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Visit my hometown at www.atascadero.org

Mitch Albom wrote a book a couple years ago called “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.” Much like his famous book, “Tuesdays with Morrie,” this book explores “the unexpected connections of our lives, and the idea that heaven is more than a place, it’s an answer.” Visit www.albomfivepeople.com

I guess it was in search of some of those answers that I returned to my childhood home on the central coast of California this past summer. Like Albom’s heaven, I found that even after 30 years, my town holds many unexpected connections with the people who helped raise me.

The town is called Atascadero (uh-task-a-dare-o), and it’s rarely pronounced correctly. But for the most part, wherever I’ve traveled, I’ve always pronounced it “home.” And while real estate prices have skyrocketed, the real value of the town will always be in its genuine people.

My first stop was to see Wendy, who aptly works in a store called Welcome-Home. Always like a sister and best friend, Wendy knew me in my early years as idealistic and naive. Ministers don’t survive long in that mind-set, and Wendy became the person in my life similar to the Wendy from “Peter Pan.” She tended to coax me out of my religious Never-Never Land and into the real life where most folks lived.

While in Atascadero, I also visited my father’s church.

He pastored the church more than 30 years ago. He’s dead now, and that Baptist church is full of the spirits of those who now join him in a house that scripture describes as “not made with hands.”

The church began 50 years ago, and similar to many small congregations, it has come through an ebb and flow of members. Dwindled to about 25 people, the small group shrinks in the shadow of a church 50 times its size.

Yet now my father’s church settles for growth of a different kind. The church that always had been my shelter in times of spiritual crisis has continued its work as a shelter to those without a home. The people who had shaped my early beginnings in faith are now quietly holding up those who had lost faith.

The sermon came from a well-read man, but his cadence induced a little too much comfort in my body that had become thickened with the fatigue of a 300-mile drive. And as suddenly as he had begun, he stopped and appropriately asked us to begin singing the closing hymn, “Open Our Eyes Lord.”

Early the next morning, I met another “family member” in a local restaurant. His name is Wayne Handshy, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, or “Bear” as he likes to be called.

The colonel had been my very colorful instructor for the Atascadero High School Jr. ROTC program, and now, pushing past 70, his cane gave him a brief pause as the restaurant hostess seated us.

As you might imagine with a name like “Bear,” he had a tenacious gift for inspiration and I arranged this visit to make sure he wouldn’t have to wait until our heavenly meeting to hear about the impact he’d made on my life.

It was a very short breakfast, but somewhere between the eggs and the pancakes, I found a moment to say, “I hope you know that your mentorship and inspiration had a great deal to do with my calling into full-time ministry.”

He blushed. He choked. He hemmed and he hawed. But it was true, just as it was true about the entire town.

Like many of the places in which we all grew up, Atascadero is a heavenly place to live. But like Albom, I found this slice of heaven to be more about the answers I’d found there. And the answers, as they often do, came from the faith of the people who helped sustain, nourish and grow me.