I was raised in the Southern Baptist Church- the church in which my family is deeply rooted. My great-grandmother wanted to be a missionary but instead she found herself traveling to the newest state in the union on a covered wagon with her new husband- a cowboy from New Mexico. Just after the turn of the century, they made their home in Walters, Oklahoma and raise 10 children to be God-fearing, bible-toting pillars of the community. As her family grew, it became clear to her that instead of becoming a missionary, it was God’s will for her to raise missionaries. Although none of her 10 children became actual missionaries, they did become the backbone of the First Baptist Church of Walters which partly owes its existence to my extended family.
My father, her grandson, would have made her proud. He has been very active in all the churches my family has called home. From sunday school teacher to deacon, to substitute preacher- the man has done it all. He would have happily lead worship music but everyone quickly figured out not to give him the microphone. He can’t sing and everyone knew it because his joyful noise to the Lord was stark enough to wake the dead.
My Mom was born Catholic. Her maternal grandparents emigrated from Italy and were devoted to the faith. Her father was not a Catholic and, because of that, her mother’s parents did not approve of the relationship. When you throw that on top of her mother’s suicide when my mom was 5, the Catholic faith was a tough pill to swallow. Not only was it the source of discontent in her family, but it seemed to be filled with rules and regulations rather than the love and mercy she needed during her traumatic childhood. When her father stopped taking her and her siblings to Mass, my Mom was relieved to be done with the Catholic Church.
At first, my Mom and Dad’s marriage didn’t go over too well with my Dad’s family. My Mom still claimed to be Catholic and she was divorced. These were two big problems for my Grandmother- her mother-in-law. But in the end, they accepted her and were delighted when she accepted the Lord and savior into her heart. In wonderful Baptist style, she was baptized in a creek at her stepmother’s ranch and she hasn’t missed a Sunday since.
So, as you can imagine, I was raised very much a Southern Baptist. We went to Sunday school and worship service every Sunday since I can remember. The Baptist Church was our home. Which was good since our physical address always changed every few years.
My Daddy was in the Navy. Military life naturally gives way to a unique childhood experience. It had advantages. For example, we moved a lot. I grew up while on a grand tour of our great country. I have lived in 9 different places and went to 9 different schools in 12 years. I saw a lot of history and was exposed to many different cultures. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything because it has made me into the well-rounded and open-minded person I am today. Military life also has its disadvantages. For example, we moved a lot. Uprooting and adjusting to a new community became my normal. It was never easy to leave old friends and make new ones. Trends were different. Culture was different. People were different. Schools were different. Academic and social expectations were different. And for a kid who was trying to fit in and figure out where she belonged in the world, it was a difficult adjustment every time. But in every new place I lived, I always found comfort in my church. I always felt accepted there. I always fit in. My church home was my safe haven.
At the tender age of 6, I walked down the isle of a tiny Baptist church in Waukegan, Illinois and announced to the pastor that I wanted Jesus to live in my heart. I wanted to be saved. I did it because it was time. It was time for everyone to know that I felt Jesus in my heart. A couple weeks later, I was baptized in that tiny Baptist church. And the Holy Spirit breathed on me that day. From that moment on, I never felt alone. I always felt as if something greater than me was lighting my path. I felt God’s presence in my life. It wasn’t something that I sought after or looked for. He was just there. Even when I didn’t want Him to be there, He was there. He wasn’t letting me go. My heart was His.
During my teenage years, I stayed deeply rooted in the Baptist church. I was becoming one of those pillars of the community my Great-Grandmother would have been so proud of. I was at every youth group event. I went on every youth mission trip and retreat. I sang in the choir. As I got older, I became a leader. I sat on the youth counsel. I lead prayer groups and even acted as music minister for youth services. Basically, when I wasn’t at school, I was at church. And I loved every moment of it.
It was my Junior year of high school when things started to change. Although I felt completely at home with the Baptist church, I was starting my slow walk away from it. I didn’t realize it at first, but as I look back, it was very clear when the unraveling began. My youth minister started a bible study with us on the book of Revelation. You know- the strange end of the world prophetic vision of the Apostle John that has it place at the very end of the Bible. In the book of Revelation, John describes seven churches. Several of the seven churches were warned of their participation in some kind of wrong doing that threatened their eternal salvation. I have recently learned that the Catholic Church teaches that each of the seven churches were actually Christian communities that the Apostle John was involved with. However, the youth minister, who was in seminary at the time, began to teach us that each of the seven churches represents a different, present day Christian denomination. And as he kept talking, I was becoming more and more convinced that he thought the members of these denominations were going to hell. Surprisingly enough, the Baptist Church was not included in the seven churches. But the Catholic Church was the worst of the seven churches. I was surprised. Christ founded the Catholic Church so I was having a hard time believing that Catholics were going to hell. My “something’s gotta be fishy” radar was going off full blast. So I raised my hand and started asking questions. And he really didn’t have any good answers to my questions. I engaged him in a debate in front of the whole youth group and he couldn’t debate his way out of it. From that moment on, things were different between the youth minister and I. He was nice to me but he wasn’t interested in really talking to me anymore. But I didn’t stop with the questions. I questioned him a lot after that. After his strange interpretation of Revelation, I had to find out what else I was being taught that didn’t add up. So, I kept challenging his theology with questions. And by the time my senior year rolled around, he was done with me and I knew it. He tolerated me and my questions, but he was no longer interested in developing my Christian walk like he was with the rest of the kids. It could have been because he didn’t know what else to do with me. It could have been that all my questions made him uncomfortable. Now that I am older and wiser, I don’t hold it against him. I am sure I was not an easy teenager to manage considering that I was a teenager who already knew everything.
At any rate, by the end of my senior year, I felt very disconnected from the Baptist church. I was having problems with some of their teachings. My struggle was visible to my friends in the youth group who seemed to take a step or two back from the girl who dared to question the youth minister about God. When I began to disconnect from my friends, I knew that something greater was at work. I started to think that maybe God didn’t want me to be in the Baptist church. It was a terrifying thought. It was the only church I knew. It was my home. It was my family’s home. Where would I go? Where would I belong?
As I pondered these thoughts more and more, I grew increasingly uncomfortable worshipping in and growing with the Baptist church. I stopped going to Sunday school at the beginning of May. My Sunday school teacher never said anything to me. I would like to think that he knew I needed some space. Then, one Sunday at the end of May, I walked into the sanctuary for worship service and I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this church wasn’t right. I was completely creeped out for lack of a better term. I had chills up and down my body and my stomach was in knots. My intuition was telling me to run out of the place. I lasted through the first few worship songs and then I couldn’t take it anymore. I got up and walked out. I walked out of the church that I had known since childhood. I left the community that raised me. I left the community that my family was so deeply rooted in and proud to be part of; the community that accepted me no matter where I went and made me feel at home. I was in turmoil with each step I took towards the door. But when I opened the door and felt the warm sun on my face, peace instantly overcame me. That divine peace let me know that I was not alone and that I belonged to Him and that He was calling me to a new place. I had no idea where this new place was, but I knew I needed to get in my car and drive away from the Baptist Church.
During the summer after graduation, I tried a few different churches. The other Baptist church across town felt just as creepy. I also went to a few Catholic Masses with some friends. I was overwhelmed by the presence of God in a Catholic Church but I wasn’t ready to take that step. I had been taught all my life that Catholics were almost a cult. Great Grandma would spin in her grave if she knew one of her own was even in a Catholic Church. God forbid if I were to convert. At least that’s what Daddy told me.
At this point there was one thing I was certain of. I no longer wanted to be a part of the Baptist Church. So I decided that I needed to make it official. I wrote a short, matter-of-fact letter to the Baptist Church I attended for most of my adolescent years stating that I no longer wished to be a member and I wanted my name removed from the list at their church and from the list at the Southern Baptist Convention. And the only response I got back was a letter stating that they removed it. I never got a phone call from a pastor, or a minister, or a Sunday school teacher, or even a friend. At the time, I took it as another sign that I was supposed to leave. So, I didn't look back. I didn't allow myself to feel the hurt and rejection. If I didn't feel the hurt, then they wouldn't have the satisfaction of hurting me. I focused my energy on finding this new place God was leading me to.
That fall, I went to college at Loyola University in New Orleans. Yes, a Catholic college. I chose it because they offered me the best scholarship. It didn’t matter to me that it was a Catholic school. Well, as you can guess, there were lots of Catholic students there; one of which stalked me and then tricked me into a date with him. After our second date, I knew he was my soul mate. He was my match. I think he knew it too. So he started taking me to Mass. I had been without church for several months at this point, so I was happy to go with him. I was happy to try something different.
However, I was a little surprised at how different the Catholic Church was. Let’s start with the Eucharist. When I was growing up in the Baptist church, we were taught that what Jesus said during the last supper was not to be taken literally. We learned that the bread represented his body and the wine represented his blood. It never occurred to me to question that teaching because, let’s face it, the bread and wine actually changing into Jesus is a little far-fetched for our finite and human minds to grasp. When I started going to Mass, I learned that Catholics actually believe that the bread was Jesus’ body and the wine was His blood- it wasn’t a representation. I was taken aback by that. How could they believe in such a preposterous idea? I even had to go a few times to be convinced that this is what they actually believe. I thought that I could never believe that so I found excuses not to go back for a little while. But then my curiosity drew me back (to the great relief of my boyfriend). I got to thinking that this is what the people of the Catholic Church have believed for 2000 years. That’s a long time. And then I started to think about what great faith the Catholic people must have in order to believe in such a crazy thing. I didn’t think I had what they had. I didn’t have the faith to believe in what they believed in. But I wanted to be around them. I wanted to worship with them. I felt God’s presence among them. So I kept going to Mass.
And then one day, Mass was different. I had just picked up a book about Eucharistic Miracles (Eucharistic Miracles by Joan Carroll Cruz). My boyfriend and I were in a Catholic book store and I happened to see it on the shelf. Given my new found fascination I had with Catholics and the Eucharist, I couldn’t help but want to read that book. Were there really miracles related to this idea of the Eucharist? I had to know what it said. I wasn’t ready to believe what was in the book, but I had to know what was in the book. The very first chapter was about the miracle at Lanciano, Italy. In this miracle, a priest was questioning the actual presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. This got my attention, because that was exactly what I was doing. Then, at a mass he was presiding over, the host became an actual piece of flesh and the wine became real blood. When I first read that, I was like, yeah right. But, I kept reading and learned this miracle is preserved and on display to this very day. AND they did some tests on the “flesh” and “blood” and determined that it was real human flesh and blood. And that the flesh was muscle from the human heart. That last part is what got me. The flesh was from the human heart. If it really was Jesus, then He was giving us a piece of His heart.
The Mass I attended after reading about this miracle was different. I felt very connected to everyone around me. It was if I knew their secret. As the Mass progressed, I became more and more focused on what was happening on the altar. And when the Priest held up the host and said “This is my body, to be given up for you”, something clicked. I didn’t hear “This is my body.” Instead, I heard “This is my heart.” If I hadn’t already been on my knees, I would have fell to them. At that moment, my spirit explained to my intellect what was happening. You see, all my life in the Baptist Church, I was taught that I should give my heart to Jesus. In fact, that is what you do when you pray the special prayer to be saved – you invite Jesus to live in your heart. So, I grew up inviting Jesus to live in my heart. I invited Him to be a part of me. I wanted Him to live in me, and I liked to think that my heart was His. And then, there He was, up on that altar, offering me His heart. It was as if everything had come full circle and a whole new world was revealed to me. The Lord was showing me a part of himself I had never seen. My hunger for the Eucharist began that day. On the way home from that Mass, I remember telling my boyfriend that I wanted to be Catholic. He gave me a knowing look and then signed me up for RCIA.
I received communion and was confirmed on Easter vigil of my sophomore year in the little chapel housed in the oldest building on campus. Gerry, my boyfriend, was my sponsor. His family was in attendance. As you can guess, my family was not. My conversion was not easy on them. After a year with no church, they were happy to discover that I was still going to church but not happy about which church I chose. I think they were hoping it wouldn’t stick. They wanted to believe this was some rebellious phase kids go through in college. It could have been worse, they reasoned. I could be going through the drugs and sex phase so they were thankful that it was just the Catholic phase. Of course they would be there for me as I found my way back to the Baptist church. They would welcome me back to my church home. Well, they have been waiting for 14 years now. Gerry and I were married in the Catholic Church. Our children were baptized in the church and my oldest son has made his first communion. So far it has stuck. I’m not sure if they still hold out hope or not. We don’t discuss it. I think they are afraid I am going to try to convert them if they bring it up. But they have become very supportive of my faith choice so I can’t ask for anything better than that. And I sure do hope that Great Grandma has stopped spinning. After 14 years, she must be rather dizzy. In all seriousness, by becoming Catholic, I did give up a part of my family. I am a little bit of an outsider now. At family reunions on my Dad’s side, it always comes up that I converted. We are known as the Catholic family from that heathen city, New Orleans. But I can say that I am glad to exchange it for the fullness of the faith. I am happy to be where God wants me to be. I know Him on a much deeper level through the Eucharist. Scripture makes so much more sense through the eyes of a Catholic. Giving up that part of my family is worth the experience I have with God in the Catholic faith. I gave up such a little part of my family and He has given me so much more in return - His Heart.