At Mother Seton Parish's Easter Vigil service last night, the front pews were filled with pilgrims who grew up far from the Catholic faith.
There was a sparkling-eyed Muslim teenager, a Buddhist social worker raised in Sri Lankha and a Protestant immigrant from Jamaica. But by the end of the ceremony, those three, along with a dozen others, had been initiated into Catholicism in a rite that started in darkness and ended in hugs and tears of joy.
Mother Seton, made up mostly of young families, is a microcosm of the increasingly diverse face of Catholicism in the region. Newcomers from a variety of ethnicities, races and faiths have helped build the Germantown church into one of the Archdiocese of Washington's fastest-growing parishes.
The converts were among 2,000 people in the area inducted last night during Easter Vigil services, in which Catholics welcome newcomers to their faith as they celebrate the Easter resurrection of their suffering Christ. Today in the Washington area, where there are almost 1 million Catholics, Masses are celebrated in more than 20 languages.
At Mother Seton Parish, which has endured its own anguish -- including a homicide and a sexual abuse allegation -- and resurrection in recent years, the event was a culmination of seven months of study by the converts in a basement classroom. Led by longtime parishioner Michael Schwartz, class members, ages 16 to 62, immersed themselves in Catholic beliefs and practices. Each also chose a Catholic sponsor and a patron saint.
Along the way, they peppered Schwartz with questions on the nuts and bolts of the faith: Do Catholics genuflect on the right or left knee? (The right.) Is plastic surgery allowed? (It is.) Does the Church really demand chastity outside marriage? (It does.)
"It's been a long year, but it's been an enjoyable one," said Nicholas Duncan, 39, who spent his childhood in Jamaica as a Protestant. He decided to join his wife and son in the Catholic faith after his wife was laid off and the family was struggling financially. He prayed for help to get through the crisis.
"God gave me the strength each time I needed it," he said. "It made me start to think that it's time for me to do something, especially since God was there in my life."
Hard times also brought Yamuna Perera, 28, who grew up Buddhist, to the Catholic faith.
As a teenager struggling with family tensions in New York, she stumbled across a Catholic chapel and began dropping in to ask God for help.
Her conversion to Catholicism, she said, is her way of thanking God for the comfort she received. She is now married to a Catholic and expecting her first child in September.
Donya Botkan, 16, a junior at Damascus High School, had to overcome the concerns of her Muslim parents, who assumed she was just going through a phase. She had been attending Mass at Mother Seton as a purely social event with her Catholic friends, but Jesus's message of compassion and forgiveness, she said, wove its way into her heart.
"You don't hear that as much in other faiths compared to Christianity," she said.
"I was called to come here," she said of the church. "I didn't want to be a Catholic, but I couldn't get away from it. It was a feeling that when I went against it, it didn't feel right."
She said she's stopped drinking, stopped going out to clubs, "trained myself to go to bed before 5 in the morning" and now, "I do a lot of things that a lot of people find boring."
But she believes her journey toward faith is one she could make only through converting to Catholicism.
"I have discovered Jesus more closely than any other faith I've been a part of," she said. "I feel like the structure of the church is conducive to a better understanding of the role I have with Christ.
"In my heart," she said, "it feels right and it makes sense."