Monday, November 19, 2007

Conversion

The following letter is from a young man who struggled - for a while - with the direction God was leading him in life. I am blessed to play a very small part in his story. The letter is addressed to the former church he attended before becoming Catholic. It is written with much charity.

November 1, 2007
The Feast Day of All Saints

Dear Christian Brethren,

I praise God for the faith you have in His Son Jesus Christ. Your love for Him has been demonstrated by your love for people, me especially. It is with a heavy heart that I write to tell you of my departure from the Baptist/Fundamentalist church to go home to Rome. The Catholic Church, not an organization of men, but the Institution Jesus Himself created and commissioned, has called me to be reconciled to Her. Rather than send a short email that leads to many unanswered questions, I’ve decided to expound a bit on my journey crossing the Tiber. So you can get a broader picture, please allow me to start with a narrative:

I first visited Sagemont Church (in Houston) with a friend when I was 10. Brother John Morgan, the senior pastor since the church’s founding in 1966, gave all visitors, myself included, a fancy table Bible that probably would have cost upwards of $50 at a bookstore. When I took it home, my father was intrigued that a church would give something like that to someone who obviously couldn’t significantly tithe, or give to the church, for some time. My parents and I started attending regularly and became members shortly afterwards. In my Junior year of high school, I joined the church orchestra where I found “the little church in the big church.” I left for Texas A&M in the fall of 2002 and joined a little group called Fellowship Community Church, which later changed its name to Fellowship Church to stop us from calling it FCC. There, I met a few men who had a profound impact in my walk with Jesus Christ. Whenever I would come home to Houston, I would pick up my fiddle and play on Sundays at Sagemont and catch up with my mentors in that group.

I had joined the Young Conservatives of Texas, a political activist group, and was introduced to the Coalition for Life at one of YCT’s meetings. CFL was having a “40 Days for Life” campaign and needed crazy young college men to cover the night hours of their nonstop 960‐hour prayer vigil. I showed up one evening to find many Catholics there blaspheming God by praying the Rosary. As a well‐read, good‐intentioned Baptist, I felt it my responsibility to convince these poor heathen to repent of their apostasy and believe the Gospel. Now I’d witnessed to a good sum of people in my few years, many of them arguably professional anti‐Christians when it came to the depth of their discourse. Of course, my upbringing had taught me how to retort such theories as moral relativism, indifferentism, and post‐modernism. I also had a solid (or so I thought) education in battling the dogmas of the Whore of Babylon, the Roman Catholic Church. When I set forth prayerfully to lead these lost souls to the saving grace of Jesus Christ, I was dumbfounded to find they already had quite a bit of grace. One man in particular struck me as an enigma: Jason Ferguson. Now Jason was a senior in the Corps of Cadets, which immediately merited at least a little respect. He also knew Scripture, which was reassuring, but I was confused why he would remain a Catholic after reading the Word of God. His life is an incredible pro‐life story, but I was more interested to find he had actually been a Baptist before leaving “the faith” for Catholicism. So Jason and I talked several times at length about the similarities of our faiths, but mostly about the vast chasms that separated us. I’ll get into theology later.

As I continued volunteering with the Coalition, praying and counseling customers outside the Planned Parenthood in Bryan, I wanted to let my homegroup (small group weekly bible study/worship) get involved and share in the blessings of being active in pro‐life ministry. I announced the days that the abortion clinic would be performing their most horrid acts, and asked for prayer warriors to stand in unity outside. None of these faithful fundamentalists with whom I fellowshipped in College Station ever showed up on abortion days, so I stopped asking them after a couple months. After some of those who discipled me in Bryan/College Station graduated or moved away, I felt disconnected from Fellowship Church and started going to Central Baptist, which was a large church in which one could easily get lost, which is what I wanted to do. I desired to attend worship services where I could sing (they had an orchestra, but the string section was doing fine without me), listen to preaching of the Word, and have my weekly emotional time with God. Of course I still prayed often (mostly at the clinic), but I saw a special kind of fulfillment in these Catholics who went to mass several times each week. Admittedly, there are hundreds of thousands of mainstream cradle Catholics who fill the pews on Sundays and go about living as if there is not God the rest of the week, but these men and women (and children, too) were different. They did what they did not out of fear of Purgatory, or of being required to do penance after confessing auricularly to their priests, but out of love for God, love for each other, love for other Christians, and love for the lost. They also knew their faith, unlike the few Catholics for whom I had personally been responsible in ripping them from the jaws of the pope in the years of my vehement anti‐Catholic paradigm.

In early March 2006, Shawn Carney, the Executive Director of the Coalition for Life, a young man with whom I had been friends for about a year and a half took me to lunch and asked me to be on staff with the nonprofit organization. I asked for some time to consider and pray about it. Two days later I accepted, but wouldn’t start until mid May. In the summer of 2006, I was introduced to several prominent members of the Bryan/College Station community, met with a few pastors at various protestant churches, and trained a couple dozen sidewalk counselors. When meeting with the clergy (one of whom was a woman), I noticed a vast difference in their messages. Granted, I never spent more than an hour and a half with any of them, and our topic was quite narrow, but there didn’t seem to be any over‐arching “Christian” theme amongst them when it came to the issue of life. I began to accept the Church’s teaching on contraception as a profoundly beautiful thing and was surprised to find that prior to the 1920s, ALL Christian denominations rejected contraception. Today, only the ancient Church maintains that man’s (read: human’s) interference with the natural states and actions of our bodies for our own selfish convenience is a demonstrable lack of faith.

I read 23 Reasons to Reject Sola Scriptura, a booklet whose title was repulsive at first. You see, my tradition held that Scripture alone was our rule of faith, that it was sufficient, and nothing else could be placed aside it. This got me interested in reading more on the subject, so I picked up By What Authority: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition by Mark Shea and the dominoes began to fall.

I first attended mass on All Saints Day, November 1st, 2006. Though I did not fully understand why, I respected the Church’s wish that I abstain from partaking in what they called the Holy Eucharist. I continued going to mass 4‐6 times a week but remained in the pew during Holy Communion. One Monday I approached the alter to receive a blessing while partaking in spiritual communion. The priest, an old Fransiscan who only said Mass on Mondays, placed his hand upon my head and said, “may God bless you and grant you peace, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In that short moment, I felt a wave of soothing calmness go through my body, and I couldn’t stop smiling for nearly an hour after Mass. I’ve walked up for blessings many times since, but this was a sort of conversion moment for me, much like that first moment I yielded to Our Lord when I prayed the “sinner’s prayer.” I met with the pastor of St. Mary’s parish and asked what I needed to do to be able to call myself Catholic. Though this certainly is not the only mode of God’s grace, the ordinary process one goes through to be reconciled to the Catholic Church is called the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). At A&M, more than a dozen baptized Christians complete the program and receive their First Communion each semester. I met with the RCIA coordinator and planned on starting mid January.

I moved back to Houston mid‐December after much prayer and still had the intention of converting. I emailed the RCIA director at the local parish, but the email listed on the parish website must have been out of date. I went back to Sagemont and fell back in love with the community there. I tried so hard to fight my convictions, I even enrolled in the Catholic Connection class. (Former) Sister Stella Walsh has a wonderful heart and knows her curriculum well, but left many of my questions unanswered. The main concern I had was not to be a hindrance to those Catholics who knew not their faith, but could find God more easily at Sagemont, from getting out of the class what its original purpose was: pointing out Scriptures that seem to disagree with Catholic dogma. After several weeks of trying to learn what I expected to be advanced techniques for conquering the growing Catholicism in my own soul, and after being told (nicely) that I was to listen more and speak less (in a class of half a dozen), I left the class.

Reading upwards of 30 volumes on either viewpoint and from testimonies I’d heard personally, I found those who left the Church for fundamentalism never really knew Her and those who left fundamentalism for the Church left so much because they were surprised by truth. I continued to war within myself for several months leading up to the wedding of two Sidewalk Counselors who volunteered at the CFL. It was at Jacob & Christine’s wedding, held at St. Mary’s in College Station, that I realized I needed to pick up the cross of leaving Sagemont and follow Him as a Catholic. When I returned, I called Shawn and told him that due to faith and reason, I was finally ready to convert and he came back with a name: Monsignor James Golasinski of Annunciation Church, right next to Minute Maid Park. I contacted him and we started meeting individually in the rectory on Wednesday nights. This is why I haven’t been to an orchestra rehearsal in some time. I’ve also started praying at the Planned Parenthood on Fannin as part of the nationwide 40 Days for Life (inspired by the local campaign in Bryan that started all this) immediately after my meetings with Msgr., so no Bruce, I wasn’t lying outright when I omitted the first portion of my Wednesday evening ritual. I’m more than half‐way through my instruction and should be fully welcomed into the Church shortly.

I love Sagemont for your mission to be Living Proof of a Loving God to a Watching World, but I cannot forsake my Lord or His Church just so I can feel happy at my church. I must withdraw from the orchestra, from tithing, from attending Worship Services, and from all membership with Sagemont Church.

You all have had some kind of impact on my life or else you wouldn’t be getting this letter. Please forward it to whomever you feel was omitted, or to any you think might benefit from it. I ask only that it be transmitted in full without modification. I know there will be several questions as well as Scriptural challenges on this dogma or that doctrine, but as I’ve been writing this for the past couple weeks, I’ve taken much out that might help answer those questions so that the length could be more manageable and it wouldn’t turn into a tome of Catholic apologetics; there are several already published that cover much more than I would be able. Those of you who would like to enter into a more detailed dialog, please feel free to respond. For all of you, please join me in praying Jesus’s will for all Christians as proclaimed in the 17th Chapter of John: that we may be one. I long for the time when we can be in full communion together, be it at Mass here on earth, or when we’ve beheld the Beatific Vision in Heaven.

In Jesus,
John Barnett

3 comments:

Ben Swagerty said...

John,
Welcome home!! Welcome, welcome. I will pray for you, and your family & friends at Sagemont, tonight at Adoration. You sound like a bright example of Christian faith to people you'll meet in life.
From a young adult Catholic in Oregon, and found your blog via Amy Welborn..

Carole said...

Hi John,

Thank you for sharing your story! And I pray that you will bring all your evangelical fervor with you into the Catholic Church, so that those Catholics who do not know him may benefit from your witness!

I am a lifelong Catholic, who nearly left the Church just for the sake of fellowship. At the end of the day, I could not leave the sacraments and the teaching authority, so I decided to remain Catholic and try to help other Catholics to know the Lord. Glad to have another person on side!

God Bless,
Carole

Tito said...

John,

A very good conversion story if I ever read one. And I have read many and looove conversion stories.

The people you met during the course of discernment reads like a who's who of Houston Catholics.

Jason is the leader for Coalition for Life here in Houston and I have know him ever since he moved here. I can't say enough of his devotion to God.

And having Msgr. Golasinski as your RCIA tutor is a privelaged experience. Msgr. is truly a gem in the great Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

Feel free to contact me at tito@houstoncatholic.net if you would like to get more involved in apostolates here in Houston. I'll even (re)introduce you to Jason!

God bless,

Tito