost a decade to find a church I truly liked here in the Washington, DC, area. Don’t get me wrong: I found something to recommend all of the churches I attended since arriving for college after growing up in Pittsburgh. They each had their own characteristics that I enjoyed, but they just didn’t quite feel like home.

All that changed when I began attending Holy Cross. It’s a smaller neighborhood church, and I like the community feel. Since I have anxiety, I prefer to sit toward the back of church, on an end pew. It helps me to stay calm and enjoy the experience of Mass.

Collections and Connections

After a few months in, I met a kind couple with two daughters around my age. They soon became like my honorary parents. Before Covid hit, they would give me a ride to church every Saturday evening (since I don’t have a car). I felt so grateful that they would go out of their way to pick me up and drop me off.

Then one Saturday evening while sitting in the back of church during Mass, I was asked to help take up the collection after smiling politely at one of the ushers as he made his way past me to grab his basket. The experience was fun—I enjoyed feeling like a part of something. From then on, I ended up becoming a regular Saturday evening usher!

One of my duties soon became leaving Mass after the final blessing to hand out the weekly church bulletins. Through this I got to know another regular usher. Just like the original usher who had asked me to help, he was also in his 80s.

Learning from Another Generation

As someone who has always considered herself good at working with children (I’m a piano teacher, after all!), I was surprised at how quickly I connected to these 60- and 80-somethings. While I love helping children learn new skills, my church friends have taught me so much.

One of the ushers, Art, has taught me how to cope with loss with wisdom and the type of insight that only comes with age. He lost his first wife to breast cancer and his second to dementia and Alzheimer’s. When I went to his second wife’s viewing, I expected Art to be inconsolable—I know I would be. Instead, he was smiling and seemed happy. He shared with me how relieved he was that his precious Donna was in a better place and, most importantly, no longer suffering. His faith that day was something I’ll never forget.

The usher who I got to know while passing out bulletins, Jack, has taught me so much about generosity and the importance of being humble. Through decades of hard work, he has built a car dealership empire with outposts in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Florida. He has shown me that no matter how successful you are in your career, humility remains important. Not to mention, Jack is very generous—not only to me, but to the community at large. He has given me many rides to and from church. He also has worked on the Fitzgerald Child Safety Seat Program to give free installation and inspection of car seats, and his car dealership also offers pet adoptions. These are just a few of the many ways he’s involved in our neighborhood.

The couple who initially gave me rides to church, Jim and Colleen, have taught me about the importance of giving back. Through them, I have realized how necessary it is to contribute one’s time and talents to the church community in order to keep it going. Colleen has volunteered as part of the Social Concerns Committee at the church, and she helps with the Giving Tree, food drives, and many other events. Her never-ending energy is infectious and has inspired me to volunteer more at Holy Cross.

Overcoming Stereotypes

Growing up, I often saw my grandparents as just plain old. I never realized how often I would stereotype the elderly since I wasn’t good friends with anyone significantly older than me. As a child, you never think that older people can have anything in common with you. But like many of my fellow 30-somethings, Art enjoys a pint of Guinness and a late-night dinner out. Jack loves a good joke, and Colleen is into tracking the weather just like I am and is an avid user of weather apps.

Despite growing up in different decades, with different traditions and in entirely different generations, I have found ways to connect and enjoy my older friends without judgement.

Staying in Touch

Colleen, Jim, Jack, and Art have boosted my confidence in unexpected ways. When my parents come to visit and go to Mass with me, my church friends make an effort to seek them out, say hello, and tell them how glad they are we’re friends. When you worry about whether or not you’re succeeding or properly “adulting,” hearing affirmations like these really does some good for your soul.

They love to hear about my accomplishments as well. I text Colleen, Art, and Jack all the time. Colleen is a master at Bitmojis, and Art sends hilarious emails with lots of witty jokes in them. Jack still has his pilot’s license and will fly with a co-pilot in his company plane. Before the pandemic, I would tell Jack and Art all the time how their social lives were way more active than mine!

Since the onset of Covid, I’ve tried to keep in touch with my church friends, especially Art and Jack, being in their mid-80s. I’ve sent small Christmas gifts and Valentine’s Day cards and texted them around their birthdays. It’s hard enough being 35 during these crazy times, tucked into my apartment with my fiancé and French bulldog, but I can’t imagine being in my mid-80s and going through all of this. I’ve truly admired their resiliency.

An Honorary Family

I like to call my church friends my honorary parents and grandfathers, but they’re also so much more than that. They are my mentors, my confidantes, dinner buddies, fellow volunteers, and close friends. The family feeling is in part because they watch out for me. I know that if I ever needed anything here in DC, they will help me. It’s a comforting thought, given that my family is four hours away in Pittsburgh.

My advice to those Catholics who are in their 20s and 30s searching for the right church is to give it time. It took me a while to find what worked for me. My friends at my church are the heart of the community. If it wasn’t for them, the beauty and positivity of Holy Cross wouldn’t exist. As members of different generations, we help make the community whole.

Kate Oczypok is a freelance writer, piano teacher, and portrait photographer based in Washington, DC. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Washingtonian, the Georgetowner, and other regional and national publications. Read more at: https://kateoczypok.wixsite.com/kateoczypok.

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