Childhood in the Episcopal Church
I was born in 1960 in Belham, England and christened (baptized) in the Anglican Church as an infant. My father had converted from Roman Catholicism to Anglicanism, just prior to marrying my mother who was Anglican. They had both moved from Jamaica to England for education years earlier. Born prematurely, I weighed only four pounds and, as a result, my eyesight did not develop. I was nearly legally blind, which required me to wear thick prescriptive glasses growing up. This resulted in significant eye hand coordination difficulties, learning disorders, and self confidence issues as a child. In 1969, my family moved to the United States to seek a better life.
I was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at twelve years old and became an acolyte. I loved serving and helping with the sacraments. I enjoyed putting on the robes and preparing the elements. I felt I was part of something very sacred. I treasure the memories and experience I had in the Anglican and Episcopalian church growing up. I particularly remember the majestic large cathedral and primary school, which I attended, of St. James Anglican Church in England. It was majestic and the parish priest was well-respected.
In the United States, my experiences at Saint John Episcopal Church were mostly positive. The parish priest loved us as family, and my parents were involved in the administration and activities. I served as an acolyte and lectionary reader and enjoyed the liturgical and sacramental services. I was very involved in youth group and choir. My priest was well-educated, holding a Masters in Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and the majority of the parishioners were well-educated and affluent, as well. I attended public school during this time where I was frequently the focus of bullying and fights.
My “Born Again” Experience
When I was a teenager, my mother and father sent me to live in Jamaica with my aunt, because I was struggling with the authority of my father. During my time in Jamaica, I joined a youth-based, evangelical group at my high school. I was fifteen years old when I had my “born again” conversion and accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. For the first time in my life, I discovered that God created me for His purpose. The definition of “me” was not determined by other kids in school or by my parents — my definition was designed by God.
The Scriptures told me the greatest news I had ever heard, regarding God’s love for me. Because of that love, I was commissioned to share that love with others. I now had purpose and my self-confidence increased. I came to believe my life had meaning. The suffering I experienced had purpose within God’s will. My purpose was to share the love of Christ with other students who were being bullied like I had been.
My concerns with the Episcopal Church started when I discussed my “born again” evangelical experience and literal interpretation of Scripture with my parish priest. He did not see the significance of my born again experience since I was already baptized and confirmed as an Anglican. He also disagreed with my literal interpretation of Scripture. He stated that the majority of the mystical and miraculous events recorded in Scripture were allegorical and not to be taken literally. I rejected this interpretation and considered him “not saved” in the evangelical sense. Plus, I did not see the same level of joy and enthusiasm as that of “born again Christians” within the Episcopal Church. As a result, around 1977, I moved closer to the evangelical/fundamentalist school of thought.
Conservative Evangelical Fundamentalism
I attended a small conservative evangelical college in 1978. Many of the textbooks and teachers were influenced by Southern Baptist fundamentalist theology (Dallas Theological Seminary). They strictly considered Scripture to be the sole source for all faith and doctrine. They took a literalist point of view to the text and considered the sixteenth-century Reformation leaders, such as John Calvin and Martin Luther, as the Fathers of their theological orientation.
I studied classical Greek New Testament and Reformation theology and felt a call to pastoral ministry and evangelism. As a result, I joined Campus Crusades for Christ and Young Life youth ministry as a college student. My professors and fellow students were confident in their theological views and scathing in criticism of other faith groups that they considered heretical. I enjoyed the intellectual challenge, textual criticism of Scripture, respect for the classical Greek and Hebrew languages, and the readiness to debate any topic on theology or Scripture.
My concern came with their criticism of the Pentecostals, Holiness, and Charismatic Christians. Because of their belief in signs, wonders, miracles, healing, and the spiritual gifts like speaking tongues, these groups were considered “another gospel.” The majority of my student friends were either African Americans or Hispanics, and they were primarily practicing in these groups. I wondered how they could all be in error regarding their interpretation of Scripture, yet be so devout in spiritual practice. I could not find evidence in the Scriptures that signs, wonders, miracles, and spiritual gifts had stopped with the death of the first-century disciples. I found plenty of evidence of the miraculous and the supernatural in Scripture. How could one part of Scripture be literal and another part not?
Another point of concern was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, which holds that, from the very beginning of Creation, only certain people are predestined by God to be “saved” and others are predestined by God to go to hell. They based this theology from passages of Saint Paul’s teachings in the New Testament. I found it extremely bothersome that only those who believed like the fundamentalists would be saved, since those people tended to be of white, European descent. Furthermore, those destined to go to hell tended to be non-Caucasians. I considered these ideas and beliefs deeply disturbing.
As a result, I moved closer to Pentecostal theology and eventually experienced “Baptism in the Holy Spirit” with evidence of “speaking in tongues” around 1984 in my mid-twenties. I was married at this point with two children and led my Baptist wife towards Pentecostal/Charismatic beliefs as well.
The Independent Charismatic Church
During the years in the Charismatic Church, I joined the praise and worship team as a vocalist and pianist. The non-denominational church I attended in New Jersey around 1985 was one of the fastest growing churches in the community. There were many former Roman Catholics and Baptists also attending. We considered all established denominations (both Protestant and Catholic) as “dead” in the Holy Spirit. We had professional musicians playing contemporary praise and worship music. There was lots of dancing, singing, and shouting. It was fun being a member of the worship team. Within a few years the church had grown to over 1500 families. The pastor did not have a college degree or seminary training. His wife was a former Roman Catholic. They spent a few years in non-credited, Word of Faith Bible institutes and started a church in New Jersey during the mid-eighties. It was common to hear long sermons promoting the “health and wealth” gospel.
I felt I was on the cutting edge of what God was doing in the church. Charismatic experiences and purported healings were common during the worship events. During one of the praise and worship sessions, I believed I saw heavenly angels. My experience of the Holy Spirit was very emotional. I felt that this was the greatest spiritual experience I could know.
However, with all the fun, enthusiasm, and church growth, I started to have problems with the theology, lack of pastoral accountability, and emotionalism. I was concerned about the autocratic style of management regarding the church authority. It was still important for me to ask questions and not to dismiss reason. The pastor made it clear that he was in charge and questioned anyone who challenged his spiritual authority. He placed more emphasis on personal inspiration rather than sound, historical, orthodox theology. There was also much competition between other independent Charismatic churches and frequent “sheep stealing” (members jumping from church to church). It appeared that we were simply entertaining people. Sexual scandal and financial misconduct were rampant as well.
The environment became much worse and my faith was shaken with the collapse of two prominent, multi-million dollar, charismatic ministries during that time. I always had a lingering concern about the shallow theology, the lack of accountability for ministers, the sheep stealing, the uptick in financial/sexual scandals, and the ridicule of established denominational churches. This was not much different from how my fundamentalist brethren criticized other Christian groups. The “health and wealth” movement was doing considerable damage to people, and I was concerned about the exploitation of the vulnerable. Many of the upstart preachers had no theological formation and were treading on heretical teachings and practices.
First Experience with Church History
I started to question the teachings and history of the charismatic movement and felt I could do better; so I decided to enter the Oral Roberts University Graduate School of Theology program in 1991. I believed that God was calling me to be a pastor, and, having been scarred by many of the negative experiences I had with ill-educated pastors in the charismatic church, I felt I needed graduate-level education in theology. At ORU, I studied Church history, systematic theology, and the Hebrew Old Testament.
One of the more challenging classes I took in seminary was Church History. We started studying the early Church Fathers. It was quite a shock for me to discover that my beliefs about Scripture, the formation of the early Church, and experiences of the first to third century Church were all wrong! As a Protestant, I thought the Bible was intact and complete during the time period of the Acts of the Apostles. I was taught that the Roman Catholic Church, under the influences of power hungry monarchs and nobles, corrupted the true Church. I thought the true Church was not resurrected until the sixteenth century through the Reformation.
I discovered that there were Roman Catholic saints who experienced miracles and formulated strong doctrinal thought during the early centuries. I was amazed by mystics, like St. Anthony of Egypt, who wrestled with evil and had ecstatic experiences and visions. I thought only the modern day Pentecostals had those experiences! I discovered my first North African Church Father, St. Augustine of Hippo, a fourth-century Father. I was amazed that Africans had any influences on Christianity. I began to study the ecumenical councils, like the Council of Nicaea, and the Nicene Creed. I also learned that concepts of hospice and healthcare were formulated through the Catholic monastic movements.
I had also thought the historical Catholic Church was not distinguishable from corrupt monarchs and despot nobles during that time, and that the Reformation was the answer to systemic Church corruption (even though it seemed racist in many forms, primarily in the doctrines of Calvinism). But then I discovered that the original Reformers (eg., Martin Luther, John Calvin) created great havoc and schisms in the sixteenth century Church. There was much collusion with monarchs and nobility during that period; they were no better than the Roman Catholic clerics they accused. There was plenty of land grabbing and executions in the name of Reformation idealism taking place.
History opened my eyes to yet another struggle: the predominant slave traders and holders in Europe and the United States were Protestant Christians. They were primarily Anglican and Southern Baptist (fundamentalists). For 400 years they were not moved by conscience to stop the barbaric practice.
I also was concerned with the growing liberalism in established Protestant denominations (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc.). Philosophies such as feminism, sexual liberation, and relativism were exerting more influence on Protestant church leadership and, thus, doctrine.
How could God allow His Church to do this? My Pentecostal theology was not adequate in dealing with a theology of suffering. I was in conflict and I started to question my faith more.
A Deistic Stance
Despite the questioning, struggling, and soul-searching, by 1997 I graduated with a M.Div. and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy. Around the same time, I was licensed as a Missionary Baptist minister and became an associated pastor for an African American Baptist church. I was also chaplain for an Oncology Medical Center and taught advanced theological studies for future pastors at an internationally known charismatic mega-church in Tulsa.
My marriage, however, had suffered greatly during my time in seminary. I spent more quality time with my classmates than I did with my first wife. I was preoccupied with the stress of the academic experience and demands, and I neglected my family. We were under a tremendous amount of financial stress and were far away from our families on the East Coast. In 2002 we divorced. My first wife wanted to move back to her family in New York. I remained in Oklahoma with my sons, who were attending high school and college.
After all the things I uncovered in the history of the Church, I wondered how God could ever allow those bad things to happen to His Church. If God was not involved in Church history, then why should I think He cares about my personal life? I acknowledged there was a Creator, but I doubted if He was directly involved in human matters. Furthermore, I was certain that He was not involved in organized religion from a historical perspective. It was hard to separate the European kings, queens, princes, bishops, and popes from the legacy of political, economic, and theological corruption.
Relativist philosophy was common in psychological/counseling theory, which challenged absolutes and championed “non-judgementalism” and “unconditional positive regard” for all people. It was the theists who were the source of problems in the world. They were the hypocrites. Truthfully, all I really wanted to do was to justify my own failures and betrayal towards my wife, family, and the church. I created an excuse to sin freely without consequences. It would take a divorce and several years of darkness for me to make the full journey home.
My Journey to the Roman Catholic Church
Growing up as an African American in Northern New Jersey in the 70s and 80s, the only Roman Catholics I knew lived primarily in Italian, Irish, and Latin American neighborhoods. I was never invited to attend a Roman Catholic Mass and was never evangelized by a Roman Catholic. The Catholics I knew were “cultural” Catholics. It was the evangelicals and Pentecostals who were actively evangelizing the Catholics, and many Catholics ended up converting to Protestantism.
Interestingly enough, I dated and ended up married to a Roman Catholic named Monica. After the birth of our daughter in 2004 my heart started to soften towards Catholicism. My wife and I were both in our 40s and I did not think we were capable of having children. We knew our daughter was a gift from God. My wife insisted that our daughter be baptized Catholic. I reluctantly agreed. During my daughter’s baptism, the parish priest asked me to vow that I would raise her in the Catholic Church and instruct her in the Church’s teachings. I agreed. At the time, I felt convicted of my hypocrisy; but I realize now that moment was the beginning of my journey to the Catholic Church.
My son was born in 2006, and he also was baptized in the Catholic Church. Again, I made a vow to raise him Catholic. I gradually started attending Mass with my wife and children and began to realize that it wasn’t totally foreign to me. Because I was raised Anglican, it brought back memories of the time I spent as an acolyte at the altar with the Anglican priest. I felt God bringing me full-circle in my faith. I felt a strong call to know Christ and His Church. I felt a longing to receive Jesus — the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. I wanted to be able to take the Real Presence of Jesus within me to others.
I was still resistant to Catholicism (and to the inevitable annulment process), but I finally made a decision to attend RCIA in 2008 at Saint Benedict Catholic Church. I purchased an unabridged copy of St. Augustine’s Confessions. (Like St. Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, I put my dear wife, Monica, through hell during those early days.) It was during this time I started revising my Protestant beliefs and studying the Roman Catholic Faith from a biblical and historical perspective. I started to see the sacramental and liturgical nature of the Catholic Church throughout the Old and New Testaments. I had read through the Catechism of the Catholic Church twice and Holy Scripture a few times. I began to study the early Church Fathers more closely.
Sacraments as Christ Intended for His Church
Sacramental theology became a favorite study for me. For instance, I took another look at this scriptural reference: “Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them’” (John 6:53-56). I came to understand that the hearers at that time took this statement literally (that is why so many of them abandoned Christ after He spoke those words). This was also the historical interpretation of the text for the first fifteen centuries of the Church. As a Protestant, we had communion services a few times a year, and believed the Eucharist to be symbolic only. Observing the Catholic faithful receiving Communion every week (sometimes even daily!), demonstrated that the Eucharist was truly significant in the Catholic Church.
Unknowingly, God had been preparing me to understand the Sacrament of Confession years before. Around 1993, I began professional counseling in order to work through my family of origin issues. Professional counseling gave me something I never had before — the secular confessional. It was the only place I could talk about my pain and guilt with another human being without experiencing shame. My counselor became a secular priest. Within my Protestant theology there was not a place for confession or true self-disclosure to another human being. I had always suffered in silence. It was because of this experience in counseling that I decided to go into the field of Marriage and Family Therapy.
The Sacrament of Confession began to make sense to me when I read: “Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” (James 5:14-16). In this text, St. James states that the confession of sins results in the forgiveness of sins. Healing and reconciliation to God really takes place. As a professional mental health counselor, I understand the power of confession to another human being.
The Sacrament of Baptism took on a new significance to me after studying this Scripture passage: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38, NASB). The Apostle Peter made it clear in the text that the Sacrament of Baptism was necessary for the forgiveness of sins and for receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. When I witnessed my children’s baptisms, I knew that the seal of the Holy Spirit was placed upon their souls.
I also became convicted of the supremacy of the Apostle Peter as head of the Church Jesus founded. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19, NASB). I believe this to be a literal statement about the hierarchal nature of the early Church — and the Lord made Peter its head. This was confirmed in the writings of the Church Fathers. When it came to faith and doctrine, the early Church looked to St. Peter and the Apostles for guidance.
Through the yearlong process of RCIA, I began to see the historical Christian Church from a non-Protestant perspective. I was drawn to Church history and enjoyed many discussions regarding the early Church Fathers. History was rich with saints and martyrs of the Faith who understood suffering. I studied the sacraments, and thus, I could see the origin of many of my former Protestant beliefs and practices. I had a great sponsor and was allowed to ask tough questions to the presenters. I enjoyed the intellectual challenges, and I liked the structure and accountability of the priests.
The annulment process was the most difficult part of my journey to the Roman Catholic Church. I had to revisit my first marriage and talk with the pastor who counseled us at that time. It dredged up unresolved anger and wounds. Many times I considered not going through the process. My sons from the first marriage were also frustrated with the process. I had to explain to them that our family was legitimate, but the marriage was not considered valid in the Catholic sense. This was very difficult. However, I was motivated by the children God had given me with Monica and Monica’s need to again start receiving the Holy Eucharist.
I was received fully into the Roman Catholic Church at Easter in 2009 under our parish priest. I received the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Confirmation, and holy Communion, and Monica and I had our marriage convalidated. As I received the Sacrament of Confirmation, I was anointed with the chrism oil and felt overwhelming joy, restoration, and empowerment. I also experienced a feeling of profound joy and peace as I received Jesus in the Eucharist.
Since being received into the Catholic Church, I have become a member of the Knights of Columbus. I also attended a Cursillo weekend. I have sponsored my son-in-law who entered the Catholic Church. With my background in counseling, I understand the power of confession and forgiveness. All the pain I had carried around for years was finally gone. I was able to confess and be absolved. Confession is now a regular practice of my life. Today, I plan on revisiting the gifts God has given me through pastoral care and counseling and return the service to His people.
I still struggle to live a holy life. I try to attend Mass and receive the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist every day. I also go to adoration, where I spend time before the Blessed Sacrament on a daily basis. I also try receiving the Sacrament of Confession at least once a month (or more depending on my struggles). I now have purpose. I now believe my life has meaning. The suffering I experienced had purpose within God’s will. The Catholic Church is like a mansion with thousands of doors that contain countless theological treasures that stretch back to the first centuries. It is endless.
Kevin Stephenson is currently an Aspirant for the Deaconate within the Catholic Diocese of Tulsa. He currently serves as a full-time Staff Hospital (acute care) Chaplain for the Saint John Health System and as a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor for the State of Oklahoma with Catholic Charities (Diocese of Tulsa). Kevin also works part-time as Account Manager for Lighthouse Catholic Media. He holds a Masters of Divinity and Masters in Marriage and Family Therapy from Oral Roberts University. Kevin is married to his wife, Monica, and is a father of six children. He may be contacted through Facebook at www.facebook.com/romancatholiccounseling or by e-mail at [email protected].