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BaptistCongregationalistConversion Stories

Love at First Sight, and Love at Last

Pete Johnson
June 24, 2019 No Comments

Being born in New Hampshire, my parents had me baptized as an infant at the local Protestant church. I have always been aware of God in my life. My first experience of God happened when I was four years old. There was a wooden bridge over a river just a few hundred feet from our home. There was a board missing in this bridge, and one could see the river down below. Crossing over this bridge to the other side was no problem, but on coming back home, I was afraid I would fall through to the river below. I was on my hands and knees, looking down at the river and wondering how I could get home. At that moment, God came to me and said, “Don’t worry, I will get you across.” This gave me great comfort. I stood up and jumped across with the support of God. This simple experience of the presence of God would be with me, guiding me my entire life.

I had a good family life and always felt loved. I never lacked the confidence that my parents would always be there for me, no matter what, and that I could go on to accomplish anything. But family life always has its challenges. In our case, alcohol abuse punctuated what could have been an idyllic childhood.

After one alcohol-fueled traumatic episode, I found myself completely alone at the local park/baseball field in the middle of a summer day. This was an unusual situation, since there were always lots of kids here. I was ten years old and was sitting on the swings, waiting for other kids to show up. As I was sitting there, I asked God, “Why does this alcohol-driven drama have to happen, and what is this world all about if this is what people do to their loved ones?” God answered me this way: “The purpose of this life is to be a good man, a good father, and a good husband. You are to love your family with all your heart. You will live a good life, you and your children will love each other, and you will all grow old together. There will be no alcohol issues in your family.” This, I believed, was a direct revelation from God. I responded with, “Thank you, Lord, for revealing this to me as a ten-year-old.” It was just what I needed to find a way forward, and the experience would have a life-long effect.

During my youth, we attended church regularly early on, the local Congregational church, primarily, augmented by Sunday school and summer Bible camps. We did a bit of church hopping, but not a lot. I remember going to the local Baptist, Adventist, and Pentecostal churches, but never for very long. The Congregational church was our home. We attended this church until my early teens, then slowly drifted away. My faith never wavered, but church attendance wasn’t part of my teen years.

I have had a love of reading from as far back as I can remember. My grandmother was a librarian, as was my aunt, and my father loved to read; I inherited my passion from them. I read all the youth sports books at the town library, where my aunt was the librarian, and told her that she needed to get more sports books, because I had read them all. My father, hearing my complaints, gave me my first non-sports book, one by John Steinbeck called Of Mice and Men, when I was about 12. I was hooked, and reading became a huge part of my life from that point on.

I had never read anything like Steinbeck’s novel before. This was a story about the struggles of life, of hard work, perseverance, and difficult decisions. I didn’t know stories could be told like this, and I wanted more. My father, sensing my taste in books, then gave me The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. These books would lead me on a lifetime journey, looking for answers to life. My father and I exchanged books throughout my teenage years. We had similar preferences, and it was fun reading these books dealing with common human issues. As I got older, I started moving toward the classics — Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Dostoyevsky, etc. — any books I could read that would help me find the answers to life. That’s what I was looking for. Eventually, at around the age of 20, I started reading Plato and Aristotle. These two men were earth-shaking to me. I thought for sure that I was going to find in them the answers to all my questions about life. It seemed that I was moving closer to the truth. I read these two men’s books diligently and took notes along the way. I even started taking philosophy classes at the local college. Unfortunately, after a couple of years of reading and studying philosophy, I still didn’t have the answer. Plato and Aristotle had come so close to the answer, but just didn’t have anything definitive.

With this setback fresh in mind, and not knowing what to do next, a fortuitous interruption imposed itself on me. I had been in a motorcycle accident and broke my kneecap. I was 22 at this point and in the Air Force. My military unit was about to travel to the Mojave Desert of Arizona for two weeks to practice our mission, and now, with a broken kneecap, I couldn’t go.

It was decided that I would stay on base and answer phones for that period. Not knowing what I was going to do for the two weeks of eight hour days doing basically nothing, reading was an easy solution. The only problem was that I couldn’t go back to reading philosophy — so what was I going to read? I decided that I would read the Bible cover to cover. This book was big enough to keep me busy for the two weeks, and perhaps it would help answer those nagging questions that had exercised me for so long. I didn’t have a Bible, so I went over to the church on the air base and told the pastor my plan to read it from cover to cover over the next two weeks. The pastor gladly gave me a Bible and wished me luck. Little did I know the impact this project would have on my life.

During the next two weeks, I read the Bible every day, eight hours and more each day. This book was everything I had hoped it would be. There were stories of every human condition, the value of family, moral lessons, great struggles, great victories, and above all, God’s plan in creation and His plan for our salvation. This was what I had been looking for all those years!

By the time I was 25, I had left the military and returned to my home state of New Hampshire, now married with two daughters. My wife had been raised Catholic but had fallen away from the church. We decided to attend the Congregational Church of my youth. We attended every Sunday. I taught Sunday school, which our girls attended, and everything seemed right. I did have this nagging thought, though, that what I had read in the Bible wasn’t really what I was experiencing at our church. Everyone was nice and cared about each other, but what I had read of God’s deep love, mercy, promises, etc. wasn’t really to be found there. I wasn’t sure what to do, so we just kept going there and accepting that this is how Christian faith worked.

When I was 38, we moved to another community in New Hampshire. At that time, we had two younger boys. The girls were older and on their own at this point. The neighbors we met were wonderful people. They were strong Christians who attended a vibrant local Baptist church. They encouraged us to come with them, and we did. It was a wonderful, faith-based church for our family, offering Sunday school, youth groups, Bible studies, and prayer meetings. This is what I thought church should be like. This was the type of worship I had read about in the Bible, and I thought we had finally found it.

We attended there regularly for about eight years. During that time, we were very active in our faith. We attended prayer meetings, Bible studies, and any other event the church sponsored. I read the Bible from cover to cover well over a dozen times during our stay there. Delving deep into the word of God was the path this church promoted as the way to God, and I loved it. Lots of study and reading fit me fine. The answers to all my questions were sure to be found now — only they weren’t.

I started to discover so many flaws within the Protestant faith that just couldn’t be reconciled — no free will, Bible only, faith alone, predestination, etc. I questioned the elders on these issues, to no avail. I read all the best Protestant minds: Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc., and still I found no answers. Nothing made sense.

The faith I read about in the Bible was nowhere to be found. How could this be? I couldn’t fathom how God could have created me and left me in this state of life with so many unanswered prayers.

The issue of free will was a particularly difficult issue for me. The Protestant church I attended was teaching that we had no free will, yet the Bible and my life experiences were leading me to the opposite conclusion. Revelation 3:20 spoke directly to my belief that I had free will, that my decisions had an eternal impact: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

The rigid predestination beliefs were also not only troubling, but ultimately, I saw them as life-destroying if followed to their logical end. I found the Gospel of John very helpful in refuting this mindset. Verses such as John 1:12, 3:16, and 12:32 were instrumental in shaping my conclusion that we didn’t live under a rigid predestination plan that God was imposing on us.

Bible only and faith alone were two additional Protestant doctrines that proved to be major stumbling blocks in my search for a closer relationship with God. These beliefs made no sense to me and were refuted in the Bible. Sola Scriptura is not taught in the Bible, and verses like 2 Thessalonians 3:6, which speaks of “upholding the traditions” imparted to new believers were a clear indication that Tradition, as much as Scripture, played a major role in living a faith filled life.

Faith alone also made no logical sense. I knew in my heart that I needed to lead a moral life and to love God and my neighbor; I couldn’t live by faith alone. Bible verses such as Matthew 7:21, “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven,” stated just the opposite. 

I was at a point of crisis, knowing that I could no longer follow the path I was following. But I had no idea where to look for direction. A lifetime of searching, ending with no answers, a life with no clear direction, was discouraging for me. I was floundering. At this time, it did not occur to me that the Catholic Church had answers for all these issues.

In 2002, out of despair with nowhere else to turn, I went back to the only thing I knew: reading. I thought I would continue my search for truth by reading, even though over the past 40 years it had not proved fruitful. I did a computer search for a book with a theological and philosophical theme. I wanted something I hadn’t read before, but wasn’t hopeful I would have any luck. It was then that I came across a book called Orthodoxy, by G.K. Chesterton. I had never heard of him, but the book seemed interesting, so I gave it a try. This would turn out to be the most fortuitous event of my life.

I had never read anything like Chesterton’s book. I didn’t even know this kind of thought existed. Without a doubt, it was what I had been looking for all these years. The author was speaking directly to my heart. I understood everything he was saying, and it followed everything that I had taken straight from the Bible. How could it have been hidden from me all these years? I needed more.

By now I and my family had stopped going to the Protestant churches. I just couldn’t do it anymore. The Protestant faith had too many contradictions and holes in it, and I couldn’t in good conscience continue in it.

I started reading Chesterton in November of 2002 and read everything by him I could find. I didn’t even realize, at first, that he was Catholic. Once that fact dawned on me, I started to read everything Catholic. I had never known a Catholic, really, and never had an inkling these books existed. So Chesterton was the very first Catholic I met — and what a Catholic he was!

During this time I had a vision, just as I had in my youth. I was walking on my journey, searching for truth, when I came to this concrete wall. The wall was so high I couldn’t see the top. It was so long I couldn’t see the ends of it in either direction. I asked God what this meant, and He said “You have to go back.” I turned around and saw only desert in front of me. I asked God, “Go back to what?” He simply said, “Just start walking back.” So I started walking — to what, I did not know. You see, I thought I was on this journey to find God, and I was almost there. God, I believed, was just on the other side of this wall. But now, He wanted me to go back, but to where? I didn’t know, but I decided that I would have to head back, wherever I ended up.

As I walked, all along the way, I was picking up these Catholic books and reading them. They were lining my path. What a great experience! God was leading me somewhere, and He was lining the path with Catholic books.

I was on this journey for eleven years, until the fall of 2013. I had been reading all the Catholic books God was placing along my path. In the fall of 2013, as I was reading yet another Chesterton book on the couch, I looked up at my wife and said, “My journey is over, I am going to the Catholic Church and become a Catholic.” She exclaimed “No! I was afraid it was going to come to this, and was hoping it wouldn’t.”

You see, I was wrong about the journey of going back as God had told me to do. I wasn’t almost to God when I ran into that wall. I was, instead, at the outer edge of faith. All my studies of the Protestant faith had led me astray. I had followed the Protestant faith as far as I could go, and it led to a dead end — the wall. That wall was the farthest I could go away from God. In His mercy, He put the wall there to stop me, and told me to turn around and go back. Through a path lined with Catholic books, He led me to Himself, He led me to Rome, and it was now right there, in front of me.

It took me eleven years because I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. If I had found one thing contradictory in the Catholic Faith, I would have walked away. Everything had to make sense, everything had to be true. All the missing pieces of the puzzle needed to be filled in, or I wasn’t coming on board. But now my protest was over. The Catholic Church was the true Church that Jesus Christ founded. I was convinced that he Catholic Faith was the truth.

In the fall of 2013, I contacted my local Catholic parish and met with the priest and RCIA director. I told them my story, and they brought me into the RCIA program — the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I came into the Church during the Easter Triduum (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of Holy Week) of 2014.

I asked my wife, a fallen-away Catholic, to come with me as I entered the Church. She didn’t want to; I had been attending RCIA and church by myself for the past six months. But somewhat reluctantly, she agreed to do so. She had not had a very positive experience with the Church in her youth and had no desire to go back. She sat in the pew for those three nights before Easter and watched as I professed my faith, was confirmed, and received Communion.

I continued to go to church alone during the summer of 2014. When autumn came around, I asked her if she would be interested in joining RCIA. Not knowing what she would say, I was very surprised when she said, “Yes.” God had been working on her heart during this time. The Journey Home program which I had been watching on EWTN had a major effect on her willingness to look at the Catholic Church again. 

She took to it like a fish to water. The Catholic Church was always in her blood; she just didn’t know it. RCIA gave her the foundational faith knowledge she had not received when she was young. She officially returned to her childhood faith at Easter of 2015, with me as her sponsor. It took a life-long Protestant to bring her back to the Catholic Church! What a strange turn of events.

The next year, our two boys (they were 24 and 22 and had never been baptized) joined RCIA and came into the Church at Easter 2016.

Since then, one of my co-workers has entered the Church in 2017, and another one in 2018.

 What an unexpected turn of events this has all been! My whole life, I had been searching for answers and couldn’t find them. They were so close, yet I didn’t see them. I knew people in my life that were Catholic, but they never spoke of their faith. I knew where the Catholic Churches were but never visited them. No Catholic person, church, book, art, architecture, etc., brought the Catholic Faith to my mind. It is difficult to understand how this could have happened. God’s grace has helped my wife, my family, my friends, and me to find the needle in the haystack that was right in front of us. My life has been fulfilled, just as I had read it would be in the Bible, when I was 22, just as God had told me when I was a boy. It seems that I took the long way home, but through God’s grace, I made it. Thank you, Lord!

An interesting aside to this whole story is how my wife, Gail, and I met, and the impact we had on each other’s faith journey. She was in tenth grade and I was in eighth grade. She was sitting in the bleaches in the gym, while I was standing, leaning up against the stage. Since she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, I was staring at her. She could feel me staring and perhaps thought it was cute. Here is this little eighth grader staring at the older girl. She came down from the bleachers and came directly over to me. I was in panic mode as I watched her coming towards me. She placed both her feet on top of mine and asked me what my name was. What a strange way to approach someone for the first time, to stand on his feet! My speech was halting, but somehow I managed to tell her that my name was Pete.

The rest of my time in high school, I never lost sight of her. I was a younger kid in her mind, so she never paid much attention to me. But I kept watching her from a distance. I was away, in the military, for about six years before I saw her again. She was driving through town, and I was standing on a downtown corner when she drove by. A friend was with me, and I told him that I was going to marry that girl someday. He said, “You probably will.”

After tracking her down and insisting she go on a date with me, she reluctantly agreed. We were engaged in two weeks’ time!

I bring this up because it is so important to my story. This story is actually our story — Gail’s and mine. We were both searching and knew there was more to life than the material world in which we were living. God, in His wisdom, gave us this odd, but unforgettable, encounter in high school. Gail forgot it until I mentioned it to her. She remembered stepping on someone’s toes for some unknown reason, but didn’t realize it was me. This encounter had such a strong impact on me that I could not forget it, and I was deeply drawn to her.

This is important because, in Gail, I found someone that would allow me to spend years reading books, searching for answers. I bounced all that I was reading and learning off of her. She was a great sounding board and challenged me in many of my thoughts and ideas. We have had years of lengthy discussions about faith and the meaning of life, in which she was an active and willing participant. Imagine someone listening for 30 years to someone’s ever-changing ideas on faith and the meaning of life. You have to be a very special person to put up with that.

For her part, she didn’t like to read at the level I did. Nor did she have the time, with kids and family to take care of. But her faith and mine continued growing through our frequent long discussions. Her heart was naturally strong in Christian values, and she brought this into our home. I brought an unquenchable desire for truth. Together, we found what we would never have found separately. We were led to the Catholic Church, and the only way we could have found it was together. God knew this and started the process all the way back in high school, with a young kid staring at the beautiful older girl and the odd encounter that ensued. God does seem to have a sense of humor in how he accomplishes his will.

Lord, I love you. Thank you for my life.

Pete Johnson

Pete and his wife, Gail, have four children. Pete has owned and operated construction companies for 30 years. He was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil in 2014.

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