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An Epiphany in Five Parts

Matthew Persons
June 30, 2022 No Comments

I grew up with no religious background and did not know I was a baptized Roman Catholic until two years into my religious education at Malone University where I studied pastoral ministry.

Wandering in the Dark

I grew up in Tallahassee, Florida. My parents divorced when I was three or four. I was with my dad after the divorce and stayed estranged from my mother most of my life. My dad and I were homeless for a time, living in other people’s houses or just living in the car. I experienced significant physical and sexual abuse as a child. As a teenager I was in trouble with the law for stealing cars and sentenced to chop wood in the Blackwater State Forest STOP (short term offender program) Camp as punishment. This camp in the middle of the woods is where I first responded to the Gospel. I got out at 16 and kept my nose clean afterwards.

I joined the Army in 1996 and served in the 82nd Airborne Division, while on active duty as an airborne artilleryman. While in parachute jump school, I met a young lady; we were stationed together at Fort Bragg. She became pregnant, and we were married. At this point, I believed in Jesus; however, I had no relationship with Him and was not practicing my faith in any way.

After getting out of my first tour in the Army, we moved to Canton, Ohio, where my then wife was from. Things quickly deteriorated, and I found myself kicked out of her family’s house (where we were living) and again homeless. I did not want my daughter Zoey to grow up without a father, so I determined to find a place in Canton and leave Tallahassee, Florida. I eventually found residence in one of Canton’s housing projects. I was lonely, without any nearby blood relatives, and I turned to alcohol and drugs.

I came upon an opportunity to work raves with some buddies (raves are musical concerts where people do lots of drugs). I traveled all over the Midwest vending at these raves, and drugs were plentiful. The guys I worked for were heroin addicts. I eventually found myself trying this insidious drug. While in Milwaukee, I was at my friend’s apartment and the drugs had run dry. Most of my friends were dope sick. I had been spared this condition because I had only tried heroin a few times. One night, I was watching television in my friend’s living room, and a televangelist came on TV. I can’t fully explain it, but the fire of God came over me. I was burning inside with grief, pain, and a desire to repent. I wept for about half an hour. At the end of the program, I was invited to pray with the person on TV.

It was April of 2000, and I had been sober for days, so what was about to take place was not drug induced. When I began to pray, the windows started slamming open and shut, the TV flew off its stand, and books and other items were flying around the apartment. My friend and his girlfriend came running out of their bedroom and witnessed everything. I exclaimed, “This is evil!” and caught the next Greyhound bus back to Canton, Ohio.

I determined in my mind, returning to Canton, to stay away from hard drugs. In August of that year, my dad reached out to me from Florida, telling me that he wanted to give me a car. I went down to Tallahassee to get the car and went out with some friends. They were doing cocaine, so I decided to do just a little. Suddenly, I was filled with oppressive fear; the same feeling I had had in Milwaukee earlier that year. I immediately left Tallahassee and headed back to Ohio.

Upon arriving, I couldn’t sleep for five days. At my wits end, I called the only church I could think of. They had organized a skateboard competition in their parking lot, which I had attended, and that’s the only reason I knew anything about the place. When the lady answered the phone, I exclaimed, “I need to speak with a priest!” She laughed and told me they didn’t have priests, but a pastor was available.

Once I had him on the phone, I unloaded the whole story on this poor guy and told him, “I think I need an exorcism or something.” He told me that this was all in my head and that I needed to just find a Bible, start reading the book of Psalms, and get some sleep. I cursed him out and hung up the phone. I started to feel my heart beating erratically, and I felt like I was on the verge of dying.

Somewhat irrationally, I thought to myself, “If I get to holy ground, I might be safe.” I went to a large hill in Canton South, where there was a large wooden cross, a pulpit, and wooden pews for outdoor sermons. I knew of this place because it was my ex-wife’s church. I got out of my car, got down on my knees, and begged God: “If you save my life today and restore my relationship with my daughter, I will give my life to you!” I immediately began to vomit, but while that was happening, I felt the oppressive fear leave my body. I could sense tall angels standing all around me. I went to my car, got a blanket, and went to sleep for six hours right in front of that hilltop cross.

That night I dug up an old King James Bible out of my Army duffel bag. The pastor I had spoken with on the phone earlier that morning had told me to read the Psalms, so that is what I did. It was my first experience reading a Bible. When I got to Psalms chapter two, I read: “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.” (Psalm 2:6–8 KJV).

I was just on a hill! And here, apparently, God was affirming that I was His son. Later, I would realize that this passage is a prediction about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, but in that moment, the verses were speaking to me personally. I could hardly sleep that night. The next morning was Sunday, so I went to the same church I had called the day before. I didn’t know a whole lot back then, but I knew there was going to be an altar call. There was, and I almost ran down the aisle. The pastor gave an invitation to give my life to Christ, and I did. With the microphone in his hand, he said “Son, do you know what the baptism of the Holy Spirit is?”

I answered into the microphone, “I don’t know what any of this is, but whatever you got, I want it!” The congregation laughed. When I received the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues), it felt like a freight train was passing through the room.

The next fifteen years of my life were tough ones. I always tried to step into ministry, but the timing was not right.

I became a Combat Medic, deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2008. I was medevac-ed out of Iraq due to multiple injuries, and while I was waiting for the Veterans Administration to process my claims for disability, I was called back to serve in the Army Reserve.

My time in the Army and being at war cost me broken marriages as well as many visible and invisible scars. Just when I had determined that God would never use me in public ministry, God sent me to Malone University. The timing was perfect. My military service had spanned the years 1996 to 2011.

I was one hundred percent disabled through the VA and had the time and the finances to go to school. I pursued a degree in Pastoral Ministry.

I found a wonderful woman there, whom I married. Our relationship started while she was an atheist and I a relatively new Christian sharing the Gospel with her. Our faith grew, and so did our love.

In 2015, my wife and I were sent from my home church (Non-denominational) and commissioned to serve as missionaries to the inner city of Canton, Ohio. I had lived in the projects and on the streets of Canton, and I felt my story could be impactful. We began serving at an inner-city church called Rising Hope, a Holy Cross Lutheran ministry. I served as lead evangelist and was a pastor in training, giving sermons as well as serving on the worship team while I was attending Malone. It was a wonderful time. Before committing to Rising Hope, I prayed to God for guidance. I heard the soft still voice of the Holy Spirit asking me a question: “Matt, do you want your own ministry, or do you want to be a part of My Son’s ministry?”

I replied, “Lord, of course I want to be a part of Your Son’s ministry!” The Lord then said to me, “I will lead you in a way you know not.” Little did I suspect that the way he was leading me was toward the Roman Catholic Church.

First Theological Epiphany

I was in my theology class at Malone University, and the instructor was lecturing on the topic of where authority comes from. He wrote on the board: “Roman Catholic Church, Scripture and Tradition,” then he wrote “Greek Orthodox Church, Scripture and Tradition,” and he finally wrote “Protestant Church, sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) 33,000 denominations and counting.”

The first thing I thought was of the word demon which means “to scatter.” In my mind I thought, “The Reformation scattered the Church, and scattering is demonic. Something is not right there.” That was my first prompting to look at the Catholic Church.

Second Theological Epiphany

Rising Hope, the inner-city church where my wife and I were serving, had their first communion service. Rising Hope was under Lutheran sponsorship, so the elements had to be blessed. This was strange to me. Prior to this moment, my understanding was that communion was symbolic only. In our service that morning, our lead pastor had the elements out when he started the service. I was then caught up in a vision. I saw smoke filling the school gym where we gathered. Suddenly, I saw clouds opening above us. As the clouds opened, a beam of light shot down from the clouds and hit the elements. Then the light went through the elements and spread across the floor of the gym, illuminating every person in the room.

I was then aware of angels standing in a perimeter around us with their wings and arms outstretched in an attitude of worship. I looked up and saw the clouds opening up fully, and in the clouds were people. I was aware that those people could see me, and they knew I could see them. Finally, I saw the shape of Christ, in pure light, with his arms outstretched, presiding over our little service. What I had just experienced was completely different from any other communion I had participated in and, from what I understood, substantially different from how those gathered viewed communion. I shared this vision with our two lead pastors. They commented that that sounded like the way Catholics understood communion. This led me to investigate the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist.

Third Theological Epiphany

Becoming ever more curious about the Catholic Church, I started secretly watching EWTN. I was watching a program late one night while vacationing with my wife. The priest was explaining the Communion of the Saints and talking about asking them to pray for us. Asking Saints to pray for me was obviously an issue for me, considering my Protestant background. The priest then said “It’s in the Bible.” I sat up in bed and said out loud to the TV, “No it’s not!” Then the priest proceeded to reference the Book of Revelation, and how the elders were collecting the prayers of the Saints in golden bowls. I then said out loud, “[Expletive], it is in the Bible!” The Lord was making a pathway in my heart for the next big milestone, which was St. Augustine of Hippo reaching out to me.I woke up one morning, feeling as if the Holy Spirit was urging me to go to Confession. The only problem was that I had never set foot in a Catholic Church. Click To Tweet

Fourth Epiphany

I was still attending Malone, and an Anglican priest was teaching a class on Spiritual Formation. We were assigned a book, the Confessions, by St. Augustine of Hippo. As I read those pages, I found someone in St. Augustine that I could relate to in ways that were almost scary. It was as if St. Augustine was speaking to my spirit. I woke up one morning, feeling as if the Holy Spirit was urging me to go to Confession. The only problem was that I had never set foot in a Catholic Church. One of my buddies was a charismatic Protestant, but raised Catholic. I saw him at Starbucks that day. I told him that I felt led to go to Confession. He said, “I know just the place and the priest.” As I was following him to St. Francis de Sales parish in Akron, Ohio, I called my mom. As I said in my testimony, my mom and I were estranged most of our lives; however, at this time we were communicating again and restoring our relationship. I knew my mom was raised Catholic, and I wanted to tell her I was going to Confession and see what she thought. When I told her this over the phone, she exclaimed, “Matt, you were baptized in St. Augustine’s Basilica, in St. Augustine, Florida, November of 1977.”I realized instantly that St. Augustine was calling me, that my baptism was in fact efficacious, that my baptism produced all of the spiritual blessings in my life... . It was as if I had been an orphan my whole life, then suddenly… Click To Tweet

As I hung up the phone, I was at a loss for words. I realized instantly that St. Augustine was calling me, that my baptism was in fact efficacious, that my baptism produced all of the spiritual blessings in my life, from my first belief to the moment at hand. It was as if I had been an orphan my whole life, then suddenly discovered that I had a living family.

Fifth Epiphany

When I got to St. Francis de Sales parish, I told the priest what I had just learned from my mother. He said that was good enough for him to hear my confession. I unloaded everything on that priest. It was as if a weight that I couldn’t get rid of was finally taken away from me when he laid his hand on my head and absolved me of my sins. The penance was even better. The priest told me to meditate on Luke 15, the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.

I was so overwhelmed that I started praying in tongues. Amazingly, the priest started praying in tongues with me! We then just laughed, both of us filled with joy. I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a charismatic Catholic priest! The next day, my friend linked me up to RCIA at St Paul’s Parish in North Canton, Ohio, and I came into full communion with the Church that year, 2019.

*****

Today, I am active in my parish. We started a men’s group called “Walking in Strength.” I am part of a parish evangelization team and help in our RCIA class. I am also receiving spiritual direction from a priest at Walsh University as I discern a call to the Deaconate. I am also currently involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, serve on the evangelization board at St Paul’s, and am active in building ecumenical bridges between Catholics and Protestants.


Matthew Persons

Matthew Persons is married to Crystal Persons. They are both combat veterans who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Crystal is a Purple Heart recipient. They have a blended family of seven children: Zoey, Olivia, Ava, Aidan, Noah, Jacob, and Makenna.


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