I was born into a Baptist family, but we didn’t go to church much, except on Christmas, Easter, and a few other times each year. My uncle Vernon, who was more religious, made sure to take me to church summer camp several times while attending junior high. Despite this lack of significant church involvement, my interest in faith often increased around Easter. I remember conducting a “Bible study” for several friends under a table in the 4th grade with my pocket Gideon New Testament. I started a Bible study club in junior high when such activities were no longer allowed in public schools.
I was baptized at our family church at age 14 and had a “born again” experience when I was in the 11th grade. I was also “baptized in the Holy Spirit” at about that same time. During my last two years of high school, I was in church or Bible study about five times a week and was ridiculed for carrying my Bible around on campus. I wanted to be a minister at that time.
Following high school, I entered the Army. While my faith continued through boot camp, it waned considerably afterwards. I became interested in politics, foreign affairs, and, of course, girls. After my tour in the Army and while in college, I never stopped considering myself a Christian, but I neglected the Bible and rarely went to church.
I married my wife, Mai, who was Catholic. She insisted on going to church every week, so I would drop her off there and go hang out with my friends, picking her up after Mass. This pattern continued for a number of years while I was attending law school.
Then my uncle Vernon died. I remember that at his funeral he was referred to as a “man of God,” and the thought crossed my mind that no one would call me that if I were to die. Several times, my skeptic friends had insulted me by professing surprise when I claimed to be a Christian. I was hurt by these remarks. After all, I had said my sinner’s prayer and believed all the right things about Jesus. I even used to go to church a lot when I was in high school. They said they saw no evidence of my faith. But while I was stung by their remarks, I wasn’t yet ready to return to my faith walk.
After my uncle Vernon’s death, my wife and I started attending a Protestant church together from time to time. Initially, I would still drop her off at Mass and walk around in the field, praying by myself.
One Sunday, I entered through the church doors and walked into the vestibule, where I saw a brass baptismal font which had turned black with corrosion. With my military background, I knew what to do. I went home, grabbed my Brasso and a cloth, and returned to the church to commence shining up that miserable baptismal font. (The holy water was still in it.) Someone must have seen me and reported the situation to the priest. The young assistant priest came out quickly and said, “May I help you?” I explained that I wasn’t Catholic, but my wife attended there, and I couldn’t bear to see such a dirty baptismal font. He thanked me for my efforts but told me that people were getting upset, so I should stop. He invited me to come in and listen for myself to the services.
I started attending Mass, made friends with the priest, and even deigned to agree that Catholics were Christians, too, so it wouldn’t harm my spiritual life to go to Mass and listen to the homilies and sing the songs. From that point forward, I went to two churches: Catholic and Protestant. This was in my mid to late twenties.
When I was about 30, several things happened to change my faith life. My friend, Dominick, started coming around, preaching to me and challenging me to study the Word of God. Also, as a lawyer, I visited a young Vietnamese man in jail and was struck by the fact that, while he was raised by a good Catholic family and had a bright future due to his academics, he was accused of a violent crime. I went back to my office and began praying for this young man. I cried out to the Lord, “What is wrong with this kid?” I heard an interior voice say, “He needs Jesus and so do you.”
Our need for Jesus is not a one-time event, whether that is through a prayer or receipt of a sacrament. It continues on a daily basis through the rest of our lives. If we don’t tap into the life-giving power of Jesus, He will do us no good. We need to persist in our walk of faith; we need perseverance. I thought about all the young Asian gang members I was representing at that time and thought, “They need Jesus, too. Maybe I can help.” I prayed, “What should I do, Lord?” God answered simply, “Learn my Word.” I agreed to obey the Lord and thus began my path into the ministry.
I signed up for a correspondence Bible course through the Assemblies of God (AG). I figured that I would audit all the courses that Assemblies of God pastors had to study to be ordained. I did not want to be an AG pastor (because I disagreed with some of their doctrine), but I wanted to learn what they knew. During this time, I was placed in charge of a high school youth group at a Baptist church I had begun attending. I also led a Friday night praise and worship group. In our Friday night group, which was charismatic in orientation, we studied Catholic mystics such as Brother Lawrence (a 17th century French Carmelite lay brother) and Jeanne Guyon (a 17th century French mystic and proponent of the heretical doctrine of Quietism) as we learned principles of prayer, in which the Catholic Church had such a rich tradition. As my Bible studies continued, I rose through the ranks at the Baptist church. I was licensed to preach the Gospel in 1995. I would preach sermons when the pastor was sick or on vacation. In 1999, I became the interim senior pastor for four months after the pastor retired. While my time there was fruitful, people did not respect me as a “real pastor” since I did not have a seminary diploma. In 2000, there was trouble with the new leadership, and I quit that congregation. I joined a breakaway group, and we started our own church. (At the same time, I was still going to Catholic Mass on a weekly basis with my wife.) I remember that we set the time of our new church service so that it would not conflict with my ability to attend Mass with my wife.
Things didn’t work out so well for me at the new church because, as in the old congregation, they didn’t consider me a “real pastor.” So in 2006, I enrolled in Fuller Seminary to obtain a Master’s degree in Bible and Theology. I learned Greek and Hebrew, textual criticism, lots of the Bible, and lots of Church history, as well as various theologies that had been developed over the centuries. I graduated in 2012, and now people started calling me “pastor.”
During this time, several Vietnamese Presbyterian Churches in Stockton and Sacramento, California asked me to preach for them at a retirement home and at their services. I was preaching two to three times per month at these churches and also began to write and self-publish spiritual books based on sermons that I had preached. I wrote Meditations on the Lord’s Prayer, Keys to a Happy Life: The Beatitudes According to Jesus, and Seven Words of Jesus from the Cross. I had these books translated and then distributed them in India and Vietnam as well as the United States. I supported home churches in India by providing them free copies of my books and sometimes by making cash contributions. All the while, I continued attending Mass on a weekly basis with my wife. Sometimes, if Indian pastors were too harsh in their denunciation of the Catholic Church, I would jump to its defense and demand that those statements be retracted.
As early as junior high I had come to the realization that there seemed to be a conflict between what Jesus taught was necessary for salvation and what I was told by my pastor and certain Protestant writings claiming that Paul had laid out contrary requirements for salvation. Based on my biblical studies, both in seminary and in my preaching, I began to have theological issues with the Protestant position. I realized that “faith alone” wasn’t really backed up by Scripture. Nowhere in Scripture does Paul state that, as long as one has faith, a person can continue to sin and still be assured of salvation. If salvation was by “faith alone,” this would be implied. If what we do meant nothing, then Jesus wouldn’t have preached the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31–46), nor would He have taught the “Lord, Lord” passages (Matthew 7:21–23; Luke 6:46–49), nor would Paul have explicitly taught, “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19–21, NABRE). He didn’t add the words, “unless you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior.” Instead, sin had consequences for believers. This is dealt with in the Catholic concept of mortal sin but is not adequately dealt with in “faith alone” doctrines. Jesus, Paul, James, John, and Peter all required action in addition to faith to secure salvation. In fact, James 2:24 explicitly states, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” I wasn’t aware of a Protestant church that held this position. Not only that, my study of Church history made me reject out of hand the Protestant narrative that the Church was corrupted after Constantine and thus needed to be reformed by Luther. Why would God abandon His Church for 1300 years? My Baptist and Assemblies of God friends didn’t even consider Luther much of a reformer because he was too Catholic. Would God leave the Church in darkness until the 1700s, when the closest thing to the Evangelical Church finally popped into history? This didn’t make sense. Furthermore, the theology of the earliest Christians, before they got “corrupted,” was Catholic all along. My own experience with the Catholic Church showed me that Catholics were devout people who loved God just as much as us Protestants.
Very early in my faith walk, I had also come to believe in the Real Presence. I believed that the Bible was true, and in it Jesus said, “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” He didn’t say, “This represents or signifies my body.” Paul also stated, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Corinthians 10:16–17). A literal interpretation of the words of Scripture would indicate that the bread and the wine were more than just symbols. Usually, my Protestant churches wanted to interpret the Bible as literally as possible — why not in this case? Furthermore, a simple review of the writings of the earliest Christians showed that they unanimously agreed that the Eucharist was the actual Body and Blood of Christ. If the earliest Christians were taught directly by the Apostles, wouldn’t their understanding of this important issue be much more accurate than an interpretation developed 1500 years later?
In addition to these theological problems, I began to confront problems with authority in the Protestant faith. As I studied various faith traditions, I became uneasy that there were so many doctrines, all seemingly contradictory, all claiming support from the Bible. Was correct theology simply unknowable?As I studied various faith traditions, I became uneasy that there were so many doctrines, all seemingly contradictory, all claiming support from the Bible. Was correct theology simply unknowable? Click To Tweet
Worse yet, churches began dividing on moral questions. I first confronted this issue a number of years ago when I wrote a Facebook post denouncing the fact that Ashley Madison, a “dating site” geared towards helping married people commit adultery, was shown to have millions of subscribers in the U.S. While I got many “amens” in response to my fiery post, one atheist assured me that there were “Christian” churches out there who would have no problem with adultery. I was confident he was wrong about this one issue, but I had become quite uneasy with the fact that there seemed to be no single Christian answer to other moral issues such as divorce, abortion, gay fornication, gay marriage, sex changes, etc. It seemed that, in the 21st century, many in the Protestant churches were treating moral issues more on the basis of the popular vote at the church convention and the ever-changing public secular opinions, rather than on sound scriptural studies. Even more damaging, respected Protestant theologians were flipping their positions on gay marriage and using their degrees and knowledge of biblical studies and Greek to make it appear that the Bible did not actually condemn what it clearly did. This, of course, was in regard to the issue of homosexuality and gay marriage. Was morality simply a matter of popular opinion and clever gymnastics in biblical studies, or was there actually a single truth and a Church that had the moral authority to speak with certitude about what Christianity allowed and what it didn’t?
There were certain Catholic doctrines, though, that I felt couldn’t be supported by the Bible. I was still holding onto sola Scriptura, so I didn’t want to become a Catholic. Besides that, I was enjoying my ministry with the Vietnamese churches and pretty much had the freedom to preach what I wanted, so I concocted a theology which was half Catholic, half Protestant, based on what I felt I could prove from the Bible. I had great respect for the Pope and the Catholic bishops and priests and the body of knowledge available from the Church Fathers.
I struggled greatly with the idea that most of theology simply seemed unknowable. The more I studied theology, the more I realized that every denomination and teacher had a different opinion about almost every topic, and each could back it up with Scripture references and resort to the Greek and the Hebrew. Who was right? Simply picking up the Bible and reading it was not enough. Everyone claimed the Holy Spirit as well as academic authority. Seminary blurred, rather than clarified, many things for me.
I wish I could say, like others, that I studied my way into the Catholic Church and conclusively proved to myself each and every Catholic doctrine before I attended my first Mass. But the truth is, I had been participating in Mass for 30 years, and I had come to agree with about half of what the Catholic Church taught, based on my own studies, but I still had problems. These problems were centered on the Marian doctrines, purgatory, indulgences, loss of salvation through mortal sin (though I was beginning to understand this), and several other common Protestant stumbling blocks. I had gone as far towards the Catholic Church as I was able on my own but enjoyed my status as a “half Catholic” Protestant minister. I enjoyed people finally calling me “pastor,” and I loved preaching the Word of God. I was pretty much where I wanted to be: full time lawyer, part time pastor.
But God had other plans. While on vacation in December 2014, we travelled to Mendocino and attended a lovely Saturday evening Mass. I felt really at home. That night, I began having sweaty nightmares, tossing and turning. I would wake up, fall asleep, and wake up again. Every time I fell asleep, I heard this voice insisting, “You need to stop preaching in the Protestant church and become a Catholic!” No! I truthfully thought the voice was demonic. Why would God tell me to stop preaching and become a Catholic, where my ministry would never be as fruitful as it now was? I even told my secretary how Satan was trying to trick me, pretending to be God.
At that time, I was also participating in Eucharistic Adoration for one hour a week. Over the next year, every time I sat in the chapel, I heard, “You need to step down from your position and become a Catholic.” And I would reply, “I don’t agree with the Catholics, Lord!”
That year, a man at my parish began challenging me because it was my practice to receive Communion at Mass. His name was Bob. He knew I was a Protestant. He spoke to me and would glare at me every time I took the Eucharist. I truly began to hate Bob and avoid him. Then while in prayer one day, the Lord told me, “Make friends with that man!” While I didn’t like Bob much, I knew better than to argue with the Lord, so I went out of my way to make friends with Bob. Immediately he began trying to convert me. I laughed him off. “You are never going to convert me! I know a lot more Scripture than you ever will!” His arguments fell flat with me.
But Bob continued his campaign. Besides praying for me and keeping the idea of conversion in my head, he gave me a video about the Virgin of Guadalupe. Remember, the Catholic veneration of Mary was a big stumbling block for me. As I watched that video and realized that millions of Mexican Indians had come to Christ because of this Marian apparition, I began to see her not as a false god or competitor to Christ for the admiration of God’s people, but as someone on the same team, someone that God could use even now for the salvation of souls. This was a breakthrough.
Every week in the Adoration chapel, the voice telling me to convert was insistent. Finally, in December 2015, we prepared to take a trip to Cabo San Lucas. As is not uncommon, the airline had oversold their tickets and bumped us off of their flight. We were furious. Instead of being in Cabo on the warm beach, we had to spend a day freezing at the San Francisco airport. It was Saturday, so my wife and I decided to go to Mass. At the church, I was enveloped in a feeling of peace and warmth and joy. I knew I was home. On New Year’s Day 2016, we were back in the U.S., and an Indian pastor friend of mine texted me, “What is your decision?” He was referring to my New Year’s resolution. I said to myself, “My decision is to obey God and become a Catholic.”
I informed the deacon at Mass. He encouraged me to enroll in RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) on the spot. I entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter Vigil 2016. Yes, Bob was my sponsor. The Sunday after Easter Vigil, Bob was serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion, and I left my normal line to make sure that he would have the privilege of happily and licitly giving me the Body of Christ. He insists that I have blessed his faith walk as much as he has blessed mine.
How did I decide to do it? If I wanted to continue to obey Christ, I had to lay down my ministry. I had to lay down the title that I had coveted for so many years and finally achieved. I had to publicly join the Catholic Church, thus disappointing and maybe even scandalizing the people who used to listen to me preach, as well as my own family. But I had to do it. Once I was convinced that God wanted me to become Catholic, I believed that what the Catholic Church taught was true, and I could no longer remain outside of it; I could no longer be disobedient to God. I had to lay aside my own understanding of several theological issues and simply believe that Jesus had given His Apostles authority to interpret the Bible. If I was to believe Christ, I would have to believe His Church.
This decision clarified my struggle with the unknowability of theology. Each Christian was not simply meant to study the Bible and come up with his own theology as he sees fit, rather we were to trust the Church that Jesus established with the authority to interpret Scripture. There is one truth, and the Church is entrusted with it. I don’t need to come up with my own theology. I just need to believe and obey. I am glad I listened to God’s voice!
Since becoming a Catholic, my prayer life has increased, my sin life has decreased, and I am walking in friendship with Christ. I am being obedient. I am at peace, and I feel great joy during the Eucharistic liturgy, receiving the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus. Yes, my status has decreased from being pastor to simply being a lay catechist. But as the Psalmist said, “I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalm 84:10). I am not saying that the Protestant churches are wicked. But the splintering of the Church into thousands of denominations after the Reformation was not a good thing. Protestants love the Lord as much as any Catholic, but the Catholic Church is the original Church that Christ started. It contains the fullness of truth, the sacraments (including the Eucharist), and the successors to the Apostles. It is the one Body of Christ from which the others devolved and the one Body to which we must all return if we want to enjoy full unity in Christ.
The truth is, I have a pretty good gig in my local parish. One year in, I was appointed as co-coordinator of the RCIA ministry in my parish. This is a wonderful position in which I can use my previous training and knowledge in theology and the Bible to guide others into a closer walk with Christ by helping them develop a personal relationship with Him, helping them know and learn the Scriptures as well as the teaching of Church Tradition. In addition, I have begun to organize events through RCIA and Cursillo where we can share testimonies, worship, and even preach outside of Sunday Mass. My mission is always to encourage each hearer and reader to ignite the fire in his relationship with God and grow closer to Him. I have re-written two of my previous books to comport fully with the teachings of the Church, and one more book on Psalm 23 is on the way. Meditations on the Lord’s Prayer: Catholic Edition and Seven Words of Jesus from the Cross are commercially available.
I don’t yet know fully what God wants me to do in the Catholic Church. I am sure He will let me know in His time, and I pray that I will be faithful to say, “Yes, Lord.”