And a Little Child Shall Lead Me

And a Little Child Shall Lead Me

My Decision to Join the Catholic Church

Paul Heidmann

 

Westfork Church

For eight years, my family and I attended a nondenominational inner city church in central Phoenix named “Westfork Church”. Westfork was a miraculous place, and my whole family and I were greatly blessed while there (and we continue to be blessed, to this day). Westfork’s specific mission was to reach struggling, unchurched, inner city families. My role (as a deacon) was to work with some of our most troubled kids, and their families.

To understand my decision to join the Catholic Church, it is essential that you understand the people (mostly kids) with whom I worked, for it is they that led me where I am today. Our “Westfork kids” were victims in so many ways: physical abuse, sexual abuse, parents on drugs, parents that were prostitutes, parents that dealt drugs, and parents that simply were not there. Most of these kids had quite a bit of trouble in school, and could barely read. All had emotional difficulties of one sort or another. Most all of them came to church twice a week, shared with each other even when they had almost nothing, fought with each other, and forgave each other. None of them had any knowledge of the Bible or of God when they first came to Westfork.

We never had very many people at Westfork, and that was fine. Instead, we did everything we could to help our small, close knit family. Frequently, these kids were in my home, at times living with us. Often, I was in their home, touching base or dealing with some issue. I worked with the same kids (for the most part) for all of the eight years that I was there, and those same kids now come with me to the Catholic Church. Two of those kids have gone through the RCIA program and have been received as members into the Catholic Church.

Sadly, Westfork Church came to an end when our pastor departed to obtain a doctorate at Oxford. I will always remember my time at Westfork fondly, and by God’s grace will remain grateful for the time I was given there.

 

Creeds

My pilgrimage from Protestantism to the Catholic Church began very shortly after I joined Westfork Church, but I had no idea that I was on that quest at the time. It all started with a very specific problem: wolves sent from non-Christian groups, in this case Mormons, were attempting to poach my kids. Most of my kids could barely read, so it did little good to give them Bibles. The only weapon I had in my own personal arsenal that was suitable for the task were the creeds. So, every Wednesday (and eventually every Sunday too) I made sure that the Apostle’s Creed was recited. Not only that, I was always very careful to point out, every Wednesday, that the creeds were what you used to tell the difference between a Christian church and a non-Christian one. It worked. Soon, not only did every kid have the Apostle’s Creed memorized, but they ended up mocking me for insisting that we do the whole “Creed thing” all the time. I remember smiling to myself every time they groaned and rolled their eyes at me, knowing that the Creeds were inoculating them against false teaching, likely for the rest of their lives. I reached for the creeds as one would reach for a weapon[1], when faced with a real and imminent threat. Thanks be to God, they worked, and with great effect. But they did more than I intended (weapons often to do more than their wielder intends). You see, the thing about weapons is, they apply force, typically lots of it. I handed my kids the creed, precisely so that they could use it to apply force against those who would steal them away from Christianity into a lie. It was the only weapon they had. Not a single Westfork kid was familiar with the Bible, nor could they even attain to be, at least not at their reading level. But they had the creed, and that is a powerful weapon. Too powerful, in this case, and this is where this all started to go sideways for me. The force of the creed came back to me, and this is how that happened.

When you are in a war, you tend to spend more time thinking about your weapons than you normally might otherwise. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the creeds, especially within the context of our own little “Westfork world”. The creed that I gave the kids I specifically intended to protect them against erroneous interpretations of the scriptures (in this case, those put forth by Mormons). This was especially important for them, because they could not interpret the scriptures on their own. Being a bit of a spiritual dullard, it took me some time to figure out that I was no different than the kids. At the end of the day, I am about as capable at interpreting the scriptures as are they, in spite of, and because of, my many years of study (admittedly as a layman).

For the creed to be used this way, to interpret scripture, it has to be authoritative, and that was a bit of a problem, given my protestant views at the time. It is not sufficient to claim that the creeds are authoritative because they “summarize the teachings of the scriptures” or because they “repeat what the scriptures directly state or what can be derived by good and necessary consequence from the teachings of the scriptures”, to borrow two phrases I’ve heard many times in the past. These statements beg the questions, “According to whom?” and “Why are the interpretations of the creed more valid than others?” and “Who gets to decide what the scriptures teach?” So there I was, knowing full well that there was no difference between the Westfork kids and myself, clinging to the creeds like they were some sort of lifeline (and indeed they are). In fact, even back then, I was even saying to those around me that the creeds were “pragmatically inerrant” (those were my words), because nobody had the authority to contradict them (that raised a few eyebrows among my protestant friends, too).

And so began, many years ago, my journey to Rome. I had no idea at the time where the path was leading (I doubt I realized that I was even on a path). I am thankful now for my ignorance then, both of the final destination and of all the trials along the way, as my courage then would have not sufficed.

 

By Their Fruit

By far, the most significant reason that I chose to join the Catholic Church is the fruit that she bears. To understand my decision, the priority that the Catholic Church gives to the poor and oppressed must be given emphasis. In my many years in Protestantism, the only Church that I ever attended that gave any sort of priority to the poor and oppressed was Westfork Church (but that church had other problems, see below), and I always found this fact frustrating and disappointing. To illustrate, consider my current parish, Sts. Simon and Jude in Phoenix, Az. Last year, through our Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVDP), we fed about 17,000 people, with almost all of the funding for that food coming from our congregation. Sure, we are a big parish, and so we can feed many, but it is also true that we can feed many because we make it a priority. I understand that many churches are not the size of ours, but all of them should be able to help the poor, at least to some extent. In my experience, sadly, this typically does not happen. The help that I have seen provided is lacking in quantity and is made generally inaccessible by bureaucratic requirements (usually by excessive vetting requirements, in the name of good stewardship).

The thing about fruit is, it attracts hungry people. The families (both the kids and their parents) at Westfork taught me this lesson as well, and with great clarity. When you have not been raised in the Church, you typically don’t have much Biblical or doctrinal knowledge, and so it is difficult for you to distinguish one church from another based on their teachings. So what do you do in this situation? You follow the fruit. Anybody can see fruit, and everybody knows what it is, and everybody likes it. Jesus knew this too, He told us “by their fruit you will know them”.

Fruit does more than just attract people, it provides the solution to an otherwise intractable problem. When you are poor, you have few options and it seems everybody is telling you what to do (from the requirements of the welfare system, to random drug tests, to dealing with child protective services – because an enemy left an anonymous tip, to disreputable landlords, to less than understanding bosses, and on it goes). So when the Church comes along, doing what she must, telling the poor (and everyone else) to sin no more and follow Him, she is just one more voice in the chorus of those making demands. The poor will not listen, in my experience, until you give them a reason to listen, until you earn the right to be heard. The fruit, both in your life and in the Church, is usually the reason that the Gospel is heard at all.

Finally, please consider Matt. 25:31-46. Bearing fruit is essential, your very salvation depends upon it.

 

Sola Scriptura

Many years before I joined the Catholic Church, I had already realized how intractable was the principle of sola scriptura. The kids taught me this as well. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the kids believed what I told them about the teachings of the Bible simply because it was I that told them. Then I began to see myself in the kids, realizing that I was no different, that I was merely a living echo of what I was taught. Surveying the religious landscape in America today, anyone can see the confusion. There are many tens of thousands of denominations, each claiming different things about what it is that the Bible teaches.  Realizing that I was merely a product of what I was taught (just as were the kids), I could not help but wonder if those who taught me were right or wrong (likely a bit of both).

The unchurched, especially when they have limited reading capabilities, are in a pitiable position. When they finally begin to seek the Lord, they are utterly dependent on others for spiritual direction. They are often mislead. I once thought that I was different, having as I do the ability to read and study. I was wrong. Men much smarter than I have been mislead, leaving me in a position just as pitiable as my Westfork kids.

You have to ask yourself, is this really what God intended? Did He mean to leave us adrift in a sea of denominations, hoping against hope that we would choose one that would teach us sufficiently well (whatever that means)? What is needed here is someone to authoritatively teach us, and to unify us.

I struggled with this knowledge for many years. I knew that there really wasn’t any place in Protestantism for a person that recognized that sola scriptura was a man-made presupposition superimposed over scripture. But I wasn’t quite ready for Rome yet. I needed more convincing.

 

Fathers and Heroes

For the first few years that I was at Westfork, when Father’s Day rolled around, someone always seemed to think that making Father’s Day cards during class time would be a great idea. Unfortunately, we teachers always ended up with a handful of these cards, because most of the kids didn’t really have fathers. Everyone needs a father, and everyone who doesn’t have one will invariably look for one, sometimes in a good place, often in a terrible place. The choice of a father has enormous consequence, and heavy is the burden on he who fills that role.

Our society being what it is today, we have not only a great shortage of fathers, but also of heroes. This compounds the plight of the fatherless, because it leaves them without role models, and leaves them without inspiration.

Whenever I am with my Westfork kids, I do everything that I can to be a father to them, because I believe that this is just what they need. In these efforts, unfortunately, I always fall short, because my “interests are divided”. The apostle Paul describes this problem very well in 1 Cor 7:32-34. My first duty must be to my family, and so the Westfork kids must always have a lower priority. It is difficult to see how desperately these kids need a father, knowing that I will never be able to meet that need.

Since the greatest majority of protestant pastors are married, their interests are divided just as mine. Knowing how great the need for a father is for the fatherless, it is difficult to justify the choice of a father whose interests will be divided.

All of my recent protestant pastors have driven cars nicer than mine (although that’s not saying much), and lived in houses nicer than mine. I do not in any way begrudge them these things, but there is yet another contrast to be drawn between the typical protestant pastor and Catholic priest. The Catholic priest takes a vow of poverty, a vow of celibacy, and is oath bound to spend a good of time every day in prayer (praying what is called the Liturgy of the Hours). The Catholic priest gives up everything to serve the Church, and that makes him a hero.

Recently my wife took one of our Westfork girls to see our priest. Our girl was living with her boyfriend/baby-daddy, using contraception, and doing other unfortunate things. Our priest spoke with her very firmly but lovingly, but she ended up running out of his office in tears, and walked home. Before long, however, she made her boyfriend move out, even though he was paying the rent on the apartment, and, in defiance of her mother (who financially supports her), she ceased using birth control. Both my former pastor and I had taught her, for years, to obey God in these ways, but when it came to it, she needed a hero to tell her.

 

Dedicated to the Bible

Working with people whose ability to read is marginal emphasizes the need to read God’s Word, out loud, in Church. When considering whether or not to lead both my family, and my extended “Westfork family”, into the Catholic Church, this was a very important consideration. For all of the talk I hear, especially from evangelicals, about how important the Bible is to them, I have to wonder why they don’t seem to read it very much in church. I am left with the impression that they must somehow think that man’s words (the sermon) are more important than God’s words.

If your ability to read is marginal, this is critically important. In my Church, if you simply show up every Sunday for three years, even if you cannot read yourself, you will have had the greatest majority of the Bible read to you. Show up  for three more years and you’ll have heard it all twice.

 

Parish Boundaries

Westfork Church was started specifically to reach inner city kids. More specifically, it was started shortly after a Godly woman began bringing inner city kids to a large suburban church. Before long, the inner city kids were getting into fights with the suburban kids, so, it was decided to plant Westfork Church, to specifically reach these kids (or perhaps get rid of them). Westfork survived for almost a decade, but eventually failed due in part to its lack of diversity. Our entire congregation consisted of the poor, so we never had any money. Because the majority of the people in our congregation were at one time addicts, we lacked balance.

What is less obvious to most is that many protestant churches also lack balance because they lack the poor. These same churches also lack balance in another way, in beliefs. Many Protestants will drive 20 or 30 miles, past many churches, to get to a church that agrees with what they believe.

Every Catholic parish, in contrast, has parish boundaries, much like a city, county, or state has boundaries (with the parish being responsible for all of the souls within its boundaries). This has several implications. First, when I go to Church, I meet my neighbors (imagine that). Second, when I go to Church, I am worshiping with the rich, the poor, the saint, the sinner, with people that are white, Hispanic, black, and Indian. I am worshiping with those who adamantly disagree with the teachings of the Church on critical issues like abortion and homosexuality (I am sad that they believe these things, but happy they are in Church).

All of these people, all my neighbors, are baptized, and so they are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. I have to get along with them. I have no choice. Same goes for the kids I bring to Church (including my own).

 

Baptism

Westfork kids, mostly because they have been victimized, have a difficult time controlling their emotions. They get into fights. They need constant and firm reminding that those in Church with them are their brothers and sisters in the Lord. I learned very quickly that mere words were not sufficient to this task. Not for them. I could tell them all day long that they could not fight because they were brothers and sisters in the Lord, and it had little effect. If, however, I told them that they were brothers and sisters in the Lord because they were baptized, that would work. Many, many times I remember jumping between two angry kids trying to throw down and yelling, “You cannot fight, you are both baptized!”  I remember one evening, after doing this, one of the kids screamed “I hate my f***ing baptism, I wish I’d never been baptized!” (later, the kid settled down and repented). I have always believed that in that moment, this kid, who at that time could barely read, understood baptism better than many theologians.

The only difference between my Westfork kids and I is that I fight with grudges rather than fists. I need someone to scream at me that I can’t fight, because I am baptized. I need this, my kids need this, and we need it badly.

The problem with most evangelical churches here is that they hold that baptism is merely “an outward sign of an inward confession”. That sort of baptism lacks the punch to separate two fighting kids, be they fighting with fists or grudges.

 

Moral Stances

I began demonstrating in front of abortion clinics when I was in college. Every Friday, the day they did abortions at that particular slaughter house in Fargo, North Dakota, a few of us would gather to pray and to attempt to convince a few of the pregnant women to turn away. Most Fridays, I was the only protestant out there (it was easy to tell – I was the only one not clutching a rosary). This disturbed me then, and it still does today. It is one thing to say that you oppose abortion, quite another to actually do something about it.

Actions speak louder than words, and have a far greater deterrent power as well. This is critically important for my “Westfork kids”, who seem to have a tendency for pregnancy outside of marriage. This is no academic debate. Lives are at stake.

The Catholic Church’s consistent stance on moral issues extends beyond abortion. They are very clear on homosexuality, an issue with which I have had to directly deal at least three times. Morality is sadly missing from our society today, and we badly need it back. Actions, like demonstrating in front of abortion clinics, like the many demonstrations against Obamacare mandates forcing contraception coverage, may bring morality back to our nation one day. Mere words never will.

When I was considering joining the Catholic Church, I looked around and I was able to see the actions the Catholics were taking to restore morality to our nation. I was unable to see actions taken by other churches.

 

Doctrine

In the year before I officially joined the Catholic Church, I read dozens of books and read many Church fathers. I needed to correct many misunderstandings that I had about what it is that the Catholic Church actually teaches (we don’t worship Mary, we don’t believe in works based salvation, etc).

I will not describe that very difficult year of study here, other than to say it was just that, difficult. It was a year when all of my assumptions and presuppositions where challenged. It was a year filled with confusion, frustration, and prayer. Lots of prayer (I remember showing up at the Cathedral several times just to pray for wisdom, to pray that I might be prevented from misleading my family). It was a year that never would have happened without my Westfork kids. I needed them to teach me, to help me see, the things I’ve written about above. Only then was I ready to begin to be challenged in this way.

 

Summary

For me, the journey to Rome was both long and difficult. For the majority of those years, thankfully, I had no idea I was moving in that direction (shortly before Westfork ended, I was beginning to understand). The last year of the trip, while I was in RCIA, and officially considering joining the Catholic Church, was the most difficult. As I wrote above, there was much prayer and arduous study. I did not make my decision until about a week before Easter (it was that close), and it was a very conflicted decision indeed. In the end, I held my breath, and repeated to myself over and over, “follow the fruit – even if you are all confused about doctrinal issues – just follow the fruit – follow the fruit.”



[1]   The creeds, besides being weapons, are also like fences (with wolves on the outside, sheep on the inside). They say, “this far may you go and no farther”.

4 thoughts on “And a Little Child Shall Lead Me

  1. Pauline Holston

    Great telling of the story, Paul! I have tears in my eyes as I contemplate all you have gone through to get here….having been “with you” more or less through the entire journey….Blessings on you and how you continue to “Father” your Westfork kids!

  2. abdiesus

    All conversion stories give unique insight into the faith, because each person who converts is a unique person, with a unique background, and a unique set of circumstances dictating a unique set of priorities. What I particularly like about this story is that it shows that what are often termed “Motives of credibility” for the Catholic faith are not limited – and should not be limited – to just intellectual/theological/philosophical ideas/propositions. Stories like this one help us to understand that credibility, and the motives thereof, must include also the whole life lived, and, as this story puts it “the fruits” of that life, which the Body of Christ lives in the world, as an extension of, and a making present of the love of, Christ, the Head of the Body, in the midst of this troubled, fallen world. The call of Christ is not just to “believe” a set of propositions, – and indeed, as alluded to in the narrative above, at the final judgement, Matt. 25:31-46 tells us that “the fruits” are all that we will be judged by – Jesus never even mentions “believing” at all (!) – only things actually done – “fruit”.

    At any rate, well done, Paul, and welcome home, if I can say that since I beat you by almost 2 years! ;D

    Blessings, and keep up the good work!

    Pax Christi,
    Jeff H.

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  4. John Sehorn

    Paul,

    Thank you so much for writing this. It was extremely moving. Thank you especially for reminding me what an absolutely phenomenal treasure Sarah’s and my year at St Andrew’s/Westfork was. We are so grateful for it. And we are so overjoyed to be fully joined in the Catholic Church, in faith and charity, as one Body because we partake of the One Bread, with you and your family.

    in Christ,
    John

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