RACINE — Stephen Ray’s attire and his zeal for adventure have earned him the nickname “Jerusalem Jones.” Unlike that other Jones, i.e., Indiana, Steve’s stories about his adventures are stories about his faith journey.
For nearly two hours on Sept. 26, the Catholic author, filmmaker and biblical tour guide told ice-breaking funny stories and provided gentle prodding to a crowd in the St. Rita School gymnasium. His lecture, “Jesus prefigured in the Old Testament,” offered a riveting view of Catholic ancestry and origins of faith, and the life of Paul.
“Kids don’t have heroes today,” he said. “We grew up with heroes and people gave their lives for beauty, justice and liberty. No heroes today – just people famous for their celebrity status, such as rock stars and sports stars; most of them are miserable and are bad examples to our youth.”
Steve challenged his audience, “Other than Jesus, who was a better priest than Paul?” Paul is a true hero, he said, and despite his small 5-foot stature was unafraid to evangelize and inspire.
Sponsored by the Racine Knights of Columbus Council 697 and Ignatius Press, Ray’s talk, the second of the day in Racine, offered a glimpse into his conversion to the Catholic faith and his passion to evangelize and bring cradle Catholics back to the church.
‘Church shopper’ left empty-handed
Like many married couples, he and Janet, his wife of 33 years, church shopped to find a spiritual home to raise their four children, Cindy, Jesse, Charlotte and Emily.
One of five children, Steve was raised Baptist and Janet a Presbyterian. Christianity was important to them, but they did not feel comfortable in any of the faith communities they visited. After their unsuccessful attempts to find a church, Steve lived as a generic Christian, “to love Jesus Christ, to study the Bible, to raise my family, teach them at home and run my business.”
While Steve was content, Janet longed to share in the worship experience with other like-minded Christians. After reading “Evangelical is Not Enough,” by Thomas Howard, her longings were put into words.
“While we weren’t originally seeing anything to attract us to the Catholic Church, it was the problems in the Protestant Church that caused us such turmoil in our lives,” said Steve.
Catholic church was a constant
They attended a talk by Frank Schaeffer in 1993 on his conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy. A light went on and the couple learned that the origin of the early church was Catholic not Protestant.
“I learned that the Catholic Church was constant from the beginning,” said Steve, in an interview with your Catholic Herald. “There was none of the fracturing or splintering that we see in the Protestant faiths – it was here all along, instituted by Jesus.”
Although both realized that deep down they were Catholic, neither had been to Mass nor thought of going to Mass until another couple invited them. When they heard the proclamation of the Gospel during the Mass, both sobbed the entire time. Despite that, Janet left angry.
“She was just trembling and furious,” Steve admitted. “I asked her why, when we both had cried during the whole thing; I just didn’t understand. She told me that she was angry that the Protestant pastors lied to us and that she was angry with the Catholics because they didn’t have the guts to tell us the truth.”
For Steve, who long viewed the Catholic Church as the Whore of Babylon and the pope as the anti-Christ, this unexpected journey made sense.
“It was like a ship coming into port when we went to Mass for the first time,” he admitted. “All the loose ends were tied together and I knew that we were home.”
While Steve and Janet were ecstatic about their journey, the price of the conversion was steep and often lonely. They were rejected by family and lost many friends.
“It was hard, but I have an awesome wife and great kids and we got through it,” he said. “But it was tough; our family didn’t talk to us for a whole year. But you have to understand, our whole lives we were Protestant and all that we did surrounded that. We broke camp and moved and no one could understand how in the world we could do this. I could understand it, though, because years before, my best friend became Catholic and I couldn’t believe it. I said he was too smart to be Catholic and that he was acting stupid – that is how drastic this change was for us.”
Family living in ‘demilitarized zone’
Most of his friends have returned and the family members have converted to Catholicism, but Steve felt as if he were living in a demilitarized zone and being ambushed until they formally became Catholic.
“We weren’t Protestant anymore and not yet Catholic and we were getting hits from all sides,” he said. “Then we climbed the wall and realized which side was the right one.”
The author of seven books, Steve admitted that he knew nothing about the publishing world and was a most unlikely candidate for becoming a writer. His first book was the result of a letter written to his father about the reasons for his conversion to Catholicism.
“I began the letter with ‘Dear Dad and Mom, You have been the best parents …’ and continued from there. The book became longer and it evolved into ‘Crossing the Tiber’ a compilation of three booklets which included the letter to my parents, a study on the Eucharist and a study on baptism,” he explained. “It was never going to be a book; in fact, after having my daughter Cindy, who was just 16 at the time, proofread my letter to Grandpa that she cried and said she and Jesse would join the Catholic Church. So I decided to see if I could get it published and maybe it would help others.”
Steve’s second book, “Upon this Rock” was a collection of quotes on the primacy of Peter. The third book, “St. John’s Gospel: A Bible Study and Commentary,” was the result of a Bible study that Steve was to present, but when he was unable to find any Catholic material, he wrote his own.
One of the most profound experiences in Steve’s life occurred while he was sleeping. He remembered bolting out of bed at 2 a.m., and shaking Janet until she awoke.
“I said, ‘We have to do a 10-part video series on the history of salvation in the Catholic faith,’ and she said, ‘You are crazy, now go back to sleep – we can’t take good pictures, so how on earth are we going to do this,’” explained Steve.
Goal is to inspire, enthuse others
Unable to sleep, Ray stayed up all night typing the outline for the project, visited Ignatius Press and six weeks later, he was videotaping. While he continues to work on his “The Footprints of God” series and other projects, Steve’s message remains constant.
“I want people to know and understand and love Jesus and the church; be faithful, courageous, bold and proud,” he said. “I want them to have a conversion and for those who are thinking of leaving to come back and to be proud to be here. My main goal is to inspire and enthuse Catholics to be better.”
When the world seems to hold anti-Catholic sentiment, Steve reminds others that in church history, there was never a golden age.
“The church is not perfect; we have both sheep and goats, weeds and wheat and Jesus had two crummy bishops, so we are not doing all that bad today,” he said. “Yeah, we had a sex scandal and we are dealing with it, but Protestant churches have more than twice the abuses in their churches, and the public schools are worse than that. But we don’t hear about it because the media focuses their attention on the Catholics.”
The church has never pretended to be perfect, according to Steve, who joked, “even if it was, when I joined it became not perfect.”
“With (Bill) Clinton’s mistakes, it doesn’t diminish the dignity of the presidency and you don’t leave the United States because of it,” he said. “We don’t leave the church because human beings are there that make mistakes. That doesn’t invalidate the papacy; the Catholic Church is a wonderful institution.”