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Conversion StoriesPresbyterian & Reformed

The Long Hike from Geneva to Rome

David R. Gillespie
December 10, 2012 2 Comments

On November 6, 2011, on the book of the Gospels and before my friend and fellow chaplain, Fr. Bartholomew Leon, I signed the Nicene Creed and a statement in which I professed to “believe in and hold firm all that the Holy Catholic church believes in, teaches and professes as handed down by the Fathers of the Church and Ancient Tradition.”

By doing so, I effectively hung up my pulpit gown and stole: items I had received on the occasion of my 1979 ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church in America. It was the end of a long hike from Geneva to Rome.

So began my Christian formation

I was literally adopted into the Presbyterian Church in 1952. I have no memories of that time, only stories that I’ve been told. Born in McAlester, Oklahoma, I spent the first few months of my life in an orphanage. Ray and Anne Gillespie, though both from the southeastern U.S., had settled in El Paso, Texas after Ray’s return from the Pacific theater of World War II at that conflict’s conclusion. While there, and following six miscarriages, they adopted: first a newborn girl in El Paso, then me from an orphanage in neighboring Oklahoma.

Ray had been raised a Baptist in the red-clay hills of Oconee County, South Carolina; Anne, a sometimes Methodist, sometimes High-Church Episcopalian, as her youth was divided between Anderson, South Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. They compromised on the Presbyterian expression of Protestant Christianity. I was baptized in the name of the Triune God before the congregation of First Presbyterian Church in El Paso in December of 1953. So began my Christian formation.

Ray and Anne took their baptismal vows seriously and, to the best of their ability, raised me in the Christian faith. Family devotions were always held, usually before or after the evening meal, and I remember many of my earlier books were those that consisted of stories of biblical characters and events, like that big, ubiquitous “blue book” that seemed to appear in many family libraries.

As I grew, Mom and Dad made sure I was in Sunday school and eventually in youth group meetings. We became active members of the First Presbyterian Church in whatever city we happened to be living at the time as we slowly made our way back across the country to South Carolina. In addition to substantial Presbyterian sermons, Sunday school classes, youth groups, and our own devotions at home, my young faith was also informed by those biblically-based, big-budget Hollywood presentations of biblical stories: The Ten Commandments, Samson and Deliah, The Robe, et al. These movies made a significant impression of the awe-inspiring majesty of the God of the Bible on my young mind and heart — a theme that has remained fairly constant in my life.

Sensing the call

When I was about 12-years old, and after we had made it all the way back to the South Carolina upcountry, I entered into the confirmation process of the Presbyterian Church in which I learned the quintessential Presbyterian statement of faith: the Westminster Shorter Catechism. This was accomplished by the efforts of a very kindly, pastoral minister, the Rev. Dr. Richard T. Gillespie, as he made sure I comprehended the deeper meaning of the statements contained therein — or at least as deep as a mid-twentieth century 12-year-old could. But there were other forces at work in my childhood and young teenage spiritual development. Not the least of these was a growing appreciation for the beauty of the highly liturgical worship I experienced with my mother on occasional forays to the Episcopal cathedral in Atlanta.

Entering my senior year of high school, I began seriously contemplating the future. I was not at all academically inclined and had abysmal grades, except for a couple of classes. What I really wanted to be was a state game warden. I loved the outdoors. Hunting and fishing occupied most of my time, which probably contributed to my bad grades. During this time, however, I began to feel God’s vocational call, especially through the voices of those men in the church whom I respected and admired.

My pastor at First Presbyterian in Anderson was the Rev. John B. Pridgen and he was one of those voices. Our families were very close (his son is still my best friend) and he encouraged me to start exploring and praying about ordained ministry as a vocation. It was another Presbyterian minister, however, who was, I’m confidant, used by God to steer my life’s trajectory toward ordained ministry. His name was Iain Inglis, a Scotsman and pastor of a small, nearby church. We worked together in summer youth camp programs. It was Iain who convinced me to apply to the small, independent Christian college he had attended after arriving in the US, known at the time as Columbia Bible College (now known as Columbia International University). My parents were supportive (and probably very glad their son wasn’t going to be a game warden or sail off to war) and we were all genuinely surprised when I was admitted to CBC/CIU, given my academic track record.

The philosophers

Although life at CBC/CIU in the early 1970s was as far removed from any Catholic expressions of faith, it was at CBC/CIU, interestingly enough, that I was first introduced to and drawn to Catholic thought. In Medieval philosophy and systematic theology classes we bumped up against Augustine and Aquinas.

During my sophomore year, I met, and subsequently fell in love with a fellow student, Jane. She was the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries from Northern Ireland who had recently returned to the United States where her father served a small Presbyterian church south of Philadelphia. We were married the following summer.

After our wedding, we moved to Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, which was the site of a Presbyterian liberal arts school, Covenant College. I was particularly interested in pursuing my studies in Reformed theology there and studying under the well-known philosophy professor Gordon H. Clark. Clark was an Augustinian and it was he who fanned the flames of my desire to understand Christian philosophy even more. It was also at Covenant where I engaged in a deeper study of the thought of a man to whom I had been introduced at CBC/CIU: the late Francis A. Schaeffer. I still feel Schaeffer’s influence on my life today. It was Schaeffer who first prompted me to think about Catholics and Protestants working together for a common goal (in his case, combating the rise of abortion on demand) and it was his thought regarding Christian unity that contributed to my eventual “crossing of the Tiber.”

After studying at Covenant, we moved back to CBC/CIU. Prior to Covenant, I had remained in what was, at the time, the Presbyterian Church in the United States, the southern branch of mainline Presbyterianism. While at Covenant, I was convinced by my professors to move into the newly formed Presbyterian Church in America. That move determined the next step in my education and spiritual development. I chose to attend an independent seminary in Jackson, Missouri, the Reformed Theological Seminary, in 1976. In August 1979 we moved to that small rural community in Williamsburg County, South Carolina and I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament.

A very dark time

Toward the end of my third year as pastor of two small rural churches, something happened that would radically alter my life and, to a significant extent, my relationship with God. I resigned my pulpit effective January 1983 and separated from my wife. I located a retail job and apartment in Columbia.

Even now, twenty-nine years after a regretted divorce, I still have yet to understand completely what was going on in my inner self or between my wife and I at the time. We were both under stress during my last two years of undergraduate work and the three years of seminary. Surely, part of it must have been that I was unprepared, through my own fault, for marriage. I never really dated in high school and, unlike the Catholic Church, the Presbyterian Church did not require any time of marriage preparation.

From my perspective, the divorce marked the start of a very dark time in my life. I went through a series of unsuccessful relationships (and hurt some folks along the way), I moved from job to job (not knowing what I wanted to do, or could do, given my education), partied way too much, and pretty much turned my back on the church. I rationalized my lifestyle, I suppose, by thinking that God had abandoned me.

By 1990, I ended up back in my hometown of Anderson working for a not-for-profit organization and also part time at a hotel front desk. I still had not reengaged with the church and really had no plans to do so. During this time, my father’s physical condition started to seriously decline and I became more and more involved in the lives of my parents as caregiver/helper. Dad died in 1996 and I was able to quit working to care for my mother full time.

It was my mother who was instrumental in my return to the church (and God) if by no other way than having me take her to worship services, both Presbyterian and Episcopal. Following the death of my mother in 2003, I was again faced with a “what do I do now?” situation. I was fortunate in that I was not being pressed by financial concerns at the time and tried my hand at fulltime writing and editing. I had been writing since 1974 (when I published my first essay in a national Presbyterian journal) and had continued to do so whether I was in or out of ministry and/or the church. Thus, for a year or so I wrote and published both fiction and nonfiction. I still wanted to get back into ministry of some sort, but I had no idea in which direction to go.

Where to go?

My theological journey had led me from the evangelical Presbyterianism of my earlier days to an exploration of what might be best termed “progressive” Protestantism. This, in turn, led to a brief flirtation with the Unitarian Universalists as I worked for two years with a local Unitarian Universalist group as their Director of Faith Development. This forced me to go back and think through my essential theological commitments. This time of consideration made me realize the fundamental incompatibility of my core beliefs as a Christian and what passed for much of liberal/progressive Protestantism (and most assuredly with the Unitarian religion).

I was having coffee one day with an older, mentor type friend and former boss (retired Presbyterian minister) and asked, “Do you think God’s finished with me?” At the time, Zane, my friend, was doing volunteer chaplaincy at one of our local hospitals, mostly in the behavioral health unit. He said, “Of course not,” then urged me to apply to the Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program at one of our local hospitals. I did so, was accepted, and, in August of 2008, started my residency. It was there I met Fr. Bartholomew Leon (Fr. Bart) and began a treasured friendship, which has greatly influenced my journey to Rome.

I used to joke with Fr. Bart all the time by quoting the late Malcolm Muggeridge, who famously said, “We all get back to Rome eventually.” I started attending an Anglo-Catholic Episcopal church in town and became friends with the rector there (who was more Catholic than anything else). As I drew on my long conversations with Frs. Bart and Trey, I found myself moving more and more toward the Catholic expression of Christian faith. I was being compelled by a number of factors (in addition to the appreciation of high liturgical forms instilled in me by my mother): a desire for ecclesiastical and theological stability; a commitment to the unity for which Christ prayed in John 17, a theme which I had learned from Dr. Schaeffer; a growing appreciation for the social doctrine of the Catholic Church and how that was lived out; and a serious reckoning of eight profound words, four creedal and four from the gospels – One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and “hoc est corpus meum” (“this is my body”). I found I could not escape — nor did I want to — the import of those words as they might be lived out in my life.

Joining others who have “come home”

Following my completion of the CPE residency, and not being able to immediately secure a position as a chaplain in the area, I partnered with a local Lutheran church in developing a private practice in pastoral care/spiritual direction. During this time, I started reading more Catholic theology and works by those who had also moved from Protestantism into Catholicism. I began to more deeply explore the theological roots of Catholic social doctrine and found a certain resonance in my own mind and heart with it. After making the decision to be received into the Catholic Church, I stumbled across a number of people who had also “come home” from Reformed backgrounds, some even from my old denomination and educational background, and in that I took great joy.

It’s interesting: as I was doing a final edit on this piece, my son called from where he and his family live outside of Orlando. He was calling to tell me about the Catholic parish they are going to join. That made me smile. My daughter and her family, on the other hand, are inclined to Reformed Presbyterianism to which her mother’s Belfast family espoused. I’m okay with that, too.

The hike from Geneva to Rome has been a long one, filled with detours. It has also been, for me, a revealing and fascinating one. There’s probably a lot I would do differently if I had the chance; but on the other hand, I’m thankful for all the experiences of my life, even those of which I’m not too proud, for they have all contributed to who I am and becoming.

David R. Gillespie

David R. Gillespie is a Chaplain at Bon Secours St. Francis hospital.

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