I grew up Catholic. My younger brother and sister, who are twins, were baptized as babies by Pope John Paul II. I was baptized by a friend of my father’s, a French priest who lived the life of a hermit.
Growing up through High School, I believed it was perfectly fine to pray to saints. I treated them as God’s staff members in a large corporation where God was the CEO and was too busy to hear me out directly. For Lent each year, I gave up pornography, thinking that this year might actually be the year I would kick the habit. Except, I never made it the full forty days. And on Fridays I kept forgetting I wasn’t supposed to eat meat.
Then, one particular Friday during Lent, I decided I would fast and not eat anything at all. The next day, I took a preliminary Army Physical Fitness Test, and my body crashed during the two-mile run. The Army recruiters took me to the hospital where nurses stuck me with an IV and told me to rest. My parents at the time didn’t have very good health insurance, and I’m afraid they got stuck with a hefty bill from my afternoon visit. I never asked because I felt so guilty.
I was a poor Catholic.
But I still prayed a slew of Hail Marys at night, topped off with a solid “Our Father” to finish things strong. I still had my baptism, my confirmation and I had completed some of the other Catholic sacraments that I couldn’t really list, or remember, or knew what they meant, but I at least I had done them.
My family was heavily involved with the Focolare Movement, which is a community-driven organization initiated by the Vatican designed to bring Catholics together during evangelistic conferences around the world.
During a family conference one year – I think I was fourteen or fifteen at the time – the Focolare Movement chose one particular phrase to serve as the central theme of the conference: “Jesus Forsaken.”
I had no clue what that meant, but they used that phrase during every speech, every introduction, every conversational discussion. They used the phrase so much, that even the kids started to use it.
One day, I was telling one of the other kids that I really didn’t care for this Focolare thing, and he responded something to the effect of, “Don’t worry, Michel. It is because Jesus was forsaken that you’re feeling so down.”
“Jesus forsaken! Jesus forsaken!” I mocked. “Everything is Jesus forsaken. The food is Jesus forsaken. This building is Jesus forsaken. The playground is forsaken. The soul is forsaken. The whole thing is forsaken.”
For a moment, I actually thought I was being funny and the kids would laugh at my tirade. But the kids standing nearby, including my sisters Marta and Marie, looked at me like I had gone delirious. Nobody said a word.
My older sister, Marie, later chastised me.
I told my parents that it was foolish of people to make Jesus into God. He was just a man. It was only because of all the statues that we had built of him that man had turned Jesus into a deity.
Years later, I watched a Denzel Washington movie called, “Man on Fire” where Denzel’s character sacrifices his life in order to save a little girl. The entire movie had shown his character live a sketchy, violent and gruesome life. And yet, he gave his life so willingly at the end, as though this personal sacrifice might redeem his past.
I wondered if that sacrifice was enough to wash away all the killing he had done.
How did “Jesus Forsaken” fit into that equation? In the movie, Denzel’s character had made no mention of God or Christ. Weren’t those necessary for admission into paradise?
I asked my father if Denzel Washington’s character would make it to heaven by giving himself up to save the girl. He, essentially, in a conflicted manner, told me yes.
His answer troubled me. Jesus wasn’t really needed.
In high school, I became a pothead and my friends and I went to Friday night football games just so we could sneak off into the woods and get drunk. There was a Pizza Hut up the hill, behind the stadium, where all the high school kids hung out in the parking lot, usually high, drunk and loud, and mooched off one another’s food orders. Sometimes, boys and girls snuck into the woods together, pretending like nobody would notice, but everyone did.
At least I was still a virgin, a qualification that I held in constant tension of personal pride and timid resentment.
At least I still believed in God.
Before my senior year of high school, my family moved to Corpus Christi, Texas, where my father had accepted the position of Academic Dean of a small Catholic college. A small part of me hated (hated God, possibly) that I had to abandon all of my High School friends and start all over again during the last year of school.
But then, during the spring break of 2003, I decided to fly back to Pittsburgh to visit my pot-head friends. Somebody had built a bong using tin foil and some other household goods. We watched the Shock and Awe of America dropping bombs over Baghdad as we got high and made jokes about what we saw.
One of my friends, Alex, said, “I was hoping for bigger explosions.”
“Yeah, me too. Much bigger,” someone else agreed.
Then they went into the living room and someone pulled out a baggie of white powder. A few of them worked to form lines on the table.
My skin crawled. I wanted to run away.
How could this happen? Somehow, during my short absence in Texas, my friends had transformed from pot smokers to coke snorters. It had happened so quickly. And I wanted no part in this. I contemplated sneaking off into the bathroom, crawling out of the tiny window and run.
When they asked me if I wanted to do a line, I said no, but I watched their faces hover inches above the table and saw the lines of cocaine disappear into their noses.
Suddenly, I felt very glad that God had taken me away from these friends.
In college, I returned from Texas to attend the University of Pittsburgh. I commuted to school every day, but sometimes I stayed out in the Oakland campus on Friday nights to play beer pong and pour shots of cheap liquor into my throat.
I still believed in God. I still believed it was important to wait off on sex until marriage. That’s how I justified my personal purity. At least I had those two. Those should be good enough to maintain God’s love for me.
In 2006, just before the Steelers won the Super Bowl in Detroit, I began working at a pizza restaurant built inside an old coalmine. There were three tunnels in the bottom floor of the building. The owner had built wood-fired ovens at the end of two of the tunnels and hired me to work the dough and bake pizza crusts. There, I met James, whose enthusiasm for the Lord was contagious. He had a muscular football stature (he had played safety at Geneva College), curly black hair and a phenomenal understanding of the Gospel.
There, in those mineshafts, while making pizza dough, we discussed theology. It was there that I became a Christian.
It had always been an intellectual battle for me back then. There were questions about the Bible, about the Gospel, about the person and deity of Christ that needed thoughtful answers. James helped me settle my doubts and see Jesus for the incarnate God he was.
I don’t remember ever having a “fall down to my knees in tears” conversion moment. It was gradual. It was more like building a fire, one stick at a time, feeding small flame at first with gentle puffs, then adding more wood for the flame to catch, allowing it to eventually grow and builds into a healthy blaze.
James invited me to his church, so I began attending a Reformed Presbyterian Church in Dormont, Pa. On my first visit there, several church members introduced themselves to me. I told people I was Catholic. Everyone was cordial. Then one man in particular told me, “It doesn’t really matter which church you attend so long as the preaching proclaims that you are a sinner and in need of God.”
He didn’t say those words with aggression. He didn’t say them with a scowl on his face. He was calm and even toned. He shared this as though he were telling me his job occupation.
This man, this stranger, whom I’d never met before, just called me a sinner.
I didn’t quite know how to respond.
That statement was almost enough to stop me from attending again. What kind of people go around calling strangers sinners?
And yet, despite that comment – which I had interpreted as an affront – I saw compassion in this church congregation.
Soon, I began to attend regularly. Then, I watched James and his wife, Nicole, stand before the congregation as they took their oath of membership. They vowed to pray regularly, read scripture and to submit to God.
As they answered each question “Yes” before the church, I answered along with them in my mind.
I answered yes to every question until they were asked if they were willing to forsake and abandon their sins and turn to God.
I knew then my heart reviled at the question. Pornography. That was my sin. It was one I kept holding onto like a drug addiction. One I couldn’t shake. One I wanted to keep.
That question paused me.
I’m not good enough to be a Christian, I thought. I’m not good enough to join this church.
And yet, I kept returning to Providence. The theological discussions in the tunnel continued.
It was during those conversations in the tunnels that I began to understand the sufficiency of Christ, God’s glory, the inerrancy of Scripture, the necessity of faith and the work of God’s grace.
Salvation wasn’t something you earned through Lenten sacrifices or personal abandonment. I was saved because Jesus had been forsaken on the cross to serve as the only and ultimate sacrifice for my sins.
I had never associated that catch phrase with solid theology.
I eventually, and gradually, abandoned the Catholic tradition of faith for a Reformed understanding of scripture. I abandoned partying, not because it was a bargaining chip to purchase God’s Love, but because his love had purchased my life. I now despise the stain and damage that pornography has made on my mind, on my heart and my joy for Christ.
During my conversion, my mind shifted. Gradually. It was like discovering new gears in my mind turning that I didn’t even know could move. I had always known various, minimal things about the Bible, but now they suddenly formed theology. They formed a lifestyle. They impacted my life directly.
That’s how my conversion began, but it still has been a long road since.