I was born and raised in a suburb of Los Angeles, California. My father’s ancestors came from Ireland and we still have the original family name. My father was a steel worker and a Marine Corp veteran of the Korean War. My mother was a full-time homemaker and mother of seven children. We attended St. John Vienney Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights.
The church was across the street from Los Altos High School, where my siblings and I attended. The church, St. John Vienney, was named after an eighteenth and nineteenth century French priest. It was a modern building, and the priests were progressive minded as well. Our main pastor at that time was Msgr. James O’Calligham, an old Irish “rock” who preached fire and brimstone. The church seated hundreds of people and there were several Masses every Sunday in order to accommodate the large crowds who attended. There were Masses in Spanish to provide for the large Mexican/Latino community.
My mother was a very devout Catholic. Her parents were divorced and did not practice any form of religion. Converting to Catholicism while a teenager, she became instrumental in the conversion of my father and her brother. She sought to provide all her children with a proper education in the Catholic faith.
I remember going to Mass with my mother when I was a young boy. The priests were consecrating the host, and the altar boys were ringing bells at their sides while standing next to the altar. I asked my mother what was happening, and she told me to be quiet because Jesus himself stood before us in the form of the bread host. I did not understand what she meant. I could not see Jesus. I only saw the priest holding the host high in the air. Jesus, to me, was a picture of a man I had seen in a children’s Bible not long before.
My mother taught me to say my prayers at night. She told me to pray for dead relatives so God would take them out of purgatory to heaven. On some occasions, she would make me go to bed early so that we could get up the next morning and go to Mass for a ”Holy Day of Obligation.” I remember giving up things such as candy for Lent, and we ate fish sticks on Friday evenings.
My Teen Years
I have never understood how my parents, especially my mother, could be so devout in the Catholic faith and yet never arranged to have me baptized as infant. Yet, they never did. Perhaps it was the stress of moving into a new house the month I was born. Whatever the reason, I was not baptized as an infant. I can remember hearing the priest say during Mass that it was important that we be baptized. Baptism, he said, washed us of our sins and allowed us to go to heaven when we died. I knew that I had never been baptized, and the thought of what would happen to me if I died that day disturbed me greatly. This line of thinking continued until my father died of cancer in November of 1977. He battled the disease for two years before he died. I was thirteen years old at the time.
In the spring of the following year, my mother thought I should attend catechism to prepare me for my first communion. During the first session, I told the nun that I had never been baptized. The nun was shocked and informed both the church staff and my mother. Why, they asked, was a young teenager who had never been baptized attending catechism for his first communion? They placed me in a special catechism for baptism.
A few weeks later, my sister and I were baptized. My uncle served as our godfather. We recited the “Profession of Faith” and “holy water” was poured over our heads while we leaned over a metal water font. Like all young Catholics, I believed that this sealed my destiny and guaranteed my soul for heaven. Later in the year, I had my first communion. I was confirmed a year later. What more could I have wanted on a spiritual level? My uncle gave me a Catholic Bible for my confirmation. Ironically, this was the best thing he could have given me, because once I started, I never stopped reading and studying the Bible. God and His Word planted seed in me that would eventually lead me to a truly saving knowledge and faith in Jesus Christ.
We had a family Bible in our home. My mother had received a big, thick Douay Rheims Catholic Bible as a wedding present. It was too large to be carried about and was more for display than anything. We assumed that the Bible came from the Catholic Church. It was God’s holy word, but for us, whatever the Catholic Church told us seemed more holy and acceptable than God’s word alone. It was an unspoken premise in our minds that whatever the Church said had authority over everything, including the Bible. Given my background, how did God ever do a saving work in my life? He intervened and challenged my faith. Otherwise, I would never have changed.
I heard rumors about “Protestants” and “born-again Christians,” as well as “Bible” churches in our area, but my mother was very protective and defensive against them. I saw Christian tracts by Jack Chic Ministries from Chino, California, and they must have had some impact on how I saw my Catholic faith. The Catholic Church responded to these ministries and the people who attended them by labeling them as “enemies of the Church,” or as poor deluded souls who are sincere in what they are doing, but misunderstand the Catholic faith. I accepted this teaching at face value for some time.
Intellectual thinking did not start me questioning my Catholic faith, but a personal event. When I was nineteen years old, I was involved in a Catholic teen retreat called “Turning Point.” We were planning a seminar for outreaches when one of the girls attending the retreat asked us a question. Her name was Rose, and she had recently become a born-again Christian. She asked the group, “Who is Jesus?” She then asked me, “Who is Jesus?” I could not give her an answer. I was stunned. After years of going to retreats, attending Sunday Mass, and reading my uncle’s Bible, I could not say who Jesus was. Rose provided her own answer by saying, “Jesus is my Savior.” The whole concept of Jesus as savior was new to me! I had never heard that before. What did it mean?
My College Years
The next phase in my spiritual pilgrimage occurred while I was in college. I attended California State Polytechnic University in Pomona. One day, in the fall of 1986, I saw some elderly men passing out little green books to the students. Most of the students did not take them or left them lying all over the campus grounds. I found one of them on a bench, so I looked at it. It was a Bible. More specifically, it was a New Testament and Psalms (King James Version) printed by the Gideons. I found it interesting, so I placed it in my book bag and went on my way.
A couple of months later, I found myself facing a variety of trials. I had little money and had to work to pay for college. My mother had to work hard to make ends meet, and my older brother had become very rebellious. Life in the household became very difficult. Nothing seemed to be right. In addition to my financial struggles, I wrestled with what I should do with the rest of my life. All in all, it was a very difficult time.
Shortly after Christmas, I was sitting in my room thinking about all the problems whirling around me and feeling very sad and dejected. I opened my book bag and found the little green Gideons’ Bible. I thumbed through it, and in the back found something like a “Romans Road” tract. It was a simple four-point presentation of the Gospel using passages from the Book of Romans. It talked about God’s love,1 our sin and condemnation,2 Jesus’ death for our sin and salvation,3 and our need to receive by faith Jesus as our Savior.4
I suddenly remembered Rose’s statement about Jesus who was in her life. At first, I thought it looked too easy. As a “good” Catholic, I had to admit that I was a sinner, but at the moment, none of my good actions were helping me very much. There was a signature line at the bottom of the page where I could acknowledge Jesus as my savior. I hesitated, but thought to myself, “Yes, this is what I want to do. It is not what my mother wants. It is not what the church wants, but what I want.” So, I signed it!
At first, nothing happened. For several months, nothing happened. Deep inside me, I somehow began to feel a calling from God. There is no other way of explaining it. I was still going to Mass and doing all the Catholic things. I thought God was calling me to be a priest.
In October 1987, God opened another door in my spiritual journey. He led me to a Christian meeting at the student center. Here was something entirely different; it was completely new. The students wanted to know and worship God. They wanted to study about Him in the Bible. I liked it so much that I kept going back. I joined one of the Bible studies that met once a week to go over the basics of the Christian faith. At this point, I was still very confused. My Bible study group knew I was a Catholic, but I never told them I was thinking of becoming a priest. I saw the dynamic, active faith in, and knowledge of, Jesus that these non-Catholic believers possessed. I still believed that the Catholic Church was the true church, and I thought that God was calling me to take these principles with me to seminary and ultimately to the Catholic Church as a priest.
Now I know how wrong I was, but it led me at the time to approach my parish priest and tell him I wanted to go to seminary. Little did I realize I was setting myself on a collision course? I had three unforeseen problems. First, the Catholic Church would never accept me as a priest if I were to apply and preach the biblical principles I was learning at this Christian organization. Second, I was going into the priesthood to escape problems when God wanted me to deal with them. Third, I was not prepared to live the celibate life of a priest. I had dated girls since high school and had a girl friend at the time. God had already introduced me to my future wife, but I did not know it at the time. Her name is Elisabeth, and she was an exchange student from Germany. Elisabeth had become a believer during her first visit to the United States. We met while playing guitars together at the Christian meetings in 1988-89. She stayed in California for several months and came back for a couple of visits. We wrote letters to each other after Elisabeth returned to Germany.
The Upper Room
In August of 1988, my mother died, and a year later my older sisters decided to sell our home on Gembrook Avenue. This left me without a place to live, but once again God provided me a place. I lived in a rented house in Diamond Bar near the university with four other student men. All of them were Christian men who were active with Bible studies on campus. We nicknamed the house “the Upper Room” after the place where Jesus and his disciples had the last supper.5 It was during this time that one of my roommates, Don, approached me about the Catholic Church. He was convinced that the church was apostate and cult like. It taught, he claimed, a works salvation, an unbiblical priesthood and sacrifice, and an idolatrous worship of Mary and the saints. He also claimed the church was led by a pope who was accountable to no one. At first, I was very angry with Don. I tried to defend my Catholic faith, but I had no good counterarguments. Don told me, “Kirk, I can see your sincerity, but I am convinced that you are sincerely wrong.” He challenged me to prove him wrong by comparing Catholic doctrine with the Bible.
I graduated from college in 1990, and that same summer I decided not to apply for seminary. By now I had learned that all believers in Christ are priests,6 and they all have direct access to God.7 Furthermore, I had concluded that Jesus made the final sacrifice for sin on the cross almost two thousand years ago. A constantly repeated priestly sacrifice of the Eucharist is unnecessary and unscriptural.8
I began attending both a Free Evangelical Church near the “Upper Room” and a local Bible study. About the same time, I broke up with my girlfriend, lost my job, and seemed to have nothing positive happening to me. The only person, except Jesus, who expressed love and acceptance to me, was Elisabeth in Germany. God had me right where He wanted me. I worked at odd jobs to help pay the rent for the Upper Room. Frequently, I corresponded with Elisabeth. In the spring of 1992, she came to California to visit me. It was obvious that we were in love, and one of us needed to move in order to get married. Since Elisabeth had not yet completed her studies, and I had money remaining from the sale of my parents’ home, I decided to take a leap of faith and fly to Germany. We agreed that I would stay for three months and see what God had in mind for the two of us.
Move to Germany
I arrived in Germany on July 17, 1992, following an eleven-hour flight. Elisabeth was there to greet me, show me the sights, and introduce me to her parents. I had no knowledge of the German language. I knew only a few basic phrases from a tourist cassette tape.
From my first day in Germany, I fell in love with the land and the scenery. It was completely unlike Los Angeles. There were small towns and villages separated by large fields and forests of tall pine trees. Every village had church towers that rang their bells daily. Many of the buildings were older than the United States itself, and their architecture was beautiful. Of course, all the road signs were in German and all measurements were metric. Everyone spoke German; I could not understand anything people were saying. It did not matter. I was already in love with the land and with the woman that I wanted to marry. I knew I did not want to go back to America. I knew God was saying to me that this was going to be a new chapter in my life.
Soon the euphoria calmed and Elisabeth and I began the paperwork to arrange for my stay in Germany. I was allowed to work in the business that Elisabeth’s parents owned. Arrangements were made for me to attend a language school to learn basic German. Elisabeth knew of an English-speaking church in Munich that we could attend on Sundays. I was given a room above the small workshop where I would work, while Elisabeth lived with her roommate in a nearby apartment. It really seemed that God was opening all the doors for me to stay in Germany.
Elisabeth and I were married on June 19, 1993, in the small village of Viehbach, north of Munich. I worked for her parents in their little air-conditioning shop for several years.
Spiritual Life in Germany
I was happy to be in Germany, and in the town of Bayern, which is in the state of Bavaria. The spiritual life was much different for me, making my own growth difficult. Bayern is primarily Catholic. Most of the churches you see in the villages are Catholic. Unlike the Catholic churches I had seen in Los Angeles, the churches in Germany are filled with elaborate statues, paintings, carvings, rococo altars, and relics.
During the village Masses, the men sit on one side of the center aisle and the women on the other side. The services are mechanical and lifeless. Young people, generally, do not attend Mass for that very reason. The few Lutheran churches I have seen are not so elaborate or rigid, but also suffer from spiritual deadness.
Catholicism created a problem with my in-laws as well. My mother-in-law, Maria, and her family are devout Catholic. Maria’s older brother, Hubert, has been a priest for decades and was for several years the Bishop of Essen, a city in northwestern Germany. Uncle Hubert seemed open enough to accept the fact that I was an American with no knowledge of German and I needed to attend an English-speaking non-denominational church for expatriates. Out of an act of love and goodwill, we were married in the Catholic Church and asked Uncle Hubert to perform the ceremony.
Even though we were attending an English-speaking biblical church, spiritual growth for me was slow until 1994, when a new pastor arrived at the expatriate church in Munich. His name was Lars Larson, and I had never met anyone like him before. He was conservative, reformed, Calvinistic, and a preacher! His teachings were intense and fascinating to learn from. He preached expository sermons and often exhorted the listener to repent from sin, believe on Jesus for salvation, and order one’s life according to God’s will.
Elisabeth and I visited Lars and his family often. They lived in Starnberg. We told him that we came from Catholic backgrounds and became born-again believers in Los Angeles. I remember our first meeting with Lars. He pulled out a Bible and showed me from the Gospel According to Mark where Jesus accused the Pharisees of subverting God’s truth with their own religious traditions.9 He then made an analogy with the Catholic Church and showed how the Gospel is smothered by layer upon layer of traditions that have accumulated through the centuries. This impressed me very much and I wanted to learn more from him.
When Elisabeth and I saw that Lars baptized new believers at the church, we found it interesting and wanted to talk with him about it. He arranged a special Bible study in his home about the biblical teaching concerning baptism. We read copies of sermons from pastors on the subject. We read men like John Gill (18th century) and Charles Spurgeon (19th century). Lars emphasized the symbolic nature of baptism. He taught us that:
In every instance of baptism in the New Testament, the baptism followed a conscious decision on the part of the believer after they had come to an awareness of sin, felt the need for a saving faith in Christ, and repented of their sin.10 In most instances, the baptism was a public proclamation by a sinner coming to faith in Jesus.
Although baptism represents a washing away of sin, its meaning is most powerfully demonstrated as a participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. In the Bible, a believer who is baptized is “Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead.”11
Although the Bible does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation, baptism is still written of in the form of a command.12 Following faith in Jesus, baptism also completes a command to fulfill all righteousness13 and is the pledge of a good conscience.14
After a period of study and prayer, Elisabeth and I decided to receive believers’ baptism. In March 1995, we were baptized along with a small group of other believers in the Olympic swimming pool in Munich. Shortly afterwards, Elisabeth told her mother about our believers’ baptism. Maria was devastated. She saw this as a slap in the face to her and her Catholic faith. For years, Maria had kept the original baby clothes that Elisabeth had worn at her infant baptism, including the baptismal candle. When she heard that we had received believers’ baptism, she gave them back to Elisabeth, saying that they were of no use to her since Elisabeth saw her infant baptism as worthless. The tense atmosphere between Maria and us lasted for months. We continued to build up the relationship as best we could. Elisabeth encouraged her mother that her upbringing in the Catholic faith was a starting point that God used to bring her to a saving faith in Jesus at the proper time. Elisabeth also tried to encourage her mother to compare Catholic teaching to the Bible.
When our first son, Fabian, was born in 1996, we arranged a baby dedication at a local German Free Evangelical Church near our home so that Elisabeth’s relatives could attend. We did this so they could see for themselves that there is an alternative to the Catholic ritual of infant baptism as a means of salvation. They could also see the biblical pattern that Jesus gave us when He blessed the little children.15
By God’s grace, Elisabeth’s parents, her brother, and an aunt attended the baby-dedication service. After the services, while having lunch at a restaurant, our aunt approached Maria and said to her, “You know Maria, it is an interesting concept to bless the baby now and wait until he is old enough to understand his faith, and choose to be baptized on his own.” We saw this as God’s words coming out of her mouth!
As the years have passed, our Fabian has grown in the grace of God. Through prayer, instruction at home, and Sunday school, Fabian does show a love for God and for people. My mother-in-law has also noticed this and has slowly accepted the baby dedication of our other two children, Jeremia16 and Felix. We are not perfect parents. Parenthood can be stressful, but it is rewarding. We trust that God will bring our sons to a saving faith in Christ; in our lives together, we will continue daily to teach them the Gospel.
I have been in Germany for twelve years, and Elisabeth and I have been married for eleven of those years. My German skills have continued to improve, and we are now attending a German evangelical church near our home, outside of Munich. God has shown me many things in my growth as a Christian, and I am confident that Jesus will guide us daily by His grace until one day in great joy we see Him face to face.
For Catholic readers who perhaps want to know more, I would recommend the following books for study: The Gospel According to Rome by James McCarthy, Faith Alone by R.C. Sproul, and Far from Rome, Near to God by Richard Bennett.
There may be much confusion to the Catholic once he or she has believed in Christ alone for salvation just as it happened to me. There are many teachings in the Catholic mindset that could take years to work out. Catholics who are recently born again may still have a performance attitude stuck in their mind, that is, they may not completely understand God’s perfect love, grace, forgiveness, and acceptance for the sinner who pleads to Jesus for mercy in prayer and repentance. To some Catholics, deep down inside, they still need to do something, or perform in order to be saved, loved, and accepted. Communication with other Christians involved in biblical churches is essential for former Catholics to grow. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to be honest with other Christians and say to them you are confused over many things concerning Catholicism and the Bible. In my early years as a Christian, I hesitated for a long time before I was able to open up and get help. Because of this, my spiritual growth was stifled. In my case, it was not “head knowledge” that finally made me decide to leave the Catholic Church; it was personal relationships with Christians who love and care. Remember, as a “new believer” you need to be reminded daily of the following biblical facts:
You are deeply loved,
Totally accepted, and
Complete in Christ! Amen
Notice that Catholics cannot accept all of these facts in their hearts – not until a work of “saving grace” is done by God to bring them to utter distress and despair over their sins. Once they trust Christ alone for salvation, and have renounced Catholic teaching, they can then freely accept these eternal facts. They cannot be changed, manipulated, or altered by you the believer. God has done these things, and God will see to it that He keeps you in this state of perfect love, forgiveness, and growth until you see Him face to face one day in perfect and eternal joy.
Epilogue: More Information on Germany
Germany, the birthplace of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, is today in spiritual disarray. Germany legally recognizes only two churches: the Roman Catholic Church (Roemisch-Katholische Kirche) and the Lutheran Church (Evangelische Landeskirche). Both churches suffer from spiritual deadness. Traditionally, the Catholic Church is predominant in southern and western Germany, while the Lutheran Church is predominant in the northern and eastern parts. This was due because of the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the dreaded Thirty-Years War over three hundred years ago.
In 1999, the Catholic and Lutheran Church signed a document in Augsburg called the Joint Declaration on the Teaching of Justification. The document compromised the biblical teaching on “Justification by Faith Alone” so that more unity between the two confessions could be made.
Tolerance, pluralism, and post-modernism are commonplace here in Germany. According to a report in 1995, there were more registered witches than pastors! In 2001, the German parliament (Bundestag) legalized homosexual marriage, which later was upheld by the German Supreme Court in 2002. Christian bookstores are not that common and only exist in the larger cities.
However, there has been a steady growth among Evangelical Christians in the past few years. Christian radio stations like “Evangeliums Rundfunk” have tirelessly broadcasted the Gospel in German for many years on short wave and medium wave frequencies. Tent evangelism sponsored by churches like the “Frei evangelische Gemeinde” is still active every year throughout the country. In 2002, Germany broadcasted its first 24-hour Christian television program called “Bibel TV” with a musical format similar to MTV. Every year more Bible-based churches take root in Germany and there is a small handful of Bible colleges and seminaries.
For several years, Germany has been suffering from an economic recession. Unemployment is high in many parts of the country, national debt is high, and the government can no longer afford to support a welfare state that has been around since the post-war republic was founded. It has become a bloating bureaucracy. Painful reforms are underway, but it will take years before results can be seen. However, the spiritual side of the equation is still not being considered.
In 2004, a popular book was published in Germany, written by a Peter Hanne, a TV news commentator who is a Christian. In this book, Schluss mit Lustig, (Enough of Being Funny) Hanne criticizes both politicians and citizens for their secular attitudes. He believes politicians need to put God back into politics and the citizens need to rely on God instead of the defunct German welfare state! The timing of this book could not have been better.
Germany truly is a mission field today! Although you can see some evidence of spiritual growth, it is still on a small scale. I would encourage churches worldwide to consider supporting existing German ministries and sending missionaries to Germany for both short-term and long-term work. There are many non-German ethnic groups living and working here – especially from Eastern Europe and Turkey that also need to be reached with the Gospel. Too often the local German churches are not adequately equipped to minister to these groups.
Please, pray for Germany! It was once a spiritual beacon, and with God’s help, it could be again!
You are encouraged to contact me if you wish:
1 Romans 5:8
2 Romans 3:23
3 Romans 6:23
4 Romans 10:9-13
5 Luke 22:12
6 1 Peter 2:4, 5, 9
7 Romans 5:1, 2
8 Hebrews 10:11-18
9 Mark 7:1-13
10 Mark 16:16; Luke 3:8-14; Acts 2:36-38; Acts 16:25-34; etc
11 Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3, 4
12 Matthew 28:19, 20
13 Matthew 3:15
14 1Peter 3:20, 21
15 Mark 10:13-16
16 Jeremia is the correct spelling