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

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8 Responses to “I Am Still Persuaded: A Former Pentecostal Reflects on His Conversion to Judaism”

  1. avatar

    Thank you for sharing this. It is sad that you were met with resistance from former friends, and heartening that you found such strong support from others.
    I wish you well as you finish your conversion process.

  2. William Berkson

    Ah the early Sages, the Tannaim. They are it. The source of the best in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It’s been downhill since then, but we will have them 🙂

  3. avatar

    Thank you for sharing this…. I choose to become Jewish 42 years ago.
    When your conversion is done… YOU ARE A JEW! Welcome!

  4. avatar
    A Jew Convert's Cousin Reply April 28, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    John – As you know, I’m a follower of Christ, but as your cousin and friend, I respect your wish to branch out from the religion you were raised in to one that you feel more comfortable in. It’s a matter of choice. I guess I could say that there are ‘factions’ of the family that wish things were different – some very strongly, but then there are those of us who won’t push our religious views on anyone else. Do I believe in Jesus of Nazareth of Calgary as my saviour? Yes. Did I wish everyone did? Yes. But will I persecute you for it? NEVER! You stand for what you believe in, and in that it is admirable. I may not agree with the methods, the whens and whys, but I still love you. 🙂

  5. avatar

    “Though I’ve long said goodbye to Christianity, I know the faith well. Honestly, you could transplant me back [to my roots]and I could easily recapture my old rhythms. When you’re [so truly born and bred in the ‘church family’] certain things come naturally no matter the distance or time elapsed.”
    Well said! It is so true– SO true, that when I read “I am still persuaded”, my brain flew to “For I am persuaded that neither life nor death…angels nor principalities . . . shall separate us from . . ” and some of you know the rest by heart, as I still do – though it is long since I’ve “said goodbye to Christianity”.
    Because I was SO much a “church-person” from my earliest childhood, my “abandoning Christ” was a significant rupture for some of my friends, too. Like you, I understand what that means to them. (Actually, I had to figure out what it meant to me, as well! The “leaving” was just something that I had to do, once I discovered that my soul was Jewish, but I did realize that it was a Really Big Deal.)And like you, I forged ahead, not forgetting or discounting those people and their profound faith, but gratefully rooting myself more deeply in the Jewish people, whose journey has always seemed more my own than any other has.
    I cannot imagine my own life and story having any other context than this one.
    Let there be peace and gratitude in your heart and mind, and welcome to the Tribe !

  6. avatar

    Hi There!
    My friends won’t believe this. But I lived in a very small Texas town for sixteen years …. and I know exactly what you’re saying. Still, it took time, and a life changing event for me to follow my own heart to G-d. (My father passed away five years ago last month.)
    That was when I realized I needed to be true to myself, as my Dad had always been. I converted to Judaism back in September 2006.
    My year of study with our Rabbi was one of the best experiences of my life. Still is, in fact. And yes, Rabbi– I’m still counting!:)
    I’m so grateful for your incredible courage, and the support of your friends. It’s essential to find such faithful companions. Mine too. Thank you, to every single one of them.
    B’ahava v’shalom,
    Cathy Shapiro
    Coral Springs, FL

  7. avatar

    I’m sorry you’ve been through such troubles. I’ve found some of the strongest, most committed and most knowlegable people in our congregation are Jews by Choice. They don’t take our faith for granted and I’ve learned to appreciate Judaism more because of them.
    One of the teachings I’ve always loved is that all souls that are or ever will be Jewish were standing at Sinai.
    Welcome, John.

  8. avatar

    A friend told me about the soul searching night before her conversion. She was raised Jewish (Reform) as an adopted child in a Jewish family. She was becoming more observant and visited Israel, and realized she was ready to make Aliyah. She was dismayed when she was told she was not Jewish by Israeli law and would have to convert. She struggled because she couldn’t figure out what she was converting “from or to.” Study with a an Orthodox Rabbi did not help settle this but she embraced her increasingly observant life. Finally that night before the main event she put the question of a need to convert at all to a Lubovitch Rabbi she sometimes studied with. He said-we lost millions…but sometimes those souls find their way back…welcome home. She embraced her dunk in the mikvah and never looked back. Welcome home John, Bonnie, Lenore and Cathy…

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