Tennessee National Guard member is among more than 200 people entering the Catholic Church
By Bill Brewer
Charles Hutson’s faith journey can be measured in miles, all 4,800 of them.
That’s the distance the Tennessee Army National Guard captain has bridged to join the Catholic Church. Capt. Hutson is among more than 200 catechumens and candidates in the Diocese of Knoxville who will be entering the Church this year.
They were to come into the Church at Easter, as is tradition, but the coronavirus epidemic has caused Bishop Richard F. Stika to delay their entry until the COVID-19 threat subsides.
Capt. Hutson and many of his fellow candidates and catechumens were recognized by Bishop Stika on Feb. 29 and March 1 during Rite of Election services at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.
During the service, known formally as the Rite of Election of catechumens (those not baptized) and the call to continuing conversion of candidates (those who have been baptized) who are preparing for confirmation and reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church, Bishop Stika signed books of the elect brought forward by directors of religious education and RCIA leaders at Diocese of Knoxville parishes. The books also contain the signatures of the catechumens, who are preparing for baptism.
According to the diocesan Office of Christian Formation, 55 catechumens and 148 candidates will be coming into the Church in East Tennessee.
Don Shearin of St. Mary Parish in Johnson City is one of those candidates. Joining the Catholic Church has prompted him to become a student of the faith.
“It’s an awesome experience. It’s hard to explain. I’ve read more being a candidate going through the RCIA process than I think I’ve read all my life. Very thirsty for the knowledge. Just an awesome, overwhelming experience. I feel very blessed,” said Mr. Shearin, who attended the Feb. 29 service as part of the Five Rivers Deanery.
Mr. Shearin relished the celebration led by Bishop Stika. “Very cool. He’s been to our parish in Johnson City before. He brings the humor and the warmth.”
Like Mr. Shearin, Gina Eppard of St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain has found her faith conversion to be a learning experience.
“It’s very enlightening. I really enjoy it. I’ve enjoyed the learning experience. There’s a lot of reading and a lot of studying to understand,” Ms. Eppard said.
The Chattanooga Deanery candidate, who joined Mr. Shearin for the Feb. 29 Rite of Election, was nervous at first, but Bishop Stika allayed any jitters she may have had.
“I was very nervous, but I really enjoyed it. It’s a beautiful, beautiful cathedral,” she said about the cathedral ceremony and meeting the bishop. “He’s a very nice man. I was kind of worried about it, but I didn’t have anything to worry about.”
While no more important than those of his RCIA peers, Capt. Hut son’s path to the Catholic Church may be more unusual in that he went through RCIA at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Harriman while stationed in Poland as part of a deployment of the Tennessee National Guard’s 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
It was during that 11-month deployment that Capt. Hutson was introduced to the Catholic Church, and he began strengthening his relationship with Jesus Christ. When he formally enters the Church, he will be a member of St. Ann Parish in Lancing. His home is in nearby Sunbright.
Sunbright is where Capt. Hutson grew up and formed his faith in a small Missionary Baptist church. He went on to attend the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where he earned a degree in agriculture in 2008. He has a farm in Sunbright, where he also sells real estate.
As an adult who began to have questions about his faith formation, Capt. Hutson said a light turned on once he was deployed in the former Communist country steeped in Catholicism.
“After I had been in Poland for a couple of months, I began to see things that were a lot different to me. There were cultural differences, but there was something else there. I really started to explore what was different, why the people were different, why the culture was different. Everyone is Catholic,” he said.
The more he was exposed to Catholicism in Poland, the more he wanted to learn about the world’s oldest Christian faith. Those he came in contact with in Poland became valuable resources in sharing their Catholicism. But he soon realized he needed assistance from closer to home.
“Because of the differences I saw in the way people acted, I started to look for reasons. I lived and worked just with the Polish; I wasn’t with the American soldiers. I was immersed, so to speak, in the culture, so I got to know the officers with the Polish Army. One of the Polish guys, a corporal, took me to meet their brigade priest, who gave me a rosary and a Polish military prayer book that also was in English. He suggested I begin praying the rosary, and we would go from there,” Capt. Hutson said.
“I started doing that, but I realized I needed another resource. I knew about St. Ann because I grew up down the road from the old St. Ann Church in Deer Lodge, and so I started hunting around on the Internet, and I found a number for Sister Anna Marie (McGuan, RSM). That’s how we got the ball rolling on RCIA,” he added.
Sister Anna Marie is the director of the Office of Christian Formation for the Diocese of Knoxville, overseeing the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults programs for the diocese.
She also is a Scripture scholar and understands the ties that bind Catholicism and Poland. “The history of Poland is intimately tied to Catholicism, and its monasteries and churches are testaments to the faith of generations of believers. Being exposed to the beauty of the Catholic faith in Poland, its resilience despite terrible persecution, and its stubborn resistance to contemporary ideology and pressure for the sake of fidelity to the triune God and His revelation is intriguing and is an invitation to faith,” Sister Anna Marie said.
“We are all blessed to be a part of Christ’s Church, and I am so pleased that Capt. Charles Hutson found his way home to the Church in the native country of Pope John Paul II. Bishop Stika has a deep devotion to Pope St. John Paul II, one that many of us share. I believe that Pope John Paul II watches over the Diocese of Knoxville in a special way,” she noted.
Capt. Hutson said he was drawn to the Catholic faith for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the way the faith embraces everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race, gender, nationality, or sinfulness. He was grateful for the invitation to worship and learn about Catholicism.
“Everybody is created by God. Everybody has value. Some people are just a little farther off the track. Everyone was created good,” he said. “The other thing that caught my eye as I began to read about the saints were all these examples of people who moved closer to God. They’re obeying God, and there is fruit from that. There’s progress where they sin less and less in their life. With Catholicism, there’s hope that you can get better and that God will move you along if you’re obedient and faithful.”
And the unity of the Catholic Church also has attracted him.
He was taken by the fact the Masses he attended while in Poland were the same Masses being celebrated in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
Parishioners in Poland had a profound effect on his conversion.
In citing the cultural differences between the United States and Poland that inspired his faith conversion, Capt. Hutson said Polish residents asked him at Halloween how people in the states marked the occasion. He told them most people took part in trick or treating.
He then discovered most people in Poland observed Halloween differently.
“It will take your breath away. Every cemetery there is Catholic pretty much. So Halloween is a family event. They all go to the cemetery and light candles and pray the rosary and all these things in remembrance of their loved ones. In this town of 30,000 people I was in, the entire cemetery at midnight was full of families of all ages. People travel from all across the country to make sure they are with their family at the family cemetery. That’s one example. On Sundays after Mass, the families go to the cemeteries and pray,” he recalled.
Witnessing the closeness of Polish families led Capt. Hutson to remember how much family means to him. His mother lives in Sunbright, and his sister lives in Knoxville.
Capt. Hutson, who is in his 11th year serving in the military, spending four of those years on active duty, said he is again growing in his faith because of his conversion to Catholicism.
“There has to be growth. And there has to be progress. Before, I felt like I wasn’t making any progress. That’s what I was looking for, a way to make progress, to move closer to God in my walk of faith. That’s how I came to Catholicism. And I feel it’s a way to meet that objective,” said the single, 35-year-old Morgan County native.
The fact that there are more than 2,000 years of Catholic faith in the world has strengthened his resolve to complete the RCIA process.
The Rite of Election ceremony was a key moment in meeting his objective. The next step will be joining in full communion with the Church and then participating in the Sending of the Neophytes service.
And how has RCIA been for the two-continent candidate?
“There has been lots to read. My growth in faith would not be possible without it. That’s why I’m here. It has been well organized,” he said. “There’s just so much depth. That’s what I’m getting out of it. RCIA has been very good. There’s plenty to chew on, so to speak.”
He has read the Catechism of the Catholic Church twice and has been reading other material to assist him in learning the faith. And he has joined the Blessed Sacrament RCIA class in person since returning from Poland in February.
Susan Conover, who leads RCIA at Blessed Sacrament with her husband, Jim, said she and her husband are excited to see Capt. Hutson’s faith journey amid geographical challenges.
“It’s very inspiring,” Mrs. Conover said. “Especially within a group setting, with Charles’ feelings, and his comments, and intuitiveness with what the subject is. It prompts other people to respond in kind.”
Mr. Conover said it also has been inspiring to see the work Capt. Hutson has put into his conversion remotely, only being able to communicate with his RCIA leaders by e-mail and regular mail. And regular mail can take many days to reach its destination.
“We didn’t actually speak until my first RCIA meeting when I got back home,” Capt. Hutson remarked.
“I would send him packages and it would take 10 days for him to get a package. Charles had to drive an hour away once a week to get his mail. His Christmas card took five weeks to get there,” Mrs. Conover said. “We take things for granted here.”
The Conovers and Capt. Hutson joked that their e-mails could be very lengthy.
Capt. Hutson said he was never tempted to give up his RCIA work because of the logistical challenges.
“I was interested, and the Conovers made it as doable as possible for me,” he said.
The Army veteran was always part of the Blessed Sacrament RCIA class, even if it was in spirit and not in person.
“He wasn’t forgotten. The entire faith community at Blessed Sacrament prayed for him. Even though he wasn’t here in body, he was here in spirit, and it was acknowledged all the way throughout the Rite of Acceptance,” Mrs. Conover said.
Mr. Conover noted that Capt. Hutson persevered in his faith conversion, even though the Masses he attended regularly were celebrated in Polish. He was able to use a missal in English during those Masses and he had access to other English-language aids for his study.
Mrs. Conover said the beauty of the Catholic faith makes an impact.
“It makes an impression, a lifelong impression,” she said.
Capt. Hutson found a kindred spirit in Bishop Stika, who greeted the veteran following the March 1 Rite of Election service for the Cumberland Mountain and Smoky Mountain deaneries at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus. The Rite of Election service for the Chattanooga and Five Rivers deaneries was held Feb. 29 at the cathedral.
During a brief conversation following the ceremony, Bishop Stika, who is of Polish descent, and Capt. Hutson exchanged words in Polish.
The Army captain/farm owner/ real-estate agent and former Missionary Baptist could relate to Bishop Stika’s message for the catechumens and candidates.
“It’s all about journey, isn’t it? One of my favorite expressions is ‘If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what your plans are for the rest of your life.’ I started out in pre-med, but I finished with a marketing degree. I figure I’m still in sales today. You’ve got term life, whole life, and eternal life,” Bishop Stika said, drawing laughs. “Maybe somebody gave all of you that sales pitch.”
“All of you have a journey of life and faith. All of us do. Ask yourself this question. Did you think 10 years ago that you would be sitting in a cathedral of the Catholic Church listening to a guy with a funny hat on? Did you think that would be possible? In reality, you probably didn’t think you were going to be here on this March day. As for me, I thought I would be in a parish in St. Louis wondering who I could get baseball tickets from for opening day. Here you are. What brought you to this moment when you decided to enter the Catholic Church?” the bishop asked those in attendance.
He reminded the diocese’s 201920 RCIA class that their walk of faith will not always be easy. Temptations abound every step of the way.
Referring to the Gospel readings from Feb. 29-March 1, Bishop Stika recounted the proverbial devil and angel on everyone’s shoulders, with the devil pressing us to do something we shouldn’t while the angel urges us to withstand temptation.
“Perhaps you have a conversation with the devil about those things that you want, you desire. What are those things that you desire? Sometimes you’re willing to compromise your principles to possess something, to hold on to it, to hide it,” he said.
“How many of you have ever said, ‘OK, God. If you do this for me, I’ll do this for you.’ Do you ever do this? … Don’t you think in this conversation with God that it is a little unequal? We negotiate with God. Every Friday I buy a lottery ticket. And then I negotiate with God. ‘If you let me win $100 million, I will do great things with it. Unfortunately, He’s not listening to me because I haven’t won yet. Well, I think I won $5 once,” the bishop continued. “We negotiate with God, just like in the Gospel. We’re trying to tempt God when we say, ‘Hey, you help me and I’ll help you.’”
Bishop Stika then pointed to the thieves who were crucified with Jesus. One tried to negotiate with Jesus while on the cross, but the “good thief” had just one simple request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“It wasn’t about being fed (desire). It wasn’t about being powerful. It wasn’t even a negotiation. He didn’t say, ‘Jesus, if you remember me I’ll take care of everything.’ He just said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ It was as simple as that,” the bishop said. “That should give you consolation because there are very few people who have been recorded in the Scriptures with the Son of God saying something like ‘This day you will be with me in paradise.’ The thief.”
Sister Anna Marie echoed the thought that faith journeys can be difficult, marked with obstacles of temptation.
“The world is becoming more turbulent, not less, and people must learn, sometimes in difficult ways, that they are not in control. I believe that being faced with our own limitations and our own inability to save our lives or our families’ can lead many people to deeper questions about the purpose of their existence. They may begin to question the existence of God, whether they previously believed or not,” she said.
“The fact is that we are here, and that it is nearly impossible that this happened by chance. Therefore, each person has a purpose and our life is meant for us to find it. As a person of faith, I know that the purpose in life for each person is wrapped up in their relationship with God. I have complete confidence in that, and I believe that people can find profound peace and even joy—despite all their difficult circumstances—in coming to live their lives united with God in faith, hope, and love. Our catechumens and candidates are bearing witness to their faith and the possibility of finding purpose and fulfillment, not in the material goods and pleasant things of the world, but in God alone. I thank God for their witness to all of us,” she added.
Capt. Hutson related to the part of Bishop Stika’s message about learning what makes saints such as Pope John Paul II, who was Polish. The bishop said saints are people who recognize that they truly are sinners, even working more on their faith the more distant they feel from God.
“In your prayer life, if you ever feel distant from God it means that you’re growing closer to God. You know why? Because the closer and closer we get to a relationship with the Lord, the more and more we recognize God, the Creator, the omnipotent One, and the One who loves us despite who we are, or what we do, or how often we give in to that guy on our shoulder who says, ‘go ahead, do it. You’re free,’” Bishop Stika said.
The bishop noted that the catechumens and candidates are entering the Church that, like them, isn’t perfect. But we all follow an imperfect path that leads to God. He urged them to avoid the mindset that once they’ve joined the Church they don’t have to worry about their faith anymore.
“(You) might think ‘hey, I made it. I’m a Christian. I’m a Catholic. I made it.’ No, no. You never ‘make it.’ With faith, there’s never a period. There are a lot of colons and semicolons,” Bishop Stika said. “You’re going to have questions. I have questions. Because faith is real. There are ways to get answers to those questions. Some people might find their answers right away in the Church. Others might take the rest of their lives in trying to understand God. It’s about the journey. The journey of faith. Faith is a daily movement toward God.”
And that’s making progress. Just ask Capt. Hutson.