Converting hearts in the digital age

Anyone who has spent any serious time ambling around the Internet knows that a few random words can lead you to places you never expected, sometimes to the exact place you need to be, even to the One you need to find. And that’s what some Catholic bloggers and webmasters are counting on as they set out to bring new Catholics into the fold. 

With a few strokes of the keyboard, people thinking about becoming Catholic or looking for like-minded seekers can tap into sites that will not only give them the information they need but the virtual community to go with it. The result is a brave new world of person-to-person evangelization, no knocking required. 

Sharing the joy

Steven Lawson didn’t start out thinking he’d send his faith story out into the world via the Internet. That realization came unexpectedly one day when he was praying before a parish event and felt God calling him to share the details of his reversion back to Catholicism, which, up until that point, had been a private experience. 

“One’s spiritual journey can be a very intimate matter, so it felt natural to me to keep my reversion to myself. Yet it was in reflection that God showed me a verse from Scripture that instantaneously changed my view: ‘Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house’ (Mt 5:15),” Lawson, 24, told Our Sunday Visitor. “I felt like in that moment God was trying to communicate to me this notion that the graces he gives us in life are not meant just for us; they are meant to be shared. Our own testimony can often be a sign of God’s love for another person.” 

From that idea came the website Why I’m Catholic (www.whyimcatholic.com), where people from all walks of life share the stories of their conversion or reversion to the Catholic faith. From atheists and agnostics to Presbyterians and Baptists, the site is filled with first-person accounts of what it means to walk the path to Catholicism. 

Lawson was a fairly recent revert to the faith when he decided he wanted to “share the joy” of Catholicism with others. He reached out to some friends on Facebook, created a core team and, in January, launched what today has become a kind of clearinghouse of conversion stories drawing around 3,000 hits a week. So far, the website has had more than 78,000 visits from more than 49,500 visitors in 178 countries. 

The core team includes his wife, Lauren, and a couple of friends who handle “vision” and design, all of whom live in Buffalo, N.Y.  

“We also have many converts and reverts in the Catholic new media community from all over the world that help us to flesh out direction as well as spread the word on the apostolate. However, the most important role, in my opinion, is that of the reader who shares the stories they find with loved ones,” said Lawson. 

Doing God’s will

Scroll through the “most popular” testimonials on the site and you’ll find “Presbyterian convert,” “pagan convert,” “Mormon convert,” and many more. But Lawson says his expectations for how a story will be received is often different from reality, something that’s determined by when and where readers share links, often skyrocketing an unlikely testimonial to the top of the charts. 

“Whether a story reaches one person or a thousand people, I trust that God’s will is being done and it is through these conversion stories that our readers can be inspired to follow God’s will in their own lives. It is great to have a popular article, but regardless of popularity, each story is unique and can touch any given person on any given day,” Lawson said. 

Since the website’s launch, a few individuals have reach out to the Why I’m Catholic team to express that a story had reaffirmed them in the journey they were undertaking to the Catholic faith. 

“One woman in particular contacted us from Ireland and told us that the combination of seeing World Youth Day on TV and reading one of our stories convinced her to begin the journey back to the Catholic Church from Pentecostalism. A popular atheist blogger stated that she was sure there was nothing that could prove to her the existence of God. Yet, after reading a Why I’m Catholic story, she noted that it was one of the best stories she has read and admitted this piece had charmed her,” Lawson said. “Another fruit of this website has been the inspiration reverts or converts can give to other Catholics who feel separated from the Church or have a lukewarm faith. Conversion stories definitely have a way of impacting people, even when they least expect the change in their lives.” 

Indeed, Lawson has heard from Catholic and non-Catholic individuals who have benefited from the site.  

“A reader just left a comment under one of our recent stories explaining that he had been away from the Church for years and reading this particular testimony brought tears to his eyes,” he told OSV. “We’ve also been contacted by quite a few people interested in entering the Catholic faith but have no idea how. They turn to us for direction and we try our best to help them in their journey.” 

Deepening faith life

Lawson isn’t alone in his desire to use his story of faith to inspire others. At another blog, with a very similar name — Why I Am Catholic (www.patheos.com/blogs/yimcatholic) — Frank Weathers uses his own conversion story to fuel a blog that not only includes serious matters of faith but also music clips and more. Why I Am Catholic was established by Webster Bull in 2009 and grew to include Weathers and blogger Allison Salerno as team members. It has since evolved into a solo effort, with Weathers at the helm. 

“It was slow going for a while, as I started figuring out what else to write about besides the particulars of my own conversion. If anything, my early posts were those of another convert answering the blog’s title with experiences and thoughts from another point of view,” Weathers told OSV. 

“As Webster put it, he was an ex-peacenik from the 1960s and I was a retired Marine, and yet we were both Catholic and happy about it. It was, and still is, an interesting contrast. As I got started, often times, and this is still true today, my posts were along the lines of ‘Wow, look at this neat story about the Church, or the saints, that I found today! Let me share it with you,’” he said. 

Weathers’ enthusiasm is evident in his posts, which range from poetic to playful, all of it well-suited to a medium where people might just as easily find a site by accident as seek it out. He says he was let to the Internet in search of “kindred spirits,” and now he is offering a gathering place of sorts for all those who are still searching. Recent posts focus on everything from the compatibility of rock music and theology, obedience, pluralism (in the Catholic sense) and interpretation of Scripture. 

“For whatever reason, this online Catholic community is ‘out there’ on the Web, and it spans the globe. From an evangelization standpoint, every blogger is a street preacher, witnessing the faith to all that happen to stop by their blog,” Weathers said. 

“YIMCatholic is a bit different [from Why I’m Catholic] in that it shares the ongoing conversion story that every Christian faces too. Because after the honeymoon period is over, and the bloom of conversion fades, you still have to ponder the reasons why you remain a Catholic. Doing so will lead you to a second, and even a third conversion,” he added. “And all Catholics, whether they were born into the faith, or come home to the Church as converts, are called to deepen their life of faith. I hope that YIMCatholic helps persuade folks to do this: explore the faith and experience the joy and inexhaustible meaning found in the Catholic Church.” 

Mary DeTurris Poust writes from New York. Her latest book is “The Essential Guide to Catholic Prayer and the Mass” (Alpha, $16.95)