This is the second part of the story of my conversion to Catholic Christianity together with my wife Judith and our three sons.
The old Unitarian church is still there in an older part of San Francisco, a beautiful piece of Carpenter's Gothic, that was restored in the 1960's with a new hall next to it. When I was a little boy, we sat on the right side under the stained glass windows. I used to read the scriptures on the walls. In the restoration, the Unitarians painted over the Bible verses, but when I was little the wall on the left said, "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God." I do not remember so clearly what it said on the right side. Maybe it said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free." In the front there were three great wooden Gothic arches, not really appropriate for a Unitarian church, and in the center arch was a painting of Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Once a madman slashed the painting with a knife, it was covered with a curtain, and in the restoration it and the three arches were gone.
My father was very proud of the fact that the Unitarians have no creed. The creeds of Christianity are statements that were written by church councils in the fourth century, and that begin with "I believe . . ." Christians are supposed to be able to say them without too much discomfort. My father said that in the Unitarian Church, each man makes his own creed. I took him very seriously, and the most important thing for me until I was around thirty, was looking for the meaning of life, so that I would know what to believe. In college I did not study the technical subjects that would enable me to get a good job, although I was very good at science, but I studied philosophy. I completely misunderstood my father's intent. He thought I would appreciate my freedom, and arrive at Unitarian opinions rather like his. But I thought I was supposed to look through the accumulated knowledge of humankind, the philosophy and religion, the history, art and literature, and the science, to find what was true.
When I was a child I did share my father's opinions, and I was a schoolyard skeptic in public school, until I went to a college where almost all of the students were schoolyard skeptics. In the sixth grade my best friend was a Mexican boy, Ricardo. One day I visited his home, but when his father learned about my family's religion, he would not let Ricardo play with me any more. My best friend in junior high school was a Chinese boy named Whalun. We played handball (with no side walls) at recess with some Chinese and Jewish boys. The Christian children stayed away from me.
My best friend in high school was a very bright Jewish boy, Michael, who was two years ahead of me. He and I won awards for being good students, and we went to college on National Merit Scholarships, looking forward to serious intellectual life. In 1958 I went to Reed College, a small school in Oregon that had the reputation of being one of the best colleges in the United States, although only one student in four stayed to graduate.
In those days Reed had a big humanities class that all the students were required to take. I was hoping to learn a lot from it, and find the meaning of life, but what actually happened during the year, was that I became overwhelmed. I needed to understand everything I was learning, and I could not understand it. My professor did not like my unusual questions about the meaning of Western civilization. He thought that economics explained everything. The rainy weather in Portland did not help either. I think if the sun had come out a few days sooner, I might have stayed, but I made my decision and left college. Many years later in 1988 my family and I experienced another winter, in a city in China, where we did not see the sun from November until it came out on Easter Day in April.
One thing I took with me when I left Reed was a love of folk dancing. And after I left Reed, I wrote letters to a quiet Jewish girl I had met there named Mary. We liked being together. But one day I got a letter from her that said, "My father told me not to write to you any more."
The next year I went to college at San Francisco State University. My father and step-mother were pleased because it was much less expensive. Even with my scholarship, paying for Reed had been burdensome for them. Then I worked for a year and saved money, and just when I was twenty-one, I sailed on a freighter out through the Golden Gate, into the ocean I had seen all my life, and crossed it to Japan.
To the next part of our conversion story: A Day in May
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To the Short Version of our conversion story
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Send comments or questions to Dwite
1. I sat there with my father and mother, and later with my father and step-mother. I could read in 1947.
2. The Book of the Prophet Micah,
3. The Gospel According to Saint John,
4. Mine was. I think Michael's was too.