My conversion to Catholicism was the most important moment of my life, leading me into the Church Christ founded. But this conversion when I was 21 years old was actually my second religious conversion. The first happened five years previously. Although I consider the conversion to Catholicism as more significant, if not for my first conversion, that second conversion would never have happened. Looking back at the first conversion, I see how God worked in me and prepared me for that second conversion.
Churchgoing, But Not Religious
I grew up in a family of regular churchgoers. We attended our local Methodist church dutifully each and every week. Missing church services on Sunday morning was unthinkable. Even to this day it’s inconceivable for me to do anything other than attend church on Sunday mornings.
But being regular churchgoers didn’t mean we were particularly religious. We prayed before dinner, but other than that, we didn’t discuss religious topics at home, nor did we partake in any other religious activities. Belonging to the local church was more of a social duty than anything else in our family. It was an outward sign of respectability, not really an inward religious conviction. I gave little thought to Christianity outside of Sunday services. (However, years later my parents became much more religious and convicted in their beliefs).
This type of upbringing didn’t really prepare me for the temptations of high school. Although I was a “good kid” growing up—never getting in trouble at school or doing anything to disappoint my parents—I didn’t have any strong convictions to help me resist various worldly temptations as I got into my teen years. So it’s probably not surprising that at the beginning of my sophomore year of high school I fell in with the “wrong crowd.” I started going to parties that included alcohol, and eventually joined the drinking. I wasn’t completely comfortable with this lifestyle, but I didn’t see myself stopping it either. The path my actions were leading me down was not a good one.
Around this time I also started attending my Methodist church’s youth group. This might seem contradictory: why did you start attending youth group at the same time you were falling in with the wrong crowd? The best answer is that teenagers are full of contradictions. I didn’t start attending youth group due to some inner conviction, but instead it was just something to do, and my sister had started going, so why not? Of course, looking back I see grace at work. Interestingly, years later my youth minister told me he thought “there is no way Eric will stick around” when I first started going to meetings. It must have been clear to him I had little interest in following Christ at that point in my life.
In April of my sophomore year, my youth group went on a retreat at a Christian college in Indiana. I went along, primarily because a girl I was interested in was going. On our first night there, my roommate at the retreat asked me if I wanted to smoke weed with him. I had never smoked weed, but I can’t say I wasn’t interested. Fortunately I was afraid we’d be caught so I turned him down.
As the retreat progressed I became more interested in the talks and skits. Growing up I had always taken sermons seriously, often making resolutions during them. However, upon leaving church I quickly forgot those resolutions. Hearing a crash-course of sermons over a few days, however, meant the word of God dug deeper into my soul. I began to feel more and more convicted as the retreat progressed.
The closing talk of a retreat like this is a special one. The retreat leaders go all-out to get the kids to make a commitment to Christ. I don’t really remember the details of what was said, nor do I remember anything about the speaker. I do, however, remember the auditorium and where I was sitting. I even remember where the girl I was interested in was sitting (one row in front of me, a few seats to the right). What I most remember, however, is that at the end of the talk, the speaker asked anyone to come forward “who wants to receive Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.” I also remember that the song Friends by Michael W. Smith was playing, which was the go-to emotional song of that time. The retreat leaders were leaving nothing to chance.
When I saw people go forward, I began to consider going forward myself. I’ll admit that part of my reason was that I thought it might impress the girl I liked, who was serious about her faith (never underestimate the power of a girl to a teenage boy). Almost without realizing it, I found myself standing up and walking to the front. I knelt down, and someone placed his hands on my head and began praying. I felt convicted, for the first time, that I wanted to serve Christ completely for the rest of my life. I made a promise in that moment to give my life to God. And looking back over thirty years later, I can say that I’ve tried to keep that promise ever since then. Of course I’ve fallen at times, but that promise made in an Indiana college auditorium to the tune of a Michael W. Smith song has stuck with me to this day.
For Catholics reading this, there might be some uneasiness with my story. After all, this wasn’t a sacramental moment; in fact, it all sounds pretty emotional. Didn’t you go forward to impress a girl? Weren’t the leaders manipulating your emotions? Lots of people make promises in the heat of an event, and many (perhaps most) of them forget that promise pretty quickly afterwards.
All this is true. However, I know with certainty that this moment was grace-filled for me. I know that my life changed in that moment: I went from living for myself to striving to live for Christ. The conviction that began that April night in Indiana eventually led me five years later to become Catholic. I had made a promise to follow Christ no matter where it led. Of course, at the time I had no idea that Catholicism would be a part of that. But when a few short years later I was presented with the truths of the Catholic Faith, I realized that in order to keep that initial promise, I would have to enter into Christ’s Church. And so I did.
I realize that emotions (and hormones) were likely involved that night in Indiana. But that doesn’t mean God’s grace wasn’t also involved. And for that, I’m eternally grateful to God and to all those who held that retreat over thirty years ago. God works in mysterious ways, and on that night, he worked in me.