How did my transition occur? Not in a single moment of great revelation, but slowly, through a series of experiences. More like a mosaic of God-encounters. Or better yet, like a journey on a boat that begins in the Atlantic Ocean, without a real plan or destination. One day you wake up, look around and realize that you’re somewhere in the Pacific. You’re not sure when you crossed from one ocean to the other, but you know you’re there, and there’s no going back.
Often, I was leading that wonderful mega-church, and deep inside I began to feel a longing to be a part of what I was convinced was God’s One Church. Over time that longing grew until I could deny it no more.
My journey culminated on Sunday, January 6, 2008, the feast of the Epiphany. On that day, I, the former pastor of a mega-church just twenty miles away, stood before the congregation at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Atlanta’s oldest Catholic church.
I was no longer the very public and well-respected Methodist minister. I would not welcome the congregation, deliver the homily, or stand outside and greet members as they left, but instead would be just like any other lay person there.
But then, finally, the moment came.
I walked to the front, and the priest gently placed the Body of Christ in the palm of my hand for the very first time.
And I began to weep.
Tears slowly streamed down my face as the years of journey climaxed in the enveloping presence of the Holy Spirit.
God used my friendship with a priest whom I met in graduate school to introduce me to the treasures of the Catholic Church. Through Father Steven, a Dominican friar, I came to see the six hidden treasures of the Catholic Church, treasures so powerful that they changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. I call them hidden treasures because they are so often over-looked or misunderstood or taken for granted.
At times, God uses friendships in remarkable ways. We listen to real friends. To strangers, we often turn a deaf ear or a cold shoulder. But to real friends, we will listen, even when listening stretches us in new ways. I do not think Fr. Steven intended to lead me home. Rather, he loved me and my family with abundance in a time when we desperately needed it. That friendship and love led to conversations about things of faith. Those conversations percolated and bounced around in my soul for years. I am constantly amazed at how God uses genuine friendships to shape our lives.
In our second year together, Fr. Steven arranged for the two of us to give Lenten lectures to a group of cloistered Dominican nuns in North Guilford, Connecticut. Of course, first, he had to explain what a cloistered monastery was. Talk about naive! I had no idea such places even existed.
A gathering of 50 nuns, located in a monastery whose grounds they vowed never to leave. A place of regular prayer, Mass, and simple, humble service. A group of nuns who supported their mutual life of prayer by making fudge (and it was great fudge!) and operating a book store. It was in their monastery that God planted the first seeds for my conversion, seeds which took sixteen years to come to fruition, and seeds which I did not even realize were being planted at the time.
Fr. Steven and I spent four wonderful afternoons giving talks to the nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of Grace. I discovered later that I had been the first male who was not an ordained Catholic priest ever to instruct the sisters within their walls. It was a rare privilege and blessing, which I could not have fully appreciated at the moment. God had opened a door of grace into which I had stumbled.
Best of all, the experience proved eye-opening for me in more ways than one. This invitation into a cloistered monastery rocked my world.
The holiness of these sisters stunned me. Keep in mind that these women would be the first to disagree at any suggestion that they are holy. They would be wrong.
Never before had I encountered persons so completely given over to God. Their faces shone with a grace and a light that unnerved me. The love of God revealed itself physically in their eyes, cheeks, and smiles. These were women whose entire lives were dedicated to the glory of God.
Remember this was totally new to me. I had no context or background to understand this place or these women. No such group exists in any Protestant tradition. Very simply, I was bumfuddled. It is not often that we have an experience that is so out of the ordinary and so out of place that we have no real way to process it at first.
This was all new territory to me. In some ways, it was scary because I was accustomed to teaching, speaking and being in charge of my setting. That control and leadership clearly did not apply here.
Fr. Steven and I shared lectures focused on the great Dominican doctor of the Church, Thomas Aquinas, and on John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. We discussed sanctification and holiness, and the places where our beliefs intersected far more than we had anticipated. The common ground between us surprised the nuns, Fr. Steven, and me. We enjoyed great interaction and conversation together. After our last lecture, we reserved time for questions and answers. For many of the sisters, I was the first Methodist they had ever met.
One sister, whom I call “Sr. Rose,” raised her hand and, as I remember, said, “Allen, thank you for having come these past few weeks. We've enjoyed your teaching.” She paused and continued, “You sound so Catholic. After hearing you, I can't help but wonder, 'Why aren't you a part of the Church?'”
The nuns giggled. The question startled me. “A part of the Church?” What did she mean?
As a Protestant I was taken aback by that. I thought to myself, “Well, I am a part of the Church. Don’t you understand that? I’m a Methodist pastor.” Then all of a sudden it dawned on me: she meant the Catholic Church is the one and only Church.
I laughed and gave a quick answer. I said something like, “Why am I Methodist as opposed to being Catholic? Well, you are some of the first Catholics I have ever met. The main reason revolves around communion. It seems very obvious to me that Jesus is using a metaphor when He talks about the cup and the loaf. The wine doesn’t literally become His blood; that seems kind of obvious to me as a Methodist. It’s still wine, or in the Methodist tradition, it’s grape juice. The loaf, He is saying, 'It’s my body,' just as He also says He is the door, He is the light, and He is the shepherd. It's just bread and juice. I really do not understand why you all take it so literally. It's a symbol.”
Believe it or not, I had never had that conversation in my brain before. As a Methodist and in my training in seminary, it was just something we assumed. I took it for granted.
Sr. Rose then came right back at me. Very kindly but very directly, she said, “Well, you are a New Testament scholar, right? So why does Jesus say...”
With that introduction, she then began to walk me through chapter 6 of the Gospel of John and Jesus' teaching there on the Bread of Life. I thought I knew this passage, but Sr. Rose carefully paused on eight separate occasions to make the point: Jesus is serious about His body and His blood.
My transition into the Church stunned my family. I come from a long line of Methodist pastors, 8 generations I think my mother and in-laws are still processing my decision. My wife and children have been very supportive. One of my daughters (21 years old) has also entered the Church now. My decision cost me a number of friendships, primarily with some former colleagues. Of course, it put an end to all I had worked for in my career as a pastor. But it was impossible to avoid. It has been a wonderful journey, a hard journey, and a life-giving journey..
More information of on Allen Hunt’s conversion story can be found in his book “Confessions of a Mega-Church Pastor: How I Discovered the Hidden Treasures of the Catholic Church” which is available in bookstores and on his web site – allenhuntshow.com