The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield. Pittsburgh: Crown & Covenant, 2012, 154 pages, $12.00, paper.
A little more than ten years ago, Dr. Rosaria Butterfield was a tenured English professor and head of the women's studies program at Syracuse University. She was a leader in the lesbian and gay communities and an articulate spokesperson for their causes. Ken Smith is a grandfather to several children and pastor of the Syracuse Reformed Presbyterian Church (Covenanter). How and why would they ever meet? Only the Lord knew and planned it! My husband and I know Ken and Floy Smith, and if we had been asked to comment on the title of Rosaria's autobiography, we might have changed the subtitle to “Converted via an Unlikely Witness.”
Rosaria tells the reader her conversion was not the stuff of “church testimonies”—she was happy and a successful leader of others in her alternate lifestyle. She was not feeling desperate need or looking for change. In fact, her editorial in the local newspaper about the hypocrisy and awful verbiage of the evangelical right was the mechanism that God used to draw the local pastor to send a letter to her with a gentle offer for “clarifying discussion” face-to-face.
She threw away the expected letters of evangelical vitriol and others that were “atta girls” by gay correspondents generated by her editorial. Pastor Smith's reply, however, was different. It was characterized by a peaceful tone and a spirit of compassion and love. She couldn't throw it away, and it stared at her from her desk top for weeks. Finally, her curiosity about him and his letter drove her to contact him. He invited her to his home for dinner and further discussion with his wife as well. She finally came ... and that was the first of many meetings. The rest of her book is about her “train wreck” conversion (like the apostle Paul’s) and the joy, surprise, and pain that proceeded from that conversion.
“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways,” (Isa. 55:9) the Lord tells us. No church program was involved in the conversion and discipleship of this very highly visible personality in Syracuse, New York. It was only an alert and compassionate pastor and his wife, along with other similar members of his congregation who were used mightily and as Rosaria writes “gratefully” in her new life.
She became an astute observer of “regular church life” and an articulate, and at times humorous, commentator on her own stumblings and bumblings in the Christian “walk.” She is now a pastor's wife with a surprising and amazing family of her own, no biological children among them.
Many of her “secret thoughts” which followed conversion were theological queries and meditations. One of these concerned what she learned about repentance.
I learned ... that repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin... . Repentance requires that we draw near to Jesus, no matter what... . And for many of us, intimacy with anything is a terrifying prospect.
During one sermon, Ken pointed to John 7:17 ... ‘If anyone is willing to do God’s will, he will know of the teaching, whether it is of God or whether I speak from myself.’ ... Obedience comes before understanding. I wanted to understand. But did I actually will to do his will? (21–22)
As she continued to read the Bible, she made further discoveries:
These passages also convicted me that homosexuality—like all sin—is symptomatic and not causal—that is, it tells us where are hearts have been, not who we inherently are or what we are destined to become.
These passages forced me to see pride and not sexual orientation as the root sin. In turn, this shaped the way that I reflected on my whole life, in the context of the word of God. (32)
A final sample of her secret thoughts:
Biblical orthodoxy can offer real compassion, because in our struggle against sin, we cannot undermine God’s power to change lives.
Healing comes through God’s work ... How did the Lord heal me? The way that he always heals: the word of God got to be bigger inside me than I. My natural inclination was to resist, so like a reflex, I did this. God’s people surrounded me. Not to manipulate. Not to badger. But to love and to listen and to watch and to pray. And eventually instead of resisting, I surrendered. (24–5)
Read her story and you won’t be sorry. You may even find that it will enrich your own story!
Pam Malkus is a member of Hope Presbyterian Church in Syracuse, New York. Ordained Servant Online, May 2013.