My Journey of Faith
By Dennis S. Hankins
THE PRESENT LOOKS VERY MUCH LIKE THE PAST
When I was 13, I dreamed about a letter written by my Dad in which he referred to "my son, the preacher." I knew that I was that son. My pastor, Brother Jesse Lauderdale, always called me his little preacher boy. So after my dream, I felt called by God to preach and minister to his people. Brother Jesse had never asked me to preach or do anything like that. But I began to think that if he ever asked me -- "When are you going to preach for me?" I would answer him: -- "When you ask me." And then it happened!
One Sunday morning as my family and I were walking into church, Brother Jesse greeted us and shook our hands. Then he looked at me and said "How's my little preacher boy? When are you going to preach for me?" I thought, "This is it!" I stood as tall as a 13 year old can stand and said with confidence, "When you ask me."
Startled, Brother Jesse looked at daddy and asked, "Is he called?"
And daddy said, "He says he is."
Well, Brother Jesse was never one to "quench the spirit" so that Sunday morning he announced that Brother Dennis had been called to preach and would preach his first sermon next Sunday morning.
That next week found me frantically studying for my first sermon. Feelings of inadequacy and destiny haunted me. Being an avid Bible reader, I searched the scriptures for a text. I thought the Psalms would be a rich source, so I looked there. It would have been considerably easier locating a text had our church been using the Lectionary, but I don't think we knew one existed. I did have, however, The Marked Reference Bible KJV with Concordance and Chain of Reference System that my Daddy and Mommy, with all their love and blessings, gave to me on the occasion of my baptism, August 27, 1967.
Psalm 127:1, the eighth Song of Ascents, caught my eye. It reads: "Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." So, at the ripe old age of 13, I brought my first sermon to a Sunday morning congregation of our Pentecostal church.
Standing at the same pulpit from which my great-grandfather had preached, I declared, "Only God is the true and sure foundation; only the Lord can be our sure protection." I went on explaining the text with the accumulated wisdom of 13 years, stating that man is weak but God is strong. In addition, I said, nothing is truly sure, real or durable, except the Lord builds it and the Lord guards it.
A rather prophetic text in light of the understanding and conviction I would one day come to embrace concerning the historic Catholic faith. Many years later I would understand this is the faith that St. Jude states was "once delivered unto the saints." (Jude 3) Indeed I would discover that it is the faith that has been embraced by believers of all times in all places, and is the faith of which the Church is the "pillar and bulwark" (1 Timothy 3:15); the faith the Church guards, defends, and teaches. I would come to understand that the "house" of Psalm 127:1 is the Church that Jesus said He would build, and that house of the living faith is the Catholic Church.
Full Gospel Tabernacle in Huntingburg, IN was not only where I preached my first sermon but also where I first learned about Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, and the richness of the Holy Scriptures. It was there in the Pentecostal church founded by my great-grandfather, Rev. Samuel Seibert, that I was born again at the age of nine.
Our church taught it was necessary to be born again, to have a personal encounter and relationship with Jesus. In the Gospel of John chapter 3, Jesus said to Nicodemus, "You must be born again." (vs. 3) So anyone coming under "conviction" for their sins and estrangement from God were invited to come to the altar and repent and "pray through" to salvation. At our church we believed that you weren't "through praying until you had prayed through."
One hot summer Friday evening, at the age of nine, with my Bible in hand I walked the 7 ½ blocks to attend the youth service at my church. Concerned that someone might see me carrying a Bible, I tried to hide it behind my back. Arriving at church, I took my place on the hard wooden-slat pew, where I sat alone. The air was hot and sticky. Inside I felt alone, almost desperate, and began to cry. By the age of nine I had already stolen candy and begun to us the word "heck." Maybe I wasn't a harden sinner, but I could not restrain the tears, nor did I know what to do. Here I was, alone in church, without a living faith in God, convinced that I would be doing time in hell.
Brother Snodgrass and his wife Darlene were the youth leaders at our Church. He asked me if I would like to sing a special song. How could I sing at time like this? My life was passing before me. With my head bowed, I shook my head "no." Brother Snodgrass was standing on the platform, leaning toward me as if he wanted to see me better, but I couldn't look Brother Snodgrass in the eye. By this time, everyone in the congregation was looking at me.
Sensing my struggle, he gently asked me if I would like to pray. "I guess so," I said. Coming down from the platform he put his arm around me, and encouraged me to walk those few steps to the altar - the same altar where hundreds before me had knelt and found peace with God. There I also knelt and prayed. Stored up feelings of resistance to God's love erupted in tears of repentance and acceptance of the free offer of Grace. Now no longer a stranger or alien I felt received as angels and archangels and all the company of heaven welcomed me into the family of God.
Most moments of divine visitation at our church concluded with joyful singing. This moment was no different as we sang, as only Pentecostals can, "I'm so glad that Jesus set me free; I'm so glad that Jesus set me free; I'm so glad that Jesus set me free, singing glory, hallelujah, Jesus set me free!"
On August 27, 1967, on a very warm and sunny Sunday afternoon, we gathered on the bank of the muddy Patoka River where several of us were to be baptized. At this same location, in the early 1920's, my great-grandfather Seibert had also conducted baptisms. Although we did not hold a sacramental view of baptism, I nevertheless knew, standing there looking at the water, that this was important. The Scriptures about being buried and raised with Christ through baptism were read, and "Shall We Gather at the River" was sung. Then one by one we walked into the muddy water to Brother Jesse, who with the elders immersed me into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, saying, "Brother Dennis Hankins, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." It was about 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I felt compelled to record the event in my Bible.
We also had communion. Again, we did not hold a sacramental view of this practice of the church either, but we approached it with reverence and respect. I was deeply touched by how we partook of the Lord's Supper. A wooden kitchen table was set up in the front of the church with corresponding wooden chairs. Groups of six would sit at this table and re-enact the reception of the bread and the juice. After all had eaten and drunk the elements, the men would wash each other's feet and the women followed suit. Why? Because Jesus washed his disciples' feet at the Last Super and then instructed his disciples to do likewise. I think about this time in the church of my youth every Maundy Thursday. The washing of feet demonstrated for us that we should love one another, as Christ has loved us. I remember feeling vulnerable, embarrassed, and awkward doing this that first time at my childhood church. As I struggled to embrace this rite, I remember thinking how could I claim to love my brother, if I couldn't accept him and serve him even in the washing of his feet.
I didn't know it at the time, but everything I had experienced up to this point foreshadowed the historic faith as I would come to know it. Conversion, baptism, the power of the Holy Spirit, communion, even a hint at Holy Orders as seen in my call to the ministry - each of theses shows a resemblance to what has always been believed in the historic Church, and it was this resemblance that created in me the need to know the fullness of the truth. At this point, however, a confession is in order.
As a Pentecostal, I rejected liturgical worship. Since the rites and ceremonies usually associated with liturgy were foreign to me, I concluded they were foreign to God also. Like so many Protestants, I had no clue as to the meanings behind the rich, sacramental actions of the Church; but the failure to understand something is not reason enough to deny it. The Lord, however, has always been patient and especially merciful in permitting me to discover the ancient treasures of his Holy Church. These treasures may be old, but they are also always new. They are timeless and without blemish of age. And in the historic Catholic understanding of the faith, I discovered the reasons for the practices behind my Pentecostal church. So I have not lost anything, I've only gained.
The modern emphasis on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has been an enriching blessing to the Body of Christ. Indeed, the Pentecostal church in which I grew up believed and preached that God wanted us to be full of the Holy Spirit. We cherished the gifts and graces of the Holy Spirit. We believed that what Acts chapter 2 described as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nascent church should be our experience today. My life and growth in the Spirit can be summed up in the words of the Nicene Creed: "I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, Who with the Father and Son is worshipped and Glorified. He has spoken thru the Prophets."
BACK TO THE FUTURE
It's always amazing how the present looks so much like the past. All kinds of roads, relationships, and experiences are instruments the Lord uses to shape and guide us. Having grown up in Huntingburg, IN, in Dubois County, I was more than aware of the Catholic Church. I've often said there are more Catholics in Dubois County than there are people. Such is the witness and presence of Christ's Church. Retired Bishop Gettlefinger, of the Evansville Diocese is from Dubois County. Retired Archbishop Buechlein of Indianapolis is from Dubois County. Dr. Mark Ginter, my dear friend, is a former Professor of Moral Theology at St. Meinrad Seminary, also lives in Dubois County, and has had a gentle impact on my search for the historic Catholic faith.
When our 3 oldest children were younger, my wife would help them learn Christmas music on their instruments and then schedule a Christmas Concert for the Sisters at St. Mary Church just a block from our house in Huntingburg. With my wife, Debbie, assisting on the piano, the children would perform their pieces on guitar, saxophone, flute, and violin. The Sisters would make cookies and punch to show their appreciation. They always befriended us with their gentle spirit and witness.
On three occasions, Debbie was asked to assist in an ecumenical choir performance that was under the direction of a Catholic parish choir director. These concerts took place at local Catholic and Protestant parishes and as far away as The Passionist Nuns Community in Owensboro, KY. Several of Debbie's piano students were sons and daughters of local Catholic families.
Many generous and good friends, many of who whom were faithful members of a Catholic parish, supported my local 60-second radio commentary on WITZ 990 AM, called Front Page with Dennis Hankins. They supported me because they appreciated the pro-life emphasis. I could never shake the reality that it was mostly Catholics who were on the forefront of the pro-life witness.
After the birth of our third child, with my support, Debbie had a tubal ligation, which was preventing us from having more children. When we became convinced that this action was wrong, it was a faithful and dear Catholic friend who gave us helpful and fruitful direction. Through the assistance of One More Soul, we found a surgeon in Jackson, TN, who was very experienced in the procedure to reverse tubal ligations. The surgery was very successful, and Heidi, our fourth child is now 12 years old.
Then there is the faithful and inspiring witness of Pope John Paul II. I will never forget how he went to the prison to forgive his would-be assassin. That image of Christ's love still touches me deeply. I have read many of Blessed John Paul II's encyclicals, and they always give me the feeling that I'm reading the words of a man who walked close to the Cross. He led the church in repentance, renewal, and restoration - all of which resonate with my spirit. I came to see him as not just a nice person, or even just a righteous person, but as an example and prophet to the world. By word and deed his witness to the truth caused me to ponder more and more on the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church.
This desire to understand the faith accelerated in May of 1997 when I preached a series of sermons comparing what we believed with what the Catholic Church taught. I was concerned about whether we held the same truths, and if we didn't, whether it mattered. As a Protestant minister, I was also interested in history, and as I delved into the past, I became aware that the church was not merely 500 years old but closer to 2000 years old. This led to a hunger and thirst for more understanding of the ancient church which eventually resulted in my ordination to the priesthood in the Charismatic Episcopal Church on October 30, 1997. Nevertheless, the thirst for truth continues and always will. My heart's desire is to be a part of the "unity of the faith" in all its authority, worship, and devotion as it is in the Catholic Church.
It is not fair, however, to conclude this section without giving witness to my parents. Although it was common to hear disparaging remarks about the Catholic Church in my Pentecostal world, my mom and dad never taught me hateful or hurtful attitudes about the Catholic Church. About the time I was getting on my own, in 1974, they moved from Indiana to Arkansas, where daddy accepted an appointment to serve in the pastorate of the United Methodist Church. This was a big leap from the Pentecostal world to a denomination like the UMC. The witness of my parents to walk thru doors that they discerned God had opened for them continues to inspire me to go wherever He is leading. Part of this leading resulted in me serving UMC student pastorates while going to college. It was in the UMC that a sense of liturgy and order began to seep into me. The fact that the UMC has Anglican roots further enriched my understanding of the worship of God. I had no idea that this would be another link in the chain of events that was leading me to the fullness of the faith in the Catholic Church.
I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH
I have thousands of hours of study, reading, prayer, and pastoring under my belt. My experience in pastoring Pentecostal, Methodist, and now CEC churches as caused me to yearn even more for the "unity of the faith." The present sons and daughters of the Reformation continue to split, divide, and multiply as though Jesus said He would build churches. Of course , we all know Jesus said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
There is only one Church, and the Founder of it gave only one set of keys. Those keys and the authority they symbolize were given to Peter. We can ignore that truth and go on our way, but to ignore it is to ignore the basic foundation to the unity of the Church. Many believers are not so much anti-Catholic as they are completely unaware of where their own faith traditions come from. Where else is there preserved what the church has always believed and preached than in the Church that has always been and will always be?
It is out of conviction that I write these things. I do not take lightly my ordination or the vows that I took; nor do I take lightly the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17, or His teaching about His body and blood, given for the life of the world, as described in John 6, or His words "upon this rock I will build my Church." I was received into this Church, the mother of us all, April 15, 2006.
Dennis Hankins is a parishioner at Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral, of the Diocese of Knoxville, TN. Prior to uniting with the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil 2006, Dennis served as a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. E-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org Visit him at: www.dennishankins.com