BaptistCalvinistConversion Stories

The Unexpected Journey

Sharon Plascencia
May 28, 2019 No Comments

We often think of miracles as a physical demonstration of the supernatural, such as bodily healing, but, personally, I think for a die-hard fundamentalist Protestant to make his way into the Catholic Church is equally miraculous. Thank God for His generous gift of grace!

I am from New Hampshire, born into a faithful Fundamental Baptist family. From my first week in this world, I attended church with my family whenever the doors were open. While my childhood was troubled in many ways, I give thanks to God for the constant exposure to Scripture during those early, formative years of my life. Reading and memorizing Scripture were strongly encouraged — things for which I am very grateful and that I hope to pass on to my children as a wonderful habit to strengthen the Christian in his walk.

When I was twelve years old, I remember standing up in church and pledging before God and the congregation to serve God with my life; however, at the time I didn’t know in what capacity. I was soon to get some direction as to “how” when we moved to El Paso, Texas. I was fourteen at the time. I absolutely fell in love with the Hispanic culture, to which I had never been exposed, since I am from the northeastern corner of the United States. Though we only stayed there a short time, my heart had been touched. Even as a teenager, I immersed myself in the language and study of the culture.

When I graduated, I went to what was, perhaps, the most “Fundamentalist” of the Fundamental Baptist colleges, Fairhaven Baptist College in Chesterton, Indiana. I wanted to study to be an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher and through that means bring the Gospel to the Hispanic people, who in my mind were blinded by the Catholic Church. I studied Spanish and English and obtained my degree as a teacher.

From there, I found a teaching position at a Fundamental Baptist school in northern California. I lived on the premises and completely immersed myself in the life of the school and the church. Then, during the economic crisis of 2008, the school had to close. I prayed for what to do next.

God led me to work as a missionary teacher in Tijuana, Mexico. Once again, I was completely immersed into the life of the church and Christian school. I lived directly on campus, located on the outskirts of Tijuana. It included a church, Christian school, orphanage, and Bible Institute. I look back to this time of my life with extreme fondness and as a formative period in my Christian walk. It was there that I really learned what it meant to completely depend on God’s provision by faith.

It was also there where I met my future husband, José Plascencia. He had grown up in a culturally Catholic home but had a dramatic conversion experience when he was nineteen. He had then started attending a Baptist church with his neighbor friend, and out of a desire to serve God full-time, he came to the mission, which is where I met him two years later. He worked there as the director of the Bible Institute. We both lived there and worked 24/7. I am so deeply grateful to God for bringing me all the way from the northeast corner of the United States to the opposite corner and across the border so I could meet this wonderful man, whose sole purpose in life was to follow God, no matter what. Of course, at the time, I had no idea what that would entail!

We got married two years after we met; then we stayed on there at the mission in Tijuana for another year, after which God started moving us in another direction.

We were sent by our Fundamental Baptist church in Tijuana to plant a Hispanic church in downtown San Diego. We started the church plant in the spring of 2011. Starting a church entailed spending a lot of time knocking on doors and passing out tracts. Through the financial support of another church congregation, we were able to rent and meet at the local public school on Sundays. Around the same time, we were expecting our first child. Our home was situated about a block from that public school. We thought this was what we were going to be doing the rest of our lives — right there in downtown San Diego.

In hindsight, I can see that it was there that our journey commenced, though at the time I still had no idea what was coming. My husband has always been an avid reader, and through studying on his own, he began to have questions about the role of God’s sovereignty in man’s salvation and the significance of “predestination” from the Bible. However, “predestination” and “God’s sovereignty” were considered Calvinistic doctrines, not something that Fundamentalist Baptists believed. He was on the verge of officially being ordained as a Fundamentalist Baptist pastor and decided he must go to our sending church’s pastor with his questions. Yet he was simply met with “that’s just not what we believe” and “you should stop asking questions” as answers. As Calvinistic leaning beliefs were not accepted by our denomination, and José had started adopting many of those beliefs, in the end, after his six years of full-time ministry work with that pastor and three years on my part, we were simply kicked out — privately and by one individual, that pastor.

We continued having services in our house for a couple months, but we felt that it just wasn’t right to not have accountability to someone. At the same time, we were already expecting our second child. After praying, and with much sadness, we decided to leave the work in San Diego and move to northern California to be with family and to “regroup” after the terrible blow of being rejected by our sending church. It was as if the very floor underneath us had been ripped out! Where did we belong?

Then began the agonizing time of depression and lostness. Our dreams of planting a church and being totally involved in it for the rest of our lives were dashed. We knew that we didn’t belong to the Fundamental Baptist group any more. Our beliefs on various issues simply didn’t line up. We were starting to see an emphasis on outward rules and an over-emphasis on tithing and other extra offerings. We didn’t believe in the system of dispensationalism, including the so-called “rapture,” that was strongly upheld by the Fundamental Baptists. We also didn’t believe that the King James Version of the Bible was the only inspired ver- sion. And, of course, we were starting to gain interest in the Reformed doctrines of predestination.

How could this happen to us when all we wanted was to serve God? What had we done wrong? We didn’t understand because, before, everything had been so certain and so clear — we knew exactly who we were and what we were going to do. Now nothing seemed certain. We didn’t know where we belonged. Of course, God was in control all along, and He was leading us in a certain direction, but at that stage of our journey, we really felt lost, as if we were simply wandering.

We attended our family’s church in northern California for the next two years, which was officially a Fundamental Baptist church but not as radical as the branch to which we had belonged in Mexico. During those two years, we focused on our new and growing family and really weren’t heavily involved in church activities. For me, that was a really difficult adjustment! The previous ten years of my life had been spent living on church grounds and pouring myself into church work. I even felt like I just wasn’t serving God as I should. It wasn’t until much later into our journey that I learned of the Catholic teaching that marriage was a vocation and family life a beautiful way to grow in holiness.

While we stayed in our family church, we began looking to see where we might belong — what church fit in with our beliefs. We leaned toward Reformed Baptist teachings; however, I can still remember my husband putting on debates between differing Protestant groups and realizing that both sides had verses from the Bible to support their arguments. Listening to those debates really left me even more confused. How could two different Protestant groups (Calvinist and Arminian, for example) present their arguments and both of them have verses to seemingly support their side? Yet, the sides disagreed.

Then one day, Catholicism made a tiny blip on the radar. We came across the conversion testimony of Eduardo Verástegui on the EWTN program Nuestra Fe en Vivo. I’m not even sure how that video showed up on YouTube. We watched it spellbound! Eduardo recounted his story of how he had been totally dedicated to the sinful life of a Hollywood actor, which left him feeling completely empty. His English teacher, who happened to be a faithful Catholic, didn’t pull any punches. He told him of his need to turn his life around. By God’s grace, he did exactly that. There was no doubt in my mind that he had had a genuine conversion — but he became Catholic! How could that be possible? I shrugged it off as a single-case scenario and thought, Well, I suppose there are a few Catholics out there who are real Christians.

Not long afterwards, my husband rediscovered The Journey Home programs on YouTube. He recognized them, having seen a few when he was a teenager on the TV programs locally dubbed in Spanish in Tijuana. Watching the conversion stories was, to me, like opening the door to a whole world I didn’t even know existed. When I first started watching them, I have to be honest and say that I thought, Those Catholics are ridiculous! They have to put on conversion stories to try to persuade people to become Catholic!

But something did happen from watching those first conversion stories. It put an intense, burning desire in us both to prove that the Catholic Church was wrong! And by intense, I mean it was pretty much the only thing that occupied our thoughts for several months. In the beginning, I thought it was going to be a piece of cake to prove the Catholics wrong. In my mind, Catholics didn’t believe the Bible, and it was quite possible the Pope was the Antichrist. My husband would put on debates between Protestants and Catholics. I would rarely sit down and watch them; however, I would still be listening to them as I worked about the house. I thought the Catholic side wouldn’t even have a case and was unpleasantly surprised to find that, as much as I wanted the Protestant to win, often the Catholic arguments were more convincing.

One by one, and often without my even realizing it, my objections fell. I had never in my life entered a Catholic church. I had never had any Catholic friends, so all I really knew of the Catholic Church is what I had been taught in my Fundamentalist Baptist upbringing. Needless to say, I had several misconceptions about Catholic beliefs — things I thought Catholics believed but that they actually don’t believe.

Perhaps the greatest misconception was that Catholics believe in salvation by works. The Catechism states, “Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1945). I came to realize that “salvation by works” was a misleading and far too simplistic way of explaining the Catholic belief. Catholics believe that salvation can only be given through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and that God gives you grace to live out your Christian life. In my upbringing, I had been taught that you pray to ask Jesus into your heart, and that was it — you were saved forever. But I began to realize that such a teaching could only be supported by taking some verses out of context, rather than considering the New Testament as a whole. Under that premise, I couldn’t explain passages like Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” or James chapter 2, particularly verse 24, “You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.” I had never noticed that verse before! Without my realization, my paradigm began to shift ever so slowly. Many things that I had been taught were true, but there was also another facet to be added to make them more complete, more rich! I found that to be true about numerous things. Salvation was not only given by an initial gift of grace, as I already believed, but it was also a continuing process made possible by God’s grace. Jesus’ teachings are filled with this concept (Matthew 10:22, 24:13; Mark 13:13) As the Catechism states in paragraph 1949, “Man stands in need of salvation from God. Divine help comes to him in Christ through the law that guides him and the grace that sustains him.” I was amazed how the Catholic teaching on salvation made room for the Bible passages I had been uncomfortable trying to explain before. Everything just fit together!

The second barrier to fall was that of the Eucharist. This perhaps was the easiest one for me and the one that most opened me up to the idea that the Catholic Church just might be onto something. The “Lord’s Supper,” as I used to refer to it, had never been a topic of study for me. As soon as I began to study it, I was amazed at how clearly it was presented in Scripture. I looked to see where it was described as “merely a symbol” and simply couldn’t find it! However, there were two passages that really struck me as purely “Catholic.” The first was John 6, particularly verses 51–56, where at the end, it states, “For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Jesus’ followers were revolted at the thought of “eating his flesh” and turned from following Him. Jesus never reprimanded them for taking Him literally, as He had in other instances — because He was speaking literally! The other passage was actually a passage I had heard hundreds of times but hadn’t meditated upon very deeply, 1 Corinthians 11:27–30, which includes, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” How could a “symbol” cause such severe consequences? It did seem logical, however, that a physical thing such as the Real Presence could cause a physical consequence such as sickness or death when received incorrectly.

The drop that made the cup overflow came when I was introduced by my husband to what the earliest Christians from the very first century after Christ had to say about the Eucharist: “They have no regard for charity, none for the widow, the orphan, the oppressed, none for the man in prison, the hungry or the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer, because they do not admit that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, the flesh which suffered for our sins and which the Father, in His graciousness, raised from the dead” (St. Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Smyrnaeans, paragraph 6, circa ad 80–110). How Catholic does that entire quote from the very first century sound! I was blown away by reading these early Christians and learning that it was possible to experience the Christian life just as they described in their writing — not in my Baptist church, as I had always imagined we were closest to the New Testament Christians, but in the Catholic Church! Thus, one by one, my objections vanished.

As I began understanding Catholic teachings, the Bible, which I had read so many times and from which I had memorized so many passages, changed from two dimensional (which was nice) to three dimensional (which was amazing!). The continuity from the Old Testament to the New Testament, and how Catholic teaching brings it all together, made the Bible so new and fresh to me!

In a last-ditch effort to remain Baptist, we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where my husband entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to better prepare him to become a pastor. There, certainly, he would learn from the best minds, and all doubts would be resolved. But oh, the irony! I can envision God looking down from heaven grinning. In an effort to escape Catholicism, and without our being aware of it, we had run right into the heart of a very rich Catholic heritage. Louisville has a lot of Catholics, beautiful, old Catholic churches, and a deep Catholic history! Seminary had the opposite effect from what my husband had imagined. He saw how the professors frequently had differing opinions on various topics and an incomplete understanding of Catholicism and were often unable to answer his questions.

I have to admit, my biggest struggle was not understanding all the intellectual arguments to support the Catholic Faith; I actually was intellectually persuaded long before I became Catholic. There were two walls that were very difficult for me to overcome. The first was moving all of that “head” understanding to the heart. The second very difficult wall was my feeling of a loss of identity.

Having already been persuaded intellectually, I decided to enter RCIA (St. Martin of Tours parish, Louisville, KY) in September 2016, although not necessarily with the end of becoming Catholic in mind. At that point, my husband was already far ahead of me, ready to return to the Catholicism of his youth. He only needed to retrieve his Confirmation certificate and receive the Sacrament of Penance to be returned to full communion since he had already received the sacraments of initiation as a child. Even though he was ready, he did wait for me a bit longer so that he could return to full communion close to the time that I was received into the Church. Even though I had entered RCIA, I was still not ready. I vividly remember thinking, How do I get my heart to grasp all that I’ve understood in my head? I felt frustrated! A month later, we went on a Coming Home Network retreat in Biddeford, Maine. That was really my first encounter with Catholics. It was wonderful to meet Catholics who were dedicated to their faith. While I was still struggling with a lot of things during that time, I can look back on that week as being really influential in my journey.

Having never been in a Catholic atmosphere before, with Mass every day and adoration every evening, I was overwhelmed. I remember even expressing out loud, “I just want to sing ‘Victory in Jesus.’” I think what struck me most from that retreat was listening to the testimonies of each person and how they came to the Church. Almost everybody shared their heartbreak of a loss of family and friends, many even weeping. But everyone, without exception, said they wouldn’t change it for anything in the world! I determined I had to be one hundred percent sure that this was the right thing to do because it was certain that I would also experience the heartbreak of loss of relationships, and it had to be justified. I looked around at all the faces in the retreat and deeply desired to have in my heart the love for the Catholic Church that they had. I just didn’t know how to get it!

There was one unexpected help in this great difficulty: praying the Rosary. When I got home, I decided to try the Rosary. The first time I prayed it, I was skeptical. I thought, To say the same thing fifty times is ridiculous. I must say that, due to my attitude, I got nothing out of it. I contacted a friend from the retreat and asked for advice. She sent me a link to a YouTube page that included videos depicting the five mysteries, meant to be played while praying the decade. I tried it again. This time, the whole thing started working for me. The video kept my mind meditating on each mystery as I prayed the decades. Wow, what an experience! I couldn’t even get through the Rosary without crying. Meditating on the Mysteries allowed me to see the Gospel in a profound light I hadn’t really considered before. As a Baptist, I didn’t really know the value of meditative prayer … what a joy- ous discovery! In this way, I began to understand Catholicism with my heart, as I had so much desired!

The second wall, equally difficult to overcome, was the loss of identity. I had been a Fundamental Baptist all my life. I went to Bible college. I had lived on church property for many years, being completely involved seven days a week. Being a Baptist wasn’t just a part of my life; it was my life; it was who I was! What was I going to do as a Catholic?Being a Baptist wasn’t just a part of my life; it was my life; it was who I was! What was I going to do as a Catholic? Click To Tweet So many things were strange and different. I knew only a handful of Catholics. This wall was not quickly resolved. It requires a lot of patience to wait for the timing of finding your new identity as a Catholic. In fact, I have found a specific purpose, my true identity as a Catholic, only recently.

I do have to say, however, that something did help me out significantly. This was perhaps the last thing that really persuaded me that Catholicism was where I ought to be: reading and learning about the lives of the saints. For me, the saints were a whole new thing. I didn’t know anything about them. When I began reading books and watching documentaries on the lives of various saints, I was moved to the core. So many people, throughout all the centuries of Christianity, dedicated their entire lives to God, some in service to others and some giving up their lives as martyrs. These Catholic saints produced rich and profound writings only possible through a close walk with God. It gave me a deep desire to do the same in some way. As a Catholic, I could go back to any century and find other Catholics, saints who lived out their faith. That was something I could never have done as a Fundamentalist.

How could a Church teaching a “wrong doctrine” produce such profound faith and charity as seen in the saints? That was it! I was getting close to the end of RCIA before I became completely convinced that the Catholic Church was where I needed to be. The testimony of the saints was the last thing that persuaded me.

José made his way back into full communion a few weeks before I entered the Church at the Easter Vigil, 2017. A couple of months later, our two daughters were baptized. Now I can finally say, along with those converts I met at the retreat, that, yes, there is the pain of a loss of friends and family, the indifference, the distancing, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. I have found that “pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:46) in the richness of the Catholic Faith!

We have now moved back to Tijuana. Our journey moved us not only spiritually, but also physically. God literally moved us all over the country to find His truth and in the end brought us back to the exact city where we started. He has now given us a mis- sion. One of the reasons why we were able to make our journey was due to the abundant resources for converts in English; however, these resources are mostly not available in Spanish. There are not many Spanish-speaking apologists. We have started working towards an apologetic apostolate in Spanish to not only teach the uncatechized Catholics, of which there are many, but also to reach out to ex-Catholics who have become Protestants. Our goal is to be available to answer questions and to present the truth of Catholicism via social media and to go out and evangelize here in our community. My husband named it “La Fe de la Iglesia” (teaching and defending “The Faith of the Church”). We have started a YouTube channel and Facebook page named La Fe de la Iglesia, as well as a website, catolicismo.tv. We have included content such as conversion stories, teachings, questions and answers, and have an emphasis on personally corresponding with people who are searching for truth. We humbly ask for your prayers to be used by God to spread the beauty of the Catholic Faith in Spanish.


Sharon Plascencia

SHARON and her husband, José, currently live in the San Diego/Tijuana area with their two children. They are serving in the catechism department of their local parish in San Diego. Their apostolate, La Fe de la Iglesia, is a full-time ministry specifically designed to help Spanish-speaking converts along their journey.