In my earlier, Protestant life, people used to talk about finding a church home. Looking for great fellowship? Try the Baptists; they had Wednesday night supper. Looking for a serious inductive Bible study? Find a solid Presbyterian Church that held tight to its reformed roots. Yearning for transcendent worship? You’d likely be happiest in a high Anglican congregation, one that held onto the “smells and bells” of the Pre-Vatican II liturgical rite of the Catholic Church without the uncomfortable weight of so much troublesome doctrine. Looking for my tribe within the church—that did not feel like a strange pursuit to me by the time I got to college.
My folks stopped going to the Southern Baptist church I was raised in around the time I got my driver’s license (I mean, they just stopped going, for reasons that remain unclear to me even today) and I, unwilling to give up the Sunday morning custom I’d loved throughout my childhood, took it upon myself to drive to various churches each Sunday morning in search of a new church home. There was more there, to be sure, than mere force of habit. I had a seedling faith that sprang from something that had already been planted within me. It came from somewhere, very early on: my mom tucking me in each night with a prayer, my Sunday school class with its construction paper projects, squirming in the pew on Sunday mornings for that interminable hour next to my parents. Somewhere in there the Holy Spirit grabbed hold of me, and I did not intend to let go of him. I do not remember a conversion so much as a surrounding. As much as my family might have treated overt expressions of faith as a mild embarrassment, the message of the Gospel made it through. In true Baptist fashion, I decided to follow Jesus.
However, the truth was, by the time I reached junior high, there was nothing new about my faith. It had been planted there, by my mom, and her quiet Baptist exertions, and in agonizing fashion I spent a good deal of emotional energy over two or three years working up the courage to walk all by myself to the front of the church, declare my belief, and request baptism in front of the entire congregation. By God (!) the Baptists require a lot of the socially awkward and the painfully shy! Poised on the cusp of puberty, I certainly fell in both of those categories.
But still, once I had made that rite of passage—the awkwardly meaningful episode of full-immersion baptism—I really liked the idea of belonging to a church. So I was very unhappy when my father decided to walk away from the Baptists, my mom trailing behind, with what looked like reluctance to me. The congregation had just voted in a new pastor, someone who seemed less like a bookish seminary professor and a lot more like a seventies-style TV evangelist. That was the exit cue for my dad who, as a college professor himself, had always trailed on the academic end of the Southern Baptist world. And maybe by that time, in early middle age, already suffering from career burnout, and not, as he told me later, a natural “joiner,” the idea of shopping around town for a new church just seemed too bothersome to him. So for my parents at least, that marked the beginning of their acquiescence, although not to agnosticism and certainly not to anything that looked or sounded anti-Christian. They gave up on the search. They simply weren’t going to look for their people anymore.
I was only just 16, so their retreat from the church seemed a little unfair to me. I was literally in the process of enlarging my circle, looking for other people with whom I could identify. Their quirky insistence that the church didn’t meet their standards seemed ill-timed to me. I liked hanging out with the other teenagers in the massive youth room at the First Baptist Church, with its ping pong tables and broken-down sofa pit. And secretly, I really liked Jesus. I wasn’t interested in giving up on finding Christian community, although I certainly wouldn’t have put it that way. I decided that searching for a place to belong would be my new thing. That led to the somewhat weird phenomenon of a 16-year old girl looking through the Yellow Pages on Saturday night to pick a church to visit on my own the next day. It was a strange kind of freedom for a family to give their teenager, and a strange thing for me to ask: Can I please go to church tomorrow? I knew that I was a religious geek, but I was determined to find my place.
I went through a few churches in the years to come. Finding the right church home wasn’t easy, especially since I was still unsure about how to weigh out what was truly important: how much did I need to sort out each particular church’s system of beliefs? Wasn’t it more important that I liked the music and that there was a great young adult fellowship group? I wandered from church to church, an earnest, geeky, seeker. And in college that looked right, as the other Christian students on campus were mostly doing the same thing.
I joined the mainline Presbyterian Church, the PCUSA, right after college. But my time there was short, as I moved from one city in North Carolina to another. That’s typical, especially in world of evangelical Protestants. When you move from one city to another, it’s not uncommon to start from scratch, and look at all kinds of churches that offer the basics of biblical Christianity. What’s considered basic? That can vary from person to person, which is why searching for a church home can quickly become such an oddly personal and capricious exercise. To the Catholic eye, it can seem nonsensical. Leave, the Church sure, there’s plenty of reasons to do that, but to continually look for something better, or at least a better fit for your needs? What? You’re not going on a date, you’re going to church. Decide already: you’re in or you’re out. And in any case, even if you haven’t been inside a church since your niece’s baptism a year ago last June, that’s where you were baptized and raised. You’re Catholic, for chrissakes, that’s your home, even if you only show up for Christmas, Easter, and funerals. From what I’ve observed, the lapsed Catholic isn’t so much angry, as she is happily disinterested.
In contrast, most seekers don’t wear the hat all that happily. They are looking for something that’s missing. Many actually really do want to find a sense of belonging, a sense of being at home in at least a small crowd. So when people church hop, they’re not just seeking God, they are, in some ways, really seeking themselves, or at least they’re seeking a tribe in which they can imagine finding a place to belong. That was true for me, as I made my way through a few years, working my way from a sweet, country Alliance Church in college then on through Presbyterianism. I neither knew nor understood practically anything about the Holiness roots of the former church or the Calvinist roots of the latter. I was a Christian shaped more by the writings of C.S. Lewis and John Stott, and I instinctively knew that sorting out all the rest was going to make it impossible for me to find a home anytime in the foreseeable future. And I was determined to be a joiner.
I ultimately did find a profound sense of home when I converted to Catholicism in my mid-thirties. It offered a comprehensive framework that I could embrace, through the sacraments and through apostolic succession, winding all the way back to the words of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The frame of the sacraments and the rock of St Peter mattered to me, because even though my family wasn’t anti-Catholic in an aggressive way, my parents were, I guess I could say, phobic about what they knew of the Catholic church. But here were concrete reasons for choosing Catholicism over the other churches I had considered. Its arguments had been hammered out through two millennia, and as one friend, the Jesuit priest who confirmed me, wryly observed, the Church’s apologetic certainly was “elegant.” I liked its claims to be the true church established by Christ, and the compelling arguments that back up its assertion. I loved the boldness, and even the absolutism that I glimpsed at the edges. It seemed to offer a haven for someone like me who was by this time, tired of searching. On the day of my confirmation, my husband stood behind me with our children, the third one just a baby.
By my side stood my confirmation sponsor, a friend I loved like a sister. A convert as well, she had helped to bring me into the Church, praying her rosaries and lending me cassette tapes from Scott and Kimberly Hahn. On that day, and for a long time to follow, I felt the thrill of my own conversion as keenly as in any account that I’ve read or heard. I was home, and it was miraculous and startling and familiar all at once. And for a time, at least, when I needed it most, the Catholic Church really did feel like home.