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BaptistConversion Stories

My Journey Home

Clarence White
September 5, 2019 No Comments

I am from Appalachia, born in Charleston, WV in November of 1959. My family lived along the Coal River in tiny communities near Whitesville, WV. My dad was a foreman at a nearby mine.

My paternal grandmother, Verlie, lived next door. She was very special to me and used to relate the story of the morning after I was born. My father came to her door and said, “It is a boy, but they do not think he will live long.” I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, causing cerebral palsy. I lived, but there was a long litany of things my parents were told I would never be able to do: walk, read and write, go to school, ride a bike, procure gainful employment, marry and have a family, etc. By the grace of God, I overcame every one of those obstacles.

“Mammaw” Verlie was the cook at my elementary school. I really never knew how different I was from the other children until I went to school. I remember looking out the screen door at the neighborhood kids at play and wanting to be able to join in, but the degree of difference startled me, as the school children made fun of me. Children can be cruel, even without intending to be. I used to tell my first grade teacher, Mrs. Radcliffe, that I had to go to the restroom, but I always stopped by the kitchen on the way back, and my grandmother would pour me a glass of milk and give me a biscuit. I thought I was really getting away with something until, years later, it dawned on me — my grandmother and Mrs. Radcliffe were good friends, so she must have been aware of what was going on!

Before I entered first grade, I was enrolled in Head Start. I now have three academic degrees and even have done a presentation at Oxford, but I think maybe being a Head Start alumni had more to do with my success than anything else I have done.

Because I could not keep up with the play activities of the other neighborhood kids, my mother read to me a great deal. I knew how to read at age four, so the academic side of school was never a challenge. It was always the physical stuff — getting from place to place, getting to class on time, and boarding the school bus, which was difficult for me. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act in the 1960s, to aid kids like me, so it was a struggle.

We moved a lot. My parents never owned their own home until I was in high school, living on the other side of Charleston from where I spent my childhood.

When I was seven or eight years old, we attended First Baptist Church in Whitesville, with a godly pastor, Rev. Howard Gwinn, whom I loved. Shortly after he came, I went down the aisle at the invitation and asked Jesus Christ to save me from my sins. Then my family drifted away from church until, when I was a freshman in high school, one of the coaches invited me to a youth Sunday at the First Baptist Church in Racine, WV, where we lived by then. I rededicated myself to Jesus, was baptized there, and never looked back. That pastor is still my good friend. As it turned out, he eventually became pastor of the non- denominational church where I met my wife.

While at this church, at age 14, I sensed a call from God to preach the Gospel. Most people were skeptical of that call. In fact, when we moved in my senior year and began attending a Church of God congregation, even though they allowed me to preach a couple of times as an 18-year-old and told me that I did as well as most experienced ministers, the pastor said I could never be a pastor because of my disability. Nobody would want to marry me, and a single man could not be a pastor. I never understood that reasoning, when they had seen the gift I had in the pulpit. One of the associate pastors told me that, among a youth group of almost 100 kids, and maybe the entire congregation, I had the most spiritual insight. I told him it was because God had called me to preach and teach the Word, that such insights were not given just for my private edification.

A short time later, this same congregation left the Church of God and became part of a loosely-knit fellowship of churches which were connected through the “ministry” of a particularly charismatic evangelist who claimed to be an Apostle and even hinted that he had more authority than the Pope. For the life of me, I do not know why I remained in that group. This evangelist told me himself there was not a woman in the world sanctified or holy enough to be my wife. I would have to spend my life alone. And even though, after I was married, the church that ordained me was a part of this same fellowship, the broader leadership never accepted me as a minister.

This group had some practices which now seem to me to be spiritually abusive. The leaders claimed to pray and receive divine revelations about who should marry whom, who should go to what college, etc. They told me God wanted me to stay near home and go to West Virginia State College, majoring in journalism. The funny thing was, when I walked onto campus, I learned that the college had no journalism program. That should have told me something about that group of leaders, but I did not want to defy their perceived authority. Mass communications was the next closest thing to journalism, so I declared that as my major. I remember my pastor telling me, “Whatever you do, do not take a philosophy course; it will mess with your mind.”

What I did discover was that mass communications was not the right major for me.

I was taking a psychology course that semester in a lecture hall and making the best grades in the class. The professor told me, “You are in the wrong major.” I agreed. I became a psychology major — a move which infuriated my pastor, even though he had been a psychology major himself. But then I had to take a class in philosophy.

When I got into that philosophy class, it was like Fourth of July fireworks went off inside me — it was that exciting! I decided that I wanted to do this the rest of my life. The instructor was a Catholic gentleman who eventually entered the priesthood. This was my first encounter with Catholic thinking. The textbook we used was a Catholic resource, Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy. I went on to take all the philosophy courses I could.

Even changing majors, I graduated a semester early. I had been working at the church’s child care center through college and thought I might merit a promotion, since I was then the only college graduate on the staff. When no promotion was forth- coming, and I was still working for minimum wage, I decided to quit. I had no idea how I would earn a living, but I believed God had something out there for me. A couple of weeks later, after attending one of our fellowship’s national events in Indianapolis, I stopped to meet the well-known Quaker philosopher, Elton Trueblood, at Earlham College in Richmond, IN.

My pastor in West Virginia had said he thought Dr. Trueblood might be the best Christian philosopher in America. I had read several of Trueblood’s books and his wisdom, and his way of putting complex concepts into clear, simple words, impressed me. His idea that the Christian life was a three-legged stool of intellectual pursuit of truth, a warm devotional life, and service to others strongly resonated with me.

I met this man on an afternoon in July, 1982. I thought I would have him autograph a couple of books and be happily on my way. Instead, we talked for an hour. Then he looked at me and said, “I can see you have an unusually keen mind. I want you to come here to Earlham School of Religion to study and help us here at the Yokefellows ministry.” Ten days later, I lived in Richmond, IN.

Yokefellows was an ecumenical ministry which intersected even with Catholic Christians. Its purpose was to provide resources
for people to serve in what Trueblood called “The Ministry of Common Life.” Catholics would call such a ministry an apostolate. The idea of the Yokefellows ministry is to have such a focus on Christ that whatever one does in life is done in the spirit of service to Christ and others. This ministry began in 1949, after Dr. Trueblood had an insight into what he called “Christ’s clearest call to commitment”: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

Raised as an Iowa farm boy, Trueblood knew yokes usually were placed on teams of animals. He saw Jesus as calling us to be yoked with Himself in service to the Gospel. It was one of the joys of my life to serve alongside this Christian thinker in the Yokefellows ministry from 1982 to 1984.

Earlham’s doctrine seemed more liberal than what I had been exposed to then, although now I would not particularly see it as “liberal.” There was a definite emphasis on the presence of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I had never been exposed to Quakers before, and, honestly, any Christian group may have been difficult to transition into after some of the aberrations of the group I had been part of. Over time, my appreciation for the contributions Quakers made to Christianity as a whole grew. Some Quakers are closer to Unitarianism than to Christianity, but in the Midwest, in North Carolina, and on the West Coast, Quakers are more Evangelical, having been influenced by the Wesleyan revivals of the 1800s. Quakers, or the Friends Church, as the Evangelical group within Quakers calls itself, would be similar to some Methodists or groups like the Church of the Nazarene.

But I was not prepared for graduate study. I left Earlham School of Religion one-third of the way through the Master of Divinity program because of a break-up with a young woman whom I very much had hoped to marry. The experience left me so stressed and depressed that I could not focus on school. I ended up in Louisville, KY, teaching in a Christian school which was operated by a Nazarene church. I was also associate pastor of a non-denominational church, where I met my future wife, Gay. She was raised Catholic but had begun attending this non- denominational church with her mother, who was not Catholic. Since I was the only teacher who was not married, I had asked her to attend the school’s faculty Christmas party as my date.

We began dating in December and were married the following July. About a year later, we left the non-denominational church, and I became associate pastor of this same Nazarene church where I had been teaching. At the same time, I was completing my studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. After about a year, Dr. Trueblood recommended me to become pastor of the Quaker church in his Iowa hometown. I ended up serving three Quaker meetings in Iowa, one in North Carolina, and two in Indiana over the next quarter of a century. The Lord blessed us with two children while we were at our first pastorate in Iowa. The Baptist seminary graciously allowed me to take the nine credit hours I needed at the University of Iowa School of Religion while we lived in Iowa and then transfer back to the seminary and graduate. I often tell people that I grew up Baptist, went to a Quaker seminary, transferred to a Baptist seminary, and ended up a Quaker pastor! During the ten years we ministered in Iowa, I also completed a Doctor of Ministry in Theological Reflection from Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Theological Reflection model was actually developed by two Catholic authors, Evelyn and James Whitehead. I remember that they talked about the deposit of faith, which includes both Scripture and sacred Tradition. My professor said that we would overlook that and go with Scripture alone.

Now, I already knew the early Church was the Catholic Church. I had studied with the renowned church historian E. Glenn Hinson, who was a close friend of Thomas Merton, the famous Trappist monk and author. I also knew that the Church did not discern the the canon of Scripture until the end of the fourth century. I had taken two semesters of systematic theology with a theologian named Dr. Molly Marshall. Dr. Marshall has been called the most brilliant Baptist woman of the 20th century. She is very closely connected with the Benedictine monks of Conception Abbey in Missouri. One day when Dr. Marshall was lecturing on the formation of the canon, I formulated a question like this: “You mean we did not have an authoritative list of biblical books until almost 400 years after Jesus was on earth?” She answered, “Mr. White, that is correct.” I went on, “Then sola Scriptura cannot possibly be true.” Someone in the back of the room gasped when I said that, but Dr. Marshall went on: “Mr. White, that is also correct.”

Our time in Iowa was followed by a four-year pastorate just outside of Winston-Salem, NC. From there the Lord brought us to the Columbus, IN area and a very small Quaker congregation which could not afford a full- time pastor. I supplemented my income by serving as editor of the Adult Friend, which was the adult Sunday school/Bible study quarterly for Friends (Quaker) churches, and also by teaching psychology and philosophy at the local community college.

My mother died about five months after we moved to Indiana. My father had to go into a nursing home because he was diabetic and had already lost one foot. In addition, he was showing some early signs of dementia. My sister thought it would be a good idea for him to come spend a week or two with us in Indiana. It was spring, and he wanted to watch baseball on TV. Dad said he would pay the installation fees for cable or satellite TV, and after he went back to West Virginia, we could decide whether we wanted to keep it or not.

The satellite TV had a channel named EWTN. I found out it was Catholic. I was not favorably impressed initially, but the teaching gradually grew on me. I had married into a predominately Catholic family, and I loved them, but they were unable to articulate their faith very well, so I had dismissed it as something not to take seriously. I never was anti-Catholic, and I had never been around overt anti-Catholics. My studies with Dr. Trueblood and Dr. Hinson included reading many of the classics of Catholic devotional literature. I just did not realize that it mattered whether one was Protestant or Catholic. I had bought into the Evangelical thinking that all you need is a personal relationship with Jesus. I cannot say there were huge doctrinal struggles in my conversion process. From my earlier studies, I knew that Catholic doctrine added up intellectually, but I did not yet understand the importance of being part of the Church which Jesus personally founded under the leadership of Peter and the other apostles and their successors.

One day, in the spring of 2003, I was channel surfing, and as I went by EWTN, I heard the host of a program say something like, “I did not think that either when I was a Presbyterian minister.” I was amazed! Why would a Presbyterian minister become Catholic? I learned this host was named Marcus Grodi, and the show was called The Journey Home. I began watching faithfully on Monday nights. It became the high point of my week.

At first, I watched because I enjoyed hearing the guests. I had absolutely no intention of converting myself, but I gained a valuable understanding of and appreciation for many of the faith traditions from which the guests had been brought into the Church. I read some of the books which were mentioned on the program. The most helpful was Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism. Another book which influenced me along the way was More Christianity by Fr. Dwight Longenecker. (Interestingly, one of my colleagues at the community college where I now teach had attended Bob Jones University with Fr. Dwight.) Then I went online and read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church. I also looked at websites like Catholic Answers.

By 2006, I was persuaded that the Catholic Church was indeed the Church Jesus started, and that it did matter. I became filled with a desire to be part of the Church Jesus had started, the one which could trace its history back to the Apostles.

What struck me about the Catholic Church was two related things. While I did not struggle much over any specific Catholic doctrine, I think that the connection I saw between the two would have gotten me over any hurdles I may have had.

These two items were the following:

(1) In Matthew 16:18, where Jesus says to Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it,” my Protestant upbringing insisted that the rock was not Peter, but his profession in verse 16: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But that is not what Jesus said. Translated more literally, Jesus is saying to Peter, “You are a rock, and on this rock, I will build my Church.” A good friend tried to tell me this is not right, because Jesus uses petros the first time and petra the second time. But they are two forms of one word meaning “rock.” Petra is necessary to agree with ekklesia (church), while Jesus is definitely saying that Peter himself is the rock. Jesus is entrusting the Church to Peter’s pastoral care.

(2) Further, once I understood that Peter was the rock, then the beauty and wonder of apostolic succession became abundantly clear. In his letter to Titus, chapter 1, St. Paul instructs Titus to ordain elders in every city. Those who laid their hands on the next generation of leaders were themselves the recipients of the laying on of hands of those who came before them. In keeping with this, I realized that we have a record of who held the office of Bishop of Rome, all the way back to St. Peter himself. No other Christian body can claim this continuity.

My understanding of Jesus instituting the Papacy and apostolic succession is what sold me on the Catholic Church being truly the Church of Jesus Christ. I once saw an item online entitled, “Who started your church?” If you are Lutheran, it was Martin Luther. If you are Methodist, it was John Wesley. If you are Quaker, it was George Fox. These were all good and godly men, in my view — but the piece went on to say, “If you are Catholic, your Church was started by Jesus Christ when He said, ‘You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church.’” It came to the point where I could no longer live in disunity.

I remember once hearing an elderly Methodist preacher say that our problem is that we try to do what God wants without doing what God says. I suddenly saw this as the story of Protestantism. I could no longer serve my Lord while willingly remaining outside the Church He personally started.

The problem with converting, for me, was an economic one. I knew from watching The Journey Home program that many of the converted pastors ended up in a variety of employment situations, including some manual labor. As a disabled man, I realized my options would be limited. I was a half-time pastor and, by now, a half-time administrator at the college, and I taught a couple of courses in addition to my administrative role. I had two children nearing the time to go off to college. I said in prayer, “Lord, I want to follow you into your Church, but this is my livelihood. I will not be able to do this unless you help me get a full-time teaching position.”

That prayer was answered. In August of 2009, I became a full-time associate professor of philosophy, with no administrative duties. I was the first full-time philosopher in a college of 200,000 students on about 20 campuses throughout Indiana. I was also in the middle of a contract year with my church, so I could not leave them until the following June. Somehow I stayed on; I did not leave them hanging.

One Monday evening in October of 2010, I was watching The Journey Home, and tears were streaming down my face. I do not like to cry. I would tell myself, “You are a philosopher. Your strong suit should be in your head, not your heart.” Yet I cry almost every week now, in Mass, out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for me. That October night, my wife saw my tears and said, “I was raised Catholic. I do not want to do this, but if God is asking you to become Catholic, I will not stand in your way.”

Immediately a voice spoke in my heart, and I knew it was the Holy Spirit: “You asked for a full-time teaching position. I did my part, but I am still waiting for you to do yours.” I announced the following Sunday that I would not accept another contract, that I would be leaving them in June. I loved these people and loved ministering to them, so the parting was not easy. We now live about 15 miles away from that church and see many of the congregants while shopping, etc. Not one of them has said or done anything hostile in response to our becoming Catholic. In fact, they still call us at times and ask for prayer.

I go to work every day at the college and sit at the same desk at which I did when I was a Quaker pastor. It was a gift from God that I had employment, so I never had to do a job search. I went through RCIA and was received into the Church at Easter Vigil 2012. I am so blessed! The sacraments and the understanding the Catholic Church has given me of Scripture are invaluable.

My wife went through RCIA with me, gained an appreciation for the Church of her youth, and returned to it. We have both been commissioned as healing prayer ministers in our parish. I am part of the RCIA teaching team, do a lecture each year on the Creed, volunteer as a chaplain at our local hospital, and minister to people here at the college. I am like the unofficial campus pastor, thrilled to be in full communion with Jesus’ Church.

Clarence White

CLARENCE G. WHITE, D.Min., is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Interim Dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Education at the Columbus, Indiana campus of Ivy Tech Community College. Clarence and his wife, Gay, are members of St. Bartholomew parish in Columbus.

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