Back in September 2009, I had the honor of sitting down for a catfish meal in New Braunfels, Texas, with one of my favorite bloggers, atheist to Catholic convert Jennifer Fulwiler of the popular Conversion Diary blog.
Here we were then, at the tin-roofed cafe that boasts the best catfish in Texas.
And again, just a few weeks ago at the Thirst conference in Bismarck, ND, along with Sister Bethany Madonna of the Sisters of Life.
Yes, you’re seeing right. I am aging, while Jennifer is actually getting younger. She’s also beat me now in family size, having given birth to number six this past year, while I’m holding at a holy handful.
This visit means we’ve gotten to meet each other once a piece on one another’s turf. Though, as it turns out, I have a Texas connection with my father’s two sisters living in the San Antonio area, and Jennifer has a North Dakota connection, having spent her first-grade year here.
That’s all background to the much more important topic of how Jennifer has, once again, helped inspire me, a lifelong Catholic, by her very thought-provoking perspective on what it’s like to become submerged into this beautiful faith family of Christianity from the outside.
I had the chance to hear two of her talks in Bismarck, including one on Catholic mothering, and another on her conversion from atheism.
I’d heard the conversion story before in pieces on her blog. It was something else to hear it as an actual presentation, however. I laughed, I cried, and I thanked God for her story and life. People were visibly and audibly moved.
For those who don’t know, or need a refresher, Jennifer was a proud atheist most of her life, until around the time her first son was born. It was then she began opening her heart to the possibility of God’s existence. Once she determined that God was, in fact, plausible, she began researching religions, narrowing it down to the Christian religion, in part because it is the only lasting world religion whose founder claims to be God. Her husband, Joe, had been impressed by this fact, and she figured it was pretty significant too.
In the beginning, the introduction came largely through reading authors who shared her former-atheistic perspective. The first such book she picked up was Lee Strobel’s, “The Case for Christ,” which, she said, made some compelling points. He recalled the history of 1st Century Palestine and the customs of its people. For centuries, the Jews of that time had held to religious and social structures from which they wouldn’t stray, even under the threat of persecution.
And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion, and with it, a “sudden” and massive exodus of Jews from Judaism. Over 10,000 Jews are now suddenly following Christ, claiming he’s the initiator of a new religion. And even more, Jennifer recounts from Strobel, “they are willing to give up or alter all five of the social institutions that they have been taught since childhood have such importance, both sociologically and theologically.”
Strobel, she said, made the point that whether you are atheist or Christian or anything else, you have to admit that “something explosive happened to Jewish culture in 1st Century Palestine.” He concluded that the explanation had to be that, in fact, the people had seen Jesus risen from the dead.
It’s not that I wasn’t already in awe over the Resurrection, because every Easter especially, I reflect on the enormity of this occurrence. But rarely have I thought of it like this, stepped inside the lives of the people then and really tried to grasp what this occurrence meant, not just to the apostles we read about at Mass every Sunday, but the ordinary people whose lives were blown away, changed forever, by this monumental event.
“Something explosive happened.” Indeed, it did. God allowed us to know for certain that it was, in fact, him who’d been visiting those 33 years, walking among us, in the form of his son, Jesus. And that he wanted to rock our worlds, change our lives, and refocus our attention on something much more attractive than anything we’d experienced — something that, if we set our sights on it, would lead us straight to heaven and into his divine arms.
Pretty powerful stuff, no? More explosive than the most explosive dynamite, and we are the blessed followers of this religion that is not just about ideologies, but about relationship, and not just with a creator, but with a brother, father, friend.
When Jennifer shared this, I felt like something explosive happened in my own heart, and I could feel myself moving another inch closer to love.