Conversion Story

NOTE: This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Catholic Answers Magazine (www.catholic.com). Used with permission.

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My Path to the Worldwide Church that Jesus Built

By Darren M. Cary

As a young adult, I walked to a nearby schoolyard and sat on a bench overlooking the empty playground where I had spent countless childhood hours playing.

“God, I don’t know what to do or where to go,” I prayed through tears and trembling lips. “I want to do what’s right. I’ll do whatever you want—I just don’t know what that is. Please show me what to do, and I’ll do it.”

It was 1992, and my world was crumbling. Actually, what was crumbling was my relationship with the Worldwide Church of God (WCG), a quasi-Christian sect in which I was reared, a church with roots traceable to the Millerite movement of Adventists going back to the 1800s. The new leadership of the WCG was introducing massive doctrinal changes—complete reversals, actually—during the years following the death of its founder, Herbert W. Armstrong. Armstrong had claimed to be God’s end-time apostle, sent to proclaim a message of warning and witness to all nations about the imminent Great Tribulation.

The church was then rejecting the distinctive teachings of its founder and embracing the mainstream teachings of Evangelical Protestantism, which was difficult for many members to accept. Armstrong had held Protestant churches to be nothing less than daughters of the Whore of Babylon: the Catholic Church.

 

Led by the father

Herbert W. Armstrong and his son, Garner Ted Armstrong, were well known for their World Tomorrow radio and TV programs from the 1960s to the 1980s. (After a falling-out with his father, Garner Ted founded a splinter church in 1978.) The circulation of their flagship monthly magazine, The Plain Truth, reached the millions.

What was most attractive about Herbert Armstrong was his no-nonsense style. In his broadcasts he would shout, “Blow the dust off your Bible and read it for yourself!” and “Don’t believe me; believe your Bible!” While many other televangelists preached syrupy “feel good” messages, Armstrong and his bold claims that his teachings were the plain truth of the Bible drew much attention.

Armstrong employed what I call “headline theology”: a method of preaching with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, attributing end-time, prophetic significance to the day’s headlines. And it was all filtered through the lens of British-Israelism, a sometimes racially charged doctrine that says the Anglo Saxon peoples, most prominently of the United States and British Commonwealth, are the modern-day descendants of the “ten lost tribes” of Israel. Of course, Armstrong taught it was a “counterfeit Christianity” that emerged from a great apostasy after the first century, so included in his commission was restoring the truths of the gospel.

Following Armstrong’s lead, WCG members denounced the doctrine of the Trinity as a satanic, counterfeit doctrine. Denying the personhood of the Holy Spirit, we believed God is a family consisting of two persons: the Father and the Son. (They were not considered two persons in one divine being but two persons in one divine family of beings, which is a form of polytheism.)

We insisted that Christians are to observe the weekly and annual Sabbaths given through Moses (we identified Sunday worship with the mark of the beast), as well as the Old Covenant dietary laws. We denied the immortality of the soul and consequently the idea that at death we go to heaven or purgatory or hell.

I could go on about the rest of his problematic teachings, but because of Herbert Armstrong’s presentation, how he so strongly appealed to Scripture by repeatedly saying, “Don’t believe me—believe your Bible,” we were convinced his doctrines and insights were authentic interpretations of Scripture.

 

. . . And by the son

Praying on that schoolyard bench, I didn’t know whether I should stay in that church or leave. Where was God leading me? Was he correcting the church and leading it into new understanding, or was he allowing it to fall into error and expecting me to stand up for the “truth”?

I soon discerned it was the latter, and so I joined the Texas-based church of Armstrong’s son, Garner Ted, the Church of God International (CGI), which was faithful to most of the former church’s “old” teachings. I made this decision through my own renewed and sincere study of the Bible—of course, with plenty of “help” from CGI brochures, booklets, and recorded sermons.

Even though Garner Ted felt his own ministry was somehow special in the grand scheme of things, he did not teach he was the only game in town as had has father. To him, the Church was not a physical organization but strictly a spiritual organism with invisible boundaries and that we should put to test all those (like his father) who claim to be apostles by comparing what they say with the Bible. This appealed to me, because I too had come to reject Herbert Armstrong’s overreaching claims of spiritual authority.

In 1994, I jumped all in and moved to East Texas, enrolling in the church’s two-year Bible school. There I met a classmate who caught my interest named Shari who had grown up in CGI. We remained friends for a few years, getting together once in a while to play basketball, take a stroll, or go out for macaroni-and-cheese dinners; but then Shari moved to Alaska, which put an end to our recreational friendship.

Shortly after completing my courses, I got a job with the church’s publications department. I worked there for nine years, becoming assistant editor, writing and editing articles and booklets, answering letters and emails, fielding phone calls, producing publications—I loved it. I was in my groove.

 

. . . And finally by the Holy Spirit

Even while in class, however, I began to have doubts. After learning more about the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, I gradually, quietly, dismissed the idea of British-Israelism—the idea that America and Britain enjoyed the primary physical fulfillments of God’s covenant promises to Abraham.

Later I began questioning, one by one, the church’s other distinctive teachings. At first it was no big deal. Some things could be quietly debated or passed over without breaking fellowship, as long as we shared the essentials. But through books and my own Bible reading, talking with others, and listening to Protestant Christian radio, I finally came to accept that my church’s teachings, as a whole, didn’t square with Sacred Scripture.

That was a real problem, because, while these new insights were exhilarating, it meant I needed to find a new job. I had recently gotten married, so I was in a difficult spot as the breadwinner.

While looking for other employment, I discreetly visited local “Sunday churches” but was never fully satisfied—partly because, in the late 1990s, I was listening online to recorded debates between Protestant apologist James White and Catholic apologists such as Fr. Mitch Pacwa, Tim Staples, Patrick Madrid, and others, particularly on the topic of sola scriptura. Even though I had become an admirer of James White’s emphasis on the formal sufficiency of Scripture, the more I listened, the more his arguments seemed impotent against the Catholic view—that we need Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium.

I began reading the Ante-Nicene Fathers, who wrote inside a couple hundred years after the apostles (before Constantine!), and it seemed clear they validated the claims of the Catholic Church. What settled the question of sola scriptura for me was Mark Shea’s book By What Authority? and David Currie’s Born Fundamentalist, Born Again Catholic, and Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism.

I was persuaded enough to begin attending RCIA classes in the spring of 2000. In the midst of my classes, when I was getting hungry for the Eucharist, the parish priest warned that I couldn’t convert secretly while still employed by the Church of God International.

It took three long years to find other employment, to finally come out of the Catholic closet.

 

Seven more years of hunger

But even then I still couldn’t convert.

My wife had been married twice previously, so I could not partake of the sacraments until the Church declared those marriages null. But because she vehemently opposed my newfound Catholic Faith, she refused to fully cooperate with the annulment process. Ours was a turbulent relationship from the beginning, with complications that do not need to be detailed here.

I felt stuck again, not knowing what to do. With her consent, I tried to live chastely in accordance with my difficult situation, in light of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage. Even so, my parish priest would not admit me to the sacraments.

I attended RCIA year after year. I went to Mass each week by myself, often in tears during Communion—especially at Easter Vigil Masses, when successive waves of fellow catechumens received the sacraments, and I could not.

This went on for seven years until my “marriage” ended at my wife’s request. The extraordinary personal pain that comes from an 11-year union ending in divorce was tempered by the fact that this was an open door to the sacramental life. The priest had me wait an additional two months, until Easter Vigil, before I could walk through that open door to receive conditional baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist.

But first it was time for confession—my first ever, at age 36. I had read about it and talked about it and believed in it, but I had never done it. Now it was scary-real. I mustered my courage and made an appointment with a great Irish priest whom I admired. I spent nearly an hour and a half at my first confession in his office at the chancery (he missed lunch). Not that it took that long to list my sins, but this priest, having known about my predicament for many years, was generous in answering my questions, offering wise counsel, and allaying my fears. He was genuinely happy to see me freed from my sins through the sacrament and finally beginning to live the full Christian life.

I was confirmed that Easter Vigil and received my First Communion. I was happy. Life still had its difficulties, and I struggled like everyone else, but I finally knew peace.

 

A twist of fate

Three months after my confirmation, I posted a link to Facebook about The Lamb’s Supper, a book by Scott Hahn that I was reading. One person “liked” it and commented, “I own it and haven’t read it. Guess I should check it out!” I was confounded, because the commenter was Shari—my long-lost basketball buddy and mac-and-cheese companion from CGI days.

It turns out Shari had become Catholic in 1999 while living in Alaska, just as I was getting interested in Catholicism in Texas. She lived in Minnesota now, and I was happy for her. We spoke a couple times on the phone, encouraging each other in the Faith.

Two years later, nearly fourteen years after we had seen each other in person, we arranged to meet at a conference she attended in San Antonio. It was like the old days, except this time not only did we shoot hoops and go out for a mac-and-cheese dinner, we also visited a historic mission church, prayed the stations of the cross, descended upon a couple of Catholic bookstores, and went to Mass at the cathedral.

Shari mentioned over dinner that she was content as an unmarried person, and, happier than ever, had even considered the religious life. After our pleasant reunion, we went our separate ways.

At a silent retreat, however, Shari was met with the unexpected. She got the distinct impression that God was calling her instead to the married life. Not one to see mystical revelations behind every bush, she understood this to be a spiritual directive “to love someone.” But who? She hadn’t dated in years.

 

A match made for heaven

Shari prayed about it more, about what qualities she would seek in a mate. Apparently those qualities did not include great wealth or six-pack abs, because my name kept popping into her mind. It was an odd thought that confused her. We were just friends.

She wrote to me about it, and then we spoke on the phone. One thing led to another, and within three months I quit my job and moved to Minnesota, renting a cheap basement apartment and working part-time while I went back to school. Almost a year later, in 2013, we married and spent our honeymoon in Italy visiting the historic Christian sites in Rome and Assisi.

With eyes of faith, I can see our Lord face-to-face in the Blessed Sacrament, even through tears of blessing, knowing what he expects of me: to be a faithful Catholic and to love my wife as Christ loves the Church, helping her get to heaven and allowing her to help me in the same way. Shari is a visible reminder of God’s kindness and mercy to me.

On Sundays, Shari and I read the Scriptures aloud to each other, but not to reinvent the wheel of Christian doctrine, yoked by the unworkable burden of the “Bible alone” approach of our “Armstrong days.” Our goal now is to better understand the mind of Jesus in light of the gospel faithfully proclaimed by the universal Church—the “worldwide” Church Jesus promised would never fail us.

 

Darren Cary writes from Waterloo, Iowa, where he and his wife, Shari, are active members of St. Edward’s Catholic Church.