Methodist Convert: Elliott Suttle
Elliott came to the Catholic Church from an apathetic atheism after having been raised in the Methodist church. He currently resides in rural Japan where he teaches English and occasionally blogs about his faith and racing.
From Methodism to Apathy/Atheism and on to Rome
It can be very interesting the paths that God chooses for our lives. While I am generally content to keep the details of stories like this to myself, I’ve felt that it would be helpful to put this on paper. Perhaps it is His will that I relate my journey in order that others may benefit by it. I truly don’t know at this point in time. Perhaps God will reveal to me the reason at some point in the future.
Most of the salient points of the story begin sometime around the Easter season of 2005. In order for the story to have its full effect, however, it is necessary that we go back several years and see the events that lead up to this time. Unfortunately, I’m not certain exactly where to begin. Perhaps this journey began as early as 1992 when I first left for college. In truth, it began well before I was born, but this isn’t an autobiography.
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina to parents who made sure we attended church every weekend, although it was never really something we discussed outside of Sunday morning. Mom had been raised a Presbyterian and Dad a Baptist, so when they married they decided that they would compromise and attend a Methodist church. With the occasional exception, that's the church and theology with which I grew up. Given that we lived in a small town in the South, the Catholic Church was a total non-factor. Unlike many Churches that you may have heard about in the South, there wasn’t the anti-Catholic indoctrination that many grow up with. When I say it was a non-factor, I mean exactly that. I don’t think I had ever even heard of the Catholic Church. When I finally did encounter it, there was still no mention of how it differed. For all I knew, it was exactly like any other denomination. There was exactly one parish in our town, but it was just never mentioned. It wasn't until around middle school that I met a Catholic family for the first time. They were from Maine and had moved in down the road from us. I remember going to Mass with them at some point, but the only thing I really remember about it at this point is that we knelt during Mass. I believe the parish had a communion rail, but I could be mistaken on that point.
For some reason, even at this young age, it seemed wrong to me for two pastors to preach different meanings for the same scripture passage. If we were all part of the same faith, shouldn't the teachings be the same? It also seemed to me that faith should be more than a Sunday morning activity as it seemed to be in our lives.
Anyway, my middle school years were a very bad time for me. At one particular point my friends left me and began to torment me. I had absolutely no friends left, and was a very angry and depressed child. Mom sent me to the pastor for counseling, but I don't recall it doing much good. I only mention this because I also attended school and church with these “friends.” We were going through confirmation classes at the time, and while confirmation meant the world to me, I couldn't stand to be there because of the people with whom I was forced to attend. The part that I still remember to this day is when they began to teach us about church history. They told us that the Methodist church had broken away from the Catholic Church during the Protestant Reformation. To my mind, it didn't make sense to split the Church like that, but because of my situation I didn't dare ask questions about it.
Outside of the people with whom I had to attend, I really did enjoy going to Church. In particular, I was looking forward to my confirmation. My grandfather gave me the Bible that he had been given at his confirmation, and there was really nothing more important to me at that point in time than being there for my confirmation. I woke up on Sunday for confirmation with a stomach virus of some kind. I was far too sick to attend, and my parents told me as much. This was my confirmation, however, and I wasn’t going to miss is it just because I wasn’t feeling particularly well. They finally relented and let go. I somehow managed to get through most of the service just fine, but it didn’t last. Just after being called up to the front for the confirmation portion of the service, the stomach virus caught up with me. I was forced to run to the bathroom in the middle of the ceremony to avoid leaving whatever was left in my stomach all over the minister. I only relate this story because it serves as a great example of what the faith meant to me during this portion of my life. Also, it stands in stark contrast to where I would be after high school.
During high school we moved from North Carolina to California due to my father’s work. I was very fortunate that the Methodist Church we began attending in California had an excellent youth group. Virtually every month we went to youth group conferences, and at one point we ran a summer camp for kids in Alaska. I was still happy to attend church at this point, but I don’t know that it had much effect on my life outside of the times when I was at church or participating in parish-related activities.
When I left for college, many things in my life changed. This, in itself, is not unusual, and is generally experienced by most that go to college. Most of the changes I experienced were due to a lack of maturity on my part, and this contributed to a general laziness regarding my spiritual life. While I still believed in God, and considered myself a Methodist at this point, I had stopped attending church. Part of the reason was a growing belief that I did not need church in order to retain my relationship with God, and another part was the fact that I generally was just going to bed around the time most worship services were starting. Satan knows scripture about as well as anyone, and he often uses it to convince you that what you're doing is right. In my case, he used my ignorance of scripture to help me justify myself in not going to church.
In the middle of these changes, I was confronted for the first time with the topic of abortion. One of the guys that lived on my hall in the dorm my first year at school asked me where I stood on the issue. I told him, truthfully, that I had never really thought about the issue and that I really had no opinion on the matter. He told me that it was far too big an issue and I had better decide where I stood sooner rather than later. To me, the issue seemed to be fairly cut and dried and I approached it from an unusually neutral perspective. I had (and still have) strong leanings toward personal freedom, so I posed the question to myself: which one takes priority? A woman's rights as an individual or the right to be born? It sounds callous, I know, but that was how I looked at it. I never consciously prayed about it, but I believe God knew the questions in my heart and suddenly one day a couple of weeks after running this question through my mind, the answer came to me: murder is always wrong, even if done in the name of personal liberty. In all my wanderings I've never wavered from that idea.
Gradually, my loose affiliation with the Methodist church turned toward something more akin to an apathy towards religion in general. As I took more classes and read more over the course of those intervening years, I became convinced that one could live a moral life outside the structure of a Church. My apathy at its worst became a dislike for religion and I became uncomfortable discussing God and my views on faith. I considered myself at this point in my life to be an Agnostic, leaning somewhat towards Atheism.
I remember going out to dinner with a buddy of mine one night and as we were driving I turned to get something from the back seat. As I was turned, I noticed the bulletin from his Church on the seat. I remember feeling something akin to anger or contempt at the sight. I tell you this to show you just how far from God I was at this time. After my conversion, I identified that emotion for what it truly was: guilt.
Note that while I am pointing out the different stages here in this narrative, all of the changes were very gradual, and occurred over the course of many years.
I remember calling my best friend at some point toward the latter part of this period and the subject of our conversation turned to religion. It seems that he had recently started attending the Catholic Church in his area, and was thoroughly enjoying himself. I distinctly remember telling him that I found it quite interesting that as he was moving closer to God, I found myself growing more distant by the day. This incident in and of itself is fairly inconsequential, but it sticks with me to this day as critical in my path. Was this God calling me home? If so, it wasn't the last time I said no and continued my self-absorbed path.
Early in 2005, a woman by the name of Terri Schiavo made national news. She was in a coma and was being kept alive via a feeding tube. Her husband wanted to have the feeding tube removed so that she could die, while her family was adamant that she be allowed to live. I was a regular listener of the Sean Hannity show at this time, and he was very outspoken on the family’s behalf. He spoke at great length on the issue, telling the audience why he believed her husband was totally wrong on this issue, and how his faith in God backed up his arguments. Mr. Hannity is a Catholic, as is Terri’s family, and he pointed out how the Church was at the forefront of the pro-life movement, both in condemning abortion as evil, and standing up against the “culture of death” that wanted to be able to kill people who were an inconvenience to them. Despite my total denial of any sort of faith, Sean’s arguments resonated with me. I agreed with his points in the case, even though I did not share his religious viewpoint.
Also around this time, Pope John Paul II became very ill. If I remember correctly, it was just before Easter. He died shortly thereafter, and I knew that whether or not I believed, this was an important time for the Church. I watched with interest as the cardinals voted to elect Cardinal Ratzinger the next Pope.
I think it was the Friday before Easter when Terri Schiavo finally died from starvation. Her husband had won the court battle, and had been allowed to remove her feeding tube. According to his lawyers, it would be a peaceful, serene death. I never saw any pictures of her during this time, but I find it hard to imagine being starved to death as anything close to serene, much less peaceful.
Looking back on all this with the perspective that hindsight offers, it seems so obvious that God was using these events as a sign to me of where I needed to be in my life, yet I, like so many others, followed my own wisdom, and blithely ignored them. On Saturday night, the night before Easter Sunday, my entire life began to change. As I sat at my computer playing games or what have you, I was overcome by a need to be at church the next morning. This feeling came from nowhere and was completely at odds with everything going on in my life at the time. Even now, all I can tell you about it was that the Holy Spirit gave me an absolute, no-doubt knowledge that I HAD to be at Church the next morning. In the back of my mind, it seemed like it should be a Catholic Church that I attend, but the overwhelming message was that I attend church. To show you just how long my road was, I was less than excited by the thought of attending church, but I found it somewhat difficult to ignore. I picked up the phone book and found the section of churches. Given that I was living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the time, this was a rather large section, so I had to narrow my search somewhat. I think at this point, I began to listen to the signs, and I found the local Catholic parish (note the singular). I searched for the location on mapquest, and figured out how long it would take to get there, and what time I needed to leave. Now, remember the part where I said that I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of attending church again? I decided that since that wasn’t my idea of fun, I would only go if I woke up in time. Ideally, this meant I needed to be awake by 9:30 so that I could make it by 11:00. Anyone that knows me will realize that this was a longshot at best. I generally considered it a victory to get out of bed by 11:00 on the weekends. I played around on the computer a while longer, and sometime after midnight went off to bed, making sure not to set the alarm clock. The next morning, I awoke at 9:30 to the minute. Sighing, I realized that I had indeed made a promise to myself, if no-one else, and so I began to get ready. After showering and putting on my suit, I jumped in the car and proceeded to follow the directions that I had looked up the previous night.
I walked into the Church and found myself a seat towards the back. As I sat there waiting for Mass to start I had the distinct feeling that there was indeed someone present. Someone other than the parishioners and the priest and deacon. I knew in my heart that God was indeed present in this building, watching and listening to the service. Being that I came from a Protestant background where communion was no big deal, I honestly had no idea that Catholic communion was any different than what I had grown up with. For some reason, though, I felt that I should ask the woman next to me about it. In my pride, I ignored this prompting; possibly because she was absolutely beautiful. So I did what I'd been doing the for the entire Mass – I mimicked what everyone else was doing and I went up to receive communion as if I were Catholic. At this parish, they offered both the host and the cup. As I received each one, it was almost like being struck by lightning. When I say this, I mean that it was an actual physical sensation of electricity as I received each species. It was something that I had never experienced before and I was totally unprepared for it. I managed to make it through Mass mainly by imitating the actions of the people near me.
Needless to say, I was a little overwhelmed at this point. After Mass had ended, I stuck around and waited for the Deacon to have a free moment. I explained to him that I had grown up Methodist, and the feeling that I had experienced the previous night. I also explained to him my lack of faith, and the fact that I had not set my alarm clock. Deacon Fran told me that he believed that God wanted me to come to their church that morning, and he gave me the name of the woman in charge of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults). This is the class that anyone interested in joining the Catholic Church must attend in order to be received into the Church.
Since school was out for the week due to Easter break, I stopped by the church office and talked to the lady in charge. Naturally, RCIA had just ended because those in it had just been confirmed at the Easter Vigil. She told me that she wasn’t sure if they would be starting a new RCIA class until next spring, but she took my contact information, and gave me the book that they give all candidates so that I could have something to read in the meantime. I think it took me about a week to finish the book, at which time I went to return it to her. She told me it was mine to keep, and maybe a week or two later, she called to tell me that they would be starting a summer RCIA class. It seems they had 18 people wanting to join the Church. I was excited, albeit somewhat nervous, and started going to the class. While at this point, I was certain that I would be attending church on a regular basis, I was a bit hesitant at the idea of leaving the Methodist Church behind and changing churches. My hesitation led me to make a phone call that I never would have considered making under any other circumstances. I was concerned that my conversion to Catholicism might upset my parents, and I needed them to support me in this if I was going to make it. In between classes one day, I sat down in a private room and I called my mother. I gave her a brief background on what had led up to the choices with which I was now faced. Nearly overcome with tears, I asked told her that I needed to know she could support me in my decision because I wasn't sure I could make it otherwise. I can’t imagine how surprised she must have been, but she told me that she was just happy that I was going back to church, regardless of where it was. Having cleared that hurdle, I now had to face my own doubts and reservations.
Fortunately, the RCIA classes lasted all summer long, which gave me plenty of time to contemplate the changes and pray over them. I asked God on a regular basis to let me know which direction I should go, and I saw nothing that indicated I was going against His wishes. In fact, the people I met at that church were some of the nicest, and most helpful that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing in a church setting. All of these things helped to ease my mind regarding my decisions. As I started RCIA, however, I was given a study abroad opportunity at school where I would be studying in Japan for a month. This was to be the month of June – right in the middle of my formation. The RCIA director really didn't have a problem with it, so I made plans to go. It was a trip of a lifetime, although I realize that my formation and understanding of Catholicism was stunted because of it.
On October 9, 2005, I became a full member of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It was a day I had waited for all summer, and I am still thoroughly convinced that I made the right decision (albeit with a great deal of help). Unfortunately, my graduation soon followed my membership in the Church, and I was forced to leave the Church I had come to love. Before I left Alabama, however, I went to the Diocese of Raleigh website, and began a list of possible churches to attend once I moved to North Carolina. As soon as I arrived there, I began visiting churches in the area, and, after much deliberation and prayer, I signed up to become a member of St. Raphael the Archangel of Raleigh. Almost immediately, I spoke to the choir director, who was thrilled at the prospect of gaining another tenor (they only had two at the time). In April 2006, I was admitted to the Knights of Columbus and have since been honored with exemplification to the fourth degree.
Many conversion stories you read end here – a happily ever after as they revel in their newfound faith as Catholics. My story is really just beginning. I entered the Church and like many others, I was on fire for the faith. I was finally home and at peace with God's calling. The problem was that I was an on fire Cafeteria Catholic. I had missed a good deal of formation and instruction while I was in Japan and so had carried far too many Protestant ideals into my life as a new Catholic. I denied many truths and dogmas of the faith that are critical to being a Catholic in good standing. Fortunately, God is nothing if not patient and He always has a plan. When I moved to Raleigh, I had a job but it didn't start for close to six months. This gave me a lot of free time as you can imagine. I truly wanted to know God and his ways, so I began watching and listening to EWTN. As I listened, watched, and read, my heart began to be opened to the truths that the Catholic Church professes. It took a long time, possibly a year or more, but eventually a thought occurred to me one day: “Why would you profess a faith and not believe everything it teaches? That makes no sense whatsoever.” I knew I was being given another choice and this time I chose God. I resolved at that point to believe all that the Church taught, without exception, and live my life according to those principles. I won't lie and say that made things easier, but it seemed then (as it does now) that the choice was either to believe it all or return to my Methodist roots.
Shortly after making this decision in favor of God, I was forced to relocate to Greensboro. Once I had moved and found a new parish home, I began to search for my place in the Church. I spoke to my new pastor and we both agreed that the priesthood probably wasn’t where I was being called. He did, however, suggest that I try the local Benedictine monastery. Later that year I called the Abbot of Belmont Abbey and scheduled a retreat weekend. I had never met a religious before, and wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. It turned out to be a fantastic weekend and I ended up spending the better part of two years making monthly retreats with them. Eventually I realized that while I loved the Benedictine simplicity and structure, I couldn’t make the commitment to live in that one house for the rest of my life. Regardless, I will always be thankful to those monks for introducing me to the Liturgy of the Hours. That gift has really given structure to my prayer life and helped me to ensure that I am praying every day.
A couple of years after this, I finally got my finances lined up well enough that I could do something I had been wanting to do since I was in RCIA: move to Japan and teach English. I made up my mind that I would apply this one time. If I got it, I would leave and not look back. If I didn’t, I was going to take a more active leadership role in my Knights of Columbus council and spend the rest of my time racing. The application process for teaching in Japan is very long and involved, taking almost six months to complete. The whole time I prayed that God’s will be done. I kept waiting for them to find some reason to reject my application, but they never did. Finally, in Spring of 2013 I got a call saying that they wanted me to teach.
I had thought some about the difficulties of being a Catholic in Japan before I got here, but I really had no idea. Japan is not a Catholic country. It’s not even remotely Christian. Last time I looked, about 0.4% of the population is Catholic. I was placed in a very remote area of Japan, about midway between two parishes. The closest of the two is an hour drive. Sunday Mass (there’s only one offered) generally consists of about 20 people. Sometimes we have as few as 10. On a really busy weekend we might have 30. There isn’t a choir, and there are no groups to join to help fit in with the community. I don’t say all this as a complaint, but more as an insight into how we tend to take those kinds of things for granted in Western countries. The parishes in the US and basically all Western countries provides you a sort of spiritual safety net on which to fall back in times of need. That simply doesn’t exist here. In some ways, this has helped me to remain solid in my faith. Without that safety net, I have to be far more diligent in the practice of my faith.
I have no idea what God has in store for me next. Perhaps I will return to America in a couple of years and get back to life as it was. Or maybe I will stay here and get a job in one of the major cities. Either way, I know that I will have the Catholic faith to use as my compass and guide.
May God bless you.
To find out more about Elliott and his journey in the Catholic faith, visit him at latinrite.wordpress.com.