Sunday, January 01, 2006

A Journey Home

The man at the front of the classroom was telling the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. When he explained about the blood which the Israelites put on the door posts of the houses and linked this blood of a lamb to the Blood of the Lamb, Jesus, a light snapped on in my head. I was twelve and had heard this story many times. I had heard it in Sunday School at the church where my Mom and I went and I had probably seen it portrayed by this time in the movie, The Ten Commandments. However, until now I had never heard of the link between Jesus’ crucifixion and the story of the Passover. I had always wondered why Jesus had died and had wondered with the crowd at the foot of the cross, “If you are God, why don’t you save yourself?” Now it made sense. It was all God’s plan for our salvation.
The Baptist minister who was speaking to our class was the husband of our teacher and he came to school every week to teach us about the Bible. This wasn’t part of the curriculum and eventually some of the parents complained (I’m glad to say my parents weren’t amongst those who did) and the classes were stopped. But not before I “had accepted Jesus as my Savior and committed my life to Him”.
After I was “saved” I worried about my parents not being Christians. My mother had been brought up a Catholic but had married my father, a non-Catholic. As they were married in a Protestant church my mother would not have been able to receive the Eucharist after her marriage. Some of the small towns where we lived during my childhood did not have a Catholic church in them anyway, after all this was the Bible-belt of Alberta, so my mother and I attended a United Church (a union of Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists in Canada). My father, although he had been brought up in a devout (and strict) Lutheran family, did not go to church because he said he had seen too much hypocrisy in all churches. Probably an excuse, yes, but perhaps not without some truth. The fact that my mother prayed the Our Father, had taught me about Jesus, went to church, led a righteous life and was kind to everyone did not count much with me. Later I saw that her charity towards others and her faith was deeper than that of some Evangelicals who didn’t consider her a Christian.
When I was younger (about 7) I had had some amazing answers to prayer. We moved to new towns quite often and I hated starting a new school and being the 'new kid'. Before moving once, I prayed that there would be somebody in the new school who had read my favourite books, the Anne of Green Gables books. After we had moved and I asked someone if they had ever read these books, the answer was, "The teacher read them to the class." So everyone had read them! I made lots of friends there not just because of the books and some still are my best friends after over 60 years.
After I finished school I went away to train as a medical laboratory technologist in a city quite far from home. I went to Baptist churches or churches which were similar. I worked for a few years after graduating but I felt my lack of Bible knowledge made it difficult for me to 'witness' to others so I thought I should go to Bible School. I found one that I thought was not too narrow-minded or old-fashioned! I was a bit worried that it would be just like a prolonged Sunday School lesson. I found I actually enjoyed the studies and we studied subjects other than the Bible, such as theology, English literature and Christian education. My favourite instructor was a godly man, Mr. Simmonds, an Anglican, who challenged students from Evangelical churches to think more deeply about what they glibly said they believed.
During Bible school years I met people from one mission in particular which appealed to me. This was the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF), formerly The China Inland Mission, which had been started by an Englishman, Hudson Taylor, in the 19th century. I had read his biography and some of his writings and had been impressed by the integrity of his life. The fact that OMF did medical work and not just evangelism, prayed about their needs instead of asking people for money and accepted Asian nationals from the countries where they worked, were things that attracted me to them. I actually didn’t want to be a missionary but OMF at that time needed a laboratory technologist for their hospital in South Thailand. I took this as a sign that God may be calling me to Thailand and applied but I hoped (and prayed) that I wouldn’t be accepted. At least I wouldn’t have to feel guilty if I applied but was turned down! “Unfortunately”, I was accepted and went to Thailand in 1969. Again God surprised me and I enjoyed my work and life in Thailand.
Leaving my parents was the hardest thing I have ever done and it didn’t get any easier over the next 14 years as I came home on furlough and went back to Thailand every four years. Since I was their only child I know now that it was very difficult for my parents to see me go, too. I would see tears in my father’s eyes but my mother always put on a brave front at the airport. We had always been a close family and I know seeing me board the plane was the hardest thing she had ever done, too.
One furlough when I came home from Thailand my parents had moved and I had to find a new home church. Evangelicals are sometimes not so tied to a denomination; they look for a church where they agree with the doctrine, where the pastor has good sermons or where there are friendly people. I was a bit disappointed when I went to some Evangelical churches and found the people more interested in being ultra-fashionable (although I like dressing fashionably, too) than in Christian missions and the music more for entertainment than worship. I had met some Anglicans I admired and whenever I went to an Anglican service I felt drawn to this type of liturgy. Moving to an Anglican church was a bigger step than going to another “free” church. Although there were members of OMF who were Anglican, North American evangelicals usually think of Anglicans as being “too liberal” (for example, not believing in the Virgin Birth). However, I knew there were many Anglicans who were evangelical or fundamental in their beliefs and I liked their openness more than the narrow attitude of some Evangelicals. Perhaps, I also wanted to shock those Evangelicals who thought of Anglicans as ‘too liberal”!
I found a lovely small Anglican church near my parent’s home. The people were interested in my missionary work and the Anglican priest was not liberal at all. People did not dress to show off their clothes or compete in fashion and everyone seemed to accept one another as they were. My mother followed me there as she had always done and she said she liked it because it was so much like the Catholic church she remembered as a child. I loved the prayers in the Prayer Book and felt liberated from a judgmental atmosphere.
During my last few years in Thailand I lived in the same house as a missionary who was involved in the charismatic movement. It was quite amazing that she received a Roman Catholic Charismatic magazine called “New Covenant”! I liked reading the articles. I believed that each denomination had some truths, even the Catholic Church, although I questioned their emphasis on Mary. But I thought, with others, that there were some Catholics who were real Christians especially those in the charismatic movement as they, at least, studied the Bible!
I resigned from OMF a few years after my father’s death in order to be with my mother but also I felt the need to move on. By then I had been in Thailand for fourteen years. Linguistics had fascinated me when I was studying Thai and so I decided to go to university and major in Linguistics. A nearby medical laboratory needed someone to work evenings and weekends so I was kept very busy.
Strange to say, although I enjoyed studying at university and did well, I also became very depressed in my fourth year. I suppose part of it was re- adjusting to my own culture again, too. For example, the fact that all murders and rapes were reported on television news made me afraid to go out! In fact I had come from a more dangerous place in South Thailand where the hospital had once been shot at and two missionary nurses had been kidnapped and killed.
But one of the biggest challenges was living in Western society as an unmarried woman. When I had been a missionary there had been many other single women missionaries but at home a single woman my age was as strange as someone with two heads. In fact someone at work said to me, “You’ve never been married? Never?” If I had been divorced or living with someone this would have been acceptable but somehow being "single" was inconceivable. Christians accepted you on the surface, after all most evangelical missionaries are single women, but the final goal and prayer of everyone was to be married and if you weren’t, what was wrong with you? Of course, I had always wanted to be married and have a family like most women but it had not seemed to work out that way. I wasn't interested in the men that were interested in me and vice versa. I can see now that not marrying some of these men was really a blessing in disguise. Mother’s Day was especially painful as roses were handed out at church– only to those who were mothers! This I found out later also caused pain for those who were married but were unable to have children. What a contrast it was years later at a Catholic Church where everyone who was “motherly”, and not just those who were actually mothers, were prayed for on Mother’s Day.
A recent failed ‘romantic interest’ in my life didn’t help either but the underlying problem was that it seemed God didn’t answer prayer after all. Even when I had obeyed him by becoming a missionary (or perhaps because I had) he hadn’t led me to a Prince Charming. I would hang on to the Bible verses that seemed to say ‘whatever you ask for, you shall receive”. Yes, there were conditions but wasn’t I fulfilling the conditions? I later realized that I thought of God as a Santa Claus who was supposed to give me whatever I asked for. There was no idea of sacrifice or suffering in my Christianity. Also, I didn’t realize that some of my married friends envied my independent life which had included travel and education and living in a foreign country. Moreover, the marriages of several of my friends and relatives had ended in divorce.
One day I saw a sign at university about the prayer to St. Jude – I copied it out and brought it home. Why I, as an evangelical Christian, would do this I don’t know. My mother said she knew the ‘Hail Mary’ prayer that it mentioned and could help me with that. I didn’t know what to pray for: a husband? to feel happy? or whatever was best for me? Actually, I never stopped believing in God – I just wondered why He hadn’t keep His promises about prayer.
When God answered the prayer of St. Jude for me it was not what I expected. For into my life came David; a handsome, popular, Italian guy who began the Master’s program in Linguistics that I also had just started. . He wore a crucifix and some other medals so I figured he was a Catholic but I could see that David was one of those Roman Catholics who seemed to be a “real” Christian.
He was popular with the other students but I kept to myself in those days and went home after classes instead of working in the Grad student’s office. David however seemed determined to get to know me and talked me into going to a Rosary Group he and a Malaysian student had started. There I met other Catholics who seemed to be “real” Christians, too. Some were from Kenya, one was from Hungary and others were from Singapore and Malaysia so I got a feeling of how universal the Church is. They were all younger than I was and I was not a Catholic but they accepted me as one of their group without any hesitation.
David and I would have long discussions about religion over cups of coffee – and he was able to answer all my questions about Mary and the Pope and the other usual things that bother Evangelicals. He also gave me books to read: Evangelical is Not Enough by Thomas Howard, Catholicism and Fundamentalism by Karl Keating and the tape by Scott Hahn telling about his conversion. As I read I could see I had a lot of misconceptions about what the Catholic Church believed. I came to see how wonderful the idea of authority was and how the Magesterium was a safeguard against endless multiplication of denominations and heresies. The authority of the Pope, guided by the Holy Spirit, seemed so sensible and biblical. I would pray the Rosary (an Evangelical praying the Rosary!) as I walked to university and give thanks to God for new friends and a new outlook. At my first Mass I was so surprised and pleased at the “sermon”. I thought it could have been preached in any Evangelical church.
Does God have a sense of humour? I believe He showed a sense of humour when He answered the prayer of St. Jude for me. For although He had sent me a friend in David, He had not sent me a husband. Not only was he much younger than I was but he also said that after Grad school he was planning to join a religious order! I learned that in the Church there were vocations of marriage, of religious life and of single life. And moreover it wasn’t primarily women that He called to a single life as it is in Evangelical circles. Actually, several members of the Rosary Group later entered religious life.
At one of our coffee discussions I said to David, “But Luther was right in being upset about the Church selling indulgences wasn’t he?” David lost his patience. “Lorraine, we’ve talked about this several times. Now you just have to make up your mind whether you’re going to join the Church or not.” (some people did sell indulgences in the 15th century and this was wrong. It was not the doctrine of indulgences that was wrong but the selling of them.)
He was right, of course. So I called and I left a message for the person in charge of RCIA at the University Community but he didn’t call back. When I finally did reach someone, he said they weren’t having RCIA that year and directed me to a nearby parish. RCIA is Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and is a study group that one attends from roughly September to Easter before being confirmed as a Catholic. I called them but they held their meeting on Wednesdays and that was an evening I worked at the medical lab.
Finally I found one parish that held the class on a day I could attend. I kept thinking that if it were an Evangelical church things would have been made easier and someone would probably even have picked me up for the meetings. But I drove by myself one night a week, often on icy roads, for 8 months to attend the class. I remember thinking, “Boy, you really have to be determined to join the Catholic Church.”
I’m afraid my attitude was rather arrogant in the classes at first. After all I’d been to Bible School for three years, had been a missionary for fourteen years so I was sure I knew more than some of the people who were teaching the class. I discovered that I underestimated what “ordinary” Catholics know. Although I did learn a lot about the Catholic Church from what I read outside the class, these people did know the Gospel and the Bible. Besides, they were often more charitable than I was. I still admire those “cradle Catholics” and their authentic faith.
We were always told that by coming to the classes we should not feel pressured into joining the Church if we didn’t feel ready or didn’t ever want to join. I never doubted that I wanted to become a Catholic but I wanted to make sure that it was not just because of any influence David may have had on me. I came to see that even when I was angry at him over something (and at this time it was quite often) I still felt compelled to become a Catholic. I came to realize it wasn’t his influence that made me want to become a Catholic but something else or rather Someone else who was drawing me to His Church.
The parish chose a sponsor for me, Gloria, a faithful volunteer in many areas of church work. She had trained as a nurse at a hospital in another province where I had also been (although not at the same time) yet no one at the church knew that I had ever worked at that hospital!
I was received into full communion in the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil, 1990 with the members of the Rosary Group from university filling two pews. After the Vigil, the Rosary Group had a reception for me with all my new friends. And a very international group it was! They presented me with a gold Crucifix on a chain which I still wear.
My mother attended Mass at the University with me and she really respected the new priest, Father Louis. Eventually she said she would like to come back to the Church because she missed the Eucharist and she surprised me by saying, “No matter where I went to church, I have always felt Catholic”. Father Louis had several talks with her and she went to confession. And then this rather shy woman in her seventies read the Nicene Creed at a Mass for university students and was accepted back into the Church of her childhood. When she died seven years later, her funeral was in the parish where I had attended RCIA classes.
For several years I helped in the RCIA classes in the University community and then later in another parish.
David was ordained as a Catholic priest in the Dominican Order and teaches philosophy and Latin.
Three years after my mother died, I went back to Thailand, this time to teach English in Catholic schools. Although a couple of Evangelical friends cooled in their relationship with me, most of them (including some OMF missionaries) have remained good friends and put up with my Catholic quirks.
My ‘crossing the Tiber’ was the best thing that could have happened to me. I still can’t help crying sometimes at Mass – the beauty and truth of it is overwhelming. My conversion is an on-going thing, of course. I still have some un-Catholic attitudes and a lot to learn but gradually I am becoming more accepting of other people and I am learning more about what faith in Jesus means. In particular I am learning to appreciate the tremendous gift of the Eucharist.

5 comments:

Les said...

Hi Santa Chiara, and Happy New Year. I love your story.

Isabel said...

Hi
I read your story with great interest and now have a better understanding of why you changed from Protestant to Catholic.I still love you!
Isabel

starry_angel said...

wow, your conversion story is truly amazing! God bless you :)

Anonymous said...

I'm a protestant missionary in southeast Asia about to start RCIA. Your story was so encouraging! I would love to chat more!

Lorraine Shelstad said...

Exciting to hear from someone who is taking this step. I have never regretted my coming into the Catholic Church. You can read my full story in my book "Betel Nut in My Roses' by Lorraine Shelstad listed on Amazon. It ships from Canada or the US so would be quite expensive shipping to Asia. However, the e-book is the cheapest and easiest option for those who live far away. Can you send me your email or facebook page name? If you search my name I am on facebook and then we could message our e-mails or use the messenger. God bless.