“For I know well the plans I have in mind for you… plans for your welfare and not for woe, so as to give you a future of hope. When you call me, and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. When you look for me, you will find me. Yes, when you seek me with all your heart.” (Jeremiah 29:11–13 NABRE)
I grew up Protestant, married a Cradle Catholic in 1971 and was confirmed in the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil Mass on March 3, 2010. Those are the facts, simply stated. However, what happened in between those dates is the real story.
Something that I failed to see for many years was that God has a plan for us. Sometimes we only see His fingerprints in hindsight. Suddenly, in a simple sentence spoken four years after my conversion, my wife revealed His plan for me.
On Sunday evening, October 26, 2014, I was leading a small group of teenagers at our weekly youth night on the subject of confirmation and conversion when my wife made a casual comment that made me rethink my entire conversion story.
She said, “I used to pray for Michael’s conversion all the time, but then, one day, I got an audible reply from God: ‘You don’t have to worry about Michael.’” For years I had told of my conversion in the simplest of terms, but with that one comment, which she had never mentioned to me before, I realized that God had actually started me on my journey in 1965, the day I met her, and in that moment He began to train me for His ministry. Furthermore, only lately did she tell me that she received that answer at the beginning of our marriage, perhaps around 1972 or 1973, and I realized that He was assuring her then that He had a plan, and He always knew how it would play out, provided I applied my free will to following His plan.
Now that I’ve set the theme, let’s run through my entire story from the beginning. I was born into a Protestant family. My mother was a Southern Baptist, my father a Presbyterian. We mostly attended the Presbyterian Church, but I suspect that, more than anything, it was because of the close proximity to our house.
As many mothers do, my mother insisted that I attend our church youth group. I didn’t really kick and scream about it, but I remember not really wanting to go. There were a couple of people that I knew, and I made new friends fairly quickly, and to my teenage delight, there were girls there!
One evening, one of the girls brought a visitor, a Catholic friend of hers. Seeing her was like hearing birds sing or music play. I remember meeting my future wife, Carol, as clearly today as if it had happened last night.
In addition to my vocation in the graphic arts, God gifted me with artistic and musical talent. In high school I was a rock-and-roll drummer, and it’s one of the things that helped me to capture Carol’s attention. When we graduated from high school, I sold my drums, bought a twelve-string guitar and began to teach myself to play.
God placed the seeds of music ministry in me, and they began to grow when I got involved with a Baptist youth choir and band. I played drums or guitar and sang. I became proficient enough that, eventually, I played guitar and sang to my bride as she walked down the aisle at our wedding.
We raised a family, eventually welcoming two sons and a daughter, who was sandwiched between the boys. I confess that we did not do a good job of raising them in the Church. We attended both Catholic and Presbyterian churches on weekends… when it was convenient. I sat patiently through the mystical “mumbo jumbo” of the Catholic Mass, because I knew that was important to my wife. Our children eventually accepted our confirmation into the Catholic Church, but they grew up, went off to college, married and had kids of their own — carrying our once-lazy attitude about church attendance with them. I am to blame for that.
God sent me a new job offer; it was in Florida. The closest church to our new home was a Catholic parish just a mile away. We began to attend regularly, and I even joined the choir and sang at two Masses every Sunday. In the four years we lived there, the priest, whom we loved and befriended, asked me if I had ever thought of converting, but when I told him about my misgivings (among them the closed communion table), he failed to offer me a rebuttal that satisfied me, and I continued in the choir as a non-Catholic, but with a certain jealousy for those who could receive Holy Communion.
God uses many things — perhaps all things — to promote his purpose. I used to have an extreme temper. It was, at times, out of control and would flare up at the slightest provocation. God used even that! I attended a Franklin Planner training (required by my new employer). The instructor said something that might have seemed random, and to me it certainly seemed random even that day, but it stayed with me: “The only person in the world who can make you angry or upset is yourself.” The words washed over me, convicted me, and I have never been out of control with my anger since that day. God knew I needed that to prepare myself for accepting the peace and love of His teaching. He knew that I could not preach His word with that angry tension built up inside of me. I needed the peace of Christ… but first I had to quiet my anger-plagued soul to accept His peace.
Being with a Catholic girl for 38 years, I naturally assimilated and better understood much of the Church’s teachings than someone might have who came from completely outside Catholicism. I was beginning to see the truth in the Catholic Church, but there was one sticking point, and this was the big one for me: Why was I not welcome at the Lord’s Supper just because I didn’t have a membership card in the Catholic Church? In my Protestant upbringing, although we only celebrated communion once a month, anyone who walked in the door was welcome, even encouraged to participate. Catholic teaching seemed harshly exclusionary to me, and that single fact kept me stubbornly out of the Church for years.
The company I was working for was sold and assimilated into the new parent company. In 2001, 350 families lost their livelihood. I was laid off on the Friday before the attack on the World Trade Center. That combination of events made it nearly impossible to find a new job, and after several months of unemployment and fruitless searches, we sold our house, cashed in our retirement fund (with a substantial penalty), and went on the road. We visited relatives and friends, stayed in hotels, and I did freelance graphics work from a laptop in the car. It was enough to earn a living, but we spent the next three years as nomads.
While on the road, I bought my first new guitar since 1969 — in fact two new guitars, one inexpensive and the other a top-of-the-line Taylor Liberty Tree guitar. My wife said, “That’s not a guitar; it’s a family heirloom!” It is a piece of American history, and it was the only time in our lives before or since that we could afford such an extravagance. These were the first truly fine, professional instruments I had ever owned, and they were a joy to play. They inspired me to play more often, practice harder, learn more, and improve my playing dramatically. Now, at the risk of sounding perhaps enamored with material possession, I am convinced that God led me to those two instruments (at a music store in Wilmington, Delaware) as part of His training for me to become a better musician and lead worship.
A Propitious Move
In 2003 we found ourselves in upstate South Carolina. We began looking for a church. In the Bible Belt, there are more churches than gas stations, with no shortage of denominations to choose from. On Christmas Eve that year, my ever-patient wife suggested that we go to the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass at a Catholic parish she had attended on a previous Sunday. It was fifteen miles from our home, much farther than the Baptist church just down the road. Still, I agreed.
When Music Moves the Musician
That night, God clearly gave me a directive. We sat in the front pew. The priest was a small man, barely visible above the altar, but something about him made me pay attention and realize that he was deep in holy prayer with every word. His voice was intense, though soothing. His words conveyed the sacredness of the Mass. The music was inspiring and lovely. Picture “Silent Night” with a bit of a beat (it was led by a group of teens). My wife turned to me and said, “You should join the choir.”
Without discussion or debate, when Mass was over, I went to the music director and asked if there was a place for me in the choir. I attended practice on the following Thursday night and haven’t sat in the nave for a regular Mass since then.
In April of 2004, I finally secured a full-time job, and we settled in as regulars at St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Simpsonville, SC.
I began attending bluegrass jam sessions around the area and learned to play improvisationally with others. One evening, I expressed to my wife that I might like to visit churches, retirement homes, shelters, and other venues and perform Christian music to those who would listen. The following Saturday night, I performed a few songs at a local bluegrass jam, and afterward a gentleman approached me and said he was the leader of a Gospel trio who had just lost a member and asked if I had ever considered performing Gospel music for audiences around the area. I accepted his offer and played with the One Way Music trio for three years, learning the ins and outs of leading worship and praise at churches, homes, and shelters around the upstate area.
The youth Mass at our parish is at 6:00 pm Sunday evening, followed by the Life Night devotional time for the teens until 9:00. One evening after Mass, our parish youth minister asked if I would come over to the Parish Center and play an opening song for Life Night. The song I played that first night was “Trading My Sorrows,” by Darrell Evans, and I was impressed that the teens not only knew all the words, but sang enthusiastically with hand motions and dancing. Their joy was contagious. I continued playing there for several months.
A group of adults from the Life Band had started a praise and worship band called Fish on Fridays. They needed a male singer, and they recruited me. We played coffee houses, teen centers and any venue we could find. We played all of the contemporary Christian music of that era.
The Life Teen youth program had a fall retreat every year, during which we provided live music for them as long as I was in the band. We would trek off to a camp in the hills of North Carolina, lugging our drums, amps, guitars, keyboard, sound systems, microphones, and music, playing while the teens sang along, danced, held hands, and praised God together. I would follow the lessons prepared for the retreat and watch as the teens listened with undivided attention. I would see them play icebreaker games with enthusiasm, swim in the lake, and toss footballs or frisbees during their free time. They were typical teens, until —
One Saturday night, we were asked to play a few softer, worshipful songs for Adoration. “Ador — what?” I had never heard the word Adoration used to describe an event. I had no idea what it was. It was briefly described to me, and we picked out several songs to play as the teens knelt in complete silence for forty-five minutes in front of a gold sunburst/cross/lampstand-looking thing, with a communion wafer displayed in the center. “What a strange thing,” I thought. I couldn’t help wondering: “Who would have thought that fifty teenagers could stay perfectly quiet, on their knees, on a hardwood floor, for so long — just staring at a cracker?” Having interacted with excited teens and seeing what it took to get them to quiet down for a lesson, I also thought, “They should bring that thing out more often!”
A Clear Message
The retreat ended at 6:00 o’clock, and we headed back to the church on Sunday evening. The bus discharged fifty teens and a dozen or so adults onto the grass in front of the parish center with all of their sleeping bags, backpacks, suitcases, and assorted gear. We were lounging on the grass waiting for Mass to start, and I asked a group scattered around me, “Did you guys have fun this weekend?”
Tired and barely audible responses, “Yeah.”
“What was your favorite part?” (My pride had me hoping they would say “the music.”) The young people surprised me by all saying in unison, “Adoration!”
The Seeds of Understanding
There was something profoundly powerful going on here. The next thing I knew, I was staying for complete Life Nights. I would play a version of the Hail Mary at the end of each night, and if I wasn’t there, the teens would not disperse until they had sung an a capella version of it. Before long, I found myself attending the Core planning meetings, and I was soon an official member of the Life Teen Core team, attending training retreats, the Diocesan Youth Conference, National Youth Ministry conferences, and teaching at Life Nights for our teens.
A Request From Another Source
Our pastor decided he wanted a new parish logo and a branding guideline for all parish communications. He convened a day-long retreat of the major committees and councils of the parish and charged them with creating a parish statement. As I mentioned at the outset, in my secular job, I am a graphic designer. I was assigned to observe the retreat and create a new logo for the parish, based on the results of the retreat. From the meeting, “Called by Christ, Growing in Faith, Serving with Love” became our motto. We arrived at a logo that is basically a graphic representation of our church architecture, and I was informed by the priest that I was now on the Parish Communications Committee. Not asked; simply informed in such a way that I could not refuse. I was involved in all of this, yet I was still not Catholic.
In the fall of 2009, God sent Michael Cumbie to our parish for a three-day mission of talks about the Catholic faith. He is a former Protestant pastor who became Catholic, and his calling is to tour the world, explaining the faith to believers and non-believers alike. He explains the teachings of the Church and their basis in Sacred Scripture — which for me and most other Protestants is extremely important, since we generally put all our stock in the Bible and often ask, “Oh yeah? Where is that in the Bible?”
Towards the end of the third day, he talked about the most important teaching of the Catholic faith: the Eucharist. BANG! After thirty-nine years of nudges, taps, and outright devastating spiritual beatings, I got the message. I suddenly understood transubstantiation (as far as an outsider can), the need for reconciliation and a clean spirit to receive the perfect Body and Blood of our Savior. The scriptural reference that supports and connects with the liturgical words, “This is my body; this is my blood,” came to me in a rush of understanding. A feeling of quiet and peace washed over me and instantly filled me with the Holy Spirit and a perfect resolve.
I walked out of the church, shook the hand of Mr. Cumbie, and told him, in front of my astonished wife, that he had convinced me, removed the final obstacle, helped me see the complete and holy teaching of the Catholic Church, and that I was ready to be confirmed and become Catholic. We stood there for a long time in a tight hug while others waited to say a word or shake his hand. Tears streamed down both of our faces. He was a gracious man, and he kept in contact with me by e-mail, answering questions and generally showing interest in my conversion during the entire process. I went to our priest (the one who had drafted me into the communications committee), informed him of my decision, and he allowed me to enroll in the RCIA class, which was already half completed. I received the Sacrament of Confirmation at Easter Vigil, on April 3, 2010.
After hearing my wife’s testimony that God had told her not to worry about me, I was completely convinced that God had created the two of us, each for the other, at conception. He sent that Catholic girl to be my wife, created especially for me. It did not matter that she was from a different high school, and not Protestant; he sent her to that Presbyterian Youth Fellowship meeting in 1965 for the express purpose of leading me to the Catholic Church. Everything that happened in my life between then and now was planned in advance to prepare me to accept conversion and be ready to teach and explain the truth of the Catholic faith to others.
Having accepted His plan and joined His Church, I continue to act as a Core member of the youth program. I have taught apologetics workshops at the Diocesan Youth Conference as well as music-as-prayer workshops both at DYC and at adult Deanery workshops. I have held apologetics classes for adults and teens and have created my apologetics reference website, TheBibleCatholic.com. I no longer sing in the Life Band, but I lead music at parish ministry leader meetings and at our Alpha Weekend Away retreats, and at prayer vigils at the local abortion clinic.
Fish on Fridays has long since drifted apart, but one of my great joys continues to be leading music at our middle school and high school youth retreats and especially during Adoration, both at the retreats and monthly in the church throughout the year.
My wife is still by my side after 52 years in the Sacrament of Marriage, and I am home. I am where I belong, and I am at peace. I believe I am where He wants me to be, where He has been guiding me all these years, and I will take any opportunity to talk to anyone who might listen, about my joy in the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.