Other boys wanted to be football or basketball stars, millionaires, politicians, engineers, businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. My aim was to be an Anglican country parson. T.S. Eliot and George Herbert were my role models…

country road sunset longeneckerFrom time to time, I am invited to speak to groups who want to hear my conversion story. The audiences are always Catholics, who are intrigued by my personal pilgrimage from Bob Jones University to the Catholic priesthood.

I suppose it is an interesting tale. My Christian home in Pennsylvania was quiet, devout, and fun-loving. We were fundamentalists, but like the Mennonites before us, we were tame. After high school, I discovered the red-blooded, fire-breathing form of fundamentalism at Bob Jones University. There in South Carolina, the religion, like the climate, was considerably warmer. The liberal arts education at Bob Jones was impressive. I absorbed and participated in their excellent fine arts program, and then I was struck down with a terrible disease: Anglophilia.

Reading all the great writers, and honing in especially on C.S.Lewis and his friends, brought me to the brink of Britain. Other boys wanted to be football or basketball stars, millionaires, politicians, engineers, businessmen, lawyers, and doctors. My aim was to be an Anglican country parson. T.S. Eliot and George Herbert were my role models: the first because he went to live in England in a personal rejection of America; the second because he retreated from the world to a country parish to minister humbly and write some of the finest poetry in the English language.

I see now that one of the themes that links their lives is the element of retreat and escapes. They ran away: Eliot from the sterile and stuffy establishment expectations of Harvard, Herbert from the worldly ambition of university and court, privilege and patronage. I wanted to beat a similar retreat, and took heart in Eliot’s observation, “In a world of fugitives, the person taking the opposite direction will appear to run away.”

So, when the opportunity arose to study theology at Oxford, I made my escape. With great excitement, I bought a one-way ticket to England.

I will never forget the taxi ride from the station to the imposing Victorian edifice of Wycliffe Hall on the Banbury Road. Still groggy from jet lag, I looked out the window on the streets of the great city of Oxford. We drove past the Randolph Hotel and the Ashmolean Museum, then we turned north into the wide thoroughfare of St. Giles. The driver pushed through crowds of merrymakers. The street was full of ferris wheels, whirligigs, sideshows, and carnival games. I was shocked. At the very heart of the city of dreaming spires, did they really have an amusement park?

Of course, a few days later the amusements were gone. It was no more than the annual St. Giles’ Fair.

By a combination of Providence and luck (and a good number of pints of ale at the Eagle and Child), I finished my theological training and was ordained as an Anglican priest. After serving ten very happy years in the Church of England, I responded to the inevitable draw of the Catholic Church. By now I was married to an Englishwoman, and I settled as a Catholic layman in the damp lands. I had burnt my bridges and had no contacts other than family back in the USA.

Then, through another series of unforeseeable events, the door opened for me to return not only to the United States but to Greenville, South Carolina, to be ordained as a Catholic priest.

I had run from America to England, and now after twenty-five years, it was time to come home. Soon after settling back in South Carolina, I had the opportunity to wend my way home from a speaking engagement in Augusta, Georgia.

Instead of the boring interstate, I decided to take the country roads home.

This poem was the result, and it sums things up pretty well.

Driving Home

“Save a half hour,” my host said, “and leave town
driving North ‘cross country on Highway One.”
So on a balmy day in May I set off
to travel home across the rural south.

The road ran past broken farms, peach orchards,
Bar BQ joints, quaint old towns and junkyards;
trailer parks and dilapidated shacks—
the homes of poor white folks and poorer blacks.

With stenciled signs the country churches wore
their ignorance with pride and proclaimed their war
on the world, the flesh and the devil
in names wild and apocalyptical.

Almighty Fire Temple Missionary
New Testament Church of God Prophecy
Mount Pisgah Methodist Episcopal
Church of the Revival of Reverend Irascible.

Twenty-five years ago I fled all this;
seeking sanity, refuge and release.
All I found were other forms of madness,
poverty, despair, anger, lust and stress.

Worst of all, after time, I woke to find
these terrors lodged deep in my own heart and mind.
Like a birth defect, they’d been there all along;
It wasn’t my world, but my heart which was wrong.

So now, with a sense of humor and shame
I’m ready to accept my part of the blame.
In accepting this I can accept all things,
and in this freedom my heart stops and sings.

As I drive on and the sunsets into night,
each church and farm and face I see is filled with light,
and in my heart and mind a certainty begins to swell:
that, “All shall be well, and all things shall be well.”

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6 replies to this post
  1. But you don’t talk about your conversion. You glossed right over that. I’m interested in what pulled you over to the Catholic Church. I do like your poem.

  2. You can read several versions of my conversion story on my blog under “Archived Articles”. In this essay I was using “conversion” in a different sense–the one communicated by the poem.

  3. Dwight, Thank you for sharing your story. It has indeed been quite a journey since the days with my father at the little, stone Holy Trinity Anglican Orthodox church down on Buncombe Street. I have enjoyed reading your articles here at the Imaginative Conservative. I hope our paths cross again.

  4. Hello Father Dwight, thank you for sharing this. As of Easter Vigils 2017, I am now Catholic, and share some similarities to your story. Initially mainline Protestant, I too joined the Church of England for many years, all the while immersing myself in CS Lewis. After discovering Chesterton and the early Fathers of the Church, the magnetic pull to the Catholic Church was inexorable. All praise to the Holy Spirit, of course, but maybe there is something in the ale of the Eagle and Child. Thank you for your writings, and all the best to you and yours.

  5. Fr. Longenecker, I miss the thought provoking Homilies that you gave at St. Mary’s. You might remember me as the mother of the child whom hugged you during communion. My husband has received his annulment and I can now receive communion myself. Thank you for sharing your stories with us. They help us all to draw closer to the One whom loves us most.

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