As president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, John Giles is no stranger to a pew. Yet he remembers well the time he got lost in a Roman Catholic church.
“I couldn’t even follow the order of service, it was so foreign to me,” Giles says of that day some six years ago.
Since then he’s found his way and a new home in the Roman Catholic church – a home that might seem foreign to the overwhelmingly Protestant church population of Alabama.
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“I have to admit to you that the whole time that I was in that church service, I was reduced to tears, and I couldn’t explain it,” Giles said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press.
“In fact,” he jokes, “you would have thought I had been spending the whole weekend down at the House of the Rising Sun down in New Orleans, that I had all this sin in my life that I had to get out.”
In any case, Giles and his wife, Deborah, were confirmed at St. Peter’s Parish in Montgomery on Easter Sunday.
Such a decision normally wouldn’t be a matter of public interest, but Giles says he anticipated the questions that have followed his conversion from the Protestant faith.
“It would be nice if my private, Christian walk could be my private, Christian walk, but it’s very difficult in my job for that to be the case,” he says.
Giles says he knew the questions would come because as a Protestant he, too, had mistaken notions about Catholics. And the most frequent question he gets from his friends is “why?”
– John Ankerberg and John Weldon
With that in mind he wrote an eight-page letter explaining his reasoning. In it, he explains that he had attended a variety of Protestant churches in Montgomery, including Christian Life Church and River of Life Church.
But once he visited the Roman Catholic church, he found himself in awe of its history and ritual, particularly its use of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch in each service.
Trips to Israel and Rome spurred his curiosity. And the deeper he looked into the faith – which is the largest in the United States but lags behind Southern Baptists and other Protestant denominations in the South – the more he says he realized that many of his beliefs about Catholicism had been wrong.
“There is a perception among Protestants – you kind of have this perception that if you’re Episcopal or Catholic, you’re not even saved, you’re not born again, which is totally a myth,” he says.
He recalls one example from the New Year’s holiday, which he spent in Florida with the chairman of his board. He had told the chairman of his and Deborah’s plans to convert, and he says they were well-received.
“But we went to some other friends of theirs’ house on one of the nights we were down there,” Giles remembers. “And so we’re sitting around visiting and this one lady was teaching a Sunday School class on cults. And she began to name off all the cults that she’d be teaching and named Catholic in there.”
He acknowledges that the reaction by his Protestant constituents may be mixed.
“We didn’t make this change to win friends and influence people and do it from a popularity standpoint, because we knew that in the state of Alabama, this is probably not a popular position to take in the Christian movement,” he says. “So it remains to be seen.”
But he hopes they, like he and his wife, will keep an open mind.
“We hope that we could have a small contribution to building bridges where there weren’t bridges,” he says. “Because Christians are Christians. There’s no such thing as Christians and Catholics.”