I was born in the ghettoes of Chicago’s South Side in 1961. My first memories are of dilapidated apartments, window frames without windows, trash strewn on the streets, urine-soaked alleys, and a neglected-derived independence. As a three-, four-, and five-year-old, I remember many times coming and going from the apartment my mother, siblings and I shared while my mother, an active alcoholic at that time, had friends over from morning till night — days filled with card games, cigarette smoke and all the beer and vodka they could want. When I was about seven years old, my father, whom I had only met once, came to the apartment announcing that my six siblings and I were going with him. It was the last time I would see my mother for years. Much later, my father told us my mother told him she was moving and leaving us at the apartment, and warned him that if he didn’t come get us, we would be abandoned.
We soon learned that our father had become a Pentecostal pastor in a storefront church. We were introduced to their form of worship with frenzied dancing and “whooping” call-and-answer songs. Many times we began church services at 8 AM and didn’t end before midnight. In spite of this miserable schedule for a seven-year-old, I gained a love for the Bible very early, studying the Bible in earnest, memorizing Scripture, and developing an intense hunger for truth.
My stepmother, Reverend Adams, was a very impatient person, and my father was one who didn’t believe in expressing any feelings until he could no longer control them. This volatile mix led to a childhood filled with extreme abuse and terror. The physical abuse was horrific and often was done during organized “tarrying services,” in the name of God. Our early ideas of God and church were birthed in this horrendous environment.
I walked a lot, and one day, when I was fifteen, I walked by a storefront building that had black Hebrew writing on a white-painted board. This was very unusual in a black neighborhood. I went in to talk to the proprietor, a middle-aged black man with a long beard that called himself Apostle Yehohana Ben-Yasha Amen. He showed me Scriptures and documents that said the original Jews were people of color; thus, we were the true Jews, not those who are commonly regarded as Jews. He showed great care for me and my education. I became a Black Hebrew. I no longer went by Leonard Adams — my moniker became Yerushshah Chorem Ben-yasha Soklethanuw. We operated off the concept that the Old and the New Testament were to be obeyed in their fullness. We accepted Yasha (the non-“Anglicanized” name of Jesus) as our Savior, but we also sacrificed a real lamb for Passover. We killed it, roasted it before the sun went down, and ate it with bitter herbs, etc., with our robes tied around us, our staffs in our hands, on an platform of ashes, with blood on the doorposts. I used my extensive memorization and knowledge of Scripture in defense of my newfound religion.
I attended Olivet-Nazarene College for one year after I graduated high school. We were mandated to attend chapel twice a week. I wondered why I had to attend what was in my mind an inferior institute of worship, but as I looked about me in the chapel, and saw the beautiful peace on the faces of students, I realized they had something I didn’t, and I wasn’t going to get it being a Black Hebrew, so that began my painful extrication from people I had come to consider family.
The Army, Word of Faith, and the New Age
I joined the Army in 1981, got married, and had two sons. I landed a job as an Army counselor, and the training to be a counselor began my healing process. I spent two years at my first duty station in Germany floundering spiritually and feeling very empty. Upon my return to the States, I had enough of being spiritually disconnected and wandered into a Church of God that I joined and worshipped in for about six months, but it did little to fill my emptiness. The question of denominationalism began to intrigue me — if there’s only one Christ, why was His church divided into so many denominations? I began hearing about the nondenominational movement, and found and attended a fledgling nondenominational church (this church largely based its philosophy on the ideas of people such as Kenneth Hagin and Oral Roberts, and became part of what’s known as the Word of Faith movement). There seemed to be an incredible amount of freedom to essentially believe whatever you wanted. You were allowed to do your own research into, for instance, eschatological matters. However, when I shared something with the pastor in private that I found in my research, he publicly preached against it the next Sunday. Discouraged, I left that church.
In the meantime, one of the ideas of this movement intrigued me. It emphasized that, if God is truly the same, yesterday, today and forever, the miracles and signs seen in the Bible should be seen today, and though the church I recently left preached this, the evidence didn’t follow. I wondered what it took to see those signs. I began researching what it took to see this level of spiritual energy, and this research led me to the New Age movement. I began attending a Unity Church in Lawton, Oklahoma, and, after positing questions and ideas to the group, I soon became elected as its principle teacher. The congregation “paid” me for my services in books from their bookstore, such as A Course in Miracles, the Bhagavad Gita, and books on UFOs and astral projection. We had a very eclectic group among the congregants, to include tarot card readers, mediums, Satanists, and American Indian worship adherents. The chief idea of this movement is that signs and acts of power can be demonstrated if you understand what they are and how to manipulate them. God isn’t a Person in their minds; rather, a Force that can be manipulated to your desired ends if you understand the laws that operate the universe. You don’t have to love Him or anyone else. And this is exactly what I found among its adherents, whether in local or statewide gatherings. There was such a detachment from everyone else, especially among those in the group, that the coldness and emptiness error in this way of belief.
I left the New Age movement and did more studying. I studied the Bible fervently, up to sixteen hours a day, along with teaching myself basic Ancient Hebrew and Koine Greek. One of the members of the nondenominational church I first attended splintered and started his own church, which I began attending. I became a teacher at the church, and while I was very successful in that ministry, I still felt a void. Then I got Army orders stating I was to be stationed on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt for a year. While there, I became the pastor of the local Pentecostal (it became nondenominational and Word of Faith under my purview) congregation. I got to spend many wonderful weekends in Israel, and learned the cities well. I would often get dropped off in Jerusalem, check in to a hostel, and begin walking and riding public transportation all over the country (I left Egypt just before the suicide bombers began blowing themselves up on public buses in Israel in the late 80s-early 90s).
Upon my return to the States, unable to resolve our marital problems, my wife and I divorced. I received full custody of my sons. I became disillusioned and wandered in a spiritual desert. I changed jobs from counselor to member of the 77th U.S. Army Band for a couple of years, where I met and married my second wife. I decided I would make a career of the military and entered the Army’s Green-to-Gold program (the program allowed one to attend college full time and, upon graduation, earn his or her commission as an Army Lieutenant). Upon graduating with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry (with a Biochemistry focus), I attended the Chemical Officer’s Basic Course. Once completed, I was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Hawaii. In Hawaii, my life changed.
On being a full-time megachurch staff member
I saw a church on television in Hawaii and decided to attend. I enjoyed being among such a large group of believers (the congregation numbered around 2,000 when I first attended, and grew to about 6,000). I joined the Praise and Worship Team and was asked to arrange music for services. Later, I was put in charge of transposing and arranging all music for the church and was offered a full-time staff job. When I showed a slight hesitancy, the pastor assured me it was God’s will; therefore, I took this as a sign from God and became a full-time staff member for 7 and a half years. Those years were, with the exception of my childhood, some of the worst of my life. I taught at the Bible college, traveled the world playing music and putting on dances and skits containing spiritual life lessons, produced and/or took part in the creation of four CDs, and many churches we visited treated us as royalty. I almost felt worshipped by some of these churches because of our accomplishments, which was a very uneasy feeling. In the meantime, I got to spend time with the people who were the headliners of the Word of Faith movement.
My greatest unhappiness came from working for an incredibly controlling pastor and his wife, who sometimes demanded 20-hour workdays with very little pay (I had to feed my family through a food bank). When I asked for a raise to take care of my family, I was told by the church administrator, “It’s not our responsibility to provide for your needs; it’s God’s,” implying that if I had sufficient faith I wouldn’t have had to come to her. I wanted to leave that ministry many times over those years, but was made to feel like if I did, I would step outside God’s will and be fodder for the devil.
Then, in 2000, I decided it was time for me to start my own church, I felt called by God to move to Tennessee. I began working for the Tennessee Department of Correction (TDOC) as a counselor and started conducting local Bible studies. After about a year of no growth, I became discouraged and began attending a local, nondenominational church and eventually became an assistant pastor. After another year, the church I was attending underwent a major split due to the pastor’s conduct; the congregation split in many directions. Some members asked me to start a church, so Covenant Love Church was born in Franklin, Tennessee. I focused on grace and love, and had what I considered a very successful ministry. It was actually my job to study the Bible — what joy! I had realized my dream. What I also realized was that the tens of thousands of hours I put into study (all Protestant-based) had taken me no closer to answering basic questions of faith, and I lived in constant fear of embarrassment — that one day I would be asked questions for which I had no answer. My major doubts were about the nature of hell. After agonizing over the subject, I realized that what I believed could not be reconciled with what many in my congregation believed and, therefore, decided I needed to disband the church. At that same time, I resumed contact with the assistant pastor who had started another church when our previous congregation had splintered, and he proposed that we consolidate our churches. I jumped at the chance, since it allowed me to pursue my emerging beliefs without feeling I was deceiving my congregation. When I announced this to my congregation, they were, very understandably, upset, and many went to other churches. Very few followed me, and none stayed with me — but I felt free!
As associate pastor of the newly combined church, I started exploring my ideas about hell, and came across Christian Universalism, which appealed greatly to me. I decided I didn’t believe in this eternal-tormenting-against-one’s-will-in-flames-stuff, which freed me from the fear of asking myself why I believed in God in the first place. I still attended church because I didn’t want to have to answer questions, but my heart wasn’t in it. My departure from mainstream Protestantism was more than my wife could bear in an already strained marriage, and we divorced.
From Christian Universalism to Atheism
I attended one Universalist church meeting and a couple of Universalist house meetings, and the more I did this, the more I became convinced that there was no eternal punishment for me, no matter what I did. I found I had no reason to believe in God, other than being raised to do so. I became agnostic and then an atheist.
I found an atheist group in Alabama (I had left the Tennessee Department of Correction after being offered a new position out-of-state) and began attending their functions. They became fascinated with me, because I was an ex-preacher, because I am black, and because I was not afraid to speak out against belief in God. Ex-preacher atheists are not as much of an anomaly as black atheists who are willing to speak out against belief in God. I became somewhat of a darling to the statewide atheist community, made a few YouTube videos as a black atheist, and was invited to speak at major atheist functions. I started receiving more and more invitations, and thought I had, to repeat an ironic cliché, “found my calling.”
One day, I was approached by long-standing atheists in the community who questioned my lack of fervor at taking the battle to Christians and attacking them specifically. I was shocked and disillusioned; my philosophy as an atheist was to let each discover his or her own way, “to live and let live.” It was then that I discovered that the atheist movement has its countercultural equivalency in evangelical Christianity. They are not the open-minded lot they purport to be. The hatred and vitriol I discovered among atheists was a wake-up call. I realized I was their pawn as long as I allowed myself to be used as ammo against others. I did not want that. I left the movement, but remained an agnostic with atheist leanings.
How I became Catholic
I joined a local dance band that plays around the Huntsville, Alabama area. At one of our gigs, I met Cindy, the woman who was to become my wife. Though I was attracted to her, I did not immediately pursue her. We became acquaintances who would occasionally see one another at one of our gigs (she is a longtime friend of our sound technician), and our acquaintance slowly grew into a friendship, and that into a fledgling relationship. She began telling me about her conversion to Catholicism, unaware that I was, at best, agnostic. I listened attentively but offered no dialogue. I wasn’t ashamed of my lack of belief; I just didn’t believe in throwing it in someone’s face. However, I let it be known on my Facebook page that I was atheist. We became friends on Facebook and she discovered my lack of belief. By this time, she had become quite fond of me, and later told me that she began consulting priests she knew in order to figure out how to deal with the situation. When we talked about it, she told me how shocked she was, because I seemed to her to be one of the “godliest men [she knew].” I always felt that kindness was one of the essential qualities of being human, no matter what else I believed.
I was spending a lot of time with her and eventually I noticed that she was recording shows on EWTN. One of those shows was Reasons to Believe with Dr. Scott Hahn. I became immediately mesmerized by this show, and asked her to show me another — and another, and another. She also recorded the Divine Mercy chaplet, and when she would leave the room, I would play it over and over and sing it. I didn’t want her to notice how much the chaplet moved me because I wasn’t ready to admit, to myself or anyone else, that my atheistic foundation was beginning to crumble. The chaplet touched me so deeply I almost cried, though I didn’t understand its history or significance. I found myself singing it at odd times, and it always brought great comfort to me. Cindy said that she was a “lector” at her parish (a strange word to me), and told me she liked to invite people when she was scheduled to read. I told her I wanted to come hear her read. I figured I could support her in what she liked to do, and since I didn’t believe in this stuff anyway, it couldn’t do me any harm. Besides, all I ever heard about the Catholic Church was bad anyway, so I thought there was very little chance of being enticed to become a part of it. The Mass was interesting to me, if not a little boring. Since I didn’t understand what was going on, I had to rely on the Missal for most of the service. She invited me to go up in line during Communion to receive a blessing from the priest, and, while I thought it strange, I did it.
After several months of attending Mass (I began doing it every Sunday with her), Cindy began talking to me about RCIA. I am not sure she knew this at the time, but months before, I had begun reading Catholic books that showed, not only an embrace of faith and reason, but offered substantial proof of God that amazed and convinced me. It was the first time a church had offered a reasoned defense of belief that made perfect sense. Some of the books I began to read included the 4-volume set of Catholic For A Reason by Scott Hahn; Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God by Scott Hahn; Reasons to Believe: How To Understand, Explain, and Defend the Catholic Faith by Scott Hahn; Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma by Ludwig Ott; From Atheism to Catholicism: How Scientists and Philosophers Led Me To The Truth by Kevin Vost; and Theology and Sanity by Frank J. Sheed. I was very impressed with the Catholic Church, but not entirely convinced I wanted to commit to its belief system just yet. I accepted Cindy’s offer to attend RCIA with her as my sponsor.
At the first meeting, I was introduced to one of the most wonderful women I have ever met, Sister Treva Heinberg, the overseer of the RCIA program at my parish. Her love melted my heart. Regardless, my guard was still up and, after the first meeting, when I was asked by someone else if I would return next week, I (too) quickly said, “Oh, I don’t know about that! I’m not making a commitment. We’ll see.” I was there the next week, though, and the week following, and every week that I wasn’t out of town. Meanwhile, I began amassing more books on various matters involving Catholicism and listening faithfully to Catholic Answers by podcast. Slowly but surely, my faith began the slow, arduous process of being repaired from decades of pain and distortion. At Easter Vigil 2010, I was welcomed into my Catholic family — I had come home. Having received the necessary annulments, Cindy and I were married in the Catholic Church in July of 2010. Cindy jokes that she’s going to write a book titled From Sponsor to Spouse in Six Easy Steps.
Since then, I have remained a voracious and avid reader, usually tackling 2-4 books at a time. I’ve also become a lector, a cantor, and a choir member at my local parish. My podcasts are still regular fare, as well as saying the rosary daily and various novenas. One of the things I’m most grateful for is that, for the first time, I can defend my faith without hoping I won’t be asked certain questions. I feel like a kid in a candy store — so much information, so much knowledge, so little time! I’m 51 years old, but if I lived to be 150, I think I will still enjoy my fascination with the seemingly bottomless pot of knowledge contained in the Catholic Church!