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Catholic to Baptist and Back

Rex Gehlbach
June 8, 2023 No Comments

Catholic Roots

I was born in 1961 and raised in a rural area. Dad was an atheist, but not the militant type. He was also a World War II veteran, a real no-nonsense type of fellow. Even without religion, he had high moral values. You didn’t lie; you didn’t cheat; you didn’t steal. You worked hard to earn what you had. He taught me how to shoot guns, catch fish and grow food in a garden before I turned 10. Mom was Catholic. She believed, but was not overly devout. She taught us kids our bedtime prayers and we went to weekly catechism classes.

Dad’s parents were religious. His father’s ancestors were German Evangelical Lutherans, coming from what is today known as Alsace and Saarland, the region along the border of Germany and France near Luxembourg. My Dad’s mother was Methodist, with ancestors from the British Isles, while on Mom’s side, Grandpa was from a long line of Catholics. He came from the Flemish-speaking region of Belgium in 1924, at age 16.

Grandma was from a long line of German Lutherans. When she was young, German was still spoken in their church in central Illinois, and the Bibles and hymnals were in Low German. Grandma converted to marry Grandpa, and as some converts do, she became a very zealous and devout Catholic.

Religion was never debated at family gatherings. Considering my ancestors’ diverse backgrounds, this made sense. I was taught at an early age that other denominations were also Christian  , and we shouldn’t consider ourselves better because we were Catholic. This was probably a way to keep peace. However, I misinterpreted this as meaning that all denominations were basically the same, and that it didn’t really matter where you attended. Sort of like the different states in the USA: you could live in Illinois or Missouri and still be American. You could be Lutheran or Methodist and still be a Christian. Changing denominations, to me, was no different than moving from Iowa to Kentucky. Many years later, I learned that I had stumbled into an theological ideology known as Indifferentism. I sincerely believed that all Christian denominations were essentially the same, and it didn’t matter where you chose to go to church.

One example of the religious attitude in my family happened when I made my first communion in 1969. My Lutheran Grandpa and Methodist Grandma (Dad’s side of the family) gave me a Catholic bible. They respected that my Mom was raising her children Catholic. They apparently knew the difference, because they bought a Bible that said Catholic Edition right on it. They even signed it inside the front on the presentation page.

I became an altar boy — that was great! I got to light the candles before mass! Back then, we still had an altar rail, and people received communion on the tongue while kneeling at the altar rail.

One of my tasks was to follow the priest along the rail and hold a gold paten (looks like a saucer with a handle) under each chin so the Eucharist would not accidentally land on the floor. This was very important, and I took the job seriously.

When I made my first communion, I was given a rosary and a Bible and a Miraculous Medal. Almost immediately, I started to read something from the Bible each evening (a habit that, by the grace of God, I never gave up). I still have that old Bible. It is now the Duct Tape Version due to various repairs. Actually, it is a Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. This indeed shows the respect my Methodist Grandma had for my Catholic faith.

I didn’t really know much about the rosary or the medal. I considered them to be Catholic jewelry, and they went into a desk drawer. I was almost 40 years old before I learned there were mysteries to be meditated on when using the rosary. Perhaps I was told about these when I was young, but didn’t pay attention. I don’t remember ever hearing anyone praying a rosary when I was young.

There was no internet in the 1960s and 70s. My parents did, however, subscribe to several magazines. My favorites were Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest, and National Geographic. Through the pages of the latter, I traveled around the world and saw many religions. I recall seeing a boy about my age who was attending the wedding of his older sister. They were dressed very differently from my family. Their food and culture were different; their religion, too, was very different. This gave me the impression that my religion was just another one of many. I knew that the reason that boy was Hindu or Buddhist or whatever was because of his family. I knew I was Catholic because Mom and her family were Catholic. Neither that boy nor I had chosen our religion.

In college, I was busy with study and part time jobs (plus dorm parties and dating girls). I didn’t reject religion, but I did drift away from regular practice. At college, there were atheists who were very anti-religion, and vocal about it. One was a history professor whose class I needed to pass. But there was also a group on campus called BASIC (Brothers and Sisters in Christ). They were non-denominational, and although they were led by two local Pentecostal preachers, they did not promote any one denomination over another. We met once a week to sing, pray, study the Bible, and talk about life. I was one of two Catholics in the group. That gave me the impression, once again, that the Catholic Church was just one of many equal denominations.

My history professor blamed religion for all sorts of evil that had been done throughout the ages. When students tried to defend religion, the professor made them look silly by tossing out lots of historical events. Soon everyone just shut up and learned what was required to pass the tests. Meanwhile, in the BASIC group, we started listening to tapes of debates between a fellow named Josh McDowell and college professors on various campuses. Josh had answers that held up to the attacks of the atheists. I had never heard of Christian apologetics before, but Mr. McDowell impressed me so much that I went to the local Christian bookstore and bought a copy of his book, Evidence That Demands a Verdict. In my small home town, there had been no bookstores, just a magazine stand at the drug store. Now I was in a city, and bookstores were an amazing wonderland to me. There was even a Christian bookstore, with shelves for different topics and denominations. Every denomination I had ever heard of had a space. This reinforced my impression that I was a member of a small branch of Christianity.

While in college, I had also discovered Christian radio and listened to it regularly. It was very Evangelical, although I didn’t know it at the time. In fact, I wasn’t even familiar with the word “Evangelical.” But I did like to listen to the Bible study programs. I never heard the words “sacrament” or “Eucharist” on that station, but I didn’t think to question that; what they did talk about was good.

While in college, I met a young lady who would later become my wife. She was from a Baptist background, and we got married within a year of my college graduation. Her mother had some very strange misconceptions about the Catholic Church. Because of these notions, my future wife was very uncomfortable when I took her to Mass. I found her church to be different than mine, but it didn’t bother me. I became a Baptist, and we raised our children in the Baptist church.

I was busy trying to get my career going, having studied electronics and working in the field of automation. Electronics had been a continually changing field during my lifetime, so I was constantly learning in order to stay competent in my chosen field. Plus, I was raising a family. I didn’t have time to investigate the claims of various denominations. The folks at the Baptist church were friendly, trusting in Jesus for salvation, singing hymns, and studying the Bible; that was good enough for me.

Baptist to Searcher

Work brought us to a large metropolitan area. We started attending a Southern Baptist Church (SBC). I later learned that the SBC was very conservative, even considered fundamentalist by some. However, we were not in the South, and our church felt more Evangelical. We made friends and were very active. I loved my Southern Baptist church and our friends there, and I liked the music and the Bible studies. At first, there was no direct criticism of the Catholic Church there, but in our final few years there, that changed. When somebody would repeat a misconception about the Catholic Church during a Bible study class, I would correct him. I would tell him that I had been Catholic for 20 years and was never taught that. That would be the end of it. Secondhand information can’t really argue with direct experience. Most would accept my testimony about my experience, and the topic would change. But such occurrences were very rare. We raised our children in the SBC.

Along the way I bought into the idea that a personal relationship with Jesus was all that really mattered. This fit in with my belief that all churches are basically the same, and where you attended on Sunday didn’t matter.

We loved our Baptist faith in the 80s. But halfway through the 90s, things began to change. There was a battle at the national level between conservatives and moderates. Those on one side called it the Conservative Resurgence; those on the other side called it the Fundamentalist Takeover. Our local church was growing, attracting some folks who were very much into the controversies of the time, especially the controversies that drew the attention of the Christian talk radio programs. Some of these new folks WERE anti-Catholic. In fact, some were against any group that wasn’t like our group, or what they thought our group should be like. Our church started to drift from Evangelical to Fundamentalist. Conservatives at the national level claimed they were going to take back the SBC from the Liberals. They won elections for important leadership positions.

I would defend other denominations, such as Lutherans or Methodists, as being Christian. This was my sincere belief. I also defended Catholics as being Christians. This put me in the “liberal” camp. This became an issue with our community outreach. I had been active in outreach, knocking on doors, telling people about Jesus and the Gospel, and inviting them to our church. When we talked to someone in another denomination, I was always happy to meet another Christian. We would have a nice visit.

This changed. We were told that Lutherans had it all wrong because they baptized babies, so we need to save the Lutherans. Other denominations had problems, too, and we needed to save them. I didn’t think we should try to “convert” Christians from other denominations; they were already Christians. This eventually got me removed from the outreach team.

Evolution became a big issue. The people in power in our denomination (and increasingly in our local church) thought this was a crucial issue. They thought evolution was just an attempt to prove that God didn’t exist. I had no problem with whatever process God used to create bodies for Adam and Eve, and I believed that He also created their souls. Some members were labeling me a troublemaker with very wrong ideas. We had classes that focused on how to “prove” evolution never happened. A few times in these classes I pointed out blatant errors in their logic.

Baptists knew the Bible; that impressed me. They could quote verses from memory. As a Baptist, I memorized about 35 verses. But I also read through the entire Bible. Over the years I read through six different versions. I slowly realized that my 35 verses, while good, weren’t the whole picture. I also caught on to the technique of “proof texting”: unconnected verses taken out of context and strung together to prove a point. Sometimes the verses really did lead to the desired conclusion, but often the conclusion was reached first, then verses were found to back it up. It reminded me of the ransom notes in old movies that were made by cutting out words from magazines and newspapers, then pasting them together.

The Rapture started getting a lot of attention during that time because of the series of Left Behind books that started coming out in 1995. Almost everybody at our church was reading them and talking about them. But it didn’t take long for me to recognize the very anti-Catholic bias of the books, and I did not finish the series. My friends, not having my Catholic background, didn’t seem to notice the obvious references to the Church in the books.

We had a communion service once a month on a Sunday evening, which I took very seriously. Not everyone attended, and that bothered me. Bible verses about the Last Supper were read, and we had small crackers and grape juice. After one such service, I was making my way around the seats to the next aisle to greet people and shake some hands. As I approached my friends, I saw one of the crackers had fallen on the floor and had been stepped on. We had carpeting, so it was not only crushed, but also mashed into the carpet. The old altar boy in me suddenly came to life. I was horrified and changed direction toward the remains of the cracker. I was wondering how we would recover all the pieces. Then I looked around and noticed that nobody cared. It would be vacuumed up later. I suddenly realized that we did not have a tabernacle! The leftover crackers and grape juice were headed for the trash.

Now, Baptists love Jesus; they would never dump Him into the trash or step on Him on the floor. I then understood that Baptists did not really believe this was Jesus. To them, IT WAS JUST A SYMBOL! So all Christian denominations were NOT the same. But I soon filed it away in my memory and continued on as a good Baptist. Several years later, this event would become very meaningful to me.

As our children grew into adults, they stopped attending. My wife stopped attending. They no longer felt comfortable with that Baptist congregation. I could see that I was not going to change the direction of the entire denomination. The movement toward fundamentalism was much bigger than my local church. Reluctantly, I decided it was time to find a new church home. Wanting to attend church as a family was a part of that decision. So I became a searcher.

From Searching for a Church to Searching for Truth

In my search for a new church home, the first stop was the local Assemblies of God congregation, since I had met some nice people years before who went there. I liked the preaching and the music and the people, and after a few visits they started talking about me joining. That is when I was told I needed to speak in tongues to be a member. I had been a Christian all my life and had never had that experience, even though I was OK with others who had such a gift. They told me that I just had to do it once, and I was in. By then, we had the internet, so I looked up information on the Assemblies of God and on speaking in tongues and decided I didn’t belong there, because I didn’t have that spiritual gift.

A lot of information can be found quickly on the internet; I didn’t actually need to attend each prospective congregation. So my search went online. This new method allowed me to narrow the search before I started visiting churches. Reading about denominations and their histories really opened my eyes. As it turns out, I was ignorant about the history of Protestantism and denominations. I knew how Catholics and Baptists worshipped and prayed, but that was the extent of it.

One of the first things that surprised me was that there are more Catholics than all of the Protestant denominations combined. Of course, mere numbers do not equal truth. I also noticed the history of Protestant denominations splitting to form even more denominations, destroying the biblical idea of unity.

An acquaintance learned of my search. He was Catholic and sent me an email that had a list of denominations, the year they were founded and by whom. At the end of the list was the Catholic Church, founded by Jesus. I got angry about that email and told him not to send any more. I told him that I had just left a denomination that believed they were right and everybody else was wrong. I wasn’t looking to join another group like that.

That email reminded me of the experience I had years ago when the cracker for the Lord’s Supper had landed on the floor and been stepped on. I recalled again how that made me realize that the Catholics and the Baptists believed very different things about communion. An internet search soon made me realize that the Catholics stood apart in their view of the Eucharist. This unique claim, and the fact that the Catholic Church had been around far longer than any of the Protestant denominations I was learning about, made me realize that I needed to know if the claims of the Catholic Church were true. If not, then I could continue my search. I went from searching for a church home to searching to know if the Catholic Church was the true, original Church. This new search was actually to prove that the Catholic Church was just another denomination. In other words, I wanted to prove what I had believed my entire life. Then I could go back to searching for my future church home.

Back to the Catholic Church

The Eucharist set the Catholic Church apart from all others in my eyes. If the Catholic Church was correct about the Eucharist being the Body of Christ, then I needed to be Catholic. If not, then my search would continue.

Bible verses about this were interpreted in different ways by different denominations.

Deciding on my own interpretation would not be wise. Deciding for myself which denomination’s interpretation I preferred would be no different. Those who were closest to the Apostles, who were either taught by the Apostles or by their students, or the students of their students, would logically have the best interpretation. After much reading, I came to the conclusion that the early Church really believed what the Catholic Church today teaches about the Eucharist. This alone would be reason enough to return to the Catholic Church. However, God is very good. He graciously gave me three reasons while I was looking for just one.

The second thing that convinced me was the history of the Bible. I had never wondered about it. I had just always accepted it as the Word of God. My Southern Baptist denomination had been founded on the Bible, which was their sole authority. On the other hand, I learned that the Catholic Church had decided which early Christian writings would become part of the New Testament, and that Catholic monks had hand copied the Scriptures century after century. The original copies were no longer extant. Any Christian who rejects the Catholic Church is also basing his beliefs on a book that he got from the Catholic Church. How can you trust a book when you don’t trust the people who provided it to you?

The third thing that convinced me of the truth of the Catholic Church was the Church’s teaching on suffering. The Catholic Church teaches that suffering has meaning. It has value. We can offer it up. It isn’t merely bad luck, a just punishment, or meaningless. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 307 that people can enter into God’s divine plan through their actions, their prayers, and their suffering. Pope St. John Paul II wrote about the Christian meaning of suffering in Salvifici Doloris. The Church teaches that God can use suffering to bring about good. We can join our sufferings to the suffering of Christ and He can use them for good. For the first time in my life, I was reading answers about suffering that made sense and brought hope.

These three — the truth of Eucharist, the history of the Bible, and the Church’s teachings about suffering — all came into focus at the same time. The Eucharist was enough, but God was generous and gave me three good reasons to trust the Church. So in the Spring of 2001, at the age of 40 and after two years of study, I returned to the Catholic Church. A year later, my wife became Catholic — her idea, not mine. One day, when I was getting ready for church, she was also putting on nice clothes. I asked her where she was going. She surprised me by saying she was going to church with me.

Not all of my questions were answered. However, I could now trust that the Catholic Church could provide those answers. I still had questions about Mary. The Church gave her a lot of attention. Some people were very critical of that. Also, I did not understand the Rosary. All the repeated prayers seemed strange to me. Just as the old Catholic part of me had an adverse reaction to seeing the communion cracker crushed on the floor, the old Baptist part of me was having an adverse reaction to the rosary.

In November of 2001, after months of study about Mary and the Rosary, I became a member of the Rosary Confraternity. The Dominican religious order, who are in charge of the Rosary Confraternity, taught me to love Mary and the Rosary. I take my membership in the Confraternity seriously, praying long distance novenas with the Dominicans, reading their educational newsletters, buying books from them and supporting their ministry financially and with prayers. I have given away several hundreds of instructions on how to pray the Rosary and also passing out rosary beads at the bus stop in downtown St. Louis when I worked there.

I write this in 2023, 22 years after returning to the Catholic Church. The Bible study and worship of God that I found in the Baptist church were a great blessing to me and my family. I still consider Baptists brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I have found that returning to the Sacraments, the Eucharist and Confession, has helped me to walk closer to Christ. I have also found much inspiration from the Dominicans and the Benedictines, another religious order. Every five years, I spend a few days on retreat with the Benedictines at St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana. While my vocation as a married man is different from their monastic life, there is much to learn from them about walking with our Lord. Life still has trials as a Catholic, but I have not once regretted or doubted my decision to return.

Rex Gehlbach

REX GEHLBACH and his wife, Tamara, live in the Midwest. They enjoy spending time with their three grandchildren, attending their ball games and recitals. Rex is retired after 40 years as an electronics technician in the field of industrial automation. He is an usher at his parish and enjoys making rosaries to give away, using some of his lifelong skills with wire and small hand tools.

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