In 1988, my barely-Catholic family moved from metro-DC to a small town in South Carolina. My mom had been trying for years to get our family back to Mass, and now she pounced, "Everyone in this town expects you to go to church. We’re going to church."
We did. In 1991, I graduated high school with a plaque from the Knights of Columbus declaring me “Catholic Student of the Year." Within weeks of starting college, I quit attending Mass.
College – even in the South — is a great place to lose your faith. By the time I graduated, I was entirely non-Christian, and happy with it. My husband Jon and I married in a civil ceremony – I could have gotten a picturesque church wedding at my parent’s historic home parish, but it would have been fake. I had too much respect for the Church to claim to be something I wasn’t.
But I wasn’t really happy. I spent several years trying this and that in the spiritual cafeteria. We attended the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, but it never really took. On a trip to San Antonio I discovered the depth of my departure from God when I visited one of the historic mission churches, still an active Catholic parish: I entered the church, and could not feel the presence of God.
I knew then that I had gone terribly, terribly astray. Something had to change.
Later that year, driving home by myself from a road trip in Virginia, I prayed to God in desperation. I received an immediate response: An inner voice told me to quit doing nothing, and to just jump in and practice whatever faith was at hand. Buddhism came to mind. Back home, Jon observed: "This is the South. It’s Christian. Let’s start there."
A friend attending the local Evangelical seminary patiently answered our questions and gave us some pointers. We visited churches, and landed at a non-denominational Evangelical congregation that Jon and I both loved instantly. “Non-denominational” felt safe to tell all my liberal friends. It didn’t sound church-y. I wasn’t ready to go public as a fundamentalist just yet.
I went to Mass on my own a few times a month, and Jon and I settled in as Evangelicals on Sunday mornings. I felt at home, and if you had asked me, I would have said I was a Christian. But I was praying, "Jesus, are you real?"
In the meantime, I began researching the differences between Catholics and Evangelicals. On a Wednesday morning in February 1999, I walked into a colleague’s cubicle for our regular monthly business meeting. He was a Baptist deacon in his spare time, and we’d talk about religious things. I knew he was praying for me.
“I think I’ve figured out how to reconcile the Catholic and Protestant views of salvation,” I announced. I started to launch into an account of my latest reading, and he stopped me mid-sentence. “Hold on,” he said, grabbing his pocket New Testament off his bookshelf, “we need this.” He led me to the cafeteria to talk.
We didn’t chat about theology – though I read in Catholic Answers shortly thereafter that I’d pieced together roughly the same vein of thought as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and felt vindicated.
Rather, my co-worker led me down the Romans Road, straight out of the evangelical playbook. His Bible was highlighted with all the essential quotes, to make his evangelizing that much more efficient. “Do you accept Christ as your Lord and Savior?” he asked me.
The power of the Holy Spirit was palpable. I knew that this was my moment: I could say "Yes" to Jesus now, or say it never.
We went outside to the picnic tables, and I said the Sinner’s Prayer.
And from that moment, I felt Death vanish. Gone. No longer a threat. I was saved.
And as I walked back into the office building, I was filled with an overwhelming desire to get to Mass as soon as I possibly could.
Back at my desk, I flipped through the yellow pages. The next Mass in town would be at 8:00 a.m.. the next morning. I made plans to arrive late to work. I would have given up my job to be at that Mass. There was no resisting. It was God. He’d answered my prayer. I was in.