Mary leads Baptist, Salvation Army, Pastor to discover the Catholic Church

-by Bill Rutland, a former Evangelical minister. He and his wife, Linda, became Catholics in August 1999. He writes from Rogers, Arizona, where he is the DRE for St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church.

“The hand of God plants the seeds of the extraordinary in the ordinary events of our lives. Little did I know that stepping over the threshold of that little bookstore in Alabama was the first step in my long journey home to the Catholic Church. As I searched the shelves, a book entitled The Seven Storey Mountain caught my eye. There was something about the title that intrigued me. I had no idea who the author, Thomas Merton, was, certainly not that he was a Catholic.

It didn’t take me long to realize the book I had purchased was a “Catholic book.” I thought of putting it down, but Merton’s engaging style and the fact that I had paid my hard-earned money for the book goaded me on, page by page. I was shocked at Merton’s love for Jesus and the depth of his theology. I had always believed that the Catholic Church was an apostate church, but this certainly didn’t seem like the writhing of a heretic.

Growing up deep in the Bible belt, I didn’t meet many Catholics, and the ones I did meet didn’t advertise the fact. My first exposure to the Catholic Church was when I was about ten years old. My uncle had committed what amounted to family treason by marrying a Catholic girl in Charleston, South Carolina. There are only three things that I remember about that wedding: My Presbyterian grandmother was scandalized, the ceremony seemed to go on and on, and I got to sneak a glass of champagne at the reception. It took a while, but we eventually forgave my uncle, chalking it up to the fact that love is blind. His wife’s reprieve was not so easily won.

When I bought Merton’s book, my wife, Linda, and I had moved back to Alabama from Norman, Oklahoma, where we had been pastoring a church with the Salvation Army. I had taken a job as a printer, but my heart still yearned for the ministry. Linda and I settled into a small Southern Baptist Church where I became the associate pastor. It gave me the opportunity to teach and preach, but I wanted a full-time church of my own. An unfulfilled dream and a restless spirit are dangerous things. When a friend of mine who was the pastor of the local Salvation Army asked me to come to work for him managing his homeless shelter and thrift store, I jumped at the chance.

Linda and I donned once again the navy-blue uniforms of the Salvation Army. A little over a year later we accepted an offer to pastor a Salvation Army church in some place called Rogers, Arkansas.

We arrived in Rogers on a Wednesday, and on Thursday it started to snow—and snow and snow and snow. The next day the weather cleared up, and everything was covered in a carpet of white. My kids—Matthew, who was 13 at the time, and Lesli, who was 8—thought it was a winter wonderland. Yet to me the snow seemed somehow a bad omen.

Not long after we arrived in Rogers, Linda went into the hospital with pneumonia. She was out again in a week, but the pneumonia never really went away. She would be in the hospital three more times that year. Her doctors told us that we needed to find another line of work that was less demanding to allow Linda some time to recuperate.

Acting on their advice, I made an appointment with my Salvation Army divisional commander in Oklahoma City and told him that we had decided to resign our position because of Linda’s health. We were coming into the holiday season when every year the Salvation Army goes into overdrive. I told the divisional commander that we would stay on through the end of the year. This would give us a little time to build up our savings, which we had drained on medical bills. It would also save the Salvation Army from having to replace us in the middle of the busiest time of the year. He agreed.

The next week we received a letter stating that national headquarters wanted someone in our position immediately, and we had two weeks to leave.

You must understand that we had nothing. The Salvation Army owned everything. They owned the house, the car, the furniture—everything right down to the bed sheets and the silverware. It was two weeks before Thanksgiving, and I faced the very real possibility of being out on the street with a wife, two kids, and literally nothing but the clothes on our backs.

This probably would have happened if not for the kindness of Robert and Billi Doyal, who were the pastors of the Salvation Army church in Springdale, Arkansas. They opened their hearts and thrift store to us and helped us round up the bare necessities that a household needs. I found a job at a plant making cultured marble products and continued my Salvation Army work the best I could in the evenings.

We found a place to live and spent the remainder of our savings on rent and deposits. A member of our Salvation Army advisory committee had loaned me his spare truck so we could get back and forth to work. In the meantime, Linda had a recurrence of pneumonia, and the doctor wanted her to go back into the hospital. She refused to go until she saw that her family was settled in safe and sound.

Robert came over with his truck and helped us move in. There was an early snow that year, and as we moved our stuff it drifted down on us. Now I understood the snow’s cold prophecy the year before. Linda helped Robert and me move on a Saturday. On Sunday she went back into the hospital.

When fear and hopelessness are wed, despair is born. I had no idea how I was going to make the rent or the bills. I had two kids to look after, and my wife was in the hospital with no medical insurance. The snow had turned to ice and the roads were treacherous.

As I drove I thought how easy it would be to just slip off the road into one of the deep gullies on either side. For the first time, I actually considered taking my own life, and it scared me. Then from somewhere down deep in my soul, came an unbidden cry—”Mother Mary, help me!” It wasn’t really a prayer, it was more like a frightened child calling out for his mother. I was shocked. I didn’t believe in Mary.

Three days later, against her doctor’s orders, Linda was out of the hospital. She had found a new job, and there was no way that she was going to miss the first day. The next week she was back in the hospital on an outpatient basis for an infusion of gammaglobulin. Her doctor hoped that this would build up her immune system and keep her out of the hospital. The injection process takes about four hours, and there is little more to do than just lie there.

After I got off work that afternoon, I went to pick up Linda. She was waiting for me in the emergency room. The first words out of her mouth were, “Bill, I had a visitor.”

“Oh,” I said, “who was it?”

She looked down. “You’re going to think I’m crazy.”

“What do you mean?”

“I was lying there during the injection worrying about you and the kids and my new job and the money. And all of the sudden, this tremendous feeling of peace came over me. I had the feeling that there was someone in the room with me. I looked up and there was a lady in a long robe standing at the foot of my bed.”

“What did she say?” I interrupted.

Linda paused. “Nothing. I just felt this great empathy and love.”

There are questions you know the answer to but you ask anyway. “Who was she?” I asked.

Linda look up, a confused look on her face. “It was Mary!”

In God’s wonderful mercy, the spring soothes the winter’s harsh wounds. We had managed to buy a used car, and we moved into a duplex that was much more affordable than where we had been living.

During this time I became friends with a young man named David who worked at the local Catholic bookstore. Although I had come to respect certain Catholic writers, I still believed that I was head and shoulders above Catholics when it came to the Bible and theology. In David I found my Waterloo.

We would talk between customers about Catholic theology. In David I also recognized something of myself. There was in him a deep, abiding sadness, the kind that comes only from the death of a dream. David had been in training to become a Jesuit priest but had been asked to leave in his second year. He was struggling, just as I was, with a God that all too often seemed to yank the rug out from under your feet.

Every payday I would go to the bookstore to buy another book and to challenge David with some new question. One day I was in the middle of one of my usual orations when David stopped me. I will never forget the seriousness in his face. “Bill”—he spoke slowly, letting each word hit its mark—”there comes a time when you have to put down the books.” In that moment every argument fell away. I was speechless.

It was Easter of that year that I took David’s advice. Our church was not having an early Easter service, so we decided to go to early Easter Mass. I really didn’t know what to expect. My kids thought we had lost our minds. Good Baptists that we were, we sat as far back in the church as we could. But somehow, for all the Mass’s strangeness, Linda and I felt very much at home.

I had gotten a new job that paid a little better, and Linda was doing well. We were beginning to settle into some kind of normalcy. My study of the Catholic Church had become more intense, but I still had a lot of problems with its theology. I was reading a book called Crossing the Tiber by ex-Protestant Stephen Ray when I was stopped cold in my tracks by his statement that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura—the doctrine that the Bible alone is the sole authority in Christian faith and practice—could not be supported by Scripture.

I had never questioned the doctrine. I just assumed that it was somewhere in the Bible. But search as I might, I could not find it in Scripture. I had encountered the Achilles’ heel of Protestant theology: The very doctrine that tells Protestants they can accept no doctrine that is not in the Bible is itself not in the Bible! No matter how much I tried, I could not get around it. The doctrine of sola scriptura, one of the two foundational doctrines of the Protestant faith, was self-defeating.

Another theological issue had been weighing on my mind: the question of the Eucharist or what Baptists call the Lord’s Supper. We Baptists took the Lord’s Supper only four times a year, and on these occasions the pastor went to great lengths to explain that we did not believe that Jesus was really present in the elements. “After all,” he pointed out, “Jesus said, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’”

But Jesus had also said, “This is my Body. . . . This is my Blood.” I had come to believe almost a year earlier that these words must be taken literally. As I sat holding the cracker and little plastic cup of grape juice, a disturbing thought formed in my head. The preacher was right—this was not the Body and Blood of our Lord, because this was not a true communion. We were very sincere and reverent, and in our hearts we truly loved Jesus. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were only children at a tea party calling to God from a distance. There was a Church that had the true Communion, and I knew where it was.

Linda and I had started attending RCIA at the local Catholic parish, St. Vincent de Paul. Earlier we had visited with the pastor, Fr. Mike Sinkler, and were surprised to find that he was nothing like we had expected a Catholic priest to be. Fr. Mike was warm and open and answered many of our concerns. As strange as this “Catholic thing” was, more strange was that we felt so much at home.

Though a man cannot walk two separate paths at the same time, I tried. On one hand, Linda and I were becoming more and more immersed in the Catholic Church. On the other hand, I seemed to be more and more immersed in Baptist ministry. Almost every Sunday Linda and I would go to early Mass, then I would preach from a Southern Baptist pulpit. I felt a little guilty about it, but I justified it by thinking that it gave me an opportunity to preach, and it provided some sorely needed extra income.

There comes a time in the RCIA program where you are asked to decide if you are going to come into communion with the Catholic Church. For Linda and me, this time was rapidly approaching. We were torn. We knew that it would mean the loss of some good friends, but of greater concern was that our kids were very opposed to the Catholic Church. We told them that we would not force them to come with us. It was a heart-breaking time, but we put it in the hands of God. We knew that the Catholic Church was where he wanted us.

We were settled, our minds made up, our hearts at peace. Then that very week I received phone calls from two Baptist churches I had preached at. Each church each offered me a position, one as an associate pastor, the other as senior pastor. Here was the very thing that I had been praying for so long.

It is hard to walk away from a dream when you know that dreams are so hard to come by. God wanted a clear decision. He wanted me to understand the choice that I was making. I declined the offers, and, in doing so, I knew that I was turning my back on being a pastor and having “my own church.” I walked away and I have never looked back.

On August 1,1999, Linda and I came into full communion with the Catholic Church. We had come home. It came at a high cost, but anything so precious does. We lost our old Baptist friends. Our kids still aren’t crazy about the Church, but it’s better.

In the Church we have found rest and peace, a sanctuary in the midst of a crazy world. At the Mass we enter into the great gift of the cross, the resurrection, and the Holy Spirit. In the Church we have found what we had been yearning for.

Jesus promised, “In this world you will have trials and tribulations, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” This promise is fulfilled in the accidents of bread and wine, the true presence of Christ, lovingly administered by his Church. All in all, I’ve learned what King Solomon knew so long ago: There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”