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Welcome to the Universal (Catholic) Family of God

Jeff Schwehm January 18, 2011 5 Comments

I was born in the largely Catholic town of New Orleans, Louisiana. My father’s family was Catholic, and my mother’s family was Lutheran (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod). My mother was the spiritual leader in the family. My father was not a practicing Catholic by the time I came along.

I can remember attending kindergarten and Sunday school at the Lutheran church. My mother taught Sunday school to the little kids and was room mother for my kindergarten class. The Lutheran church and my mother taught me to love the Bible and Jesus.

I knew that I had been baptized when I was a baby and that Jesus loved me. I remember church being a fun place to attend and to be with my mother and the rest of her side of the family. But this all changed when my maternal grandmother died; I was about five years old.

Becoming a JW

Within a year after the death of my grandmother, my mother stopped going to the Lutheran Church and started attending the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs). During this time, my father would periodically take us kids to Catholic Mass, where we would all fall fast asleep. There was no Catholic Sunday school, and I really didn’t understand what was happening there.

I had no idea that my mother was no longer attending the Lutheran church, so I begged to go back to that church. Eventually, however, my father started attending the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Within about three years, my father, his parents, and one of his sisters left the Catholic faith and became Jehovah’s Witnesses as well.

From the time I was five, then, until I was around twenty-five years old, I was a Jehovah’s Witness. As Jehovah’s Witnesses, we attended five meetings a week. There was no worship service.

All these meetings were classes designed to teach you how to convert others to the faith, and I got really good at doing this. I started going from door to door with Watchtower literature when I was six years old and gave my first sermon in front of the congregation when I was eight. By the time I was nineteen, I was giving presentations at conventions of JWs, with over two thousand JWs in attendance.

After high school, I became a pioneer minister of the JWs, which means I spent a thousand hours a year going door to door. Eventually, I was invited to serve at the World Headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. I spent a year there, and I met my wife, Kathy, there.

Kathy’s Story

Kathy was raised a Catholic but was never satisfied. When she was older, she asked her very devout Catholic mother if she could explore other denominations. Her mother allowed it.

Kathy spent time in Pentecostal, Baptist, and Presbyterian churches. However, none of these completely satisfied her. During this time, Kathy continued to attend CCD (children’s instruction) classes.

Eventually, her mother started studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. This greatly upset Kathy, since she was required to sit in on the study. Kathy would ask questions and even tell her CCD teacher what the Jehovah’s Witnesses were teaching her, but the CCD teacher could not teach the Catholic faith very well. Kathy eventually began to accept the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teachings as truth.

Kathy’s stepfather, mother, and brother also became Jehovah’s Witnesses. Kathy’s brother Scott served at the World Headquarters in New York, and it was on a visit to the headquarters that she met me.

Doubts As a Jehovah’s Witness

I do not have time to explain all the doubts I had as a Jehovah’s Witness. However, I can tell you that I had doubts about the faith. My hope at the time was that in serving at the headquarters, somehow these doubts would go away. Fortunately, they did not.

The main doubt I want to talk about, which really changed my view of God and my relationship to Him, occurred after Kathy and I had been married for a few years, and I was starting to become inactive as a Jehovah’s Witness. You see, by this time I had left the World Headquarters and started college. Kathy was working in downtown New Orleans.

I would get done with my classes on Fridays by two p.m. and then go to the theology section of Loyola University’s library for hours and just read. Mostly I read books written by ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses who were now Protestants.

The main teaching that I doubted at this time was the JW view of salvation. Jehovah’s Witnesses say that only 144,000 people will go to heaven and live with Jesus for eternity; only these 144,000 people are “adopted sons of God.” (In fact, we referred to these people, who were mostly leaders in the faith, as “Christ’s brothers.”)

The rest of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught that they will live forever in paradise on earth someday. These people are not Christ’s brothers but merely “friends of Jesus.” The friends of Jesus are taught that they must prove their faithfulness to God by cleaning up the earth after Jesus returns and kills all non-JWs. Then, after one thousand years of working themselves back to perfection, they will be tested again by Satan. If they pass this last test, then they can live forever in paradise on earth.

This teaching seemed wrong to me after I prayed one night to the Lord and asked Him to reveal to me what He wanted me to know. I opened my Bible and read the entire Book of Romans from cover to cover. The following Scripture sums up what God said to me that night:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, “Abba, Father!” The Spirit itself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.” (Rom 8:14–17 NAB)

In short, God told me that He wanted me to be His son. He wanted to adopt me.

As a Jehovah’s Witness, I had been taught that I could never be a son of God and that I could never, even with lots of hard work, be a full member of God’s family. I would never be able to see God. He would always be this holy other person from whom I would always be separated, even if I got to live for all eternity.

Joining the Lutherans

Years passed before I was finally able to act on this truth. Once I finished college, Kathy and I moved to Arkansas so that I could go to graduate school. I devoted all of my time to my graduate studies and left God behind, or so I thought.

We lived for a couple of years in, as Kathy describes it, “spiritual limbo,” where I even questioned God’s love for me. Like the Israelites, I had a short memory of all the blessings God had given to me, one of His children who did not know Him very well.

However, God allowed me to get in touch with numerous Christians — mostly Protestant — on the Internet during this time, and our discussions were very helpful. At some point, Kathy and I both expressed our belief in God and our desire to worship with other believers. Around this time, I began doing doctrinal research and discovered that the mainline churches represented the historic Christian faith much better than the Jehovah’s Witnesses did. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Jesus’ divinity and reject the majority of the key doctrines, such as the Trinity, immortality of the soul, and the existence of hell, that most people consider Christian.)

Kathy and I wanted to find a church to attend, and I had been speaking with my Lutheran relatives, so we decided we should attend a Lutheran church. Eventually, we started attending a church in Arkansas that belonged to the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. We joined that church about a year before I finished graduate school.

In January 1999 I started teaching at Concordia University in Seward, Nebraska. After we arrived in Nebraska, Kathy and I — in spite of being shunned by many of our Jehovah’s Witnesses friends and relatives — thought we were finally home. God, however, wanted to give us so much more.

When we first moved to Seward, the Mormons had just started building a church in town. They had been visiting many of the Lutheran parishioners. So the local Lutheran church decided to teach a Sunday school class on the teachings of the Mormons.

One of the comments the pastor leading the discussion made was that the Church that Jesus founded would always exist and never be destroyed. He made this point because the Mormons teach (as do the Jehovah’s Witnesses) that the early Church went apostate sometime in its history, and that God chose Joseph Smith (the Jehovah’s Witnesses would say Charles Russell) to restore His true Church on earth. He quoted this passage: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).

I was sitting next to Kathy, and I took out a piece of paper and asked the question: “If this is true, then what was Luther doing when he broke away from the Catholic Church?” In other words, what is the difference between what Luther did and what Joseph Smith did and what Charles Russell did?

Reading the Church Fathers

It was also roughly during this time that I started to try to share my newfound Christian faith with some friends of mine who had just recently left the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I would try to demonstrate to them that certain teachings such as the Trinity, immortality of the soul, and so on, were the true doctrines of the Christian faith. I would use the Bible to try to “prove” it to them.

Their response challenged me. “How do you know your interpretation is correct?” they asked. “When we were JWs, we would interpret those verses 180 degrees in the opposite direction?”

I said to myself, “I bet there were other writings from Christians who were around during the time of the Apostles. They could shed light on what the early Church really believed.”

So I started reading the early Church Fathers. Justin Martyr soon became one of my favorites. I especially liked the way he described how early Christians worshipped. I thought, “Wow! Christians have been worshipping like the Lutherans worship for centuries.”

Eventually, I started reading books on the development of the New Testament and why the Catholics have those “extra” books in their Old Testament Bibles. I also wanted to know whether the early Church really believed Jesus to be God. I was shocked at the answers I was getting to these questions.

First, I read some letters that were written around a.d. 107 by a Christian bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, who likely had received the faith from the Apostles themselves. In his letters, he talked about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and referred to Jesus as God. However, he also described the early Church as “Catholic.” He said, “The true Church is the Church where the bishop is” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans, 8:2).

I thought to myself, O my God, the early Church had a hierarchy!

I also read a book written by a fourth-century bishop named Eusebius on the history of the Christian Church. Eusebius described the early Church in such a way that I could see that it looked a lot like the Catholic Church, the main difference being that the Catholic Church of today is much larger.

I even read a Church history book whose Protestant author admitted that the Church used apostolic succession — he did not call it that, but he described how apostolic succession operates — to fight heresies in the second century.

I also discovered that if it were not for the Catholic Church, I would have no idea which books belong in the New Testament, because the Church decided that issue for me at the end of the fourth century after Christ!

Coming Home

Now, you would think that with all this data I would have become Catholic right then. But I didn’t. About this time, however, I happened to become reacquainted with a friend from high school named Jim.

Today, he is Father Jim and a Catholic priest. Father Jim is also a convert to the Catholic Church. He was raised Presbyterian.

Father Jim and I would have deep conversations on religious history and agree pretty much all the time. Father Jim would say that I was more Catholic than some of his own parishioners, and I would always respond, “But I’m not ready to swim the Tiber yet.”

He would then ask: “What does the Holy Spirit have to do — whack you over the head with a two-by-four?”

Finally, Father Jim challenged me to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church and said that if I found anything wrong with it to let him know. But if I didn’t, then I would know what I had to do.

So during the summer of 2002, I finished reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, along with some other books written by converts to the Catholic Church. God finally found his two-by-four.

In Matthew 19:29, Jesus says: “And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.” Well, this is what God hit me with over the head.

Here I thought I was already an adopted son of God as a Lutheran Protestant Christian—and I was. But I was still not a full member of the family. There was, as God revealed to me, something missing.

For example: “When Jesus saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing near, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home” (Jn 19:26–27).

You see, Jesus wanted to give me a new mother, His mother. Our first mother, Eve, had said yes to Satan and no to God. Mary had said yes to God.

In addition, my biological mother, Susan, has never forgiven me for leaving the JWs, and my relationship with her has been strained. (The Jehovah’s Witnesses shun people who leave the faith.) Here Jesus says that He wants to give us His mother, because in reality, we all are “the disciple that Jesus loves.”

In the passage from Romans 8 noted earlier, Paul says that Jesus wants me to share in His inheritance. Because of this inheritance, I can call God “Daddy,” which is what “Abba” actually means.

In Matthew 25:31–46, I also found that Jesus tells me He is my brother. Jesus identifies Himself as a brother to suffering humanity.

There were fifteen hundred years of Christian brothers and sisters whom I had never been introduced to who were just waiting to meet me. For example, in Hebrews, chapters 11 and 12, the writer reminds us that from Enoch (an Old Testament prophet) to the present day, there is a great cloud of witnesses (saints), older brothers and sisters, cheering us on and praying for us so that we will make it one day into God’s house in heaven.

God’s two-by-four was to introduce me to His entire family and say, “I want you to be a part of all this.”

After finding a new job and watching the amazing way in which God converted my wife, I had the privilege to be sealed through the Sacrament of Confirmation into God’s universal family, the Church, during Mass at the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit, known as Pentecost. As I confessed the faith of the Church that Christ founded through the words of the Nicene Creed during that Mass, I could hear with my ears those same words coming from the people in the pews in the cathedral.

I knew through faith that the angels and saints in heaven were also confessing those words with me. For me, whenever I go to Mass, it is a huge family reunion that is beyond the limits of space and time and unites heaven and earth together as we all worship our wonderful Father in heaven.

Jeff Schwehm

Jeffrey Schwehm holds a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Arkansas. He is assistant professor of biochemistry at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where he lives with his wife, Kathy. Together they lead the Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses (

This story appears in the book Journeys Home, edited by Marcus Grodi (CHResources, rev. ed., 2011). To order the book, click here.

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