I Am Still Persuaded: A Former Pentecostal Reflects on His Conversion to Judaism
by John Wofford
“I’m way out of my league,” I think to myself as I sing the Sh’ma with a congregation of devout Jews.
Though I’ve long said goodbye to Christianity, I know the faith well. Honestly, you could transplant me back to the Bible Belt and I could easily recapture my old rhythms. When you’re a preacher’s kid, certain things come naturally no matter the distance or time elapsed. I may be a Michigan student and Jew-by-Choice, but I’m a Georgia son who spent more years than I care to admit on the front row of a sweaty Pentecostal church.
For three years, in preparation for my own possible foray into evangelical ministry, I studied Judaism’s connection to Christianity. It was during that time I discovered the writings of first century rabbis, and honestly–I was hooked. Here were men and women decoding a highly structured faith into practical application, not the cold, regimented system I had been led to believe was the reason for the reformation caused by the institution of the Church. More importantly, the exclusivity of the movement was far less extreme than that of my own faith: Jews were collectively interested in the well being of the Gentile just as passionately as their own. This outward push for the good of others was new and refreshing.
Ironically, my best friend–himself a Christian seminary student–was the deciding factor in my girding up courage to attend a Jewish service. It was Rosh Hashanah, and the temple was packed to the brim with members standing in all corners of the room, shuffling, looking for seats.
The niggun began lightly, rising in volume, and all shuffling stopped. For two and a half hours, I was swept up in each blessing, each song, and public prayer. The rabbi’s homily capped off the experience, further dashing the disparaging preconceptions of the Jewish people with which I was raised: “We owe the world a sophisticated, accessible healthcare system. Our faith demands that we lobby for this legislation. It is a mitzvah.” My heart swelled up. I cried; I admit it.
Two weeks later, I nervously approached the rabbi of the local temple for information on conversion. Our conversation touched on my roots, the divorce that split my parents’ unhealthy marriage apart, and my experiences as a young Pentecostal dead center of the Bible Belt. After several meetings, I began attending Intro to Judaism classes and memorizing Hebrew prayers and candle-lighting rituals–standard fare for a convert. I poured my past anxieties–both religious and personal–into each blessing I prayed, and slowly, I felt my spirit and that of the Jewish community unite.
Next step? Telling my family…
Needless to say, the absence of Jesus was a problem for both my parents, even if their divorce had split them irreconcilably. Pentecostalism isn’t known for inclusiveness, and since the community is dangerously insular, the thought of this preacher’s kid going to the outside world and converting “away” from the faith of his father is…well, bad for business. After two hours of explaining the personal and theological reasons for my conversion to my father, we both sat in an awkward silence that swallowed up the room. His response was quiet, but firm: “You have denied that Jesus is the Son of God. Come back before it’s too late, if it isn’t already.”
There have been several anonymous acts of vandalism and letters calling me out, laced with hellish imagery and hateful language. Someone let the air out of my car–twice. Defaced property outside my bedroom window. Countless emails. Old friends became fast enemies.
However, I am still persuaded that G-d is gracious.
There has been a countermovement of compassion and kindness from others. One letter from a Christian activist and dear friend said no matter what I called my faith, they knew and understood its primary tenet was love…and that was fine with them. Another Christian friend practically begged to be invited to my conversion to show support. Those bright spots in an otherwise bleak time–that should be celebratory and rich–have strengthened my resolve to convert to the faith that has held so much allure for me for these three years.
I am a Jewish convert.
I am a Jew-by-choice.
I am a Jew.
John Wofford is a correspondent for Halogen TV and author of hundreds of articles on pop culture, religion, politics, and humor. He shares less formal thoughts on all of the above at his blog, Kosher Soapbox. John is 21, and will complete his conversion in August, at Temple Emanuel in Grand Rapids, Michigan.