Convert Spotlight: Joel Garrison

Convert Spotlight

Joel Garrison (Tim Roufa IRL) is a revert. That is, a “cradle Catholic” who had fallen away from the faith and has now returned. Technically, reverts are not converts. Technically, I am not either as I was validly baptized although not Catholic. I lump us all together because technicalities aside, all of these groups share similar characteristics. That is, separation from the true Church and joining / returning to find she really does embody the fullness of Christianity.

There is almost a script that many reverts follow. It goes something like this: baptized Catholic as an infant, attended Catholic schools, religious ed, Mass. Received first communion and was confirmed. Graduated high school and went to a Catholic college. Stopped going to Mass. Fell away from the Church and took a different path either as a “none” or as a Protestant. Life changes happen (e.g. marriage, children or death of a loved one) and the Church of their childhood is rediscovered. They are amazed to find a richness, depth and truth that – despite all that Catholic “education” – was never learned.

While that is my general observation and individual cases vary, FWIW I draw some conclusions: (1) catechesis of our children is terrible, starting with their parents who always have the primary responsibility to teach the faith and (2) many supposedly Catholic colleges are radically secular institutions with only a shallow Catholic veneer where we unwittingly send our kids to loose their faith. This is a big topic for another time, but if you have children approaching college age, educate yourself starting with the Newman Guide to choosing a genuine Catholic college.

Joel (sorry, stepping now off my soapbox and regrouping) follows the “script” with an interesting twist. That is, he was far more serious about his faith while growing up. He thought about the priesthood and once won a essay contest on “what the Eucharist means to me.” Joel rejoins the script in college (state colleges in his case), that is — slowly falling away. He later met, fell in love and married a “non-denominational” spending years in that ecclesiastical community. Inconsistencies eventually raised concerns for them both and led them to search for the true Church.

Let’s jump into Joel and Jamie’s (his wife) story at that point:

I don’t think I can ever fully and accurately convey to you how anti-catholic my wife truly was, but this strange turn of events can only be attributed to the Holy Spirit moving her. My prayers became even more fervent. It was clear to me that God was leading her somewhere, down a road that neither of us ever expected to travel, and one which I never thought I’d see again.

Her investigation into Orthodoxy lead her to looking into Catholicism. In Catholicism, she found the fullness of all of those teachings she found lacking in other faiths. Of course, she kept most of this to herself as she studied privately. Outwardly, she was becoming more and more distraught and resolute in her decision to not go to church. She would say, “there’s no church out there that teaches all truth. The only one that even comes close is the Catholic Church, and I am not going to be Catholic.”

I began to study on my own, first orthodoxy and then Catholicism. I read anti-catholic sources and found, to my surprise, the same intellectual dishonesty I had seen years earlier in the “grape juice” pamphlet. I seriously studied the accusations leveled against the “unbiblical” Catholic Church. To my surprise, I found the answers to all of my questions, and finally, after so many years, I learned what the “fullness of the faith” truly meant. I prayed and prayed and prayed that my wife would come to the same conclusions, but I did not want to influence her choice. This was a journey she needed to make on her own in order for it to mean anything.

In the meantime, Jamie continued with her studies independently of me. One day, she opened the door. “Oh,” she said, “if you only knew how close I was to becoming Catholic, if it just wasn’t for the Pope!? Having done a lot of research on my own, I asked her if she would be willing to study a verse for me. She agreed. I opened my Bible to Matthew 16:16-20. I asked her to read it to herself and tell me who the rock was, and what she thought it meant to be given the power to bind and to loose.

Coming Home

During this time, I decided to go to Mass for the first time in over 10 years. I asked my wife if she minded if I took the children with me. She agreed, but she stayed home, not wanting to make a commitment to anything yet and not wanting to do anything remotely Catholic until she had spoken to her parents to let them know her decision. She respected them deeply and wanted to let them know where she stood before she moved ahead in her journey.

As we drove to the church, I prepared my kids. They had never seen anything like a liturgical worship service. The preacher at our former church wore a shirt and tie and we all called him by his first name. There had been no opening procession, no crucifix, no creed and no prayer responses.

I let them know that this church would be weird to them, but that if they had any questions, to ask me and I would do my best to answer them. During Mass, I was amazed that I still remembered the responses and was struck by how powerful and beautiful the liturgy was. The young priest that was celebrating Mass showed a true love for his ministry and delivered a powerful sermon. I felt, after so many years, that this was what it was to truly worship God. It was, to put it simply, an amazing and life-changing experience.

Immediately after Mass, as my children and I walked outside, I prepared myself for the questions I knew were sure to come: “Why was the preacher wearing a dress? Why were all the people talking together? Why was the preacher holding up that round thing? What’s up with the bells and the chanting?”

Amazing Grace

Instead, only my daughter, the little girl who saved my life, spoke. She looked up at me with her gorgeous little eyes and said, simply, “I like this church. That just felt so…   right.” So simple yet so articulate, my sweet little princess had summarized my newly restored faith.

As we exited the church, I saw Father Mike Foley, the pastor of the church. Fr. Mike had known my family since we moved to Florida 25 years prior. Just a year before, he had flown to Pennsylvania to preside over my brother’s wedding, which had been the first and only time I had seen him in 10 years until that fateful day. He was standing all alone, which was unusual because Fr. Mike typically drew a crowd whenever he was around. It was as if he was waiting for me, even though he had no way of knowing I would be there and no reason to expect I would ever step foot on the grounds again.

As soon as he saw me, he opened his arms like the good shepherd he is and offered a hug. I cried and told him I wanted to come home. I made an appointment with him for later in the week, at which time I made my confession and he welcomed me back to the church that Jesus founded. That next Sunday, I received the Eucharist for the first time in over 10 years, and I have not been the same, inside or out, since.

Jamie’s comments strike a chord with many of us converts. While searching for the Church, we look everywhere. We don’t know where we will find it but do “know” it isn’t Catholicism. Of that we are certain. When it turns out to be the one place we were sure it could not possibly be, we never quite get over the surprise and how blessed we are to be led here by the Holy Spirit – despite our best attempts to block Him.

Joel’s complete story is on his blog: Reasonable Belief. Read it at A Reversion Story.

Convert Spotlight: Contemplating Christian

Convert Spotlight

“K” blogs as the Contemplating Christian and is a 2006 convert (which she describes as ending her “protest” against the Catholic Church). Prior to her confirmation, she was a member of a “large independent Bible Church” but the community of her youth was ELCA Lutheran. Growing-up Lutheran, K was exposed to liturgical worship noting “I found myself missing the liturgy of my youth, missing weekly communion (the Bible church did a Communion service about four times a year).”

Returning as a Lutheran was not an option. K continues “I thought about returning to the Lutheran church, but they’d strayed so far from their theological roots as to be unrecognizable. The Episcopal church was similarly apostate, but at least they seemed (at the time) to be working with the more orthodox factions of the church as opposed to running utterly roughshod over them like the ELCA.” (For background on what she is referring to on ELCA Lutherans, see my 2010 piece Protestantism trainwreck. Of course, the Episcopal community is now at least as bad – see my recent Elsewhere: the Episcopal experiment.)

K’s story is insightful and well written, so let’s jump in…

The pastor of this church is an excellent speaker. He is engaging, well-educated, funny, self-deprecating, and culturally savvy. The church buys airtime on the Howard Stern Show and other non-traditional, worldly venues and produces a short spot in which the pastor addresses some life problem that almost anyone (regardless of religion or lack thereof) can relate to, using examples from Scripture to offer solutions. Thousands of unchurched people visit this congregation each year thanks to their willingness to reach out through worldly means. In fact, the church’s motto is “Impacting Secular (insert our metro area here) for Jesus Christ.”

This megachurch is big for a reason – one reason. It’s really all about the pastor. If, God forbid, he died tomorrow, I don’t believe for a second the church would ever be the same again. In many ways, it is a cult of personality. And this is a feature common to many protestant churches. In my 24 years as a protestant, I saw countless pastors come and go, and entire churches live or die by their popularity.

Pastors and the churches they lead can be popular for a number of reasons. Some water down the gospel to make it palatable to people whose very lifestyle is one of sin (pro-aborts, gay activists, etc.). Some take a hard line on everything and attract people who need structure and rules. Some are more like social clubs than houses of worship. And some are the real deal – places where people can go and be challenged and supported, and grow closer to God.

The church I mentioned above was the real deal in many ways. Our pastor was never afraid to take an unpopular position for the sake of Truth. Week after week, he offered practical, realistic ways to apply the gospel to our everyday lives in an inspirational way. And he was committed to the church in a way that many pastors aren’t — he promised (or “threatened,” as he likes to say) to stay with that church until he died or we threw him out, whichever came first. All in all, his church was a good place to be, and I happily grew in my faith there for five years.

So why did I start looking for something different?

Well, there were issues at the megachurch. I won’t share them in detail because in the end, they’re not relevant to my conversion story. Some were financial, some were legalistic, and a few were doctrinal. But the main thing that pushed me out the door was, ironically, the very same thing that had ushered me in five years earlier – the life application teaching.

Don’t get me wrong – life application teaching is wonderful. Necessary, even. How do we know how to live the Christian life unless we are taught? But is its proper place the main worship service on Sunday morning? We once did an excellent series on The Da Vinci Code – twelve weeks” worth of debunking its myths and lies. It was timely and interesting, but I couldn’t help feeling its proper place was a seminar or a Sunday School class, not a Sanctuary of the Lord. Same with the series on finances, and the series on workplace evangelism . . . these things were tremendously helpful, but I didn’t come away feeling like I’d just worshiped the Lord of Lords.

Later, K discusses church options with her husband…

“It’s not the same thing!” I protested. “The beliefs are totally different.” I explained the major differences in a nutshell (the authority of the Pope, the Marian doctrines, purgatory, consubstantiation vs. transubstantiation) and he nodded thoughtfully. I added emphatically, “I’m just not comfortable with the Catholic Church’s beliefs!”

And then, in what was almost a throwaway line for my husband, he said the words that would eat at me for the next three weeks: “Why do you have to be comfortable with the church’s beliefs?” Again, all I could think was, “Ouch.”

Why, indeed? I realized that instead of trying to shape my theology to match God’s, I was searching for a church to fit my theology. A theology carefully honed over a whopping eleven years. In between classes, work, dating, marriage, and a child. That’s the stuff of theological legend, right there . . . or maybe not.

That struck a chord with me! In my own story, I wrote “reflecting back now I see my whole approach was wrong. I was shopping for a church that fit my beliefs.” Indeed!

K then begins checking the claims of the Church with a more open mind and heart…

With my Bible in one hand and my mouse in the other, I began to fact check everything. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that after a couple of hours of this, I was a convert, in mind if not yet in body.

As I read the scriptures with the mind of a Catholic, they came alive like never before. Thinking of Peter as the first Pope shed so much light on the dynamics of so many relationships in the New Testament. I noticed things I’d studiously ignored for years, like Jesus giving to the apostles the ability to forgive sins on earth so they’d be forgiven in heaven. I could go on and on, but I’d rather send you to Scripture Catholic to see for yourself. It’s truly eye opening if you’ve never seriously considered Catholic theology before.

At any rate, literally overnight I became a Catholic. In the days to come, I found myself reading protestant arguments on different forums and mentally picking them apart only to find that they fell short every time when put up against the Catholic teaching. That’s not to say there haven’t been plenty of debates won by protestants against Catholics, but I started to recognize that on these occasions, it was due to a lack of knowledge on the Catholic’s part, not a failure of the theology itself.

I also found a site with a lot of writings by the Early Church Fathers, people who knew and worked with the apostles themselves. To my surprise, these men were unarguably Catholic. (Present-day Catholic, not some kind of imaginary “early Catholic” of the type that was good enough to put together the Bible, but not good enough to hold the fullness of the truth for all generations.)

Even after my husband returned home, I kept all of this to myself for a few days, considering I had recently firmly proclaimed my opposition to all things Catholic. I didn’t want him to think I was flaky, or worse, schizophrenic. But as the desire to pursue this path grew inside of me, I sat my husband down over dinner and said, “Honey, I have a dilemma. While you were out of town, I did a lot of reading and praying, and I think God showed me that the Catholic Church is true.”

These are some highlights from K’s complete story which is at What happened? (Or, how I turned my back on a lifetime of protestant teaching and learned to love the Catholic Church).

Convert Spotlight: Patty Bonds

Convert Spotlight

Patty is the daughter of a Southern Baptist pastor. As an adult she also attended a church of the Calvinist tradition. To say that her family is staunchly anti-Catholic would be an understatement! Her interest in Catholicism was no matter of rebellion, but of following the Holy Spirit. It was not an easy journey.

In Patty’s own words: “As the daughter of a Baptist minister, I grew up in a home where theology, the Bible, and an intense emphasis on ‘faith alone’ salvation was deeply woven into the fabric our family’s life. I entered adulthood firmly convinced that, as a born-again, Bible-believing Baptist Christian, I had the whole truth. Period. Catholics, I had been taught and had come to believe, most definitely did not have the truth. And nothing could have convinced me otherwise. It was us against them.”

Patty was received into the visible Church instituted directly by our Lord at the Easter Vigil in 2001. These are excerpts from her story:

I remember my mother explaining that Catholics believed they had to work their way to heaven, that they prayed to statues, and that they said the same prayers over and over like pagans. She was particularly critical of the Pope and the idea that a man on earth would claim to be the head of the Church. She said that Catholics did not think for themselves; they let the Pope think for them. They were not even allowed to read the Bible for themselves! She told me that some children throw up when they take first communion because it makes them sick to think about eating Jesus’ flesh. I could see the point. It was strange and sickening to think about eating someone’s flesh. She explained that the Pope didn’t let women decide how many children they were going to have because he wanted lots of Catholics to be born. She said that Catholic women had to have one baby after another until they were either worn out or dead. What kind of people were these Catholics anyway? How could they believe such things?

I was nervous as I approached the doors of the Church, but once inside it seemed like a normal place. There were none of the medieval pictures or statues I expected. The walls were familiar beige and the decorating was of a Southwestern flavor. The baptistery was obviously for immersion, which made me feel more at home. I sat down and tried to be calm and relaxed.

As Mass began, I realized what a fish out of water I was. Everyone knew what to do – except me. There was so much bowing and gesturing! I tried to fight the tension building up in my neck and shoulders. After some pleasant singing, we sat down and a woman reverently stepped to the podium and read a passage of Scripture. Hearing Scriptures made me feel more at ease. Just as I began to relax, the congregation stood and began singing. Then the deacon turned and bowed to the priest, who made the sign of the cross over him. He walked to the pulpit and read a passage from the gospels.

So far, I was very impressed with how scriptural everything was. Even the sermon was quite good. I didn’t understand the need for the formality and pageantry, but I could see why my friend’s faith seemed so biblical. Everything this community did revolved around scripture and prayer.

Then came the Eucharist

I had no idea how my life was about to change. Without warning, the Presence of God fell on that place. I had never felt Him as powerfully as I did at that moment. I lost touch with most of what was happening around me. I barely kept up with the liturgy. I stood there bathed in the light of His breathtaking Presence. It went on and on as each of the parishioners filed forward to receive communion.

As the Mass ended, I was speechless with joy at the Presence of God. I hugged my friend and said goodbye. I walked into the parking lot not able to feel my feet on the pavement. I prayed frantically for answers. “What was that, Lord? I have to understand this. What do I do now?” I know you want me to look into the Catholic faith, but where do I begin? I am not a theologian or a scholar. Where does an everyday person like me begin?”

His answer came back immediately and unmistakably: “Start with what draws you; start with the Eucharist.” I drove home knowing I would do just that, somehow, some way. I was excited …   and afraid.

From dwelling in their writings, I was beginning to understand the vantage point of the early Christians. It was becoming obvious that the Lord had left us a living and authoritative Tradition that eventually found expression in written form, but that it was the Tradition, written or oral, that was the Christian faith. There was no real expectation in the early Church that we would ever govern our lives and worship strictly by the writings of the Apostles and their contemporaries. The early Christians had received the faith in total as the apostolic tradition and were guarding it for all time. St. Irenaeus had no compulsion to write down what he had heard from St. Polycarp; he hid the word of God in his heart.

At this point I finally developed complete confidence in the teaching authority of the Church. I trusted those precious saints of God down through the ages who had guarded the truth and plumbed its depths to explain the mysteries of God for future generations. Oh glorious reality, that there is in this world an ultimate authority to which Jesus not only delivered the truth, but which has guarded that truth according to His promise!

At long last Holy Saturday arrived. It was a beautiful, sunny day here in Phoenix, and I could barely contain the joy of knowing that there were only hours between us and home. With the exception of a minor wardrobe problem at the last minute, the hours passed by without a hitch. My family arrived and seated themselves in the church while Esther and I stood outside with the newly lit fire. The celebrant lit the candle and we followed him into the darkened Church, bringing the light of Christ.

Vigil Mass was so beautiful. Esther and I both heard our saints invoked in the Litany of the Saints. I thanked St. Patrick for his intercession, and his testimony that opened my eyes and eventually brought me home. After the catechumens were baptized, it was time for our profession of faith. Esther and I and several others stood to declare to all those there that we believed that the Catholic Church was the true Church which Christ established to be the preserver of truth.

Moments later, we each filed to the front to pronounce our patron saint’s name and be confirmed in that name. What a joy it was to hear the priest confirm me as a Catholic in the name Patrick. I bear it proudly and with gratitude. We stood again and approached the altar.

Finally, after months of intense hunger, Esther and I received the Lord Jesus Christ on our tongues and into our beings, the way He had meant for us to receive him.

Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise!

Patty blogs at Abba’s Little Girl. The excerpts above are less than a tenth of her complete conversion story. Read it on her blog at this page. (Some may prefer this copy of her story with improved formatting.)

Marcus Grodi interviewed Patty on his popular EWTN The Journey Home show in 2002:

Play The Journey Home

Marcus followed-up with her in 2007 and discussed scripture with her in 2010:

Play 2007 Interview

Play 2010 Interview

Introducing: Convert Spotlight

Convert Spotlight

Way back in August 2010, I unveiled Convert Stories. It is a special project like New Evangelists Monthly introduced earlier this year. The idea of Convert Stories is to provide a unique database of (1) bloggers, (2) who are converts and (3) who publish their conversion stories. It fills a unique and useful niche.

The database is updated regularly and in the process, I read some really great, moving stories. Conversion Spotlight is a new meme I will use to introduce you to some of these wonderful blogging converts. Like my Elsewhere meme, you will get an introduction, a key excerpt from their story and a link to their blog. There you can read the complete story and follow their on-going journey.

This is long overdue! Often I have come across conversion stories with some combination of difficulty, humor, exhilaration, inspiration, passion, surprises – even small miracles – and thought to myself “wow”! They were then added to the Convert Stories database and I moved on. The database is great for people just discovering it since it is maintained and searchable. The problem is for you my loyal Convert Journal readers, who (quite reasonably) do not monitor the Convert Stories database for new additions and miss these great stories. Through this new meme you will be in the loop.

Not all stories can be spotlighted, but I am confident that you will enjoy those that are and find this new feature to be a good addition.

Look for the first Convert Spotlight piece this Friday. Until then, if you are not familiar with Convert Stories, head over to that page and take a look. There you will find the database, links to other great convert story sources and a good list of books by converts.

Convert Stories was conceived to provide a place for searchers interested in Catholicism to connect with others of similar backgrounds. It was featured aspect by Brandon Vogt in his book: The Church and New Media (page 50). Convert Stories is fortunate to always be among the top Google search results for “catholic converts”, “convert stories” and the like.