He didn’t know a lot of Catholics. He’d only been in a Catholic church about three times in five decades. And when he was hired to create a video for the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, it was just another gig.
Until it wasn’t.
David Williams and his wife Brenda were running a commercial photography and video business in 2016 when they took on the task of creating a promotional video for the Bishop’s Annual Appeal to highlight the Church’s efforts in charity, evangelization and worship.
As they worked on the project, a dialogue developed. The husband-and-wife pair began to talk about what they were seeing and hearing and how it was impacting them.
David, 51, and Brenda, 49, came from different Protestant traditions. He was raised Pentecostal and volunteered as a youth minister. She was from the Church of Christ. Together, they joined the Baptist Church in the 1990s to raise their two daughters. For the Franklinton couple, that decision was about finding a faith tradition they could both be comfortable with.
While the family’s religious life was fulfilling, something was absent.
“We knew God in Christ and the Holy Spirit from a Protestant perspective,” David said. “But there was still something missing … there was kind of a void there that we didn't know.”
As they worked on that video assignment, though, things began to shift. David started listening to Catholic radio and reading books by Catholic authors. He wanted to learn about Church history, martyrs and understanding the Bible from a Catholic perspective.
He and Brenda got to know Liz McKee, who works on the BAA for the diocese, and that blossomed into a personal friendship with Liz and her husband, Barry.
“We met for coffee, and David had some questions about his own research on the faith and wanted to learn more about it,” Barry said. “He asked several questions … that's kind of where our journey started.”
The couples attended Mass together in January 2017 at Sacred Heart [then] Cathedral. David was impressed by the beauty of the small church and the opportunity to kneel during the service. But what really stuck with him was how many times Father Edward Wolanski, CP, said the name Jesus.
“His homily was so powerful. I could tell that he had a love for Jesus, and I had no doubt as a Protestant all my life that it was the same Jesus that I have loved since my childhood,” David said. “At the very end of his homily, he kissed a crucifix … my heart was touched, and my journey of Catholicism took a massive turning point.”
The Williamses sought RCIA, or the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, with the McKees as their sponsors.
Father Justin Kerber, CP, said gestures of friendship often play a large part in the discernment process.
“I really feel that what draws many people to the RCIA is a good example of our Catholics, and the Catholics in the south are particularly faithful,” Father Kerber, Cathedral’s rector, said.
David is not someone who does things by half-measure. Ask anyone who knows him. He’s a voracious reader and has immersed himself in Catholic media.
“That’s the nice thing about being self-employed. I can feel free to study and read between jobs,” he said. David estimates that he has invested nearly 400 hours over the past 16 months researching and absorbing as much as he could about Catholicism.
“I admire them for the zeal with which they have studied everything,” Liz McKee offered. “They have done their homework. I don't imagine there's a book available that they do not have on our faith.”
As the Willamses learned and grew, so did the McKees. David and Brenda would ask them questions, which prompted them to look for answers and relearn what they forgot or examine what they took for granted.
For Brenda and David, there was plenty of time for discussion about their journey.
“We've had some really great close moments and spent some time in devotion and some time in prayer. But we've also had challenges because of our different places in the journey,” she said.
Soft-spoken by nature, Brenda was swept up in her husband’s enthusiasm for what he was learning, but admits that she lagged behind him considerably. Her discernment became commitment recently. And she had been hesitant to tell her extended family and friends that she was becoming Catholic.
Her hesitancy proved unfounded, though. “Everyone was very nice and accepting,” she said.
David was concerned, too, about the reaction his Pentecostal family, some of whom are pastors, would have.
“I knew that if I spread the word, saying ‘I've converted to Catholicism,’ that I would have a lot of a lot of stuff coming my way,” he said with a smile. “But the thing is that I put hundreds of hours into study so I'm ready to point them to the right places. And, at the end of the day, I know I've spent enough time on this journey that I can feel really good about my decision. It's not just something somebody said, ‘Oh you want to become Catholic?’ and I said ‘yes.’”
Perhaps their biggest hurdle coming from their long-held Protestant faith was the place of Jesus’ mother Mary in Catholic theology and how often Catholics’ devotion to her has been misunderstood by non-Catholics.
David drilled down in his research in order to understand and reconcile his new learning with past misunderstandings about Mary.
“By the time I started RCIA,” David offered, “I pretty much had every answer that I would want to have answered about Mary already reconciled. So, I didn't go into RCIA with all these questions about Mary, whereas Brenda wasn't there yet. And so we would have conversations about stuff that I've learned.”
For her part, Brenda said she was willing to accept where God led her.
Conversion, and the questions that arose with it, challenged their marriage. But, they said, they pressed on and had an amazing journey.
“At the end of the day, it brought us closer to Christ,” David said.
As their journey brings them closer to Christ, it’s also bringing them closer to the Easter Vigil on March 31, when they will receive sacraments and become Catholic. It’s a culmination of prayer, reflection, study and friendship.
“We became their sponsors—just by being willing to meet each other and talk about Christ's Church and his overwhelming love for us,” Barry said.
Brenda and David have enjoyed the dynamic and forthright style that volunteer catechist Patrick McLaughlin brought to RCIA. And they are in good company of about 30 adults who will enter the Church on Easter at Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral this year.
“But, really, the potential is much bigger than that,” Father Kerber said.
Brenda and David are internet savvy and have collaborated to publish a website that gathers much of the media and many of the documents that informed their personal journey. Their goal was to create a site for others who are considering the Catholic faith.
“I feel really comfortable in the Catholic Church,” Brenda said. “[Of] all the churches that I've been affiliated with, I just never felt like I belonged. It feels like home.”
When they stand inside Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral today, the couple can point to its amazing beauty and what that means to their faith. They see the crucifix and are reminded of what Jesus did on the cross, David said. They see the altar and are reminded of sacrifice. And, they added, they make the sign of the cross to remind themselves of the Trinity and their own baptisms.
“There’s been some longing in my life all these years. This is kind of the way the Catholic Church approaches things: You've come home,” David said. “I was seeking the truth. I had no idea what I would find when beginning my Catholic journey, but I have found home.”
- J. Eric Braun