During Christmas vacation in December of 1997, my wife and I were spending the holidays with her family. At one of my sister-in-law’s homes I found a book sitting on the coffee table called Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic about a fundamentalist/evangelical Christian who had become Catholic. I thought it was a joke book. I had never heard of anyone who became Catholic. In fact, all the Catholics I knew were now Protestants. While there had been times when I was younger that I would have described myself as anti-Catholic, I had long since gotten over that. I no longer saw the Catholic Church as evil, only irrelevant.
David Currie, the author of the book, described his own life experience which coincided with mine, being born into a fundamentalist Christian home but later moving in a more evangelical direction. I could relate to him. He had a deep love for God and hunger for the truth. He wrote that at one point before becoming Catholic he was of the opinion that, while he didn’t disbelieve that individual Catholics could be saved, there were some Catholic teachings that “saved Catholics” must certainly reject. The rest of the book was a treatment of various Catholic dogmas based on Scripture and history. I kept looking for those Catholic dogmas that clearly went beyond the pale of reason; however, to my amazement, there weren’t any! Using Scripture and Church history, Currie was able to defend topics like purgatory, confession to a priest, Mary, and on down the list. By the time I finished the book, I was intrigued.
At that time, my wife, Lucy, and I, having been ordained and sent out by our home church, Christian Renewal of Brunswick, GA (an independent charismatic church), were working in the inner-city of Atlanta with an inter-denominational ministry called Youth With a Mission (YWAM). We were ministering in the area of racial reconciliation, working to develop an inner-city youth center in a housing project and taking teams of young people on mission trips.
Coming to ministry
I was raised in the Southern Baptist faith with pastors and missionaries on both sides of my family. One of my father’s cousins had served with the Southern Baptist Mission Board in Israel and Yemen. I remember visiting him when I was a little boy and looking at his slides that showed the work he had done in those countries. I think it was then that I knew that I wanted to be a missionary. Unfortunately, the deep faith that I had as a child suffered a serious shipwreck when I entered my teen years and went through a profound period of rebellion. I came back to Christ as a senior in high school. With the return of my faith, I again experienced that deep desire to serve God as a missionary. Over the next few years I gained more experience through practical training at the Advance Vision Missionary Training School at the Christian Retreat Center in Bradenton, FL, and several mission trips to Haiti.
Lucy’s family was Catholic, but in addition to attending Mass every weekend, they attended a Protestant church as well. She also had eight years of Catholic education. Even with that, she did not know or understand Church teaching and definitely wasn’t able to defend it to her anti-Catholic, Protestant youth leaders. Over time, most of her family left the Catholic Church, except the one sister in whose house we came across that book.
The two of us met at a YWAM training program called a Discipleship Training School as we were preparing to go into fulltime ministry. After we met, we postponed those plans in order to get married. After another year we returned to another YWAM training program in order to work with children and youth. After a couple of more years of preparation, in addition to welcoming children, we eventually settled in Atlanta, GA.
The origins of “birth control”
In the inner-city of Atlanta, we were part of a reconciliation movement. There was a saying that the most segregated place in Atlanta was any given church on a Sunday morning. And so as part of our ministry, we alternated every other week between attending two churches: East Gate Congregational Church (a predominately Anglo church in nearby Snellville) and Beulah Heights Church of Christ Holiness (an African-American church near downtown Atlanta). There was a relationship and friendship between the pastors, and so we were part of both.
There was an event that took place probably about a year before we came across Currie’s book, which probably prepared us for it. It actually involved another book entitled, Great People of the Twentieth Century. One of the people noted was Margaret Sanger. To be honest, I did not know much about her at the time except that she had founded Planned Parenthood. Her biography presented her as one of those people born to have a cause, and she found hers championing birth control. Circa 1920s, there were no actual birth control devices or products of which to speak, and birth control was not only against every Christian church’s teaching — it was also against most state and federal laws as well. Sanger began by publishing a magazine extolling the virtues of birth control and what she called “family planning.”
She was brought up on charges because she sent her magazine out through the mail, which was a violation of the federal bans on birth control. She fled to Europe to prepare her defense. When she later returned to the U.S. for trial, the case was eventually dropped as state and federal laws were rewritten to remove the bans on birth control. Then in 1930, the Episcopal Church was the first to cave, allowing its members to use birth control. It was not long before all Christian churches followed suit. All but one that is: the Roman Catholic Church.
The Protestant world in which I had grown up had no trouble whatsoever with birth control. My parents used it as well as every other married couple I knew. When Lucy and I went for premarital counseling at our Protestant church, one of the questions the pastor asked us was whether we had agreed on what type of birth control we would use. I had heard all of two sermons in my life during which Protestants ministers questioned the use of birth control. Both pastors were older men, well past child-bearing years. As a young married man, I did not even seriously consider their points. As a Protestant, after all, I was my own magisterium.
But something happened when I read Margaret Sanger’s biography. The name of her magazine, the one that got her in trouble in the first place, was No Gods No Masters. I came face to face with the reality that the modern acceptance of birth control began when a woman shook her fist in the face of God and said, “We will have none of You!” Lucy and I took a hard look at something we had always taken for granted and realized we were wrong. If the root of birth control began in an evil rejection of God, then the fruit of birth control could only be evil as well. We cleaned out the medicine cabinet and began to learn Natural Family Planning.
Excitement not for sharing
The realization that I could be wrong about something I had always taken for granted stayed with me for a long time and, I believe, was instrumental to what happened on our Christmas vacation in 1997. As I said, we were very happy and content in our ministry. I was just minding my own business when I came across Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic. I wasn’t looking for an argument or a fight. Still, I loved God and I wanted to be where He was. After reading the book, I was intrigued. Could I be wrong about the Catholic Church? Maybe it wasn’t as irrelevant as I had come to believe. This thought brought with it a sense of responsibility to know more.
And so began a year of prayer and study for both Lucy and me. We were excited, but it was not an excitement we felt we could share. Right after we started into this period of exploration I was talking to two friends, independently of each other, and told them about a crazy book I was reading about this guy who became Catholic. I thought they would laugh and then be as intrigued as I was, but instead both of them responded warily, “What are you reading that for?” Their disapproving responses shook me. I quickly realized that people might look at this new interest as something threatening.
I quietly began frequenting a Catholic book store and getting whatever the people there recommended. Books and tapes by other Catholic apologists, such as Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, and Alan Schrecks’ Catholic and Christian, began to fill our shelves, along with a Catholic Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. My fundamental interest (and concern) was whether or not the Catholic Church really was the Church that Jesus had started. And, if so, had anything happened to change that? And, if not, what did that mean for me personally? What was God calling Lucy and me to do?
After a month or so of speaking with the people at the Catholic book store, someone there suggested that I contact a Catholic church and ask to speak to a priest or deacon. It took a few more weeks to get up the nerve. One morning, I went into work at the YWAM office early, before anyone else got there and called a nearby Catholic church, asking to speak to someone about the Catholic Faith. The receptionist told me that she would have the deacon call me back when he got in.
An hour or so passed and, by that time, the office was full of people and activity. The phone rang and someone yelled out “Joe, you’ve got a call from Deacon Tom.” I sheepishly said that I would take it in another room. When I got to the phone I whispered into it, “I’d like to talk to you about the Catholic Church.” Deacon Tom, a very perceptive man, asked me if it was a bad time to talk. I quickly affirmed his hunch and made an appointment to come meet him at the church.
Wanting both worlds
Driving into the parish parking lot that day was quite an experience. It felt as if I was taking a long plunge on a very tall roller coaster with my stomach turning somersaults all the way.
Fortunately, the man waiting for me was devoutly orthodox. At the time I had no idea what a blessing this was. As we talked about the Catholic Faith, he mentioned that we were approaching the Easter Vigil, during which people who had spent the previous year preparing would be received into the Church. “In for a penny, in for a pound,” I thought and said that I guessed I would go ahead and come in at that time too.
Deacon Tom quickly reassured me that there was no reason to hurry. In his words, “The Catholic Church never does anything fast.” He suggested we simply wait and meet over the coming months through the summer and that I begin attending the Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) sessions in the fall.
At this time, Lucy and I were finishing the preparations for a youth outreach to Perm, Russia. We had been working with a team of people on this for over a year. We were afraid that if we talked openly about what we were thinking regarding the Catholic Church, it would possibly make a lot of people nervous and even jeopardize the trip. So we continued to pray and study, but we kept it quiet.
Later that summer, after the trip to Russia was over, we finally sat down with our leadership, which consisted of our colleagues in YWAM and the pastors of the churches we attended in Atlanta and our home church which had ordained us and sent us out. We told them that we were seriously considering becoming Catholic. All of them responded by asking us not to talk to anyone else about what we were thinking and that they would get back to us.
As we waited for their response, we realized that we were asking them to make a decision for us. We wanted to continue on in the ministry we were doing, but to do so as Catholics. We were basically asking them to decide for us if that would be acceptable. We quickly realized how unfair this was. And so, just as fall was beginning, we submitted our resignations effective for the end of the year.
Death, resurrection, and an explosion of life in Christ
Meanwhile, I had started attending RCIA. It was then, as we began attending Mass that we saw all races, not just Anglo and African-American, but Hispanic and Asian and absolutely everyone else gathering and worshipping together. This sight was revolutionary for me. It seemed that the work we had been involved in of racial reconciliation in the Protestant churches was really just reinventing the wheel. I came to realize that the Catholic Church truly was the fulfillment of Jesus’ desire that all of His disciples be one.
At that time Lucy and I thought that all ministry in the Church was only done by priests and nuns and, therefore, our work in ministry would be over. I began to explore the option of going back to college in order to forge a new career path. On a lark, I called Franciscan University of Steubenville. As I spoke to people there, I found out that there were many opportunities for lay people to serve in the Church. The Lord opened door after door, and soon we were making plans to move.
In early December, our marriage was convalidated by the Catholic Church and Lucy returned to the sacraments. Then, on December 27, 1998, on the Feast of the Holy Family, my children were baptized and I was confirmed and received my first Holy Communion. The next day we loaded everything we owned into a truck and moved to Steubenville, Ohio where we began our new lives as Catholics.
We arrived there in the middle of an ice storm, which was a whole new experience for someone who grew up in Florida. Everything was frozen and barren. I didn’t see any neighbors until the end of March when things began to thaw out.
We were only there a short time when I realized that the ice storm was reflective of our lives. Everything we had been working on for over five years, both ministries and relationships, were gone. Many friends and family members did not know what to do with us. Being in a new place, there was no one to turn to as the loneliness set in. Our lives seemed as frozen and barren as the landscape around us. At times, I wondered if we had done the right thing.
This was basically my state of mind until we came to the Easter Vigil. Franciscan University celebrates the Vigil in a large gym called Finnegan’s Fieldhouse — and they pack it out! Growing up Christian, I had been to Easter services all of my life — even sunrise services on the beach — but until that night, I had never experienced the power of Easter and Jesus’ Resurrection. After sitting in darkness as the Scriptures were proclaimed, suddenly the lights came on as the Gloria was sung with joy. I felt then, for the first time, the explosion of life that took place on that first Easter as Christ triumphantly walked out of the tomb as victor and king. That night I felt the sense of peace that we really were at home.
After leaving Steubenville, my family relocated to Lehigh Acres, FL where I was offered the position of Director of Religious Education at St. Raphael Catholic Church. I later entered the diaconal formation program in the Diocese of Venice and was ordained in 2009. As I look back over my life as both a Protestant and a Catholic I think of Jesus’ words, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:22). Old treasure and new. That is the glory, and joy, of my journey into the Catholic Church. I would never want to be anywhere else.