My father is a retired Assemblies of God pastor. My parents had a deep and abiding love for Jesus Christ. Their lives expressed who Christ was.
I vividly remember being awakened in the middle of the night by the sound of their praying — praying for each of the people in their congregation. Although my parents never spoke in derogatory terms about anyone, including Catholics, many of the ministers I came in contact with were not so generous. I heard more than one preacher expound on the evils of the Catholic faith. For many, it was taken for granted that the Catholic Church was the “Great Whore of Babylon” (see Rev 17), and the pope was the Antichrist.
I was in my thirties and an ordained United Methodist minister before I met a nun for the first time, Sister Monica Marie. Joetta had taught with her at Ursuline Academy in Dallas, Texas. It was through Sister Monica Marie that Joetta experienced a dynamic encounter with the Holy Spirit.
To my surprise, I discovered that this sister was truly a woman of God. My heart was warmed just by being in her presence. She was totally the opposite of all I had envisioned nuns to be.
My first contact with a priest was in 1996. While working on my doctorate at Oral Roberts University, I met Father Amalor Vima from India. As classmates, we spent a good deal of time together and became close friends. It was in this environment that something happened that would revolutionize my life forever.
During a reflective moment in one of our sessions, Selmar Quayo, a Methodist bishop from Brazil, stood and said: “In my country, as a Protestant, I am in the minority. Unfortunately, there is much animosity between our church and the Catholic Church. Many of my people are filled with bitterness toward all Catholics. Yet here, Father Vima is in the minority, and I’ve seen nothing from his life but the love of Jesus Christ.”
With tears running down his face, he said, “Father Vima, I want you to forgive me.”
I watched as these two men of God embraced. There was not a dry eye in the room. In that one brief moment, my mind began to envision a new possibility: Protestants and Catholics all over the world coming together, embracing in love, and dropping to their knees in prayer.
In this simple act, Selmar Quayo had challenged all of us to become ministers of reconciliation. My thoughts raced. Imagine what the Holy Spirit could do if Catholics and Protestants really were one.
The words of Jesus flashed through my mind: “So if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt 5:23–24).
As I watched the scene unfold, I could almost hear Jesus praying: “That they may all be one, Father … that the world may believe that you have sent Me” (Jn 17:21). I knew at that moment that I must become a minister of reconciliation.
Praying for Regan
Years earlier, Joetta and I had ministered at a Southern Baptist church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. After the service, a woman came up to her and asked if she would pray for her daughter, Regan. She did not want, however, to divulge the specific prayer need. Joetta assured her that it wasn’t necessary to know the need because the Holy Spirit would intercede for Regan. For the next year, Joetta prayed faithfully for a young lady she had never met.
At that time, Joetta was working as a technical writer for Thrifty Rent-a-Car. One day, her boss informed her that they had hired a new software trainer and were going to put her in the cubicle across from Joetta’s. They asked Joetta to make her feel welcome and to show her around.
When the new trainer arrived, she introduced herself as Regan. To Joetta’s surprise, here stood the young lady she had been praying for all those months! God was definitely up to something.
Joetta and Regan worked as associates over the next seven years. Although they never socialized outside of the workplace, they began to develop a close relationship. One day in 1995, Regan shared that she and her husband were having problems in their marriage.
Kelvin was a Catholic, and Regan was a Southern Baptist. For several years, Regan had attended the Catholic Church off and on with Kelvin, and although he did not feel comfortable in the Baptist Church, he would attend with Regan on special occasions. This arrangement worked until they had children and realized how strongly they both felt about how their children should be raised.
To Regan’s chagrin, Kelvin was adamant about baptizing and raising their children in the Catholic Church. They were at an impasse when Regan came to Joetta for advice.
Joetta told Regan that a house divided cannot stand and that it was essential that they be in church together. Joetta suggested that if her husband would not go to church with her, she should go to church with him. God would bless their marriage if Regan would submit to the spiritual authority of her husband.
Joetta informed Regan of some classes held by the Catholic Church that she could attend, without obligation, to learn about the Catholic Faith. Joetta said, “If I were you, I would want to know what my children were going to be taught so that I could counter any incorrect teaching.” For Regan’s peace of mind, Joetta added, “You go through the program, bring all the material to me, and I’ll give it to Larry so that he can check it out and see if it is scripturally sound.”
I never paid any attention to the material Regan gave Joetta, except for two things. One was a newspaper article by a Lutheran journalist discussing Marian apparitions. The author of the article had spoken at Regan’s church and told how the Mother of God had been appearing to six young children daily since 1981. Regan was so intrigued that she read everything she could get her hands on.
The second thing she gave us was a cassette by a woman who had been miraculously healed at the same apparition site. This experience had so affected this woman, a nominal Christian at best, that she committed her life to serving Christ. I took these items and started to throw them away. On a whim, I stuck them in a drawer instead.
The week before May 25, 1996, Regan told Joetta that she was going to a Marian conference in Wichita, Kansas. She was excited about it because both the author of the article and the woman who had been healed were featured speakers. Regan, however, was bothered by a prayer she had received in the pre-conference material that supposedly would be prayed at the conference. “I would like,” she told Joetta, “for you and Larry to look it over and see what you think.”
As Joetta read the prayer, all kinds of red flags went up. In almost a state of panic, she brought the prayer to me. It was the Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
As I read the prayer, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. “Immaculate Heart of Mary, I give to you my body and soul …” I stopped in mid-sentence.
Rage filled my heart. “This prayer is demonic!” I said, “You don’t give your soul to anyone but Jesus. Tell Regan she can go to the conference, but whatever she does, she must not pray that prayer.”
Within three days, something deep within my spirit told me I had made a terrible mistake. Remorse for what I had said flooded my soul.
I decided to take a copy of the prayer to Father Vima. “I don’t understand this prayer,” I said. “How in the world can you give yourself to Mary in this way?”
With a twinkle in his eye, Father Vima gently said, “Larry, have you ever held Joetta in your arms and said, ‘I love you, I adore you, I worship the ground you walk on’?” “Yes,” I cautiously replied.
“Have you looked lovingly into her eyes and assured her of your complete love and devotion? Have you spoken words like, ‘I am completely yours now and forever’? ‘All that I am and all that I ever hope to be is yours’?”
I was beginning to get his point. “If the truth were known,” I admitted, “I’ve used those exact words.”
“Catholics,” he continued, “would never say of Mary, ‘We adore you.’ We venerate her. We honor her. But, we would never say ‘we adore you’ because adoration is reserved only for God. It is something we give only to Jesus.
“We adore Him. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and there is no one like Him. We believe that Mary, as the Mother of God, loves and cares for us. What we’re saying in this prayer is, ‘All of me I place in your hands, and I ask you to take me to your son, Jesus.’ Mary always points to Jesus.”
As I listened to Father Vima, I began to realize how wrong I had been. Two emotions flooded over me simultaneously: shame and joy. Shame for my quick assessment, and joy at the possibilities that were opening up.
I went home and found the Marian newspaper I had put in one of my dresser drawers and began to read. As I read what Mary was reported as saying, I was struck by how biblically based were her messages: pray, repent, fast, commit your life to Christ. This was obviously not the work of Satan.
I wondered aloud, “Could this really be the Mother of God?” If it were, then what she said was important and worthy of our consideration. One of her more frequent statements was somewhat puzzling: “Pray the rosary every day.” Joetta and I knew nothing about the rosary. Perhaps it was time to discover what this prayer was all about.
As Regan was leaving for the Marian conference, Joetta gave her some money to buy a rosary. Their relationship had become strained and sometimes emotionally charged because of Mary. Joetta felt that if she let Regan show her how to pray the rosary, it would at least keep them in dialogue.
When Regan gave Joetta her rosary, she said, “What’s great is that the man who made this rosary lives just outside Tulsa, in Claremore, Oklahoma. If there’s ever a problem with the rosary, it is guaranteed.”
The more closely that Joetta looked at her rosary, the less she liked the centerpiece. “It looks like an idol. I think I’ll call Two Hearts Rosaries and see if they’ll exchange it for something else.”
“Come on out,” the voice on the other end of the line said. “Bob’s work is guaranteed, and he will be happy to replace it with something you like.”
When we arrived, Bob’s wife, Johanna, asked Joetta what was wrong with the rosary. “It’s the centerpiece,” Joetta said. “I don’t like the centerpiece.”
Johanna looked at her quizzically. “What about it don’t you like?”
“Well, it looks too, you know, Catholic!”
“The rosary,” Johanna said, smiling, “is Catholic!”
While Joetta looked at centerpieces, Bob was sharing with me what had happened to them on a pilgrimage to an apparition site in Europe. I yelled at Joetta, “Come in here and listen to this! You won’t believe this story!” These were the first Catholics that we had ever spent any time with, other than Sister Monica Marie and Father Vima.
Bob shared with us how God, through Mary, had transformed their lives. As he told their story, tears rolled down his face. He said he hadn’t stopped crying since they returned from their pilgrimage. In his words, his heart “just turned to mush.”
When they got back, Bob went in and quit his job at Amoco. He was a laboratory technician and had been with the company for more than twenty-one years. Not too long after that, Johanna quit her job at Tulsa University. God was calling them to complete obedience and dependence upon Him.
During this time, Bob met a nun who showed him how to make rosaries. Bob decided to make two rosaries: one to thank Mary for leading him to Jesus and one to thank Jesus for saving his soul. The rest is history.
All of Bob’s rosaries are lovingly handmade. He sees each bead as a prayer sent out by Mary to convert and bring souls to Jesus. I believe that Joetta’s and my conversion are the direct result of those prayers.
Drawn to the Catholic Church
After our meeting with Bob and Johanna, I was emotionally shaken. As we drove away, neither of us said a word. It was as if we had experienced an epiphany. I can’t explain it. I felt as if I had been in the presence of Jesus.
Not wanting to go right home, I pulled into a fast-food restaurant to get something to drink. As we sat there looking at each other, tears began to stream down our faces. What was happening to us? What was God asking of us?
Our lives were literally being pushed toward the Catholic Church. Regan had introduced us to the owners of the local Catholic bookstore, so we decided to go there for more information. Lee and Anita lovingly welcomed us and pointed us to exactly what we needed.
When we figured our income tax at the end of that year, we discovered that we had spent over $5,000 on books, cassettes, videos, and other materials in search of spiritual truths! We couldn’t get enough. We were in Lee’s store three and four times a day.
“We’re here for our Catholic fix,” we’d say. Lee and Anita would just laugh and point us to another book, cassette, or video. It was like an addiction that we couldn’t get satisfied. One question just led to another and another. It was a wonderful experience.
We began going to bed later and waking up earlier, trying to jam as much reading into the day as possible. We decided to maximize our time. I began taking Joetta to work and picking her up so that we could read aloud coming and going.
I would pick her up for lunch, put a couple of lawn chairs and TV trays in the trunk, and drive to a park so that we could read without interruptions. We took turns: One would eat while the other would read aloud. We did everything together. God was graciously speaking to us together, drawing us at the same pace deeper into Himself.
We read the Catechism of the Catholic Church from cover to cover. The Catechism is the greatest systematic theological work we have ever read. Answers to long-sought-after questions were coming like torrential showers.
I remember one Saturday morning in particular. We both woke up about four o’clock in the morning. We sat up in bed, each with a Bible in one hand and a Catechism in the other.
I would say, “Joetta, listen to this. This is fantastic. This just brings everything into focus!”
Before I would finish, Joetta would interrupt and say, “Larry, wait, wait. Listen to this!” She would then read from a different section of the Catechism.
We would read supporting Scripture verses, go to the writings of the early Church Fathers, and then check a commentary. Before we knew it, it was one o’clock in the afternoon!
We were like sponges. We began to see in a whole new light issues such as the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the role of Mary in the Church, prayers to the saints, Scripture and Tradition as authoritative vs. sola Scriptura, papal authority, purgatory, and salvation as a process vs. salvation as a completed work. It was like finding all the lost pieces in a huge theological puzzle. The full picture was becoming clear.
The Lord was taking us down two paths simultaneously, one intellectual and the other emotional. We had been praying the rosary and parking ourselves on Bob and Johanna’s sofa, asking question after question about Catholic doctrine, tradition, and culture. We asked God to reveal to us somehow if He was drawing us to the Catholic Church, because none of this made any sense to us.
Asking for a sign
We had spent all of our lives in Protestant churches and were quite content in our ministry. We desperately needed to know about the Church to which God was calling us, so three short weeks into our conversion, I prayed this prayer: “Father, if you are drawing us into the Catholic Church, I want a sign, and I want it big.”
Several days later on our way home from a short trip to Dallas, we witnessed the largest, most vivid sunset either of us had ever seen. It went from horizon to horizon, and we thought we were going to drive right into it — an indescribable array of colors: orange, red, and pink. It was magnificent, so much so that our young grandson, who was sleeping in the backseat, sat up and said, “Grandpa, Grandpa, do you see that? Isn’t it beautiful?” As brilliant as it was, we could look right at it.
As the sun went down, we put in a cassette tape by Dr. Scott Hahn and continued toward Oklahoma City. As I looked into the night sky, I prayed again silently, “O God, if you’re drawing us into the Catholic Church, give us a sign, and please make it big!”
At the same time, unknown to me, Joetta was staring out the passenger window, silently praying, “Blessed Mother, if you’re real, we have to know beyond a doubt.” Suddenly, I heard Joetta gasp and say, “Oh, my, Larry, Larry, look!”
As I looked to the right, I saw what looked like a chain of stars falling in slow motion at a downward angle from right to left. Just before the stars reached the horizon, they shot straight up and then fell back toward the earth again, falling right in the center of the highway. Usually a falling star shoots downward and moves so quickly you don’t have time to tell anyone about it.
We were speechless, because we both saw it! Finally Joetta broke the silence, saying, “You did see that, didn’t you?” We were both visibly shaken.
I put in a cassette by Catholic singer Dana in which she sings through the rosary, and for the next hour and thirty minutes, we prayed the rosary with her. We finished just as we reached the exit road going toward our parsonage. As we turned under the freeway and went up over a little hill, there, sitting on the road in front of us, was the most beautiful, enormous, vivid quarter-moon we had ever seen.
Like the sunset, it seemed literally to sit in the middle of the road, and it extended as high into the sky as we had seen the sun. For two and a half miles, we watched in total silence. As we turned into our driveway, the moon disappeared.
“Joetta,” I asked, “what does all of this remind you of?”
“Revelation, chapter 12,” she said. “‘A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head.’”
At that moment, we knew not only that the Holy Spirit was bringing us to the Catholic Church, but that Mary was leading the way.
Two months later, Joetta and I knelt in a small chapel on the University of Tulsa campus and prayed the prayer of Consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Our love for her is without bounds. I had been afraid that she would somehow take away from my love for Jesus, but what I found was that my love for Him has deepened beyond measure. Truly, our cup runs over!
On September 12, 1997, I surrendered my ordination papers to Bishop Bruce Blake of the United Methodist Church. In doing so, I laid down thirty years of Protestant ministry to become a Catholic. To many of my colleagues, this seemed a horrible mistake, but to Joetta and me, it was “coming home.”
In January 1998, we made a pilgrimage to Rome to symbolize our desire to place ourselves under the authority of Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church. In March, we made a pilgrimage to a Marian site in Eastern Europe to thank the Blessed Mother for bringing us into the Church. And finally on Easter Vigil, with great anticipation, Joetta and I were received into full communion with the Catholic Church.
This was the culmination of a twenty-three month, life-transforming odyssey. Thank you, Mary, for loving us home.