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An immersion in truth
Church-hopping, study, soul-searching led Athea-Anne Lee Jendel to the Faith
Katie Collins | Editorial Assistant
KATIE COLLINS | CATHOLIC HERALD
Athea-Anne Lee Jendel, program assistant at the diocesan Office of Multicultural Ministries in Arlington, recently converted to Catholicism.

Ever since she was little, Athea-Anne Lee Jendel has carried a big love for Christ within her. Now, after a search of soul and intellect that led her through a gamut of Protestant churches, a small library of literature, painful conversations, a few tears and plenty of impassioned prayers, she’s found a faith expansive enough to hold this love.

Jendel speaks articulately and deliberately and possesses poise that belies her 29 years. Along with openness to God’s gentle guidance, Jendel brought such deliberateness to her spiritual trek, which she discussed in a recent interview at the Office of Multicultural Ministries in Arlington, where she’s worked as program assistant since last December.

Born in Covington, La., she was raised with two older brothers by a single mom who nurtured her early relationship with Christ.

“My mom’s an example of self-sacrifice and obedience — especially in raising my two brothers and me alone,” Jendel wrote in a spiritual testimony last year.

Although grounded in a God-centered home, the family bounced around from Methodist to Assembly of God to Southern Baptist to charismatic Christian churches. Sometimes the family would switch churches when they moved, but the shuffling was often her mother’s effort to seek out “the best faith community she could find for her family,” said Jendel.

Post-college was the first time she felt disenchanted by churches. Jendel started feeling like “the focus at church was often on who was the next speaker or how to have the best music,” she said.

She encountered “great people who believed in Scripture, who wanted to preach the Gospel,” she said, but for the first time, she started wondering, “Is church just another event or program and this person’s opinion about this and that person’s opinion about that?”

Even though she didn’t believe any church had the fullness of truth — only pieces of it — “for me, something was missing,” she said.

In 2007, she moved to the Washington, D.C., area to work for the Leadership Institute (LI) training college students to start school organizations.

Hoping to find a church that was scripturally grounded and with a vibrant community, she visited area churches, “trying them on,” she said. She finally settled on one. “I wanted more from it, but I was tired of looking,” she said.

A shift

One Sunday while Jendel was searching for a faith community, she went with her roommate to a Presbyterian church in Washington that celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. The Christian churches she’d previously attended offered bread and wine infrequently.

She remembered thinking it was such a powerful element of the service and wondered why churches didn’t include it regularly. “It really intrigued me,” she said.

Jendel also began making Catholic friends and hearing about conversions to Catholicism. One friend at LI wrote Facebook posts about why she might become Catholic.

“All the questions she had made me think, ‘This is very interesting,’” said Jendel.

Nevertheless, Catholics “still seemed weird to me — they prayed to Mary, went to confession and listened to the pope,” she said.

In the fall of 2008, Jendel had an experience that, while subtle, created an internal change with profound consequences.

After a night of drinking too much for the first time, she woke up feeling that “there’s got to be more for me than doing things this way,” she said. “Not just the drinking, but in life.” There was something that needed to change, but she was not sure what.

She stood in front of the mirror, tears falling, and sang lines from a Protestant hymn, “I surrender all to Thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all.”

“Nothing dramatic had changed or was different, but internally there was a slight shift,” Jendel said. “Maybe God was opening me up for the next step.”

A step

A month later, she started dating her co-worker Jeff, a Catholic. While in the past she wouldn’t have been open to dating a Catholic, she felt a new sense of openness.

They had their first of many Catholic/Protestant debates on one of their first dates. Subsequent discussions tackled everything from grace and justification to the sacraments and the saints.

“It was amazing to me that we kept dating,” Jendel said.

As the relationship progressed, Jendel started thinking about a future with Jeff. He helped her feel comfortable with the idea of raising future children together in the Church, “but I made it clear, I’m not converting,” she said.

After she agreed the children could be raised Catholic, she decided to attended Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) classes at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington “to learn more about the Faith and about Jeff,” said Jendel.

As she grew more invested in Jeff and Catholicism, friends and family members from home were worried and gave her Protestant resources on why Catholicism was not scripturally sound. “These were beautiful people who love the Lord, but I had to do my own research — lots of research and intense prayer,” she said.

Seeped in Protestantism since birth, her research on Catholicism sometimes “felt almost like I was going against God,” she said. “It was lots of internal struggle for me.”

She continued to attend RCIA, however, talked with and emailed Catholic friends, read books and watched videos on Catholicism, and attended Protestant/Catholic faith-discussion dinners.

Then, finally, “I had the most beautiful realization,” she said. “It started with the Eucharist. If you look at Scripture and compare it with early history, you could see the healing power of it,” said Jendel. The realization led her to see the sacraments as physical manifestations of God’s grace.

“The sacraments are not a to-do list. They are a brilliant, physical way to receive Christ’s gifts to us,” she said.

The idea of grace as a gift, which holds a special place for many Protestants, Jendel saw in a new way through the sacraments.

“The Eucharist is actually receiving grace. In reality, sacraments are not things you are doing, but you are putting yourself in the path to receive the grace of Christ,” she said. “We are very real, physical people, and God’s using real, physical things.”

When members of the RCIA class started talking about confirmation saints, Jendel decided to study some saints’ lives herself. She came across St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, patron of the Arlington Diocese and a convert with a deep connection to Scripture and the Eucharist. The saint’s twofold love “resonated with me,” said Jendel.

She even tried praying to St. Elizabeth. But since praying for the saints’ intercession is not part of Protestant faiths, she did so with trepidation.

“I would pray, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to ask for Elizabeth Ann Seton to intercede for me. Sorry if this is wrong,’” she said.

Three weeks before the Eater Vigil, unbeknownst to Jeff, Jendel stared considering converting.

As part of her decision-making process, she attended a faith discussion dinner on charismatic Catholicism and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For Jendel to hear “that the Church has (the charismatic tradition) in its heart” was something very important to her. The dinner also left her feeling that charismatic Catholicism was “more sound then faith-filled Protestantism,” she said.

Once Jendel fully grasped the gifts of the sacraments, saints and Holy Spirit, she recognized the fullness of Christ in the Catholic Church. Here was a faith that did not just have a piece of truth, but a complete truth.

She made her decision.

The plunge

When she told Jeff, he was shocked. She’d consistently told him she was not converting, and he’d never pressured her.

Jendel knew her decision was bigger than the relationship, but her choice to convert was buoyed by Jeff’s love. “He loved me so well,” said Jendel. “The way he exhibited Christ to me, it was very helpful in my faith journey,” she said.

Jeff proposed a month and a half after Jendel was received into the Church.

The path to Catholicism was rough at times, but the final decision was easy. Telling her mom was not so easy.

“It broke her heart,” said Jendel. “She’s a wonderful, loving woman. She poured her heart into us and she felt like it was a direct affront. I can appreciate her hurt,” she said.

Yet for Jendel, the Church was where she longed to be.

Her experience of Protestantism was “like looking at all these different pools — some are Olympic-size or others are where you can just get your ankles wet,” she said. “But at some point you only can go so far — you have to go to the next pool.

“Catholicism is being at the ocean: There’s no end to the amount of truth I can grow in. I can go in at different depths and there’s still so much more.”

After dips into different pools, Jendel has found a home that can hold her love of Christ — and where she can continue to probe the depths of His infinite love.

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