Rick Bath’s Story of Conversion
Life is a precious gift from God. It is the ultimate expression of God’s unconditional love for humanity. God also gave humanity free will. We do not have to accept God’s gift of life, but if we do not, we also reject God’s love. Nonetheless, even though we may reject God, God still loves us.
As a young man growing up in Red Wing, Minn. in the 1970s and ‘80s Richard “Rick” Bath enjoyed the company of his friends. Red Wing is a river town along the Mississippi about 83 miles upriver from La Crosse. Not unusual for young adults, Rick and his friends would gather for fellowship, perhaps to cheer on the Minnesota Vikings, to celebrate a friend’s birthday or some other special event. However, as time went on, part of the group’s ritual became drinking beer and other forms of alcohol to the point where it became more than a social activity for Rick; it became an obsession.
Rick describes the time in his life when he hit absolute rock bottom. “It was the weekend of Jan. 17, 1987. That Sunday night I planned to go to a friend’s house to celebrate his 21st birthday. I started drinking Friday night and pretty much stayed home Saturday and Sunday until Sunday night. Then I went to the party with my friends. We had two or three kegs of beer and we started drinking. A person at the party had a sheet of LSD. I borrowed some money from my friend and bought some.“ LSD is one of the most potent mood-changing chemicals, commonly called acid but has many other names. It is sold on the street in several forms, one of which is microdots on absorbent sheets. Users experience a serious disconnect with reality. The experience is called a trip and when things go wrong, which can happen frequently, it is called a “bad trip,” another name for a living hell.
Rick continues, “I was drinking, smoking pot, taking LSD all night. I don’t know how much I had to drink. I don’t remember much, but in the morning, I found myself down by the levee in Red Wing in my car thinking about committing suicide. I planned how to do it. There is this hill that ends at the levee. I would start at the top of the hill, gun the engine, fly off the levee into the Mississippi. It is a good way of committing suicide because right there the river has the strongest current. So, there is not much of a chance of living if you change your mind. I was at my lowest point. I was drinking and doing drugs with no end in sight. I did not want to continue with this kind of life. I did not think I had any other option.
“Right then and there I heard a voice from within saying, ‘Either quit drinking and live or continue the way you are and die.’ I did not have any question who it was. It certainly wasn’t me and there was nobody else there.”
“As I contemplated ending my life, I remember the time, not long ago, when I and two friends decided to go fishing; I was driving my car. I got distracted by watching my friend in the back seat fill a pipe bowl with marijuana. Suddenly, the guy next to me yells, ‘There is a bridge just ahead.’ I was headed for it and I needed to turn the wheel. But I froze and didn’t turn the wheel. The guy next to me didn’t turn the wheel either. But the wheel turned and we made it across the bridge. I stopped and I was shaking. I knew I did not turn the wheel. No one in the car turned the wheel. Then who did? I eventually thought it must be my guardian angel.”
Another incident that happened the previous summer came into Rick’s mind as he was sitting in his car at the levee. “I went out drinking with my friend and I was blackout drunk. I woke up the next morning at home and I was listening to the radio and there was a hit and run in Red Wing. It was the same color car and the same model as mine. I went out to my car to see if there was any damage. I saw nothing. I called my friend to see if he knew where we had gone. He was no help. He could not remember either. For three or four days I just sweated it out, expecting the cops to come up to my place. They never came because they did find the car and the driver and it was not me.”
Looking into the mirror of the car and gazing at his reflection, Rick thought back on these and other incidents that he experienced. “I can’t keep going on like this: getting drunk every day, blacking out every night, not remembering half of my life.”
Rick needed to change his life if he wanted to live. With the thought of suicide still on his mind at the levee and the thoughts of recent events, he realized he did not want to end his life. “I was a cradle Catholic and although I had traveled some distance from God, I still believed in everything that I learned as a kid. [Death by suicide is a grave matter because it violates the love of God, self and neighbors.] Right then and there I heard a voice from within saying, ‘Either quit drinking and live or continue the way you are and die.’ I did not have any question who it was. It certainly wasn’t me and there was nobody else there.”
Deciding to change his way of life but not knowing how to do it, Rick turned to his brother for advice, who two years previously had similar alcohol dependency problems. Rick said, “I ended up at the Church of St. Joseph in Red Wing. I was kneeling in front of the tabernacle and I told God if He wanted me to stop drinking that He would have to do something. I had done everything that I could. I went to inpatient treatments and other programs to no avail. Right then and there I felt an entity leave my body. I can’t explain it. I say it was God removing the compulsion for me to drink.”
Rick decided to get the medical assistance he needed by going to a nearby hospital and eventually joined Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But there was still something missing in Rick’s life. While relating his story to participants in the same treatment program, a person suggested that perhaps he ought to improve his spiritual life. Rick reflected, “What improvement? I don’t have a spiritual life.”
Not feeling comfortable seeking advice from a Catholic priest, he talked to Rev. Joe McDowell, an Episcopal minister, who suggested several steps that he could take to put his spiritual life in order. One of the suggestions was for Rick to make a list of all the people he had harmed and make amends to them. But he missed one person—himself. He had to forgive himself. Also on his list was his estranged father, but Rick thought his father needed to forgive him. “Father Joe explained to me that I was going to have to give an account to God for everything I had done and not for anyone else. I prayed about this and while walking home through a park, I heard this voice: ‘Call your father.’ I got my father’s phone number from my brother and called him and asked to meet with him. He agreed and we met twice. I made my amends to him and asked forgiveness. This was two years before he passed away of a massive heart attack.”
Wanting to improve his spiritual life, Rick explored other Christian denominations. However, he still felt something was lacking. Rick met an older lady who was going to the same non-denominational church as he because, although a Catholic, she had no car and had no way to attend Mass at St. Mary Catholic Church in Viroqua. He volunteered to drive her to church and attended Mass himself. It was there he met Father Cook and started talking about the Eucharist. Rick said, “Father Cook asked me the question, ‘Do you believe that the Eucharist is the real body and blood of Christ’. I said yes. Father Cook said, ‘then you belong here because other denominations do not share that belief.’” It was then that Rick realized what he was missing and what he found. “It was in the Eucharist that I became conscious of my personal connection with Jesus alive.”
Rick eventually moved to La Crosse, where he is currently a member of St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral. He tries to attend Mass every day. A recovering alcoholic, Rick has been sober for 35 years. He was once on the brink of rejecting God’s love, but through the grace of God’s love for him, Rick found the tangible presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
Story and Photography by Robert Rogers
Published in the March 2022 Issue of Catholic Life Magazine