The 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City killed nearly 170 people and destroyed one-third of the building.
The blast obliterated or damaged 324 other buildings.
One of the damaged structures was St. Paul’s Cathedral, seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma. The Rev. George Back was serving as dean at St. Paul’s at the time of the domestic terrorist attack.
His son, the Rev. Luke Back, sits across from me in an Egg Harbor Café booth in Lake Forest on a morning in May and says grace before gently puncturing his eggs over medium. Fr. Back — rector at The Church of the Holy Spirit (Episcopal) in Lake Forest since March 17 — had a front-pew view of the cathedral’s rehabilitation and expansion after the bombing.
“My father,” the 45-year-old Back recalls, “picked up the pieces, helped people heal. I watched him. I admired his work. He did a wonderful job, overseeing the restoration and enhancement of a beautiful cathedral, and he did it all through love.
“That was a pivotal time in my life, and it impacted me significantly, essentially leading me to a vocation I truly love. Life as a priest has been a life full of surprises for me, mostly good ones, some not so good. But that’s life, isn’t it?”
Fr. Back was called to The Church of the Holy Spirit after spending more than seven years as rector of The Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, Texas.
“It is not a funeral home,” a smiling Back cracks in his lilting southern accent.
Back, as a three-sport (baseball, football, swimming) athlete at Casady School, an Episcopal day school in Oklahoma City, found time to bury his head in books, perhaps none more challenging — and enlightening — than Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
“My favorite English teacher,” Back says, “taught me how to find gold in literature.”
Back, whose older sister, Elizabeth, has been an Episcopal priest for 22 years, earned a B.A. in 1995 and M.Ed. in 1999 from the University of Oklahoma. There was a time, in his early 20s, when Back thought he would become either a dean of students or a headmaster. A campus setting with dedicated professors and eager students inspired him, comforted him, felt like home.
In his mid-20s he sat down with his father in his parents’ kitchen and shared a list — of possible pursuits.
“At the top of the list I’d written, ‘Maybe go for an MBA, maybe go for a Ph.D.,’ ” Back says. “At the bottom of it was, ‘Thinking about attending seminary.’ ”
The son looked up from his list.
The son’s eyes met his father’s eyes.
Fr. George Back replied, “You’d be a good priest.”
The words heartened Luke Back.
“Huge affirmation for me, hearing my father react the way he did,” Back says. “He then told me, ‘If you’re serious, we have to tell your mother [Margaret].’ I told my mother at dinner, and she was very positive, very supportive.”
The son received his Master of Divinity at Virginia Theological Seminary in 2002. A cathedral then called him to serve as canon and, later, as priest-in-charge.
None other than St. Paul’s in Oklahoma City.
“I reported to my father,” Back says. “The best; he was the best boss.”
Back was in seminary when he met his future wife, Meredith, at a wedding rehearsal. Both had been assigned to sit at a table for single men and women only. Meredith was an architect student at the University of Texas.
“We hit it off, right away,” says Back, whose three children with Meredith are 13-year-old Louisa and 11-year-old identical twins Joshua and Simon. “She does some architecture work now; she likes the business side of the industry. Meredith is a great artist who has a great mind for mathematics.”
The 12th rector at The Church of the Holy Spirit and his family live in Lake Forest, with his parents set to move to Lake Bluff this month. One Fr. Back can’t wait to welcome his mother and another Fr. Back to Lake County.
“We love this area, love the schools,” says Back, a self-dubbed “Dugout Dad” for the Red Sox of the Lake Bluff Youth Baseball Association. “It’s a high-quality community with warm people everywhere. It felt like a good match when we arrived, and it still does. A lot of people are praying for me. I’m saying, ‘Thank you,’ a lot, and I’m saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ a lot. My focus for my parish is the church’s mission — ‘Love God, love neighbors, love self.’
“Church,” he adds, “is a place to bury your burdens, a place to share our celebrations. Being a part of a community, surrounded by loving and caring people, is always better than going at it in isolation.”
The Church of the Holy Spirit, (847) 234-7633, is located at 400 East Westminster Road, Lake Forest.