Christmas Day, 1996
Hearing the
call of faith


BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Barbarito Shortly after 10 a.m. today, Melanie Barbarito will raise her voice and share the story of Christmas.

Storytelling is her gift. Those who know her say the 43-year-old woman with the probing blue eyes makes old tales ring true with a newfound sense of wonder.

To tell the story, she will climb three wooden steps. She'll move slowly so as not to trip on the hem of her white robe. At the top of the stairs, she'll look out from the oak pulpit of Hyde Park's Episcopal Church of the Redeemer.

No one in the congregation will have trouble hearing her. She has a big voice for a slight woman. It reaches every pew and ricochets off the church's stone arches. Only then does it disappear by blending into the sturdy oak beams that point toward heaven like the fingers of a praying hand.

The story she will tell is about a shepherd, a star and a baby.

And, for the woman who will be ordained Jan. 6, it's her first Christmas sermon.

The Rev. Melanie Repko Barbarito knows ''this is the only first Christmas sermon I'm ever going to preach. So, I want this one to be about the very first Christmas."

The part of the Christmas story she has chosen to tell revolves around Micah, the shepherd. He's an average guy ''a man of great faith and great doubt'' who just wants to tend his flock in peace.

He tries. But extraordinary events keep getting in his way.

An angel calls his name. He follows a star. He sees the baby Jesus. The light of the Lord enters his life.

The story is a familiar one. But, it will likely resonate this Christmas morning at the Church of the Redeemer. Especially since the storyteller has completed a similar journey.

Answering the call

When Melanie Barbarito first got the call to go into the ministry, she thought ''it was a wrong number."

She blamed the miscommunication on her religious upbringing.

Raised on the teachings of the Roman Catholic church, Melanie Repko grew up in Rochester, N.Y. She's the third of four daughters of two Slovak-Americans. Her mother is a retired nurse. Her father used to play in the NFL.

''She never talked about becoming a nun when she was little girl,'' remembers Melanie's mother, Irene Repko.

She's speaking by phone from St. Louis. Melanie's father, Joe, listens to his wife's side of the conversation and backs her up with a ''that's right!''

''She was always the smart student,'' Irene Repko continues. ''She was the one who was going to succeed. In high school, she was a cheerleader and the valedictorian of her graduating class."

Joe Repko, a tackle on the 1946-47 Pittsburgh Steelers and 1948-49 Los Angeles Rams before coaching high school football, remembers that valedictorian speech.

''The guy who came after her, said: 'What can I say after Melanie? She said it all.' Maybe that's why she's a preacher."

After high school, their daughter went from college and marriage to motherhood (twice) and a career. Since separating from her husband in 1989, she's been one of those one-woman juggling acts known as a single working parent.

Her career began after her children started school and she ''fell into fund-raising.'' She worked in the development departments of two universities, Johns Hopkins and Rochester Institute of Technology.

And on Sundays she went to mass.

''Faithfully,'' she emphasizes. ''I was deeply involved with the church."

But the deeper she went, the emptier she felt. She noticed ''something wasn't right. Something wasn't clicking."

This was in 1985.

Two years later, she was still questioning her faith. While attending a conference for college fund-raisers in Colonial Williamsburg, she shared her feelings over dinner with a United Methodist minister.

She remembers ''having the feeling of God being there. I told this man I felt I was always seeking wisdom."

He listened. Then, he gave her this advice:

''You ought to go into the seminary."

She laughed.

To his face, she said:

''Why would I do that? I'm a woman. I'm a mother. I've got two kids. I'm Roman Catholic."

But to herself, a voice in the back of her head let out a sigh of relief. ''It was as though I had waited my whole life to hear someone say those words."

To her amazement, this revelation came with none of heaven's traditional bells and whistles. There was no burning bush. She did not hear an angel from on high.

Just the same, she got the message.

''Call it a mountain-top experience or a conversion experience,'' she says. ''I just felt completely reborn. I walked around like the whole world was shining. I would go by a flower and feel a need to touch it so I could feel that connection with God."

That's how she got the call. In her soul, she knew it was the right number.

Two years later, ''after finding a home in the Episcopal Church,'' she started taking seminary classes. She was also working full-time at Rochester Institute of Technology and raising two teen-agers.

Her daughter, Aranka, is 19, on her own and in college. Her son, Adino, is a 17-year-old high school senior living with his father.

Aranka and Adino live in Rochester.

''I miss my kids,'' Melanie Barbarito says.

And, with that, she cries.

Christmastime is near

She's sitting in her church office. Counting the days until Dec. 25.

Down the hall, a childrens choir rehearses ''Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.'' Just like the carolers in A Charlie Brown Christmas, they try to make their voices sound angelic as they work like demons to hit the high notes.

The music drifts in and warms the room. In one corner, the words to her Christmas sermon glow on Melanie's computer screen. In her eyes are tears.

She knows she won't see her son or her daughter on Christmas day. They won't hear her preach.

She thinks of the holiday traditions they're not sharing.

No trip to the country to cut down a tree.

No family sing-alongs of her favorite Christmas song, ''Carol of the Bells."

No one shrieking with laughter at finding a stocking stuffed with presents.

No discussion over whose turn it is to put mom's homemade star ornament on top of the tree.

''Missing my kids is the only part of this job that consistently makes me cry,'' she says while reaching across her desk for a well-used box of Puffs.

Through her tears, she reassures herself that she has made the right move.

''This is a great job."

She came to Cincinnati on Sept. 14. The next day, she began her two-year internship as a curate or assistant minister.

''I love being here at the Church of the Redeemer."

Her boss and the church's rector, the Rev. Jim Hanisian, calls her ''an excellent preacher. When she tells stories, she'll be talking about, let's say, a king getting a knock at the door. The good preachers always pause before the king opens the door. That gets everyone wondering who's there. Let me tell you, Melanie always pauses."

''I know this is where I'm supposed to be."

Long-time parishioner Deanna Thompson hopes the new curate stays beyond her two-year appointment. ''Melanie has that special touch in her sermons. She puts a new twist on old stories."

''This is home."

It shows in her preaching. The Rev. Emerson Colaw, a retired United Methodist bishop, has seen this first-hand. As a professor of homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, he teaches students how to give sermons.

He saw Melanie preach on Thanksgiving. It was ''a stirring piece. She gets in and out of her Biblical text and quickly relates it to today's world."

He gives her ''very high marks on technique and communication."

Even better, he says, her sermon lets you know:

''She believes."

Telling stories

It is snowing.

The wind outside Melanie Barbarito's office window swirls the snowflakes. They dance aimlessly in the breeze like so many white butterflies on a carefree winter adventure.

Talk turns to her Christmas sermon.

She knows she'll be both nervous and excited when she preaches about Jesus' birth.

''First, my mouth will feel dry. Then, I'll shiver like I'm cold. That happens just before I walk up those three steps to the pulpit."

She shivers at the thought. She also beams at the prospect of telling her story on Christmas.

''Here!'' she says, springing to her feet. ''Let me show you where I'm going to preach."

It's a short walk from her office to the house of worship.

The huge empty room done in the gothic simplicity of stone and stained glass fills rapidly with the echoes of footsteps and the sound of a preacher's voice.

Leaning against the first pew, Melanie looks up to the pulpit.

This is where she will preach about Micah, her shepherd. ''What would it have been like to be an average person at that time? What would life have been like for a shepherd?'' He's in the field. Tending his flock. Minding his own business. When, out of the blue, he gets a message.

''What was it like to see that angel?''

When the angel spoke to Micah, he heard her in great disbelief. How could the Messiah be born in a manger?

He had faith in the angel's words. But, he still had to see for himself.

''You can't have real faith,'' Melanie stresses, ''unless you have questions. To believe, you must doubt."

She believes the Christmas story is a tale of wonder. Her faith in that wonder and in that story gives Melanie Barbarito the strength to stand in the pulpit today.

This morning, she will gather her courage and preach.

She will retell the story of Christmas. How Jesus came into the world a poor, defenseless baby. And, how a poor shepherd followed a light in the night sky to see if the tale was true.

As a child, Melanie notes, it was easy to believe this story. Kids believe in miracles. No questions asked.

But adults question everything. They're not too sure about miracles anymore. They've seen how the world works. They've also seen dreams fall apart. So, little by little, they stop believing.

Then one day, you wake up and see the Christmas story in a new light.

''You realize,'' she says, ''maybe things didn't happen that way exactly."

But, in your heart, you know the message is an everlasting truth.