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Faith and reason, intertwined

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Jill and James Sherk converted separately to Catholicism, though both came by way of a methodical approach, combined with a final leap of faith.

Jill was raised by her grandmother and aunt in southern China and had little exposure to spirituality until she joined her parents in New York City in 1994, at age 11. Jill's father was skeptical about Christianity, but her mother had a conversion to evangelical Christianity in 1998.

"It snowballed quickly," Jill said. "Within maybe a couple months, she'd gone through kind of a weird alignment of happenstances that prepped her psychology for receiving Jesus."

It didn't end well. Jill's mother committed suicide just a few months after her conversion, and her father blamed Christianity.

"Independent of this, I became a secular atheist," Jill said. "Because of my dad's narrative, I was also very angry with Christianity in particular."

Jill immediately identified with secular humanism - a philosophy that emphasizes the responsibility of people to lead ethical lives, independent of religious beliefs - after learning about it in a high school history class.

"Humanism was what was good about life. But the teenage anger part came out through my atheism," Jill said. "I would go to Protestant churches and pick fights" by starting arguments at fellowship nights.

"I was just so angry and I didn't keep it a secret from anybody that 'Christians killed my mom,' " she said.

James, who moved to Michigan from Canada in the mid-1990s, had his own questions. Raised a Lutheran, he first encountered devout Catholics at Hillsdale College, a liberal arts college in Michigan.

"It wasn't something I had much interest in engaging with at the time," James said. "It was something that stuck in the back of my head."

Focused on completing his master's degree in economics at the University of Rochester, James said he had little time to think about Catholic beliefs until he moved to Washington in 2006. He began to read about the church's teachings on human sexuality - specifically, St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility. After finding out that all major Protestant denominations did not allow use of contraception until the 20th century, James began to seriously consider the church's teaching on infallibility.

"That was the first time I had to take seriously the claims the church makes about the papacy," James said. If the church did not change its teachings on contraception despite strong pressure to do so, it just might be right about papal infallibility, he thought.

James spent a year and a half reading about the early Christian church and found that "it looks an awful lot more like the Catholic Church than any Protestant church." After entering RCIA at St. Joseph's Church on Capitol Hill, he came into the church during Easter Vigil services in 2009.

Two years earlier, Jill had undergone her own conversion. A friend invited her to a Baptist church, and what the teacher there had to say struck Jill as "intuitively true." She began to speak regularly with him about Christian teachings, while the example of another woman at the church, Laura, "dismantled my guard," she said.

"I tried my old antics on her, bashing her religion, bashing the God she loves - and she just turned the other cheek and wept with me," Jill said.

After opening her heart to the idea that there might be a God, Jill made no assumptions about what form "the divine" might take. As she sought to understand if the divine is knowable, personal, immanent and monistic, she dismissed ideologies such as pantheism, polytheism, Daoism, dualism and deism.

"I wanted to know the truth. I didn't want to be emotional about it," said Jill, who earned her bachelor's degree at Columbia University.

By the end of one year, Jill had decided she was a monotheist and began to read about Christianity, Islam and Judaism. She finally realized the next step wasn't a logical deduction, but a leap of faith - to Christianity. Like James, she eventually became fascinated by the early church fathers and recognized the Catholic Church within their writings.

The couple met in 2014, and after a whirlwind romance, were married at SS. Phillip and James Church in Baltimore April 25, 2015. On their honeymoon, they traveled to Rome to have their marriage blessed by Pope Francis. James and Jill are expecting a daughter in January: Chiara Caeli, "light of heaven."

Now parishioners at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Lake Ridge, they consider it a blessing to have arrived at the same church through their own separate paths.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015