From my earliest memories, I recall going to Sunday Mass. Mom and dad raised me in the Catholic faith and sent me to Catholic schools. Catholic practices were a routine part of my life. Outside of church and school, however, I didn’t think about God very much.
Life had its ups and downs. School work and baseball were positives. On the other hand, my home life was a negative. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mom was likely depressed during most of my childhood. My dad started having financial problems with his business, and he worked long hours. By the time I was a teenager, I felt disconnected from my parents.
While I continued to do well academically throughout high school, I had almost no social life. The few friends I had at school weren’t very close. For much of my high school experience I was miserable. I was lonely, and I felt worthless. At one really dark time during my junior year, I found myself thinking about suicide. But something happened that night. I couldn’t explain why, but I suddenly felt hopeful and knew I didn’t want to give up; that somehow there was something more. I am sure that was the Holy Spirit. From that point on, I seemed a bit more optimistic, although I didn’t have any reason for it. I felt like I was in a hole and I wanted to get out. I just didn’t know how.
My journey toward God started in a surprising way, and it didn’t have anything to do with church. At the end of my high school junior year, I went to a one-month summer program at an engineering college. The program was set up to help students get experience working on cool science projects. I signed up to build a laser communication system along with another student from southern Indiana. I began to hang around with him and two other guys from Nebraska and Illinois. The group accepted me readily. They had a good sense of humor, and there was always lots of joking to go around. But we also had some serious conversations. In the course of that month, I discovered what it was like to have people accept me for who I am. They even liked me. Those friendships helped me loosen up and develop a sense of humor. When the day came to say goodbye and return home, I cried most of the trip back. Something had changed in me. I knew there was more to life — something healthy and good — and I wanted more of it. Although I wouldn’t have put it in these words at the time, I wanted more than just to exist. I wanted to live.
I started trying new things. Sometimes I would act crazy or goofy. It wasn’t about trying to make other people laugh as much as it was about letting go and being different. But no matter what I did, the happiness I felt at the time was short-lived.
I had a teacher named Sr. Joan Marie for the first semester of my senior religion class. She was a little firecracker. She had a great sense of humor and connected well with students. I don’t remember the name of the class, but I do remember going through Fr. John Powell’s book, A Reason to Live, A Reason to Die. It was during that class and through that book that I began to develop a hunger for God.
My high school had evening class retreats twice a year, but I had never paid any attention to them before now. A poor experience on an 8th-grade retreat left me thinking these were a waste of time. But Sr. Joan Marie asked my class to go on the senior fall retreat, and with my new-found openness, I was ready to give it a try. During the sessions, I heard other kids talk about God in their lives. We read and discussed the Scripture in a way I had never done before. The Gospel passages came alive for me. During Reconciliation at the end of the retreat, I remember thinking, “If God is really there, then it makes sense to live 100% for Him. But if he isn’t, I might as well just live for myself.” I wanted my life to be different, but I was afraid. The enormity of the commitment and the changes it would mean for me were just too much.
As January came around, I heard about a weekend retreat called SEARCH. That name fit me because I was searching. This time I was ready for something more. I had many remarkable experiences that weekend, but three, in particular, were very special.
The first came on Saturday afternoon during our free time. I went to the chapel so I could talk to God alone. Sitting there, I began to see that God was real, and I knew that He was present with me at that moment and that He loved me very much. No matter what happened in the rest of life, He would be there. It was the most powerful moment of my life, and it was then and there that I decided to let go and give my heart and life to Jesus. I immediately felt at peace, but the full impact of that event was yet to come.
Later, that night, we had Reconciliation. The priest, Fr. Jim Kelly took a long time with each student. When it finally came to me, the depth of all my struggle, alienation, and sin poured out. When I received absolution, I knew I was free. I WAS FREE!
I should have been tired the next day (there wasn’t a lot of sleep time), but I felt alive and yet apprehensive. My decision meant a lot of changes were coming. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, especially the part where I was going to talk to my parents about what happened to me on the retreat. The leaders taped a large sheet of newsprint to the wall, and each person had the opportunity to draw as a symbol of what the retreat meant to them. I made a rising sun. I felt that I had a new start on life and from that point on I have considered it a symbol of my new life in Christ.
When I got home, I tried to talk to my parents. That didn’t go well. They didn’t understand what I was trying to say, and mom thought I was telling them I didn’t like the way they had raised me. While that was a disappointment, I was still encouraged because I did something I thought I could never do. From that point on I started praying and reading scripture for an hour every night. I just gobbled up the Word. It spoke such words of life and made so much sense for how to live — to really live. I started going to retreat follow-up meetings every other week. For the next six weeks after the retreat, I experienced a tremendous peace that I had never known — like someone who had been lost for years and finally found his way home. When I would face challenging situations, I would do what I thought God wanted no matter how painful or embarrassing it was for me, because I had decided there was no going back.
When summer arrived, the retreat meetings came to a sudden end, but I wasn’t ready to quit. I still had such a thirst for God. I knew of an evening prayer meeting at my high school, and I began to meet with them. Most of the time I was the only student. Through those gatherings, I experienced a different and yet moving way of praying with others. One of the adults told me about a charismatic prayer meeting at a Catholic church in a nearby town. That was a different, but powerful, experience. I occasionally still got together with Fr. Kelly. His listening and advice were incredibly helpful.
I left for college at the end of the summer. My new friends were going elsewhere, and I didn’t know of anyone attending my school or even going to another university in the same city. One of the nuns in the prayer group gave me the name and address of a contact for a prayer group. I was determined not to give up.
The first days at college were busy with placement exams, but on the afternoon of the second day, I had the chance to ride my bike across town in search of my prayer group contact. It was on my return that I met Bill. He had his door open, and I just decided to walk in and say “hello.” Once hearing about where I went, he invited me to join him for a progressive dinner with the Union of Baptist Students. Why not? I went, had a good time, and made some new friends. Arriving back at school, we saw a notice about someone giving a ride to midnight Mass at the Catholic Student Center in town. It was my turn to invite Bill.
I discovered the celebrant was the contact for the prayer group. After Mass, Bill and I met a girl just hanging out in the lounge. Our motivation for talking to her wasn’t spiritual, but it was yet just another way God worked to reach my close friend, Mary. One week later she went with us to the prayer meeting.
The prayer group was full of people who loved God. Their worship was full of joy. My sophomore year their core group invited me to join them as a student liaison. The leaders were mature disciples, and they helped me grow. There was a time I was struggling with a personal situation. I needed to seek forgiveness and make a significant change in my life, but I kept all of this very private. During prayer, one godly woman shared a word from the Lord. She had no idea who it was for or what it meant, but I knew it was for me and what I had to do. The chain of events that followed changed my life and God once again demonstrated His love and power.
All of this took place forty years ago, so obviously it isn’t the end of my story. Reflecting on these experiences reveals several principles about conversion. First, God is the initiator, but we still need to respond. Most of the time I didn’t know what I was doing, but that wasn’t important. It was just doing what God set before me at the time. Second, His Spirit aroused a hunger within me. God uses the events of life to get our attention; sometimes he speaks in a quiet voice. We should never ignore these movements or let something else take their place. Keep seeking the Lord where He may be found. Third, when presented with opportunities to surrender to God — let go! I believe the mindset where I told myself, “I’m not turning back,” kept me making the hard choices that allowed God to work in my life.