Christ’s gaze penetrated through the flickering candle flame. My heart perceived its Lord and Maker, who was standing right in front of the altar, robed in clouds of sweet-smelling incense. The Deacon carrying His Body and Blood proclaimed: “With fear of God, and faith, and love draw near!” At that moment, God called me to become an Orthodox Christian and join St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church.
In retrospect, Divine Providence clearly foreshadowed this conversion experience. If you go by the Julian calendar, I was born in 1987 on Christmas Day. My parents, although not Orthodox Christians, always joked about this. There were other heavenly coincidences too. My birth godmother, for example, had been born to an Orthodox Christian family in Greece. God even used my physical disability, Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, to introduce me to the Faith. Because I had to rely on other people to help with physical tasks like dressing myself, preparing meals, bathing, or transferring between chairs, relying on God came naturally. My physical disability became an opportunity to experience the loving-kindness of countless people, and through them, the tender mercies of God.
During childhood hospital visits and surgeries, I vaguely remember God’s Angels comforting me and other patients. Miraculous signs of His fatherly care fill my earliest memories. For example, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, I was blessed to meet Darlene Smith, a woman who had been completely healed of a severe case of polio at seven years old at the Monte Sano Hospital. These beautiful encounters with God’s love embodied in faithful believers and miracles led me to embrace Christianity at a very young age. I asked to receive Baptism when I was eight years old, and thanks to the loving support of my family and friends at Bethel Baptist Church, I enjoyed a relatively normal childhood shaped in part by Pastor Gene Strother’s humble faith, but above all, informed by my mother’s careful teaching and example.
Pastor Gene taught me:
“Becoming a Christian is a life-changing experience. The Bible tells us that God loves us and wants to have a personal and everlasting relationship with us. Unfortunately, the Bible also tells us that our sin separates us from God and leaves us spiritually inept. While many choose to depend upon what they can do themselves and mistakenly believe they can live good enough to win God’s favor and approval, there is a different choice, a better choice we can make. Jesus Christ, through his death on the cross and resurrection three days later, has already paid the price for our sins. God promises forgiveness and eternal life to everyone who will simply and sincerely believe in Jesus. Believing can be explained as trusting in another, instead of depending upon what you can do.”
— Rev. Gene Strother, Pastor of Bethel Baptist
Thanks be to God, my wonderful parents and friends at church and school continually showered offered affection and encouragement, building up my faith and my trust in Jesus Christ. They also cultivated my intellectual and spiritual curiosity. I became interested in plants and theology, and I enjoyed growing ivies and bean sprouts in leftover plastic communion cups. There was something special and life-giving about Christ’s Last Supper as celebrated by the Southern Baptists, and I thirsted for knowledge that would reveal a path to deeper union with God.
As a teenager, curiosity (and contending with my mortality during spinal surgery) led me to search for the original Christian Church that had been founded by Jesus Christ. I hoped to discover the full truth about Christ’s teachings and to clear up my confusion about difficult passages in the Bible. That’s when I encountered Orthodox Christianity for the first time in an intellectual context. During the summer after my sophomore year of high school, I began visiting St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church and kept coming back throughout my junior year to talk with Fr. David Barr about theological questions. Upon attending my first Divine Liturgy there, I had a profound spiritual experience during which I perceived the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. At that moment, as already mentioned at the beginning of this conversion account, God called me to become an Orthodox Christian and join St. Elias.
My story should have ended there. But, after only a matter of days, I turned away from God’s call to serve Him at St. Elias. Instead, I pursued another way that seemed like it would better satisfy my own desires and needs. I began dating a young woman who was a practicing Roman Catholic and an altar server at St. Louis Catholic Church in Austin, TX, and, as many teenage boys do, I let my hormones color my judgment.
After we had been dating for a few months, I briefly met with her priest and asked to join the Roman Catholic Church. He waived the usual requirement to participate in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) and appointed my girlfriend’s father as my Confirmation Sponsor. Two weeks later, during Christmas break, I was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Against Dad’s strongly-worded advice, I agreed to convert partly to please my girlfriend and her family. It wasn’t long though before my guilt pushed me to confess my sin to her priest. Thankfully, he was kind and approached the serious situation with humor. He persuaded me that my girlfriend wasn’t the only reason I had become Roman Catholic. Indeed, I must admit, I liked the apparent certitude that the Papal Claims brought to Christian Doctrine in uncertain times. I also greatly revered Pope John Paul II as a role-model of how to live with a disability. Back then, unfortunately, I was ignorant of the colorful and convoluted history of the Roman Papacy’s development and knew nothing about the global Catholic sex abuse crisis and its subsequent cover-up by bishops and the Pope.
Even in my ignorance, doubts about my decision to become a Roman Catholic lingered. These doubts were aggravated when I discovered that my girlfriend had been not-so-secretly dating someone else for many months prior to my conversion. It was a very painful breakup, but she truly loved the other man and has remained with him to this day. Due to the awkwardness of the situation, her father and I stopped speaking. Almost a decade passed before he and I tried to reconnect, shortly prior to my reception into Orthodox Christianity. Thanks to Jesus Christ, we did reconcile our differences. By then, however, my ex-girlfriend had left the Roman Catholic Church to embark on her own quest to find happiness and figure out life. It was humbling to learn that my decision to convert to please her had merely shown how little I truly knew her.
When I went off to college, I briefly reconsidered converting to Orthodox Christianity. In view of the absence of my Confirmation Sponsor and his family, I no longer had any solid support system in the Roman Catholic Church. Plus, modern Catholic historical-critical, revisionist, and ecofeminist approaches to the Bible in official Church commentaries and catechetical manuals had almost destroyed my faith in Jesus Christ as depicted in the Gospels. I was drifting into a vague sort of pantheism and spiritualism. Only the patient and often personal guidance of compassionate Christians like Lee Strobel, John C. Wright, Mark Shea, and Jennifer Fulwiler kept me from walking away from Christianity entirely. I can never repay my debt to them, especially for the time some of them took to talk to me at length and exchange emails. Through them, God revealed the agendas at work in contemporary Catholic Biblical scholarship, and soon I learned to see straight through the intellectual weakness of most academic theologians. Moreover, a dearly departed friend came to me in a dream and told me not to lose the Faith, proving to me by a private, deeply personal, and convincing sign that everyone who dies in Christ is indeed alive by His power and love (I have written about this elsewhere). My belief in Christianity was restored, but sadly, because of my pride, I didn’t want to be seen as a church-hopper and decided to stay put in Roman Catholicism to help fight the creeping spread of unbelief.
Thus began a series of bad experiences with many Catholic priests. Most notably, the priest who had received me into the Church and had previously shown me great compassion soon betrayed his whole congregation. Without consulting the faithful, he volunteered the sanctuary at St. Louis Catholic Church for Reformed Jewish ceremonies led by Planned Parenthood board members and staff, as well as charity talks and fundraisers that promoted Planned Parenthood. “No one from this parish has expressed concerns with me or the parish council [about this],” he said. “To the contrary, this congregation is highly supportive of this effort.” In fact, his actions inflicted a deep wound on the Catholic community in Austin, which still has not healed. His bishop ultimately decided to cancel the services, but the damage was done. Around the same time, another priest, whom I had invited to give a talk about Roman Catholicism to a comparative religions class at college, denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in front of my classmates. And disturbingly, another priest who admired my writing style asked me to compose an article for a Diocesan blog defending him against sexual misconduct allegations. The full details of these experiences are so horrifying, I refuse to even mention any of these priests’ names here. “The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot” (Proverbs 10:7, KJV). Nevertheless, the curious reader can discover their identities with minimal research. Please pray for the conversion and salvation of these priests. Pray also, fervently, for their victims.
In the midst of these painful experiences with Catholic priests, the Holy Spirit was telling me to turn around. Regretfully, I didn’t listen to God and things got even worse. Questions were soon raised regarding the validity of my Protestant Baptism at Bethel Baptist Church. A canon lawyer with the Austin Diocese advised me to stop taking Holy Communion until I had received Baptism and Confirmation again, conditionally, in the Roman Catholic Church. Although I was suffering profoundly from legalism, perplexity, scandal, and scrupulosity, I was still too proud to convert to Orthodox Christianity. I had also become obsessed with Roman Catholic apologetics by that point in an attempt to combat my ever-increasing doubts about the Roman Catholic Church’s status as the exclusive guardian of the fullness of Christian truth. I thought I knew a lot about my newly adopted religion, which made me extremely arrogant toward any Christian tradition that was not in complete agreement with Roman Catholicism. Therefore, I doubled-down harder on my earlier decision to become Roman Catholic. This time though, I was received into the Maronite rite of the Roman Catholic Church in 2007 on Easter Sunday.
Despite my mixed motives in undergoing another Baptism, in retrospect, it was a positive decision to move toward Jesus Christ and thus a step in the right direction. I wanted to avoid certain people and controversial liturgical and governmental disputes in the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church. I also longed for God’s raw presence in ancient services similar to what I had experienced at St. Elias. Thus, for a little over a decade, I attended Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church and served God as a Sunday school teacher and choir member.
For the first six years at Our Lady’s Maronite Catholic Church, I was at relative peace with myself. I drew close to several Saints commonly revered by Maronites, especially St. Maron, who is also revered by Orthodox Christians. I enjoyed belonging to an exotic eastern Catholic community. I was also enraptured by the beautiful theology and profound moral clarity of Pope Benedict XVI’s writings. Surrounded by the apparent safety and compassion of my parish family and my Roman Catholic service fraternity at college, I was able to slowly heal from past bad decisions and experiences. During this happy period, Fr. Jonathan Niehaus, a German Schoenstatt priest, became a dear friend, a spiritual father, and a guiding light. He has since passed on to his heavenly reward, but while on Earth, he encouraged me to turn to the wisdom of the Benedictine spiritual tradition to find peace and understanding. The Benedictine monks of Big Sur graciously took me on as a long-distance friend of their hermitage and helped me work through my issues with regret, resentment, and scrupulosity. Alongside St. Isaac of Nineveh and St. Ephrem the Syrian, the writings and constant intercessions of St. Benedict and St. Romuald nursed my wounded soul back to a semblance of health. During the same period, I made lifelong, amazing friends with people from Austin’s Catholic 20-Somethings young adult group and an associated ecumenical Christian fellowship.
Then, my inner peace shattered when Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013. Like many of my Roman Catholic friends, I felt abandoned and despondent. The father of our spiritual family had walked out on us. Left with a new Pope who was neither a heroic role-model nor a source of theological or moral clarity, I had to confront several uncomfortable truths. Chiefly, after years of reading Church history and the writings of the Church Fathers, I no longer saw any historical or Scriptural justification for the Infallibility and Supremacy of the Bishop of Rome. To make matters worse, the reign of Pope Francis marked the beginning of an era of anger and confusion throughout the entire Roman Catholic Church. Groups of formerly good friends turned against each other as bishops and priests went off the rails. The whole world was going insane and nowhere felt safe. I started caring less about God, and I found it increasingly difficult to continue caring about other people in the face of so much betrayal, fraud, and folly. It was nearly impossible for me to reflect the joy of Jesus Christ in my life. I felt like I was suffocating with fear and regret. More than that, I felt like I deserved to suffer for not following God’s original call for me to become an Orthodox Christian and join St. Elias.
Providentially, God rescued me from rebellion against his intended plan for my life through a series of fortuitous events, three of which deserve mention here. First, my job moved to a downtown location, and I was assigned a parking space where I could look at St. Elias Orthodox Church every day. Second, a friend of mine who had become an Orthodox seminarian came back to Texas, and we reconnected. Third, another friend from my ecumenical Christian fellowship announced that he was joining St. Elias and invited me to attend his Baptism. During the exorcism prayers of the Baptismal service, all of my confusion and spiritual darkness disappeared. For the first time since my junior year in high school, I felt completely free and lucid. In an instant, absolute certitude crystallized in my heart.
It was time for me to become an Orthodox Christian and join St. Elias.
One month later, on the eve of the Feast of Holy Cross (September 14, 2017), I formally renounced communion with the Roman and Eastern Catholic Churches to become a catechumen at St. Elias. Since then, I have enjoyed a degree of clarity, resolve, and inner peace that I didn’t know was possible for me. My prayer life has blossomed and my love for God and other people has returned full-strength and continues to grow, all by God’s infinite and unmerited gift of grace. On Holy Saturday, April 7, 2018, I was received into the Orthodox Church under the patronage of St. Geoffrey (Ceolfrid), the devout Benedictine monk who raised St. Bede the Venerable and was also a researcher, a librarian, and an avid Bible collector.