Several people have asked how and why I became Catholic. Sometimes I try to tell them in under five minutes, and other times I've tried to tell the story over coffee. I've never been able to tell it quite right either way. The one time that I came close to telling it well, and by that I mean exploring the different themes and reasons for my conversion, I told it in article form on onerock.com. That attempt is lost to the depths of the internet, and I have lost my electronic copy of it along the way. Since some have asked and because I am still sorting out many of the details of the last decade of my life, I am going to give it another shot.
The first problem that I ran into in the telling of my conversion story is that it is seemingly a story without a beginning. When did the first influences arrive? How did they take hold? Where were the earliest seeds planted, and when did they start to show fruit. Anyone that can track down each of those threads has an amazing memory and possibly quite a bit of creative personal history. I can't claim the amazing memory, but sometimes my history gets pretty creative.
I opened the door of St. Michael the Archangel Roman Catholic Church unsure of what I would find. I had never been inside of a Catholic church by myself before, and my only other experience with Catholic churches came in fifth grade when I toured the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., as a fifth grader.
I remember walking around the Shrine in awe with my head tilted back almost constantly looking at the vaulted ceilings and the incredible stained-glass windows. Ms. Chancey, the chaperone, spent the entire tour poised with one hand on my shoulder ensuring that I would not walk into other students or walls while my attention was diverted to the many new and amazing things that I had never seen before. What caught my attention the most was the baptismal font. I couldn't understand for the life of me how someone could fit in something that small for a baptism.
I stepped through the door of St. Mike's and stood in the corner of the dimly lit narthex while my eyes adjusted from the sunlight. I felt as if I had a tattoo in the center of my forehead in bright neon letters that flashed “Protestant.” I failed to take into account several things. First of all, my forehead is not nearly that large. I may have been able to fit "PROT" on there with ease, but never a word that long. Secondly and more importantly, tattoos are seldom neon and never flash.
When my eyes finally adjusted to the lighting in the church, I found something starkly different from what I had expected. There were no confessionals within sight for the penitent, nor were there high stone walls of Gothic architecture with brown-robed monks chanting in Latin. Apart from a few items of interest, St. Mike’s was very similar to most of the Protestant churches I had seen.
I walked through the narthex feeling very much like an alien in a foreign land, even though for the moment I was very much alone. I found my way to the parish office and when I asked about converting, I was sent to the office of Religious Education. I sat for a while in the office of the DRE (Director of Religious Education), explaining where I had come from concerning my faith and why I wanted to become Catholic.
I had come to St. Mike's to find out about OCIA (Order of Christian Initiation of Adults). I had been studying the Catholic faith for over a year and had finally decided that it was time to convert, and though I may have been ready to begin converting, it turned out that the timing was not quite right. The OCIA program was initiated every fall in September and I was walking through the doors in a very tardy December. I had some time on my hands. During what turned out to be the next year of waiting, I experienced the Church as an outsider. In that year, I found out that both my greatest hopes and my darkest fears would soon be confirmed. The Catholic Church is everything it claims to be. It's all true.
In the Beginning
I don't know exactly when it happened, but sometime after George Calvert, the Lord Baron of Baltimore died and was buried and my grandfather, Bill Calvert, Catholicism had died in my mother's family. It was replaced with Protestantism of one denomination or another. My mother's parents settled into Methodism after leaving Sheffield, Alabama and the Baptist church of their parents. My father's parents had settled in Oklahoma after leaving Michigan and have been working in and out of Mexico as Missionaries for an organization dedicated to translating the Bible into the local languages. They are also elders in the local Mennonite Brethren church a mile from their house where I myself used to attend with my parents.
Many of my earliest memories are of times that I spent at that church. Whether it was on Sunday wearing a clip-on tie, loafers and slacks or on a weeknight for a Pot Luck dinner or AWANA (Which is like a 'Christian Boy Scouts' and their name stands for "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed"). The children I went to church with were the same children I went to school and played sports with. The town of less than 300 people was a real community.
There were only two churches in that small town. There were the Baptists and the Mennonites. The main difference between the two was that the Baptists across the street from the Mennonites were not pacifists. I was never exposed to Catholicism at an early age in that town except for on a few occasions. For all I knew Peter, Paul and Mary may as well have been Mennonite.
My first exposure to Catholicism came as I was learning to read. Somehow, a book with cartoon illustrations had made it into my hands. It was a book on how to behave at church. I'm not certain if I found the book in the library or if it had some how made it into my house through a garage sale purchase. I have my suspicions that it was given to me by my parents or by one of the people in the community who would often give me cookies when I came by to visit. I used to play with toy cars in church while waiting for Sunday school to begin. I believe that I may have been a bit too loud on too many occasions and this may have been a quiet way to correct a disruptive child.
I have to admit that if that is the case then it was an ingenious tactic. I learned to read early and I would read anything that I could pick up. I started by playing with the plastic magnet set on the refrigerator and learning to sound out the words from the letters of the alphabet. Soon I was reading the text that accompanied the Comic book style drawings in my red-covered Picture Bible. I loved (and still love) to read. Whoever gave me that book played to their greatest advantage by exploiting that fact.
I firmly believe that God loves irony. 'David and Goliath' is a great example. The fact that Jesus founded his Church on a fisherman is another. God uses irony every day. A little Mennonite boy, who plays with his cars too loud in church, is given a book on how to behave in church written for Catholic children.
I still remember some of the points of etiquette. Men should take off their hats when entering a church and whenever you pass a church, you should always make the Sign of the Cross. When entering a pew you should always move to the end to make room for anyone who comes after you. There was nothing in the book that I can remember that had anything to do with doctrinal issues, but it helped improve my behavior (or at least make the car crashes on the pew a bit quieter) and gave me a quiet glimpse of the Church that I would someday embrace.
Throughout my childhood, I moved around quite frequently and it seems that when I wasn't changing towns, I was changing schools through promotion. From Elementary to middle school, from middle school to high school, between moving and promotions I attended more than a dozen schools, mostly in the Metro-Atlanta Area. Moving to Atlanta from the community in Oklahoma was quite a shock. I was certainly thrown out of my element for a while. It took me awhile just to get used to my classes not praying together before lunch or my teams not praying together before and after a practice and a game. I never went to private school, but the public schooling that I had up to that point was within a religious community. The teachers and administrators were a part of the community as was each of the students. It blew my mind when there was no longer teacher-led prayer in school.
I also had some problems after moving to Atlanta for other reasons. When I was in the community in Oklahoma, everyone was raised as a pacifist. When I moved to Atlanta, people expected you to fight and to fight back. I got beat up a lot for the first couple years that I was away from the community. I tried to change. At one point, I took Tai Kwon Do for a while, but the basic premise behind martial arts is self-discipline. It promoted, in many ways, the same pacifistic nature that I was raised with. Fortunately, that problem solved itself when I found myself in another neighborhood with another school.
With each move, we had to look for a church that was close by. Preferably, it would be a Brethren church. Eventually I ended up at North Atlanta Bible Chapel. NABC was a Plymouth Brethren Church with a small but active youth group and it was here that I met a few of the men outside of my family who helped lay the foundation for the love of Scripture that I have today.
The first was George Groezenger. He was the pastor of NABC and he was a passionate speaker with a great sense of humor and love for the youth. He worked with the youth groups and ran summer camps at Camp Hope, a Christian camping ground up in the mountains of north Georgia. He chaperoned us on ski trips at Ober-Gatlinburg in Tennessee. He always had a word of encouragement and a word of wisdom for every situation.
I had other teachers that affected me while I was at NABC. There were a couple of husband and wife teaching teams who worked in the youth departments, Bob and Ruth as well as Mark and Kris stand out in my mind. They explained and answered endless questions that I could come up with and they taught me how to study the bible and a bit about the history of the Bible.
Looking back, I can't be anything but grateful toward these people. All these experiences early in life had laid the foundation for the time of searching that I was about to experience over the course of the next few years. Without the firm foundation that had been given to me, I can only wonder where I would have ended up.
The last time that I attended Eastside Baptist Church was the day that my friend Angie was buried. The first time I attended was over a year prior, with my friend Christa. Both of these people I frustrated to no end with my love of playing Devil's advocate. Christa and I worked together at American Adventures, a theme park in Atlanta. We wore the ugliest uniforms that I have ever seen. They were bright orange pullover jump suits that looked like they were missing the words "STATE PRISONER" across the back. Our job afforded us a lot of time for discussions and before long the topic of religion came up.
Discussions led to debates. Debates led to arguments. Arguments led to disagreements. Disagreements led back to discussions. Rinse and repeat. Eventually this cycle led to an invitation. Christa decided that I was going to come to church with her. I declined the invitation for a few weeks. I was attending a small non-denominational church in Woodstock.
Woodstock Community Church was where my family had finally settled down after many moves. I volunteered there almost weekly as a sound tech. It was a job I enjoyed and it gave me a creative outlet while I reveled in my inability as a musician. Pastor Rob Irving was a friendly and cheerful man who took a special interest in the education of the young. His sermons were creative and insightful, and he took a good ribbing very well. The people I know at the church were easy to love and before long they became family. Communion became more and more of a central focus in that community. No clear doctrine was ever really expressed on the nature of the bread and wine themselves. Instead communion became a regular time of reckoning with God, a time of repentance and acceptance of forgiveness.
There were those who believed in symbolic communion and there were those who believed almost instinctively in a type of real presence. I fell in with the latter group despite my Mennonite upbringing. Communion was the first area of my faith where I began to believe in the possibility of something greater, something more tangible than just what I could touch. I began to pray for something more.
It was within the congregation at Woodstock Community where I began to explore my spirituality, and when Christa began to invite me to her church I was resistant. I enjoyed the services at Woodstock Community and I enjoyed being able to work as a sound tech. I knew the people around me. I was comfortable with them and I felt that it was important for me to worship with my family. Finally, though, I began to accept Christa's invitations.
Eastside Baptist Church was different from any church that I had ever attended. There was no band; in its place was an orchestra. The service was more formal. Very quickly, I began donning my dress shirts, slacks, and ROTC dress shoes, a practice I had abandoned at Woodstock Community. The sermons were from more of an intellectual position rather than from a spiritual one. They were designed more along the lines of a lecture on theology than the life application sermons with which I was acquainted.
The church was much larger than the 800-person congregation of Woodstock Community. I spent the first few weeks feeling like I was a member of an audience rather than a Congregation. Within a couple months, I began attending both Eastside Baptist and Woodstock Community. I began to get more involved with the youth department at Eastside while going to Woodstock Community for worship in a more intimate environment.
With Eastside, I attended retreats, Bible studies and mission trips. I feel that my knowledge of my faith grew by leaps and bounds. My daily study and prayer became regulated and purposeful while the Bible classes introduced me to the basics of covenant theology.
At Woodstock I was able to focus more on the spiritual aspects of the faith. I was able to develop more of the relational aspects rather than the technical knowledge. Focus was placed on what I know now as the Corporal Acts of Mercy and a look into 1 Corinthians 13 was especially influential in developing my faith in a way that would reshape my views on social justice.
All was well in the Garden.
I have read conversion story after conversion story, and there are always one or two beliefs that a person loses just before they begin their conversion. Once the foundations crack and the pillars of faith fall, the soon-to-be convert is thrown into a crisis. The beliefs that they held so close to their heart, that they believed in so strongly and that they thought they would die believing in, are lying at their feet in a pile of rubble. It is this crisis of faith that pushes them into their conversion. It is a search for truth. The first two beliefs that I lost were the beliefs in a symbolic baptism of obedience and then logically faith alone.
In one of my classes, we were discussing Puritanism and taking a look into the writings of more than a few. One of the assignments we received was to write about how the Puritans' faith affected their lifestyle, comparing it to our own. I completed the assignment and turned it in. I felt that I had written a great paper. I portrayed the Puritans as living an unnecessarily burdensome life compared to the liberation of faith alone.
My teacher seemed to disagree with a good bit of my paper and the margins filled with notes pointing out opinions presented as facts left me more than a little bit humbled. The grade I received was fair and in the group discussions, it turned out that I was not the only one who had made these mistakes.
This episode would have long ago been forgotten except for one thing. On the back of one of my pages was a discreetly placed stick-it-note. On it the teacher had written, "We do need to do something to be saved according to Peter in Acts chapter 2 verse 37-38. Are you familiar w/ that?"
I never gave the teacher my answer. It was an answer that I didn't want to have.