From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism

By Neff, LaVonne | The Christian Century, January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism


Neff, LaVonne, The Christian Century


From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart: Rekindling My Love for Catholicism

By Chris Haw

Ave Maria Press, 256 pp., $15.95 paperback

My first thought upon learning that Chris Haw had written a memoir about his journey to Catholicism was, Oh no--not another one.

Back when I was moving toward Rome myself, I read a lot of conversion memoirs. Some were classics like John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua and Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Others were contemporary apologies by fundamentalist Protestants turned fundamentalist Catholics who felt compelled to set their former coreligionists straight. Many were written by men (not women) who, like G. K. Chesterton, knew exactly what was wrong with the world. Many combined a romantic and ahistorical view of the glories of Rome with a craving for absolute authority. I did not want to read another book of that genre.

But after a few minutes with From Willow Creek to Sacred Heart, I could tell that Haw is no fundamentalist. He worries about military spending and environmental pollution. He is involved with urban community development. He is coauthor, with Shane Claiborne, of Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals. An ordinary radical and social activist writing about his newfound love of Catholicism? This might be worth reading.

Here's a bird's-eye view of Haw's story: his mother, who taught religious education classes in her Catholic parish, took him to mass every Sunday until he was partway through middle school, when it occurred to her that the parish's youth group was pretty lame. She had heard that there was a fantastic youth program at a nondenominational mega-church a short drive away:

   With legions of staff and volunteers,
   Willow's youth branch of the church
   ... could entertain teens, teach them,
   summer camp them, mentor them,
   and exhaust them until they fell over
   in giddy excitement. Their youth ministry
   was replete with its own separate
   services, "relevant" songs, speeches,
   topics, dramas, videos, games, retreats,
   and so on. On any given Sunday over
   one thousand students would pour in.
   So, we went. And then we kept going.

Haw was entranced by the slick programming. He found support, friendship and intellectual stimulation from the youth leaders. He attended countless religious services, listened to piles of recorded sermons, began leading "worship events" himself and went on a short-term mission trip to the Dominican Republic. Eventually he was rebaptized, fancying himself "emerging from the waters of old religion and parental obligation into the world of choice, freedom, and self-determination."

Enter adolescent angst. Haw's youth group began making forays into Chicago's mean streets. They held serious discussions about economic class, sweatshops, corporate greed and the United States' role in Central American violence. Full of idealism, Haw enrolled at Eastern University, a Philadelphia-area school with a reputation for caring about social justice, and began protesting against homelessness, hunger, poverty, war and apathy. But when the Twin Towers crumbled, his faith was badly shaken--not so much by the terrorists as by the evangelical community's distressing "silent consent for post 9/11 bellicose patriotism."

Fortunately, Haw was soon distracted from his brooding. He joined a creation-care study program in the rain forests of Belize. He voraciously read Wendell Berry. He discovered several Anabaptist communities who were "practicing peace, redeeming enemies, and living more ecologically and sustainably." And then he met Father Michael Doyle, an aging Vietnam War protester now in charge of Sacred Heart parish in decaying and dangerous Camden, New Jersey. Haw was blown away, not only by the way the church was meeting great needs in the city but also by its sacraments, rituals and feast days. Impulsively, he moved to Camden. …

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