One religion, two religion, old religion, new religion

by Allie Burger

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A Catholic conversion service on Easter Vigil. Photo by Sean Fornelli

Laura Cox scans the congregation below her from the altar at the front of the church. The Easter Vigil is packed, comprised of a group of focused gazes shifting from side to side to get a better view of the ceremony.

The soft steps of the priest grow closer, breaking the lengthy silence of anticipation. Between each step comes a momentary pause, followed by faint exchanges of promise and devotion from those lined up to Cox’s right.

The footsteps enter her gaze, breaking a brief zone out to the floor, and Cox slowly lifts her eyes. It is her turn.

The slickness of the keratin oil runs down Cox’s skin as she is anointed and prayed over by the priest. Then, the priest touches his fingertips to her forehead, electrifying the spiritual sense within that Cox had been searching for. Cox is now a member of the Catholic Church.

In the spring of 2011, Cox and her husband converted to Catholicism after spending many years as practicing Protestants.

“(Converting) reaffirmed to me what I had already believed,” Cox says. “But it was multiplied about a hundred fold because I knew that it represented something far greater than what was happening. It was one of the moments where I thought, ‘This is holy ground, this is what life is all about.’”

Although they had always been active in the leadership of the Protestant Church, they did not feel as though they connected with the style of worship.

“I felt like more and more that church was a place where we were spectators,” Cox says. “The music was pretty up-tempo, which is okay, but I felt like it was almost a concert atmosphere instead of one of meeting God.”

Their decision to convert was the result of a lengthy process, which was initially sparked by a television special they happened to flip to while channel surfing a few years before.

“My husband and I had great respect for the Catholic Church. We didn’t know anything about it,” Cox says. “We started watching EWTN, the Catholic network, and they were interviewing different people who had been Protestants who had come into the church. We listened to their stories about wanting something deeper, something more serious and structured. And we thought, ‘Maybe we’re Catholic and we don’t even know it.’”

Cox’s decision to change her faith is not uncommon in today’s society. According to the Pew Research Center, a group that conducts religious and cultural research in the United States, roughly half of all Americans convert to a religion outside of their childhood denomination at least once in their life.

Initial phases

Like Cox, 43 percent of religious converts in the United States switch faiths because their spiritual needs are not being met. However, there are a multitude of reasons why people choose to make the switch.

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A congregation on Easter Vigil. Photo by Steve Moses

“I was testing the waters, and very gradually came to the point where I knew that I wanted to be received in the church,” Laura Paxton says. “It’s kind of like being a cucumber and slowly turning into a pickle. And then one day you wake up and you’re just a pickle.”

Forty-three-year-old Paxton had been an Episcopalian for the majority of her adulthood. After a difficult divorce, Paxton felt that she needed to make a change in her life and spent a few years religion shopping. In September of 2011, Paxton tried out classes at a Catholic church, hoping to receive answers to all of the changes in her life.

“I didn’t really think that I could do confession, I thought it would be too much for me,” she says. “But when I was able to face that, and get through it, I felt disentangled from so much garbage. My head was clear and I was close to God again. I knew then that I was going to be Catholic.”

Some find a new religion after divorce, and others through marriage. Mariellen O’Brien decided to convert from Catholicism to Judaism when her fiancé proposed. He was Jewish, and she wanted to raise her kids under one faith.

“I liked that the Jewish religion was fairly open to interpretation,” O’Brien says. “I had never been extremely religious, and my husband was.”

The process

After having an initial conversation with the rabbi of the temple that her fiancé attended, O’Brien began her education training. Each week, the rabbi would assign her readings. The following week, she would have an hour-long discussion with him about her connections and concerns with the texts and Judaic rituals and practices.

“I enjoyed the thought provoking one-on-one conversations because they allowed me to be truthful and not worry about what anyone else thought,” O’Brien says. “I was able to directly connect and disagree with certain parts of the religion to form my own Jewish foundation.”

Paxton’s experience was facilitated in a group setting, but remained personal to her. She attended small group meetings twice a week, which she prepared for with assigned readings.

“This went on for basically a school year. We were immersed in the religion,” Paxton says. “And whenever I had concerns or worries, we talked about them in a small group and I also had a sponsor to talk to about it.”

Leading up to the final conversion ceremony were a number of smaller proclamations of faith. Paxton was also blessed by the church every Sunday mass during the three weeks prior to Easter Vigil.

“I was a nervous wreck leading up to the big day. But as soon as I received my first communion, all of that dissipated and I felt a deep sense of peace,” Paxton says.

O’Brien had a smaller service of just family and friends to state her devotion to the Jewish religion. She had wanted to have an intimate declaration in front of people that had made an impact on her life.

“It was a beautiful ceremony. I felt like it was a turning point in the relationship with my husband-to-be and with both of our families,” O’Brien says. “I was converting to a religion that I would truly participate in as a full member and raise my children in.”

After the fact

It has been a year and a half since Paxton converted to Catholicism and she is just as happy with her decision to join the church.

“I am in love with it,” Paxton says. “I am the only one from my conversion class who goes to daily mass and is trying to become a secular Carmelite (a secular association in the Roman Catholic Church.) I have things that I need to learn and ways to grow, and I can only do it with God’s help.”

Since her divorce seven years ago, O’Brien has become less involved with the Jewish faith.

“I am not as involved as I had thought I would be,” O’Brien says. “But I have raised my children to be Jewish, and am proud and supportive of their involvement with the faith.”

Two years after her and her husband’s conversions to Catholicism, Cox has become increasingly involved in the church and is continuing to learn about her new faith.

“I was overwhelmed with a sense of belonging on the day of conversion, and I continue to feel that way,” Cox says.

A religious conversion, within the same faith

Warren Light may not have strayed from his lifelong practice of the Methodist faith, but rather made the decision to intensify it.

After college, Light worked various jobs, including managing a bookstore and a craft store.

“One night, I was working at 3 o’clock in the morning putting up a display,” Light says, “and this question just kind of popped in my head. ‘What if you were putting all of this time into something you believed in?’ And I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

As a result, Light quit his job and started graduate school studying seminary education. He later moved on to attend law school and began work at a law firm.

After some time at the firm, one of his associates approached him about being faced with committing perjury on a case. He later told Light that he had confided in him because he felt like he could not tell his own pastor what was wrong.

“‘Well my ethical life is over here,’ and he put his right hand out to his right side,” Light says. “‘And my professional life is over here,’ and he put his left hand out to his left side. And they were pretty far apart, those hands,” Light adds.

Light asked the associate when his ethical and professional lives had separated, and the associate told him that it happened in college.

“That really got me…I kept thinking about it and if there was a place where people could try to keep their ethical and professional lives together… If people could have that momentum, some of the world would change a little bit and be a better place,” Light says. “And that is what the Wesley Center is really tempting to embody.”

Light is now the Director of the Wesley Center, a United Methodist Campus Ministry and community center in Eugene, Oregon. The Wesley Center houses more than 50 religious, cultural and academic groups a year, and Light says that now he spends every day living the product of his life epiphanies.

A guide to various religious celebrations

Buddhism

Buddha Day is the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, his life and enlightenment. On this day, Buddhists do not typically eat meat, decorate their homes and celebrate at temple. The celebration takes place on the eighth day of the fourth lunar month.

Magha Puja Day, according to Missouri University, is a day that “commemorates an important event in the life of the Buddha, in which the four disciples traveled to join the Buddha.” This holiday is celebrated on the full moon day of the third lunar month.

Catholicism and Christianity

Christmas, according to the University of Missouri, “is an annual celebration commemorating the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah whose message…began the Christian religion.” On this holiday, Christians attend church services and exchange gifts that they place under a decorated tree prior to the celebration. The holiday is from sundown on December 24 through December 25 each year.

Easter is a holiday that, according to the University of Missouri “commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” On this day, Christians often attend church, have meals with family and have Easter egg hunts with dyed eggs. Easter usually occurs between the end of March and beginning of April depending on the Gregorian calendar.

Hindu

Krishna Janmashtami, a late summer celebration in the next few years, commemorates the birth of Krishna, Hindu god. The festivities last for two days. On the first day, most pass up sleeping and eating to focus on singing Hindu songs and performing dances and plays about Krishna’s life.

Holi is the Hindu celebration of good and evil, often called the “Festival of Colors.” The holiday is celebrated in the transition between spring and summer and people throw colored powder on each other, dance and have bonfires.

Islam

Ramadan is a holiday that focuses on faith and celebration for the revealing of the Qur’an. During this month long celebration that follows the lunar calendar, Muslims fast during daylight hours and only eat when the sun is down.

Eid al-Fitr, also following the lunar calendar, is a three-day festival that begins on the last day of Ramadan celebrating the end to fasting. There are typically large feasts and celebrations and Muslims exchange gifts.

Judaism

Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, beginning on the first day of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar. On this day, according to the University of Missouri, Jews pray “in synagogue and have festive meals.” The holiday begins at sundown the night before and ends at sundown the day of.

Passover is the commemoration of the freeing of the Israelite slaves from Egypt under the rule of Pharaoh Ramses II. The weeklong holiday starts in the middle of the month of Nisan in the Jewish calendar. It is celebrated with dinners that hold a special order in order to recall and retell certain parts of the story and its significance.

The sources of this guide include the University of Missouri, the University of Washington and the British Broadcasting Corporation. For more information, visit these sources.

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