I grew up in a Catholic family. When I was six years old, I went to a nearby Catholic school. Part of the curriculum—the catechism—involved learning about church doctrine.
One day, the nun teaching the class presented the concept that what happens to a soul after death is based on the person’s beliefs and actions in this world.
She explained that the first, most important group of souls belonged to departed Catholics, who were divided into two groups. First, the souls of Catholics who had faithfully followed all the church doctrines were destined to go straight into heaven. Then, she explained that the souls of Catholics who were not very faithful to church doctrine (for example, habitual sinners) would first go to an unusual place called purgatory. In purgatory, those sinner-Catholics would be punished. Through their suffering, they would be cleansed of their sins and eventually be admitted into heaven—so, in the end, they were eternally happy. Finally, the last group consisted of those souls who had not been Catholics in this earthly life. Their lot, after death, was unequivocally eternal damnation in hell-fire.
When I heard this church teaching, I was shocked! My best friend was a Baptist—a good kid! I could not understand why God would send him straight to hell just because his family was Baptist. I raised my hand and asked, “Sister, why do people who are not Catholic go to hell?” The good sister turned red, put on an angry face and practically shouted, “You just have to believe it! That’s what the Catholic Church teaches!”
Her response shook me to my core. I could not accept her answer. My own mind and soul refused to believe it. When I realized she had forcefully pushed a false teaching upon me and the rest of the class, I felt indignant and outraged. I did not say anything more because she presented such a large, menacing figure who looked ready to inflict physical punishment on me if I persisted in my questioning of church doctrine.
From that point forward, I no longer trusted the clergy, nor church doctrine. I started thinking for myself.
Many years later, after returning from U.S. Navy service in Vietnam, I began to attend university. While visiting the student union cafeteria one evening, I happened upon two friends from high school that I had not seen for several years. With them was another young man I didn’t know. They invited me to join them for coffee.
I came over with my coffee and we talked a little about old times. My friends introduced me to the third young man. Little did I know that the summer before all three of them had met young Baha’is on a beach in Southern California. They had attended Baha’i meetings called firesides and had become members of the Baha’i Faith.
When they heard that I had recently come back from serving in Vietnam, they began discussing the Baha’i teachings about establishing world peace. I had just finished reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, and I said “Tolstoy said that, too.”
I also challenged them about the existence of God. Don’t get me wrong—I have always believed in God. I just wanted to hear what they would say. One of them said “How can you deny the existence of God, when he has made such a beautiful creation?” I would counter with something like, maybe it was all just a cosmic accident. Anyway, I was just being intellectually difficult—on purpose. It was fun!
During that evening, one of my old high school friends suggested that I read a book he had in his car parked a little way from the student union. Later, as we walked out together, we passed his car. He opened it and handed me a copy of Thief in the Night by William Sears. He said, “Read this book!” so I took it and walked back to my apartment. After unwinding from the evening’s discussion I opened the book and began to read.
The subtitle of Thief in the Night is: The Case of the Missing Millennium. I asked myself, what does this mean? What is a missing millennium? I found out as I read that the book is written as a mystery. The book asks an important question: did Christ already return, and if so, why did humanity miss it? Also, Mr. Sears and I are both from a Catholic background. He had married a Baha’i and began exploring the Biblical prophesies relating to the return of Jesus Christ. All of this intrigued me, so, I began reading in earnest.
After reading and thinking about Mr. Sears’ book, I began to realize that Jesus Christ had indeed returned and most of mankind had missed it! Christ’s new name is Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. This was a completely life-changing evolution for me. Before I was like a gnat, now I felt like a royal falcon! I wanted to share my new-found faith with everyone who would listen, and even some who did not want to listen.
Shortly after I began to realize this, the same old friends came by my parents house on Thanksgiving evening after dinner. They reminded me that they had told me about a youth gathering at a cabin owned by a Baha’i couple in the mountains north of Phoenix. I had obviously forgotten, but I went to get my sleeping bag and some extra clothes.
The next morning, we drove to that cabin in the mountains. There, an actor from Hollywood, Mark Towers, gave several talks about his experiences as a Baha’i living and travelling in the Polynesian Islands. He related stories of being chased by islanders at the instigation of the local Christian clergy, and with God’s miraculous, although sometimes unpleasant help (he fell down into an outhouse) he escaped the danger and was able to resume his life as a Baha’i.
His story reminded me of the Catholic Church teachings about the lives of the saint I had heard in catechism so many years before.
Three things I had learned in the previous few weeks induced me to officially declare my belief in Baha’u’llah. First was the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, as written of in Thief in the Night. The second was the heroic modern-day, miraculous stories related by Mark Towers. The third was the unity and fellowship I truly felt while in the presence of the Baha’is. So when a young man asked me if I wanted to become a Baha’i, I said yes. I felt as if I were walking two feet above the ground.
Some time later, I read in Baha’u’llah’s book The Hidden Words:
O Son of Spirit! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes. – pp. 3-4.
When I read and thought about this profound passage, I remembered that day in my first grade Catholic catechism class, when I could not believe that all non-Catholics were destined for hell. Looking back to that six-year-old in catechism class, I am extremely grateful that God gave me the bounty of feeling, thinking, and seeing with justice. It has informed my thinking and actions throughout my life!